Hugh Robertson responds to debate on Basketball Funding

Hugh Robertson responds to a back bench MP’s adjournment debate on funding of basketball in the UK.

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The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Hugh Robertson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) on securing the debate and on the manner in which he presented his case. This was actually going to be the third thing I intended to say, but it is probably worth saying it now. I shall proceed with certain amount of caution tonight. The appeal is due in front of the UK Sport board—on Wednesday, I believe—but that, in any event, is not the end of the process, as there are a number of further hurdles over which progress could be made. If the terms of the appeal are right—many points made tonight will, I suspect, form part of the appeal—it strikes me that there will be a case that will provoke some further thought. Let me go no further than that. Tonight’s debate does come at a slightly delicate moment.

I have a couple of other points to frame my remarks before I answer some of the specific questions raised. First, it is important—I hope hon. Members will forgive me for making this point—to frame this debate against the fact that this system works. This country’s elite performance system is the envy of almost every other Olympic system in the world. Back in Sydney, we were 10th in the medal table with 28 medals; here we are in London, 12 years later, third with 65 medals. The Australians would kill for this sort of system, as would many others. People in this country are looking at how we did it and trying to work out the processes we adopted. I know from talking to many Australians that they feel they will have to be much tougher and come far closer to our no-compromise approach if they are to catch up some of the ground they feel they have lost.

I was talking to a forum of performance directors this morning. Knowing that I would be responding to this Adjournment debate, I said, “Let me road test this on you. Have we got this right? Have we gone too far, and do we need to crank it back?” They said, “Absolutely not.” They felt that the way the funding awards were made this year was the fairest and most robust method they had been put through. These were performance directors who had done this for a number of years, and they had nothing but praise for the way in which they had been guided through the system by UK Sport and the results that had been reached. I absolutely understand the passion expressed about a sport for which many Members deeply care, but that needs to be balanced with the fact that the performance system for a country of our size has just produced 65 medals and third place in the Olympic medal table. That is an extraordinary success by anybody’s standards.

Let me deal quickly with a couple of other points. The right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) is absolutely correct: I can set the overall strategy for UK Sport, and indeed I do, but it is not up to me to make individual funding decisions within that, because about two thirds of the money that goes to any of these funding awards is lottery money. As anyone who has been in this House for any length of time will know, that is not for Ministers to direct.

My other point is that funding, although I would wish it otherwise in this area, is not inexhaustible. We have done very well to increase the overall budget for Olympic and Paralympic sport by 11%—the only host nation ever to achieve that—and for the Rio cycle, but that does not mean that we can avoid taking tough decisions. This has been one of them. Having been through the decision-making process with UK Sport—it took me through it and Sport England was there, too, so we could look at both funding settlements together—I know it has a chart, and the question is about the point at which we slice up and down the funding pole. That is done by UK Sport on the basis of medal success in Rio.

Let me run through the various issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester. He asked whether I had met UK Sport, and indeed Sport England. I see both chief executives every month, and I spent close to three hours with both organisations going through the two funding awards.

Although I take on board the comments that have been made, UK Sport made the decision on the basis that basketball had failed to demonstrate a realistic chance of qualifying for Rio 2016, or medal potential for 2020. Basketball may be on a fast improving pathway, but the men’s and women’s teams won only one of the 10 games that they contested at the London Olympics, which is not a great performance record.

How are such decisions made? GB Basketball puts a submission forward that goes to UK Sport, and it is then considered by a performance panel with independents on it. Each and every aspect is considered. Other performance directors I spoke to today said that was the best iteration they had been through in a number of cycles. The process is incredibly detailed, and considers not only medal potential for Rio but for 2020. For Rio, the line was drawn at a point where the basketball team needed to medal, which might explain the slight discrepancy in relation to qualification.

