Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 8 May 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
Forthcoming European Council: Discussion with Minister of State
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, who is here to brief the committee on the forthcoming Council meeting on sports, which is part of the Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council taking place in Brussels on 17 May.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Any submission or opening statement submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or any official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I now call on the Minister of State to make his opening remarks.
I thank members of the committee for the opportunity to brief them ahead of the Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council next week in Brussels. We have made progress on a number of our priorities for sport during the Irish Presidency of the Council of the EU. I am looking forward to chairing the Council of Sport Ministers and to an engaging debate with my EU colleagues.
There are huge economic, social and health benefits to be gained from sport. In the current economic climate, it is important to recognise the importance of sport for economic and social development both at national and European level. Sport plays a vital role in improving the health and well-being of our citizens and instils a sense of place and belonging among those who play and those who follow sport. From a health perspective alone, there are clearly significant benefits in maintaining and increasing participation levels in sport and physical activity.
While recognising that sport policy remains a matter for member states, the new EU competence for sport allows the EU and member states the opportunity to work more closely together to address issues of common interest and share best practice. It also gives us the opportunity to speak with one voice at international level, particularly in areas such as the fight against doping, which is a particular concern of mine, and the fight against corruption in sport.
Working together at EU level we can strive to better protect the integrity of sport through the targeting of cheating at all levels and promoting healthy, fair and enjoyable sport.
We have focused on three main sport priorities during the Irish Presidency in the areas of dual careers, the sustainable financing of sport and issues around protecting the integrity of sport. Next week’s Council meeting will focus on dual careers for elite sports people and protecting the integrity of sport in the area of anti-doping. Before I expand on these agenda issues, I would like to briefly outline to the committee the work that the Irish Presidency has done around the sustainable financing of sport.
There is growing evidence that sport makes a significant contribution to Europe’s economy and is an important driver of driver of growth and employment. It also ensures social cohesion and well-being. This contributes to achieving the goals of the Europe 2020 growth strategy. However, the current economic and financial crisis is having a major impact on public spending across the EU, including the financing of sport. Sustainable financing of sport was the theme of a sports conference and a meeting of EU sport directors which took place in Dublin Castle on 7 and 8 March. The conference was attended by representatives of the key sports organisations across Europe. The two events addressed issues such as how sport is currently financed; the redistribution of income within sport; the financial challenges facing the sport sector; and best practice examples of how international organisations finance sport.
The promotion of dual careers for elite sports people has been another focus of the Irish Presidency. Sports people often face challenges combining their sporting career with education or work. Success at the highest level of a sport demands intensive training and competitions at home and abroad. It can be difficult to combine this with education and work commitments. Retiring sports people can also face difficulties moving from a sports career to a new career. We need to avoid the situation where talented and elite sports people are forced to choose between education and sport or work and sport. Last November, an EU expert group on education and training in sport produced a set of guidelines on dual careers of sports people. These included recommended policy actions in support of dual careers in high performance sport. Given the growing importance of this matter, the Irish Presidency has prepared a set of Council conclusions on dual careers which will be adopted at next week’s Council meeting.
While enormous strides have been made internationally in the fight against doping in sport through the work of the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, recent high profile cases have shown that doping remains one of the major challenges facing the sport sector. The Lance Armstrong case, the Operation Puerto trial in Spain and the Australian Crime Commission investigation into organised crime and drugs highlight the continuing global threat of doping to the integrity of sport. Cheating and corruption have no place in sport and undermine the fundamental principles of honesty and fair play. Elite athletes are role models, particularly for young people, and their success in honest and fair competition can encourage participation and boost morale. While elite athletes who are found guilty of doping receive sanctions, they may have won significant sums of prize money during their careers and can continue to live off proceeds which have been won dishonestly. Doping not only compromises the principle of open and equal competition, but also poses a serious threat to individual and public health and can have damaging long-term effects on people’s health.
While there have been significant advancements in the testing tools to fight against doping, methods of cheating have also become more sophisticated and there is a need to be vigilant to new ways of doping emerging. There is also evidence of a growing influence of criminality in sport, for example, through the trafficking of performance enhancing drugs. Protecting the integrity of sport against doping is an ongoing global challenge which requires international and cross-sectoral co-operation and action. Governments, sports bodies and national anti-doping agencies need to continue to work together to fight this problem and ensure a level playing field globally. I am pleased that Ireland, through my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, is one of three EU representatives on the WADA foundation board from January until July 2014. The Minister is attending a meeting of the WADA foundation board in Montreal this weekend.
