Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Ros in the Lords: Motion to Take Note - EUC Report on Grass-roots Sport

Here's another of Ros's interventions that I hadn't covered, from 10 November 2011...

Until its abolition in May, Ros was a member of the European Union Sub-Committee G, something she enjoyed greatly. One of its final acts was to review the impact of EU legislation on grass-roots sport, particularly appropriate in the run-up to the Olympics and Paralympics...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, on 22 November I shall be taking over as chair of the Volunteering Development Council, following in the footsteps of my noble friend Lady Hanham. It is a great honour to have been asked to chair the council, because it represents the opinions and interests of the millions of people throughout this country who contribute to the daily life of our nation by volunteering. I would like to use today's debate as an opportunity to say a few words about the relationship between the EU and grass-roots sports and volunteering.

First, may I place on record my appreciation of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and her chairmanship of EU Sub-Committee G. She combines incisiveness and understanding of whatever subject is in hand with great good humour and a collegiate approach, and it is genuinely a pleasure to serve on the sub-committee. We are also, as ever, served very well by the staff of this House and in the case of this inquiry by the specialist adviser, Professor Richard Parrish.

Our report highlights the importance of volunteers in sporting activity and notes that, for example, the average football club will involve some 21 volunteers. Indeed, the Football Association estimates that there are more than 400,000 volunteers involved in footballing activities alone.

Why do they do this? For some, it is the love of a particular sport that stays with them throughout their lives. For others, it is drawn from a commitment to their local area and the role sport can play in cementing that sense of local community. My home town of Needham Market has a thriving and very successful football club that was first established in 1919. It has a number of teams and a record of success that is the envy of far larger towns. Over the 30 years that I have lived in Needham Market, I have seen hundreds of young people commit their time and energy to the club. There are currently some 130 young people active in football in the town, which has a population of only 4,500.

Other people become drawn to volunteering in sporting activities because of the many benefits that sport can bring to people who are disadvantaged in some way. We had powerful evidence from Street Games and the Prince's Trust, among others, about the role that sport can play, not just in providing meaningful activity but in teaching leadership skills and providing a route to recognised qualifications. The RNIB, for example, explained how physical activity can improve balance, mobility and co-ordination for those with a visual impairment, and locally I have seen how the bowls club often brings great social as well as health benefits to older people.

All these activities depend on volunteers, and one of the great things is that much of the interaction goes across the generations in a way that few other activities do. Volunteering of any kind is and should remain essentially a local activity with support from local councils and national Governments. The European Union-level dimension to grass-roots sport and volunteering is hard to establish at first sight. Indeed, a very recent communication from the Commission spoke about having a legal framework for volunteering. Even as a Europhile, I would need some convincing of the need for that.

However, as our inquiry went on, it became clear to me that there is a role for the EU in grass-roots sport, although it is limited. First, many witnesses highlighted regulatory burdens as one of the great barriers to volunteering. The experience of the English Federation of Disability Sport was that,

"even small increases in administrative burdens can have a devastating effect on a club's ability to recruit and retain volunteers".

While I accept that it is often difficult to sort out the truth from myth about EU regulation, I would support the Sport and Recreation Alliance in its call for a review of EU regulation as it impacts on volunteers. A number of witnesses told us that both sport and volunteering are vulnerable to the law of unintended consequences as a result of EU legislation in other areas. The Sport and Recreation Alliance told us how regulations about working at height and on the use of open water had had serious adverse impacts on climbing and water sports. With the coalition Government committed to reviewing domestic regulatory burdens, perhaps it would be a good idea, before we end the EU Year of Volunteering, to begin to carry out a parallel exercise in EU law.

In an ideal world, impacts on volunteers would be considered pre-legislatively, rather than afterwards. Our evidence suggests that despite the coming into force of Article 165 of the Lisbon treaty, which, as we have heard, has given the EU a legal competence in sport, the procedures within the Commission are not giving sufficient weight to the opinions of the sport unit when looking at how other policy decisions might impact. There are certainly many formal channels for dialogue between policy-makers and sporting organisations, but our evidence suggests that these are dominated by elite sport and big money, especially in football. An MEP who is an expert in this field highlighted the lack of a real grass-roots voice in EU policy-making in sport.

We definitely detected among our witnesses a real appetite for the strengthening of pan-European networks between grass-roots organisations, especially for using the benefits of modern technology in the exchange of best practice. I note that the Minister was reticent about this, but both Street Games and the Football Foundation pointed to the success of their websites' pages that detail case studies, briefing papers and best practice.

Marginalisation of grass-roots sports organisations extends to the funding programmes. The chief executive of Street Games told us that the application procedures are simply too complex and bureaucratic for small organisations. At this morning's sub-committee meeting, we looked at a mid-term evaluation of the Europe for Citizens programme, and it is shown that of the €215 million budget for its projects only €1.16 million has come to the UK. This is a significant under representation in a programme that ought to be of great interest to the UK, and which includes sport.

Although it is tempting just to blame the bureaucracy, the fact that other countries are finding a way to get through the bureaucracy suggests that we have a particular issue. I certainly undertake to work with the current Government, if they wish, and with the volunteer sector to find out exactly why we are so poor at accessing this money. I look forward to the Minister's response.

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