On the governance structure, it might be easier to nail down the issues in writing. I have been involved in sport as a politician since 2004 when the Conservative party was in opposition. Throughout that time, basketball has been a frustration because it has obvious and enormous potential, as many of the contributions to this debate have acknowledged. It is a sport that can reach into communities in a way that some other sports cannot, yet it somehow fails to catch alight. That may be because people who play basketball do not always respond to the active people survey, so participation levels are underplayed. There may also have been weaknesses in the structure of the sport.

Netball is a fantastic example of a sport that, from difficult beginnings, has increased its participation base extraordinarily. I have visited schemes run for school- gate mothers in places such as Leicester, to try to get more young women back into the sport. As a result, netball has been rewarded with a considerable increase in funding.

The key question is: what does basketball need to do? I have not yet met him, but I am told that there is a very good new independent chairman. A huge amount of fuss and bother is what impresses people least, so the best thing he can do is take a long, hard, clinical look at the sport of basketball—I hope that many of the hon. Members who have shown enthusiasm for the sport in the debate tonight will play a part—and look at team sports that have tackled this situation successfully. He should look at how cycling has put half a million people on its performance base, and at what netball, a team sport, has done. There must be some transferable lessons from netball to basketball. There is enormous performance-based expertise, which has driven this country from 10th in the medal table to third, so he should make use of the experts in academia and UK Sport, and turn the sport inside out.

There is this hope: although the initial funding decisions have been made and announced, there is an appeal process, and if basketball presents the right case, it will have a perfectly good chance of securing funding. This is not the end of the story, and if the basketball team starts to perform and show that it is likely to qualify, and has the chance of a medal in 2016 or 2020, wherever that turns out to be after the IOC decision this summer, there will be the opportunity to fund it.

I leave the House with the story of gymnastics. I have seen representatives of that sport recently. Its funding was cut—almost completely removed—after a disastrous Olympics in Athens, where the competitors were basically washed out. Gymnastics is a different sport from basketball, but its position is not entirely different. Those people went back and engaged in a long “dig-out” to discover what was required to ensure that the young athletes whom we all see in gyms in our constituencies could turn into Olympic medal-winners in the future. They turned the sport inside out, and established a really tough performance-based culture. The result was plain to see in London, where gymnastics was not only one of the great successes, but arguably one of the most unexpected.

As for the social aspect, I entirely accept the point about basketball’s social reach. However, we do not confine our funding to sports that have a reach of that kind, such as athletics, cycling and, in particular, boxing, which was one of the great successes of London 2012 and which has a huge reach into deprived communities in inner cities. I can reassure Members that UK Sport makes its decisions on the basis of performance.

Mr George Howarth: I have been involved—not as a politician—in amateur boxing for a number of years in my constituency. In many ways the comparison made by the Minister is a good one, but the difference between amateur boxing and basketball is that most local clubs are long-established and have a lengthy tradition on which to draw, whereas basketball is in the process of getting there, but is not there yet.

Hugh Robertson: That is a fair point. I suspect that it backs up the one I made earlier about the need to take a long hard look at the structure and get it absolutely right. Incidentally, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman’s grandson won his game, and that, if he did, the right hon. Gentleman will convey all our best wishes to him.

Let me end where I started. I thank the hon. Member for City of Chester on initiating the debate, and congratulate him on his speech. I also congratulate all the other Members who have spoken.

I want sport in this country to be successful, and I want basketball to be as successful as rowing, cycling, sailing or of any of the other more obviously successful Olympic sports. It would probably be overdoing it to be say that basketball has had a troubled past, but the fact that it has not taken off has been a source of great frustration to all of us who are involved in it. However, it occurs to me that this may be a moment of opportunity. I am sure that if the new chairman is really prepared to take on the task of sorting out the governance of the sport and ensuring that there are people who understand participation and the performance expertise that drives success at the top end, and if he can take that case to UK Sport and prove that we have a good chance of medalling in basketball in Rio or in the 2020 games, UK Sport will reconsider its decision.

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