Culture, Media and Sport Questions
Hugh Robertson answers back bench MPs’ questions on issues including gambling, football stadium safety, facilities for club-level sport, boxing
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): Whether she plans to reintroduce the gambling prevalence survey; and if she will make a statement. 
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): I welcome the recent announcement by the Responsible Gambling Trust of a major research project into gaming machines. A new approach to collecting data on gambling prevalence and trends in problem gambling has been adopted by the Gambling Commission; this will be cost-effective and has the potential to provide more frequent information than the old gambling prevalence survey.
Kelvin Hopkins: Compulsive gambling ruins lives and destroys families. The most addictive form of gambling is on fixed-odds betting terminals, or gambling machines, which are described as the crack cocaine of gambling. Are the Government seriously concerned about gambling addiction, and what are they going to do to address the problem?
Hugh Robertson: Yes, the Government are seriously concerned about problem gambling. This is one of those quite tricky areas where common sense suggests that it is a major problem but there is a lack of evidence to back that up. I very much hope that the major research project that is being undertaken will give us the necessary evidence and, absolutely, once the problem is proved to exist, the Government will act.
John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Does the Minister agree that there is currently not much evidence to prove that fixed-odds betting terminals are the most addictive form of gambling? Although I applaud his concern for the problems caused by problem gambling, will he reassure the House that he will proceed only on the basis of firm evidence when that is available?
Hugh Robertson: Absolutely, in accordance with the answer that I gave earlier. It is recognised that there is an issue in this area, but there is a lack of authoritative evidence to back that up, and that is precisely what we are looking for.
Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab): I completely agree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins). Concern is shared across the House, so we want to see the Government doing something about it. We all know—there is bags of evidence—that gambling is blighting people’s lives, and blighting our high streets too, given the prevalence of betting shops. We need only look down our own high streets; we do not need a research project to see what is going on. The Government say that they want localism and that they are in favour of local people having a say, so will they change the planning laws so that local people have the power to prevent any more betting shops from opening up on their high streets if they do not want them?
Hugh Robertson: The answer to the right hon. and learned Lady is yes, if the evidence supports that, but no Government of any colour have ever produced a policy without the backing of real evidence to support it. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) was of course a Minister in the previous Government, so if she wishes to laugh that probably tells us rather a lot. She might wish she had kept her mouth shut. As I said, once we have the evidence we will proceed.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of safety within football stadiums. 
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): Current policy on safety at football stadiums in England and Wales has developed as a result of the Taylor report, following the Hillsborough tragedy. Thankfully, there have been no major incidents resulting from safety failures at those stadiums since then.
John Mann: Unfortunately, safety is configured on what has happened previously, not on what could happen in future. Is it the case that all football stadiums in this country have been tested for mass evacuation on nothing other than a computer model that presumes perfect behaviour by all in the stadium?
Hugh Robertson: Guidance is issued by the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, which produces “The Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds”, commonly known as the green guide. That includes guidance on the importance of inspections and testing of contingency plans, including full evacuation procedures. The guidance is there. If that is not happening, that should not be the case.
Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Given the impossible task that clubs face to keep some fans seated at football matches, is it not time to carry out an assessment of whether it would in fact be safer for grounds to introduce safe standing areas rather than people continuing to stand in areas that are not designed for standing?
Hugh Robertson: The requirement to have all-seater stadiums was, as the hon. Gentleman will know, one of the recommendations of the Taylor report. I undertook to look at this area when the coalition came to power in 2010. All the advice I received from the football authorities, the police and everybody involved in public safety was to make no change. For any Minister to make a change ignoring the prevailing safety advice would be extremely unwise.
Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): What steps she is taking to ensure that participants in club-level sport have access to suitable and sustainable facilities. 
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): Sport England’s Places People Play programme has already helped to upgrade and improve 732 local sports facilities as part of the London 2012 sports legacy, including three projects in my hon. Friend’s constituency. In addition, it has invested more than £20 million in 12 new large scale multi-sport facilities.
