Wednesday, 20 October 2004

Questions (49, 50)

Ciarán Cuffe

Question:

150 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism his plans to initiate a nationwide audit of sports facilities, as outlined in the programme for Government. [25500/04]

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Joe Sherlock

Question:

171 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism if the national audit of local sports facilities as envisaged in the programme for Government has been completed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25428/04]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 150 and 171 together.

The Government has committed itself under An Agreed Programme for Government to complete a national audit of local sports facilities and to put in place a long-term strategic plan to ensure the development of such necessary facilities. The first step in meeting that commitment was the undertaking of the sports capital programme expenditure review. It has emerged in the process of carrying out that review, which is being finalised, that there is a clear need for the sports capital programme to operate in the context of a clearly defined strategy for the provision of sports facilities and for such a strategy to be informed by a national audit of sports facilities. The substantial investment in the provision of sports facilities in the period 1998 to 2004 has made a significant contribution towards meeting the urgent need for such facilities caused by the absence of investment in earlier years.

Given the significant overlap between my Department and other Departments and bodies engaged in sports facility provision, it is my intention to set up an inter-agency steering group to oversee the development of such a strategy. One of the first challenges facing the group will be to oversee the commencement of a national audit of sports facilities. Given the time and effort envisaged in completing such a task and the limited resources available, it may be necessary to focus initial efforts on specific sports facility types or on major sports facilities. That matter will be decided by the steering group but may be determined in part by an initial examination of the level of information already available on sports facilities and how effectively information can be obtained for certain facility types over and above others.

It could take several years to complete a comprehensive audit of all sports facilities. However, it may be possible to conduct the work in stages to ensure that some useful results are available in the short term for input into the proposed strategic plan for the provision of sports facilities due for completion within the next year. That is also supported by the potential use of such information, which leans towards being more effective in helping decision-making at regional and national level as opposed to decisions at local level. However, arrangements for the commencement of the audit are now being put in place, and I expect that the commitment outlined in the agreed programme for Government will be met within the lifetime of this Government.

I found the Minister's answer difficult to understand. The commitment in the programme for Government is quite simple, namely, that the Government would undertake an audit of sports facilities. The answer that the Minister has just given is that such an audit has not commenced, that arrangements are in place to commence it, and that, if the audit takes place, it may take several years. I query several of those claims, since an audit is quite a simple exercise that could be done quite easily and should have been done by now.

If what the Minister is saying is true, why was such a commitment given? Surely, if we are to advance the idea of participation in sport, with its benefits for the health of the citizens and children of this nation, as well as having a general policy that sports participation is a desirable public policy goal, the Government should have initiated such an audit and have completed it by now. The Minister's answer left that even more vague. He said that arrangements were in place to commence the audit. We know nothing from that type of reply about when the arrangements to commence the audit will finish, when the audit will start, or when it will be completed. Given the nature of the commitment in the programme for Government and the fact that the question has already been asked of the Minister on several occasions, will he give any firm dates for when it will happen and if it can happen?

I remind Members that supplementary questions and answers are limited to one minute.

In my reply, I indicated to Deputy Boyle that the Government intended to fulfil its commitment set out in the programme for Government, and that is my intention. As I explained, it was decided as a first step, before the commencement of the audit, that there should be an assessment of what has been achieved under the Department's sports capital programme. That was done in the context of an expenditure review of the programme which seeks to assess the benefits that investment to date has yielded and identify any difficulties or inefficiencies associated with the operation of the programme.

I admit that the review was to have been completed in 2003 to facilitate commencement of the audit that year. However, it has taken longer than expected to complete because of the scale of the programme and the time required to analyse the volume of information and data collected during the review. That may be down to the success of the programme itself, since more than 4,500 projects under the sports capital programme alone have been grant aided to the tune of almost €350 million since 1998. However, I am informed by officials in the Department that the report of the review is expected to be available soon. When I receive it, we will commence the audit.

Deputy Boyle may feel that it is a simple and uncomplicated process, but that is not the case. In a much smaller jurisdiction, that of the North, it was estimated that it would take a minimum of two years to complete an audit.

I share Deputy Boyle's concerns about the time factor. I understood that the review was already in progress. If I understood the Minister correctly, he believes that some sections of the report could be initiated. If that is the case, local authorities can give information to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism on specific areas within their remit, such as large estates with no facilities. It is an ongoing concern that many social problems result from a lack of facilities in those areas. If that is the approach to be adopted when the Minister begins this audit, the initial approach should be to the local authorities to garner every piece of information on local authority estates and private estates. That is where many of these social problems arise.

Deputy Wall has made an important point. A number of local authorities and local sports partnerships are engaged in carrying out an inventory of sports facilities in their areas. We will closely monitor the methodologies, standards and parameters used by them. It is not yet clear how comprehensive or useful these local exercises will be but I have no doubt that they will be helpful to us.

To draw up terms of reference to identify modalities and methodologies to be adopted, we intend to establish a steering group to oversee the development of a new strategic plan and the carrying out of a national audit. It is also proposed that the Irish Sports Council, the Departments of Education and Science, Health and Children and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, with a local authority representative, would sit on the steering group. The possibility of the involvement of an external professional organisation to carry out the audit will also be considered. Matters are progressing. The work of the expenditure review group is well advanced. Some local authorities and local sports partnerships are carrying out work and that will probably be very useful. We will proceed to the audit at the earliest opportunity.

I remind the Minister that the County Kerry partnership group, before it was established as such, carried out an extensive audit of sports facilities in the country, particularly in schools. Such a project would be an ideal one for the network of post-primary schools and would be an ideal way of creating awareness among young people of the facilities available and the importance of having them available. There are 17 local sports partnerships and they would have the information readily available. There is no need for a full scientific overview and countrywide survey as the information is readily available without the need to employ expensive consultants.

As part of the audit, will the Minister publish a breakdown of the funding allocated on a county basis since the advent of the capital sports grant system funded by the national lottery? Does he agree that large numbers of the population, particularly in the greater Dublin area, have virtually no sports facilities? I am thinking of north-east and north-west Wicklow. They have made unsuccessful applications in recent years. Perhaps the Minister will update me on possible allocations for projects in north Wicklow.

The audit will represent a comprehensive body of work. It will enable policy-makers to map the locations of sports facilities countrywide, whether they are provided through voluntary sports organisations, funded privately or have benefited from public finances. We are not talking merely of the sports capital programme. We will probably all agree that a better fix on the location of existing sporting facilities will lead to more effective targeting of funding new facilities and more efficient use of financial resources. This would apply equally across all Departments involved in the provision of sports facilities, including the Department of Education and Science.

Since 1998, projects to the value of almost €351 million have been awarded under the sports capital programme alone. In addition to the facilities which have benefited under this programme, the audit will also seek to identify sports facilities provided by voluntary sports organisations and local authorities, as well as sports halls and facilities in schools and colleges which have benefited from grant assistance provided by the Department of Education and Science. The result of securing all this data and making it available in a user-friendly and accessible format will be a significant undertaking. Once the work begins, it cannot be expected to last less than two years because in the smaller jurisdiction of Northern Ireland it was estimated that the same task would take two years to complete.

I am committed to the completion of the audit and will try to ensure that the Government commitment as laid out in An Agreed Programme for Government is met during this Government's lifetime. The published details of funding provided under the sports capital programme on a county by county basis are available annually. The Department publishes the data and there is no great mystery to it. Regarding County Wicklow, no part of it has been ignored.