The policy debate at next week’s Council of EU Sport Ministers will focus on the role of governments in combating the increased sophistication of doping in sport. EU sports Ministers will discuss if there are ways in which governments can be more effective in the fight against doping. I will also meet high level representatives of the sports movement to discuss this important issue when I host the EU high level structured dialogue in Brussels prior to the Council of Ministers meeting. This established process brings together leading representatives of EU public authorities and the sports movement to exchange views on topical sporting issues in the EU. The discussion at next week’s structured dialogue will focus on how governments and the sports movement can work in partnership to combat the increased sophistication of doping in sport.
Since January, a slightly different format has been used for the Council meetings, with the Presidency inviting external speakers to encourage free flowing and interactive discussion among Ministers. Although external guest speakers have been invited to previous Council meetings, what is new is the idea of encouraging Ministers to intervene more spontaneously in response to what the speakers or other Ministers have said without scripted interventions and allowing the external speakers to respond to the debate as it unfolds. The Irish Presidency has invited the chief executive officer of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Mr Travis Tygart, to address the Council of EU sports Ministers. I am delighted that someone as high-profile as Mr Tygart has agreed to address EU sport Ministers and provide his unique insights and perspective on anti-doping. I hope Ministers will leave the discussion with some practical ideas they can take back to their capitals for discussion.
I am very pleased with the progress made on sport issues during the Irish Presidency, particularly in respect of strengthening integrity measures. Ireland has a long and distinguished tradition as a sporting nation and in this, our seventh EU Presidency, I believe that this tradition, together with our experience, has contributed to a successful Presidency in the field of sport.
I also wish to take this opportunity to outline what the Government has been doing at national over the past two years. In our first year of Government, we introduced a local authority swimming pool initiative, whereby we spent €14 million throughout the country to enhanced disabled access and reduce energy costs. Last year, we allocated €1.25 million to the Irish Amateur Boxing Association to improve its facilities, particularly for female boxers. Last month, I allocated a further €1 million for boxing clubs to upgrade training facilities for young boxers, particularly women. Some €4.5 million was allocated to local authorities in 2011 under a special shovel-ready initiative to provide facilities aimed at participation. That worked out very well. In 2012, some €1.66 million was allocated under a special tracks initiative to develop four athletic tracks around the country. More than €2.6 million was allocated in 2012 through the national governing bodies in equipment grants. We also allocated €424,000 to Connaught Rugby so that it could host the Heineken Cup and RaboDirect Pro12 matches in Galway. The Irish Sports Council received €44.5 million in 2012 and over €43 million in 2013. We won 64 medals in events at the Olympics, Paralympics and other world and European level sporting events. Participation levels in sport have increased and we are protecting funding as best we can in these difficult economic times. The total sports budget this year is more than €72 million, including capital investments worth €27 million across the sports capital programme, the local authority swimming pools programme and the development of the national sports campus.
I am more than happy to answer any questions that members may wish to raise.
The Minister of State outlined the benefit of sports and sporting facilities to the young and the old. I congratulate him on reintroducing the sports grants after an absence of four years because they have benefited communities of all sporting types throughout the country. He referred to young lady boxers and the GAA.
I wish to acknowledge the financial contributions issued to sporting facilities - which I will not name - in County Louth, where I live.
The Minister is very welcome and I thank him for his enthusiastic presentation. I was one of those who was faced with a choice in the context of dual careers. The question which arose was whether I should go to work or whether I should run. I chose to run, for economic reasons. The Institute of Sport has done fantastic work in terms of preparing our sports people and educating them in respect of their careers after sport. The Minister of State referred to dual careers and the guidelines that have been prepared and said that a number of conclusions, which will be presented next week, have been reached. What form do the guidelines, which were not mentioned in the Minister of State's presentation, take?
