As a former sportsman I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate on Deputy Allen's Bill. I commend him on the work he has put into it.
I am not interested in political squabbles about who should introduce this important Bill. On behalf of the vast majority of the 1.7 million people who partake in organised sport or some type of physical activity we must ensure that we enact the best possible legislation to put the national sports council on a statutory basis. It is the perception of the vast majority of men and women who partake in organised sport, and of the thousands of volunteers, men and women, who give of their time to organise and manage teams, that Governments and politicians have neglected sport over the years. The sight of these same politicians, including myself, making their way to Dublin Airport to welcome home successful Irish teams and athletes in a blaze of publicity has been seen as a cynical exercise. I recall reading in one of our newspapers, when Michael Carruth returned home having won a gold medal at the Olympic games, that money and resources would be pumped into boxing. That these promises have not been honoured is a scandal, particularly when boxing is a popular sport in many of the most disadvantaged communities. Thankfully there seems to be a change in the attitude of politicians and Government. However, we will all be judged by our actions. Sport contributes in a very significant way to social and economic development. The benefits can be classified in terms of health and lifestyle, sport and achievement, tourism and economic benefit to the country, personal development, social and cultural development. All of the information available clearly shows that for young people participation in sport is an alternative to involvement in a life of crime and anti-social activities.
I am pleased the Minister has indicated that he proposes to review the allocation of lottery money for major recreational facilities. In the past these allocations were alleged to have been politically motivated. In many cases the more affluent and organised an area, the more grants it received. In contrast, areas of need where an organised community lobbying structure was not in place lost out on lottery funding. There is a requirement under the present scheme that needs to be reassessed. I understand that grants will be paid out on receipts received for work carried out after the date of the allocation. Recently, 220 projects throughout the country were allocated grants. Because of the escalation of building costs, unsuccessful organisations will not be able to await the next allocation before proceeding with their project. In many cases they will secure a bank overdraft to proceed. It would be totally wrong if the existing scheme were to discriminate against such clubs in the event of their securing a grant in the future by preventing them drawing down the grant.
I agree with the Minister that high achievers in sport are ambassadors for Ireland and have helped attract thousands of visitors to this country. I would include in this category Irish soccer supporters, particularly during the Jack Charlton reign. These supporters were highly commended throughout their journeys across Europe and America and many American, German and French people came here on holidays because of the performance of these supporters. The decision taken to start the l998 Tour de France in Ireland is an example of this. This event is expected to receive television coverage in up to 100 countries with an estimated audience of nearly 100 million people. This could not have been achieved without the earlier success of Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly on the roads of Europe. In the light of this, it is scandalous that the company behind the Irish section of this tour could not find a position for Stephen Roche in the overall operation of this event.
I now wish to refer briefly to drugs in sport. Let me say clearly that my contribution on this issue is in no way linked to today's allegations against Michelle de Bruin. Any person who takes performance enhancing substances to improve his or her performance is a cheat. These people must be identified and banished from both the national and the international scene. Unfortunately, some of the international governing bodies have not been prepared to stand up to these cheats. It is scandalous that athletes who have been found guilty of drug taking at major events such as the Olympic Games have been allowed back following a short suspension. An example of this is the former world record holder and Olympic champion Ben Johnson who shamed the sport when he was exposed as a cheat. The entire subject of drugs in sport is surrounded by rumour and suspicion. Accordingly, we need a world-wide co-ordinated approach to eliminate drugs in sport forever. Drug taking can be controlled only if a testing strategy is effective and the penalties act as a sufficient deterrent. At national level our administrations must develop a national anti-drug strategy that covers all sporting activities at a certain level. I look forward to the report of the anti-drug advisory committee set up by the Minister. I congratulate the Minister on setting it up and hope he will bring forward his proposals at a very early date.
According to the National Rehabilitation Board there are up to 350,000 people in Ireland with a disability. Such people have a right to partake in sporting activities. It is imperative that the Sports Council of Ireland put in place a plan that will eliminate all the obstacles which deprive people with a disability of the opportunity to engage in sport. The national lottery was originally set up in l987 to raise funds for worthy causes. Since its launch, £800 million has been raised for distribution by Government to good causes. However, it is important to note that in l988 51 per cent of the lottery allocation went directly for sport, recreation and amenities whereas in l997 this allocation was down to 31 per cent. There is a case to increase this allocation. One grant scheme which comes to mind is the youth and sport grant. Under it, the most we can give to each sports club in Fingal is £97 and that is taking into account the voluntary effort people make. Much more money should be allocated to this grant scheme. I hope this Bill, or a similar one, will be passed as soon as possible.