Mr Stuart: Does the Minister agree that local councillors have a big part to play, and will he join me in congratulating Councillor David Elvidge and other Conservative councillors in Beverley who are working hard to find additional football pitch availability in that area? Mike Bryan and other councillors in the Hedon area are supporting Eastside Community Sports, and many clubs are doing much good work, making a real difference and building on the Olympic legacy.
Hugh Robertson: I absolutely agree, and the two important points are, first, that local councils prioritise that issue—we all know that the economic climate is tough, but they have had a fantastic launch pad through London 2012 and it is now up to them to make it work. Secondly, councils will need the support of local volunteers. I am delighted to add my congratulations to the people mentioned by my hon. Friend.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I listened closely to what the Minister said about local authorities, but in Liverpool, which has seen a £252 cut per head, it is challenging for the local authority to make such decisions to prioritise sport and to have that investment available. What will the Government do to help councils that have seen such drastic cuts to ensure that sporting facilities, particularly local clubs, are supported?
Hugh Robertson: Nobody would pretend that this issue is easy and we all know the economic conditions. As I said, London 2012 has given sport in this country a fantastic launch pad, and a city such a Liverpool—which the hon. Lady represents—is synonymous with sport. My advice would be that the most successful projects I have seen are a combination of local authority funding, private funding and grants from Sport England. If the hon. Lady has projects that she wishes to promote, she should look to Sport England and the Places People Play initiative and see what she can do. I wish her every good fortune in doing that.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): What her policy is on promoting young people’s participation in boxing. 
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): In the recent UK Sport and Sport England funding announcement, our elite boxers receive £13.8 million to help them prepare for Rio 2016, a 44% increase on the amount available at the last Olympics, which reflects their success. Under the whole sport plan, the Amateur Boxing Association of England will receive £5.8 million to drive up participation, an increase of 22% on the previous funding period. Boxing is a part of the school games, and schools are free to provide their pupils with non-contact boxing opportunities should they choose to do so.
Paul Flynn: As boxing is unique in rewarding participants for landing blows to the head and causing damage to that most vulnerable of human organs, the brain—damage that is serious, cumulative and irreversible—should the Government not encourage sports that measure athleticism without inflicting brain damage?
Hugh Robertson: No is the simple answer to that question. Many sports contain an element of risk—riding and cycling, both of which have much higher injury tallies than boxing, come to mind. At London 2012, the majority of injuries were not from boxing, but from other sports. Most young people like an element of risk, and boxing has a really important role to play in encouraging young people to take up sport, particularly in deprived and inner-city areas. I am keen to encourage them to do so.
Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): It is clear that new ways to fund sports and the arts must be found, particularly for local and regional projects. In Darlington, Project Vane involves exciting private sector partners who want to invest in bringing an old arts centre back to life, which may well hold boxing too—
Mr Speaker: Is this a question about boxing?
Jenny Chapman: Yes, indeed, Mr Speaker. May I invite the Minister to look at our bid to the Arts Council for capital investment—there are no ongoing revenue needs requiring public sector investment—to help us to bring that project along?
Hugh Robertson: The best thing to say is that I wish the hon. Lady every good fortune. I am not responsible for the Arts Council—I suspect that a submission from the Minister with responsibility for sports would get a fairly dusty response—but I wish her every good fortune.
Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): Whether her Department has commissioned research into the effect of fixed-odds betting terminals on the prevalence of problem gambling; and if she will make a statement. 
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): The Government are aware of the concerns that have been raised about these types of gaming machines and are committed to looking at the evidence around B2 machines and problem gambling. In addition, the Responsible Gambling Trust has recently announced the largest programme of academic research into gaming machines ever undertaken in Britain, which should provide a much better understanding of problem gambling behaviour.
Mr Lammy: I welcome what the Minister has said. We need an independent look at the seriousness of fixed-odds betting terminals in our country and their prevalence in independent bookmakers. May I ask him to look at the matter with urgency, and not to move forward quickly with the recommendations of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which would create an open season for fixed-odds betting terminals across the country?