We are aware that doping in sport is a scourge. There are examples of doping taking place at many Olympiads. For example, the 1,500 m champion at the Beijing Olympics was found to have doped and was stripped of his gold medal. The women's 1,500 m champion from the London Olympics was recently found guilty of doping. Only last week the winner of the women's 60 m hurdles at the European indoor championships was proven to be guilty of doping. I hope Derval O'Rourke, who finished fourth in that event, will be promoted to the bronze medal position. We refer to the fundamental principles of honesty and fair play in sport and we try to instil these into the young people we coach and try to encourage to participate in sport. In the context of the Government's relationships with the various sports councils throughout the world, is it time to replace the current three-strikes-and-you-are-out system with a one-strike model? Should sports people sign up to a code of conduct which stipulates that if they take drugs and are caught, they are out?
Senator Brennan is correct. Last year was the first time since 2008 that there has been a sports capital programme. We received a record 2,170 applications. We grant-aided 648 separate facilities throughout the country. I would have liked to have had more money to distribute. The breakdown in respect of the programme is that €26 million was invested in local schemes and €5 million in regional or major schemes. We took this approach to try to get the money to the grass roots. That is why we limited the funding for regional and major schemes to €5 million. If we had left matters open, major schemes would have sought €7 million, €8 million or €12 million in respect of various projects. We just could not allow that to happen. I would love to put another scheme in place and I am currently negotiating with the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputies Noonan and Howlin, in that regard. I would like to obtain the support of the committee in respect of this matter. Perhaps the Chairman might issue correspondence to the Ministers involved informing them of the economic value of the sports capital programme. For every €1 spent on sport, the return is €1.26. Therefore, this money creates employment and encourages participation in sport. A stimulus budget is again due to be introduced this year and I hope it will contain funding for a further sports capital programme.
As already stated, we received 2,170 applications last year, the largest number received since the scheme was originally established, simply because there had not been a programme in place since 2008. I thank my officials for the way in which they dealt with those applications. Members will understand that the number of applications received relates to the economic problems we are experiencing. Many sports clubs require funding in respect of their facilities and I am delighted that matters worked out so well. I wish we had more money and I hope we will be able to secure another round of funding. I would appreciate it if the Chairman and members would write to the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform in support of the concept of another sports-----
We will make a decision on that matter before the meeting concludes. I am of the view that there will be no difficulty in getting the committee to agree to and support the Minister of State's proposal. We will deal with that matter later.
In the context of what Senator Eamonn Coghlan said in respect of dual careers, we are hoping to encourage co-operation between member states. We are also hoping to encourage them to enter dialogue with their educational institutions. The Senator was one of our top athletes for many years. He is quite correct in that he was obliged to strike a balance between his running and his education, particularly as he was not going to remain an elite athlete forever. The time for him to retire from athletics was always going to arrive and he needed to have another career. We are asking member states to enter discussions with their universities and encourage them to put in place courses which would provide athletes with an opportunity to train and compete and, simultaneously, allow them to pursue educational goals. What we are seeking is flexibility. We are hoping this will be forthcoming, particularly in the context of the universities. We will also be asking the sporting organisations to support athletes and assist them in obtaining an education.
Let us consider the position of the young people who leave these shores each year to pursue careers in professional soccer in Britain. How many of them actually make it? They leave believing they will be the next Roy Keane and many of them return disillusioned. It used to be the case that they would leave at 16, 17 or 18 years of age. They would spend a few years at a club and if they did not make it, they would return. Many of them were not educated and found it difficult to get into the workplace. We are asking educational institutions to make these types of courses available to athletes and other sports people to assist them in pursuing their goals. There is life after sport and it is not everyone who makes it. Senator Eamonn Coghlan did not do too badly during his sporting career and fair play to him. I am joking, of course, when I say that. However, I reiterate that not everyone makes it and there is a problem in the context of those who have no place to go when their sporting careers end. Those who make it do fine, but those who do not encounter problems.
The Senator also referred to drugs in sport. I have been very strong on this matter in Europe. I reiterate my belief that anyone, regardless of his or her sport, who uses performance-enhancing drugs is a cheat. We are trying to get governments involved at European level. I understand that the organisers of some of the major marathons insist on athletes signing a document whereby if they are caught doping at a later stage, they will be obliged to return whatever prize money they may make in those marathons. Lance Armstrong admitted that he had cheated, but he acquired vast sums of money which he still retains. That is wrong because it means that cheaters are being supported. Some of these individuals, through cheating, have enough money to maintain their lifestyles for the remainder of their years. Stronger sanctions must be introduced.
