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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 16:09 GMT
Free swimming scheme launched
An older swimmer enjoying the pool
Older people are advised to check when council pools are free
A pilot scheme to let older people in Wales swim for free in council-run pools has been launched.

It is part of a drive by the assembly government to promote a more active lifestyle.

All councils are taking part but people are advised to contact their local pool to find out when it is available.

But opposition parties were critical of the 1.3m project, with one saying the money would be better spent on free personal care for elderly people.

Giving free access to swimming facilities for the young and the elderly is among the Welsh Assembly Government's "top ten" commitments.

The health benefits of swimming are certainly not confined to the young
Sport Minister Alun Pugh
Ministers say they want to see more people lead more active and healthier lifestyles, and the benefits of free swimming scheme far outweigh the costs.

Schoolchildren in Wales already enjoy free access to swimming pools run by local authorities. .

First Minister Rhodri Morgan and Sports Minister Alun Pugh were launching the scheme for the over-60s at Caerphilly Leisure Centre.

The assembly government said all Welsh local authorities had signed up for the scheme, but people should contact their council to find out which pools were included and at what times.

Emily Godsall and Les Stag
There was a welcome from regular swimmers for the free entry

Swimmer Les Stag, 72, already takes part in sessions two or three times a week.

He said: "It's quite expensive to come here to train with the stamina swimming class - it's 2.20, so to come here for free is brilliant. I hope more come along."

Emily Godsall, 87, is Wales' oldest master swimmer with more than 200 medals.

"I think it's essential to go swimming - it keeps muscles and joints flexible," she said.

Mr Pugh said Wales was the only nation in Europe with a national free swimming scheme.

He said: "I am convinced that the health benefits of regular swimming justify the public investment involved.

"It is clear that free swimming for schoolchildren has led to a huge rise in activity, with the biggest rises in our most deprived communities."

The money being spent on offering free swimming would be better spent on offering free personal care to the elderly
Liberal Democrat AM Eleanor Burnham

"We will also be piloting free swimming for our senior citizens for the first time this autumn.

"Everyone can benefit from swimming. The health benefits of swimming are certainly not confined to the young."

But his Liberal Democrat counterpart, Eleanor Burnham, said free swimming for the elderly was as much a gimmick as free school breakfasts pilot launched last week.

Elderly people in swimming pool
The free swimming scheme is part of Labour's health drive

She said: "The money being spent on offering free swimming would be better spent on offering free personal care to the elderly, many of whom have to sell their homes, or raid their savings to pay for dignity in later life."

However, Labour said it had worked out that the 1.3m spent on the free swimming initiative would only be enough for four people in every local authority to receive free residential care for a year.

Meanwhile Plaid Cymru's sport spokesman, Owen John Thomas AM, questioned how the free swimming policy would work in practice.

"As one who qualifies for the free swimming, if I can find the time I will take advantage of the offer and improve my fitness," he said, but added that the scheme needed to be fully funded by the assembly government and questioned how easily pensioners had access to their local pools.

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