Hugh Robertson: I entirely acknowledge the concerns that the right hon. Gentleman puts so well. A response to the Committee’s report is due shortly—clearly, once we have that, I will be in a position to say more—but I acknowledge his concerns and the need for proper evidence to underpin our response.
Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): I share some of the concerns expressed by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), and I urge those who have heard reports about what the Select Committee said to look at the report itself. The report did not say that there should be widespread liberalisation; it said that in specific areas local authorities that had concerns about the number of betting shops could consider whether they might be met by some flexibility in the numbers. I specifically agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the desperate need for more empirical evidence and research in this area. That must be addressed as a priority before we start taking decisions.
Hugh Robertson: I agree entirely.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): If she will request UK Sport to reconsider its decision to withdraw elite funding for basketball. 
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): UK Sport is investing record levels into Olympic and Paralympic sport for the 2016 games. This includes more than £5 million for the wheelchair basketball team. Sadly, the elite Olympic basketball team did not meet the UK Sport investment criteria for this cycle. England Basketball has, however, received £6.75 million from Sport England, including £1.5 million of talent development funding.
Mrs Hodgson: I am sure the Minister is aware, first, that Team GB came within two points of beating Spain, who went on to win the silver medal, and actually beat China, who are top-10 seeded in the world, and secondly that it took hockey more than 20 years of elite-level funding before it received a bronze medal at this year’s Olympics. In the light of that and of my letter to him on 20 December, will he agree to meet me and other members of the all-party group on basketball to discuss this important matter?
Hugh Robertson: I would make two points on that. First, hockey is a good example of what basketball needs to do. It had great success in 1988, with its gold medal, but then went bust and had its funding cut completely for lack of performance. It built itself back up, however, and got itself to the stage where it was medalling again, as it did in London. Secondly, I am aware that basketball has made an appeal to UK Sport. Once we know the result of that, I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): UK Sport funding is handed out in a four-year Olympic cycle. Does the Minister believe that that is the right way forward, or does he think there needs to be change?
Hugh Robertson: I am sorry to say it to my hon. Friend, but that is not actually correct. The funding for the Rio cycle includes considerable funding for developing athletes that will take them through to the 2020 games.
Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): How does the Secretary of State expect to inspire the sporting habit for a lifetime in our young people if we are cutting back on spaces where children can play sport in our schools?
The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): The fact is that, for the very first time, under this Government PE is a compulsory element of the curriculum. We could not do any better.
Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Given increased concerns about the safety and security of betting shops, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Association of British Bookmakers about how it can improve its guidance to shop workers, many of whom are women and many of whom work alone?
Hugh Robertson: I entirely acknowledge the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises. I have met the Association of British Bookmakers on two occasions. I have to say that on neither occasion has it raised that as a concern—[Hon. Members: “You need to raise it!”]—but once the cheap seats have piped down, I might finish by saying—[Interruption.] Actually, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) is extremely expensive—that St Paul’s education cost a fortune, didn’t it?
If the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) would like to write me a letter, I will take the matter up with the Association of British Bookmakers.
Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): In Hackney there are more than 70 betting shops and last year £167 million was spent gambling on fixed-odds betting machines. What further evidence does the Minister need to take action on reducing either the number of machines or the frequency of bets that can be laid, which are taking money from my poorest constituents?
Hugh Robertson: As I have said on a number of occasions today, I recognise the issue that the hon. Lady raises. I assure her that once we have sufficient evidence, if action needs to be taken, it will be, but it has to be taken on the basis of national evidence, not just evidence from individual constituencies.
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): What representations has the Secretary of State made to the Football Association to request that it issues clear guidance to support players at local and national level who are the subject of homophobic, sexist and racist abuse?
Hugh Robertson: Let me join the hon. Lady in saying that everyone who follows football, and indeed many of those who do not, have been extremely concerned by the increase in the prevalence of racist incidents over the past six months or so. The Football Association has just produced a comprehensive 92-point plan, which has been welcomed by many of those involved in the game, and I very much hope that it will play a significant role in bringing this unfortunate chapter to a close and improving the situation rapidly.