As the Senator is aware, each country in Europe deals with its own sporting organisations. We must work together, however, because those involved in doping are adopting ever more sophisticated methods, their drug use is not capable of being detected. We must do more than test for drugs. The new passport whereby athletes can be monitored for many years must be introduced across Europe. Some parts of Europe are extremely well regulated but that is not the position in other countries where there is no regulation at all. As a former international runner, Senator Eamonn Coghlan knows he was competing against individuals who were not subject to the same rigorous testing as him. That is a matter which must be dealt with at European level.
As stated, the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, is meeting in Montreal this week. The governing bodies in sport, which are responsible for handing down sanctions, must come to grips with this matter. In my opinion, a person caught using performance-enhancing drugs should never be allowed to be involved in sport again.
All sporting organisations, nationally and internationally, are too soft. They should take a stronger line because what we have with the taking of drugs in sport is also happening in gambling, betting and cheating and all of that has to stop.
With regard to a comment made by Senator Coghlan, one thing that has lifted the souls, minds and spirits of this country in the past four or five years is sport. We have a serious economic crisis not only in Ireland but throughout the world but sport has lifted people's spirits and minds. One thing that is devastating for people is when they see a sporting hero win a gold medal, world cup medal or whatever and then three of four months later we find he or she is caught taking drugs. They should not be allowed to participate in sport again. Sport is about equality, fairness and everyone being equal starting off, and then the best man or woman wins. If someone is using an enhancing drug then there is a problem and it should be dealt with. We need to take a stronger line. That is why we are bringing Mr. Taggart to the meeting next week. He is the man who followed Lance Armstrong when other people pulled back and did not do what they should have been doing, but he kept at it. He is coming to our meeting next week as are some people who have defended Mr. Armstrong in the past. It will be a good debate.
The structure is changing too. What used to happen was that 27 Ministers would read prepared scripts. That will not happen at my meeting next week. They will not be using scripts. I will tell everyone to speak from their mind and soul and say what they have to say and then we will come to conclusions at the end of the meeting. We will also allow guest speakers. In the past we had guest speakers. They used to come and make a presentation. Then other people spoke and the guest speakers did not have an opportunity to respond, but there will be a different format next week and there will be a good debate.
The greatest scourge in sport at the moment is doping and people who take enhancing drugs. It is big business as well. There are drug barons bringing in drugs from throughout the world and Governments working together must do something to deal with that.
I welcome and thank the Minister of State for his presentation. Like Senator Brennan and others I welcome the way the sports capital programme operates, whereby modest amounts are given to a greater number of clubs and organisations throughout the country. This has been of great benefit. Often such clubs only need modest support and it is a great lift for them.
The Minister of State referred to dual careers in sports. This is a significant issue. In many ways sports define countries. When we think of Brazil, we think of soccer; when we think of long distance running, we think of other countries in Africa; and with middle distance running we think of north Africa. The idea of world-class sports people and athletes having to train or participate at the weekend but having to go to work on Monday essentially will not work. We need to get from a position where there is a good prospect or young athlete or sports person to a position where he is beginning to define himself in that sport. One must have some way of incentivising or dealing with employers. I know of one person in the past 12 months in west Cork who has had success as a long distance swimmer, Steve Redmond. He works a day job. Only for the generosity of his employer he simply would not have been able to achieve a fraction of what he has achieved. How do we unlock the potential of these people but not hammer the employers who look after them in their day jobs? I presume this is one of the difficulties and if the Minister of State had a steer on the issue I would be glad to hear it.
My second point relates to doping. I fully agree with the sentiments of Senator Coghlan and the Minister of State. He is passionate against doping. In the past 12 months I have heard from various commentators in the media. There seems to be a move to allow a dirty game or sport whereby everyone is free to take whatever they like and the fastest, strongest or best will win, whereby everyone is allowed to dope. I listened to some of these comments with horror. Many of the comments came from commentators who should know better. I presume the Minister of State has a view on the matter. I hear these comments more and more and the matter should be nailed on the head. It would not solve a problem but it would be a start. I do not understand that warped mentality. I am unsure what can be achieved but I would appreciate the comments of the Minister of State in this regard.
