Profile: Minister finds his voice: Iain Sproat

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The Independent Online
POST-MATCH drinkers in the Wakefield Trinity bar on a recent Friday night, mulling over the game against Widnes they had just watched, were surprised to see a breathless figure entering some time after the final whistle. It was Iain Sproat, the Minister of Sport, who had set off from his Essex constituency at 3pm, been delayed by a series of motorway roadworks, and finally got to the ground at 9.45pm. Not daunted, he stayed to receive a grass-roots briefing on the problems facing rugby league.

Sproat's approach smacks of the zeal of the recent convert. He has also met the Rugby League's chief executive officer, Maurice Lindsay, and been guest of honour at the first Test between Great Britain and the Kiwis at Wembley. He has invited Great Britain's skipper, Garry Schofield, and the Scottish full-back Alan Tait to London to give him their views, and in the Commons called the league's split with rugby union 'idiotic'.

This is all the more remarkable because Sproat has been a rugby union man since childhood. The son of a prep school headmaster, he grew up next door to the Melrose club ground (where the game of sevens was invented, as he is keen to point out) and watched from the touchline every Saturday.

Sproat was converted by Wakefield's Labour MP, David Hinchcliffe, after he heard him speaking in an early-morning Commons debate on rugby. His crash course in league has left him sympathetic to the problems of clubs like Wakefield. In what he calls the 'backwash' of the Taylor Report, Trinity face a ground renovation bill of around pounds 500,000, on average attendances of only 5,000. 'You could say all the trouble was caused by soccer and none of it by rugby league but they have to pay the bill,' he says. One solution may be help from the proceeds of the national lottery, one-fifth of which is earmarked for sport.

Sproat has even opened talks with the Ministry of Defence in the hope of persuading the services to allow the league code to be played. At present it is discouraged in favour of union. Meanwhile, other sporting panjandrums are getting restless at what they see as Sproat's low profile since he was appointed last May in succession to the portly and unathletic Robert Key. The criticism may be unfair. His official title is Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Heritage, Peter Brooke's No 2, and his responsibilities extend to tourism, television and even the royal parks.

He has only recently turned his attention to sport. His most decisive action so far has been to kill off the report produced by Robert Atkins, one of his predecessors, which was to have created a new structure for government administration of sport. Sproat briskly dismissed it as unwieldy and bureaucratic, but his failure as yet to come up with his own blueprint has not endeared him to those bureaucrats still in place. Indeed, his silence has caused him to be dubbed 'no-throat Sproat'.

As his new-found interest in rugby league demonstrates, Sproat is a man of deep passions, which he pursues with immense determination. One is cricket. Although only an average player in his youth (he played at house level at Winchester), he dreamed up The Cricketers Who's Who, which now ranks alongside Wisden and Playfair as an indispensable reference work. It consists largely of questionnaires entertainingly filled in by professional cricketers. There will be 450 in next year's 15th edition, the first not to be edited by Sproat, because of his ministerial duties.

Another passion is P G Wodehouse. At Oxford he was president of the Wodehouse Appreciation Society, and he later wrote a splendid book in defence of Wodehouse's controversial wartime broadcasts. Sproat (who had unsuccessfully lobbied Edward Heath for a knighthood for his hero, eventually granted by Harold Wilson) pursued his researches for several years, and finally unearthed the official documentation that proved his case.

Sproat was first elected to Parliament for Aberdeen South in 1970, when he was only 32. A keen supporter of the union, he fought Labour's devolution plans tooth and nail and was rewarded by Mrs Thatcher, an admirer of his dry style, with junior ministerial office at the Department of Trade in 1981. But he then committed a catastrophic blunder: he deserted Aberdeen South, which was under threat from Labour, for what he regarded as the safer pastures of Roxburgh and Berwickshire. Unfortunately he lost the seat to the Liberals; the Tories unexpectedly held on to his old one.

Sproat was out in the wilderness, with few sympathisers in his own party for his self-inflicted plight. It took him nine years before he found a safe berth in the Essex constituency of Harwich, where he was elected in 1992. It was a surprise, not least to him, when John Major picked him for the Heritage vacancy.

So what are his aims for sport? 'I'm looking again at the whole role of the Sports Council. Have we anything to learn, for instance from the Australian sports academy? But the most important thing is to get competitive games back into schools, and that means at both primary and secondary level. If I did nothing else in this job, I would like to have done that. And I mean real competitive games: rugby, soccer, hockey, cricket, not rounders. It's through games that people learn sportsmanship, team spirit and discipline.'

He seems more interested in sportsmen and women than in administrators. He would like to find a role for Clive Lloyd - 'a terrific role model' - and has been briefed on football by Trevor Brooking. He is impressed by Reg Scarlett, founder of the pioneering Haringey Cricket College, and Jeoff Thompson, the karate champion, who he believes could be an example for kids in Manchester's Moss Side. 'That's the sort of area where we can show the central role sport can play. It's not just a question of England winning a few Test matches at last, though of course I want to see that, but of people not only enjoying sport but learning from it.

'I've been trying to help Dennis Skinner's local brass band because that's a central part of our cultural heritage, and the same goes for sports teams. Rugby league is to Wakefield what rugby union is to Melrose, and soccer teams are to other towns. I want to see they don't waste away.'