Deputy Harrington asked a good question about the funding of promising young and rising stars, men and women. That is why we have the Irish Sports Council. We provide funding for them. The Irish Sports Council targets and funds elite athletes. Sometimes people forget that we fund them well. There is a mechanism in place and the council is changing that mechanism. We are also giving funding to the national governing bodies and they make decisions. Deputy Harrington referred to a promising swimmer. The council can provide the financial back-up and support that such athletes need to enhance their position and ensure they get the opportunities they deserve. The Irish Sports Council has worked well.
People talk about the Olympic and Paralympic Games that took place recently. The reason those involved in the Paralympic Game did so well was because they had the funding from the Irish Sports Council, especially in the case of the elite athletes, and they acknowledge as much. They were well-prepared, well-trained and they were given the necessary back-up and support from the Irish Sports Council. It worked well. That is why we had such success in the Olympic Games with boxing. It is some years ago since funding for boxing was put in place. These boxers were supported financially and were given the professional team lead by Mr. Walsh. People come from throughout the world to examine how we have done so well in boxing and that speaks for itself. The Irish Sports Council provides the funding for elite athletes. It helps and supports them and gives them the opportunity, especially in the case of athletes at their peak who are getting good funding from the council.
This year the council has given some funding to the national governing bodies. This means the governing bodies must make decisions as well. One cannot have someone in receipt of this funding who is making no progress. At times the bodies must make decisions and decide on the people who are going well, going places and who should be supported.
Deputy Harrington referred to dual careers. Employers in this country have been very good. Deputy O'Mahony has managed football teams and is aware of this. Employers have been very helpful and supportive of sport and rightly so. However, there is only so far their generosity can go, especially in these economic times. That is why we have the position on dual careers and flexibility. We are trying to ensure flexibility between the employers and education institutes to try to give athletes the opportunity to develop themselves and make a career out of sports. That is what we are at. When we go before the meeting next week in Brussels we will bring in the conclusions. Representatives will go back to their counties and the conclusions will be finalised at a later stage to establish whether we can bring in support mechanisms to try to deal with this.
I compliment the Minister of State on his positive report today. There was a recent example at international level concerning one of our athletes, Derval O'Rourke, who was deprived in the European championships of the third medal. She came in narrowly behind and was only a fraction of a second from winning the event. As it turned out we learned last week that the winning athlete was on high-performance drugs. It was a great let-down for the athlete concerned that she did not get up on the winners podium. It is a great honour for athletes, their families and the countries they represent to reach that level. Then, due to someone involved in a highly illegal process, they escape under the radar for so long.
It happened, it appeared, to Sonia O'Sullivan in the past, and to some other people, such as the wonderful athlete Senator Eamonn Coghlan. They are role models for everybody, in particular the youth of the country. It is shameful for it to happen, especially to athletes from a smaller country who may not be able to hit the higher echelons very often.
I agree with the Minister of State that our boxers are the model, in international terms, for what can be achieved from a small pool. They are high achievers and every compliment needs to be paid to Billy Walsh and his compatriot, whose name escapes me. They are wonderful ambassadors, together with their team of outstanding boxers. It demonstrates what we in this country can do.
I also commend the Minister of State on the moneys expended on various facilities and initiatives in these constrained times. He is achieving a lot. I hope the funding will be maintained. Money has been dispersed to small sports clubs around the country which were perhaps unsuccessful in the past. He is giving them an even break. What are his intentions for the next tranches of funding? Will they come on stream? We are all aware of the many good organisations and clubs which are still in need of vital facilities and backup.
Are we proactive in trying to get the rugby union world championship to locate in Ireland? I understand we will compete for future world rugby championships. We have the facilities and I am sure we have the goodwill of the GAA in co-operating with that.
I wish the Minister of State well in his endeavours.
I would like to put on the record that Ireland has one of the best anti-doping programmes in the world. The Irish Sports Council spends €18,000 a week on testing. We are playing our part, but we need to examine ways and means of targeting illegal drugs coming into the country.
The issue of dual careers was raised. We support GAA players, through the Irish Sports Council, and the players fund we put in place. An average of about €500 per year per player is paid. There is a €6 million Irish Sports Council programme in place for elite athletes. We are playing our part.
I hope we can get another round of sports capital funding. My priority is to target it at grassroots level. As we did the last time, shared facilities will be prioritised. The day when we could have facilities in universities, colleges or schools which were not open to the general public are gone. If taxpayers' money is being provided for such facilities, we should open them up to make sure they are shared. GAA or soccer clubs should make their facilities available for schools. If colleges and universities are not closed at weekends and for three months during the summer, their facilities should be made freely available if they are in receipt of taxpayers' money.
If we receive another round of sports capital funding I will re-examine grassroots organisations. What was said was quite correct, namely, that small amounts of money are required and small facilities need basic things like dressing rooms and playing facilities of a fairly good standard. In the last round of funding I eliminated the building of stands; those days are gone and we no longer have the resources and money. It is about participation and making facilities available for young boys and girls to give them the opportunity to play sport.
I thank the Minister for his presentation and acknowledge the large tranches of funding which have come our way over the past year or two, in particular sports capital grants, the swimming pools initiative and funding for the Irish Amateur Boxing Association. I hope we see more sports capital grants in the future.
In times of economic stress there is a risk that sport is the first sector to be hit. Is the Minister of State happy he can protect existing funding for sports? With regard to dual careers, he said the Irish presidency had prepared a set of Council conclusions on dual careers which will be adopted at next week's meeting. Can he elaborate on the options that might be available to retiring sports people?
Doping has been prevalent in sport for years. Are we catching up with it? I note the Minister of State said we spend €18,000 per week on testing. How much does it cost to test one person? How many tests are done in a week? Cheating also involves corruption and gambling. How are we progressing in trying to combat those aspects of cheating?
I welcome the Minister of State. I agree with many of his targets on increasing participation among the general public. I have heard him speak of it many times and it is commendable. Sports capital funding allows this to happen. I agree with sharing facilities; it is important they are used to their maximum capacity and that advantage is given to applications for sports capital funding for communities and clubs that do that.
I have some questions on the information provided on the meeting next week, and doping and corruption in sport. What can be done at European or national level to stop corruption? It was demonstrated in the Lance Armstrong case, for example, that there was a combination of doping and corruption. The Armstrong foundation provided funding to the cycling federations which were policing Lance Armstrong, and as a result the policing failed.
Things are similar in Ireland. Is the Minister of State happy with the various governing bodies of sport in Ireland? The success of the boxers in the recent Olympic Games has been articulated well. What is the Minister of State's view on money being targeted at sports with competitors who have better chance of winning at Olympic level?
In some of the governing bodies, such as Swim Ireland, 50% of the funding released by the Sports Council goes into administration. I understand there are fewer than 25 high performance swimmers, three centres and 100 staff throughout the country. Maybe all the funding is used wisely.
The director of Irish swimming lives and works in Florida and is, I presume, in receipt of a substantial salary. Swimming in Ireland seems to be governed by remote control. I could articulate a number of examples. I would like to say I raise the issue for the benefit of swimming in Ireland, not to criticise it.
I merely wish to hear the Minister of State's views on these matters. As he said, funding is scarce at this time and what is available must be used as effectively as possible. Unfortunately, the figures I have cited suggest this is not happening in all governing bodies.
I thank members for their questions. Deputy Tom Fleming raised the possibility of Ireland hosting a future rugby world cup. We are engaged in negotiations with the Irish Rugby Football Union on this issue and they are going well. I am very hopeful that we will be able to host a world cup in due course. A great deal of research is being done in this regard, including a feasibility study, and we have had several meetings to discuss the potential that is there. This country is well capable of hosting international events, as we have proved in the past. I would be delighted to see Ireland hosting the tournament in the not too distant future.
Deputy Sandra McLellan asked about the prospects for an increase in capital funding. We all want to see that happening and I am hopeful it will be achieved. The Deputy referred to some of the difficulties encountered by retired athletes. We are seeking to alleviate those difficulties through efforts to encourage dual careers, retraining and further education. In particular, we are in discussions with the third level institutions with a view to assisting retired athletes in finding a new career after sports.
I agree with the Deputy that doping and match fixing are a major problem for all sports. I recently participated, with the Commissioner, in a panel discussion in Brussels, where we heard very strong representations, including one from Interpol, on the issue of match fixing. Interpol appealed to Governments throughout the European Union to co-operate and support each other in seeking to tackle this form of corruption. There is a data protection issue there which cannot be ignored, but there is no denying the requirement for action. If should be possible for the authorities in one jurisdiction to convey information they have received to the authorities in other jurisdictions. There is a major debate taking place in Europe on this issue and an international convention recently discussed it. If we do not take action against doping, match fixing and other types of corruption, they will destroy the entire edifice of sport. It is in everybody's interest that we seek to address them.
Deputy John O'Mahony spoke about what can be done at international level in regard to doping. It is all about co-operation and sharing information. Testing is only one tool in our potential arsenal. There is also a role for Governments and customs authorities, for example, in monitoring the types of drugs that are coming into their jurisdictions. Many of the substances we are talking about are being purchased over the Internet. That must stop and it will require everybody working together, across different jurisdictions, to eradicate the scourge. As I said, there is a question mark over efforts in this regard in the context of data protection considerations, but that difficulty is under discussion. We are fortunate in this country to have a person of Dr. Una May's calibre in our midst. The Chairman might consider inviting her to a meeting so that members can avail of her expertise. She is in demand throughout Europe as one of the foremost experts in these matters. She could explain, for instance, how the testing is done and what is required. Members should be assured that a substantial investment is being made by the Government in this area.
In regard to Swim Ireland, the Irish Sports Council does monitor and audit that body. I do not have the specific information the Deputy requested to hand, but I will ask the chief executive officer of the council, Mr. John Treacy, to respond in writing to the Deputy. It is the council's responsibility to monitor the bodies under its aegis and ensure the funding it dispenses is spent wisely. Every sporting organisation must set aside a certain amount of funding for administrative functions, but I agree that the figures the Deputy gave to do not seem to add up. I will ask Mr. Treacy to respond directly to him.
Of course. I agree that we are fortunate to have such good structures in place in terms of the interplay between the sports council and the various national governing bodies. It is vital that those standards are retained. The funding to the council last year was €43 million. There are ongoing and regular discussions between the council and the various sports governing bodies and procedures in this regard are kept up to date. The national governing bodies are obliged to come on board and to meet certain standards if they are to avail of council funding.
I take this opportunity to advise members of my intention later this year to bring forward for their consideration proposals to amalgamate the sports council and the National Sports Campus Development Authority. We are currently devising the heads of that Bill.
I agree with Deputy Tom Fleming that there is enormous potential in the prospect of Ireland staging a future rugby world cup. The hosting of the American football team Notre Dame in Croke Park last year attracted large numbers of visitors. Is the Government lobbying other international sports organisations to encourage more of that type of engagement? I met some of the visitors who came to Dublin for the Notre Dame game, many of whom travelled to other parts of the country to meet relatives. They were greatly enthused by the reception they received here, it being their first trip to Ireland in many cases. Is any work going on in the background in this regard?
Yes, we are working on that issue. The Chairman is correct that last year's Notre Dame game brought thousands of visitors not only to Dublin, but to locations throughout the country. It was the first time I ever saw taxi drivers, hoteliers, restaurateurs and publicans so united in their efforts to put on a good show. The message those visitors brought back to the United States was a very strong and positive one, namely, that there is value to be had from holidaying in Ireland and people here are friendly and welcoming. The event itself was a tremendous success, as was the Volvo ocean race. We are always working with Fáilte Ireland to target those types of major international events. There is a significant cost factor with some of them which would often require a feasibility study. Many local authorities are involved in encouraging college teams to come over to Ireland from the United States. I launched South Dublin County Council's initiative in this regard as part of The Gathering. American football is somewhat different from soccer, Gaelic football and hurling or rugby in that its games are an occasion for extended families, with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and children all attending together. We saw that in the numbers who came to Dublin for the Notre Dame game and we are targeting more events like it. Fáilte Ireland would agree that in terms of return to the economy, it was the best value event for the money we spent on it. Above all, however, it allowed us to send a strong message abroad that this country is alive and well.
I am aware that I am moving away from sport but will the Minister of State give us a summary of the figures in regard to The Gathering? I have observed an increase in tourists throughout the country, particularly last weekend. Will he give a brief overview in this regard?
The reduction in the VAT rate last year seems to have had a major impact for the entire tourism and catering industry.
Its reduction was welcome. Does the Minister of State intend to maintain the reduced rate?
I was not expecting the question on The Gathering, but I will answer off the top of my head. I will supply the figures. I am glad that the Chairman asked the question, as it gives me an opportunity to discuss the matter. The Gathering is going brilliantly. Our first quarter figures increased by more than 7.2%. Our North American, Italian, French, German and other markets are doing well, but the British market has been weak in recent years. The good news is that, for the first time in many years, there has been an increase in our British figures. It is not that the British traveller had been going elsewhere. With Britain's economy, people were simply not travelling at all.
The Gathering is not working because of my Department, Fáilte Ireland or Tourism Ireland, but because 15,000 to 16,000 Irish people attended public meetings in September, October, November and December and did something that I have not seen done for a long time, that being, they mobilised. As the Chairman and every elected representative knows, events are being held every weekend in every corner of this country. When my old school in Westport held its reunion last weekend, people came from England, America and across Europe. That experience is being replicated across the country. We were expecting the first quarter to be weak. The New Year's Eve and St. Patrick's Day celebrations had a good effect and April to July looks to be a promising period. I am confident that The Gathering will work because it is community led.
I compliment the country's communities and volunteers who are doing something instead of just talking. I thank the local authorities and public bodies for their funding. I also want to thank everyone who has played a part. I am confident that The Gathering will be a major success. We need to build a legacy out of it. People who visit our country this year will be our ambassadors for the coming years. They will take with them a good or a bad message about Ireland. I want it to be a good one, as tourism is important to us. We expect 325,000 extra visitors this year, providing revenue that is badly wanted. For every 35 visitors, a job is created. It is important that we make The Gathering a success.
The Chairman asked about VAT. When we entered into government, we targeted tourism as a priority for job creation. The Government reduced the VAT rate from 13% to 9%. It also changed PRSI rates for low-paid workers. We changed the visa rules so that people who had visas to visit Britain could continue into Ireland. This was a major problem, as a person from outside Europe could have waited as long as three months for an Irish visa. The new system is working well.
The VAT rate will continue this year. I have discussed the matter with the Minister for Finance, who knows my opinions on this issue. The current rate should be retained, although this is a matter for the Government. In 99.9% of cases, the reduction was passed on. For the first time, the general public saw a reduction in the cost of eating in restaurants. It helped the tourism trade. The recent budget introduced tax initiatives to help hoteliers to redevelop their properties. Their main problem relates to their borrowings. I recently attended a dinner in Limerick of 470 hoteliers. They were upbeat and believed they had turned a corner. This is an important year for them and I hope that we can support them. I also hope that the Government will see fit to leave VAT at its current rate for another two years at least.
He will accept that compliment. I support his comments and do not doubt that members will agree with him. We might request that the clerk write a letter containing the facts about the sports capital grant as outlined by the Minister of State and the need for same. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Ms Carol O'Reilly and Mr. Tim Scully from the Department are present. Everyone believes that our Department has 100 staff, but it does not. The numbers are small. Ms O'Reilly and Mr. Scully have done a great deal of work for the EU Presidency. The country has held two major conferences. I do not mind saying this publicly, but I am disappointed by the national media, particularly RTE, which did not give those events more prominence. People came from across Europe, as did the world's top speakers. They enjoyed the conferences and their visits to Ireland. They were delighted by the hosting. Ms Olivia O'Leary chaired one conference and Mr. John Murray chaired the other. I thank Ms O'Reilly and Mr. Scully for their efforts and commitment in this regard. I also thank my small number of staff in Killarney. Much is happening under the sports capital grant and other schemes and there is a great deal of pressure, but those staff members are delivering.
On behalf of the committee, I thank the Minister of State and his officials for attending. This meeting has been informative. We should do this more often. The Minister of State's Department covers a large area of interest. We will support his request on opening up the sports capital grant.
As there is no other business, the committee will adjourn until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 May when we will meet RTE. Is that agreed? Agreed.