Community Sports: Impact on Young People - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:16 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Wood of Anfield Lord Wood of Anfield Llafur 3:16, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I am delighted that we are having this debate on the social and economic contribution of sport in our country. I want to start with something I have always wanted to include in a Lords debate: a quote from my hero, Jürgen Klopp, the manager of our beloved Liverpool Football Club, who sadly will be managing his last game for Liverpool this Sunday. Jürgen, if you are watching, thank you, and my best wishes for the future—you’ll never walk alone. Klopp famously said of football, during the suspension of sport in Britain during the pandemic—though it could be said on behalf of fans of all sports—that although it is not that important, it seems

“the most important of the least important things”.

The 58% of Brits who follow at least one sport know how true this is.

Sport teaches resilience, patience, discipline, the importance of combining practice with flair and combining individual excellence with teamwork, dealing with disappointment, and resolving to recover. For fans like me, sport provides a crucial dimension of the narrative arc of our lives. But research shows that the playing of, love of, and social capital generated by sport has immense power to improve lives beyond those of just the fans. Playing sport is obviously key to personal physical fitness. It improves the quality of sleep—in turn a gateway to all sorts of higher well-being indicators. It generates higher levels of happiness, satisfaction, quality of relationships, confidence and self-esteem. It reduces anxiety, depression and isolation, sometimes more effectively than medication. These positive effects are more pronounced for girls and young women. NIH research shows that watching sport—my favourite quote of the speech—leads to

“increased brain activity and the structural volume in … brain regions related to well-being”.

On Monday, the excellent Youth Sport Trust released data showing that participation in physical activity in school is worth between £4.5 billion and £9 billion in well-being benefits, and that those benefits are most valuable to poorer and disabled pupils.

When it comes to social policy, sport is far more than the most important of the least important things. In our communities, especially in relation to more marginalised groups, sport and physical activities often have Heineken properties, reaching the parts that other policies find hard to reach. Sports initiatives across the piece report positive effects in improving employability and reducing anti-social behaviour, for example. There is the Premier League Kicks programme, which targets some of the most deprived communities, with free football sessions for children, combined with workshops on social inclusion, the dangers of crime and other social problems. The programme, launched in 2006, is now so popular in reaching at-risk young people that 36 different police forces have partnered with the Premier League to deliver Kicks.

In cricket, the Chance to Shine programme reaches half a million children in state schools and communities across Britain, many of whom are from minority backgrounds. The Golf Foundation will soon launch its Unleash Your Drive programme, using teaching and the playing of golf to instil essential life skills. Across the country, charities such as the excellent StreetGames, whose Doorstep Sport programmes offer cheap, accessible ways into sport for children in the most deprived areas, are transforming the lives of many of those in the most need, from reducing holiday hunger to supporting personal development and inculcating leadership skills.

A basic measure of the strength of sports in our country is rates of participation. Here, the record of the past decade, since the 2012 Olympics, has been, I think it is fair to say, a bit disappointing. Some 22% of British adults play at least one sport, which is about middle ranking internationally, but when it comes to our children under half of under-18s meet the CMO’s guideline of doing an hour or more of sport or physical activity each day. Sadly, since the London Olympics, the number of hours that children spend doing school sports has gone down by 12%, and those who do not participate are significantly more likely to be on free school meals. There is also continuing evidence of what is referred to as a gender play gap among school-aged girls, two-thirds of whom say they would like to engage in more sport than they are being provided with.

Among less active groups, there has been mixed progress over the past decade—reasonably good for some, such as disabled people and the over-75s, but with far less progress for others, such as black, Asian and minority groups. Worryingly, the income and class divide in participation statistics is persistent, perhaps even strengthening since Covid.

Returns on public investment in sports participation are sizeable. Sport England has shown that, for every £1 spent, nearly £4 of social and economic value is created. While I welcome the Government’s ambition in their 2023 Get Active paper for 2.5 million more adults and 1 million more children to be active by 2030, I worry that those who lead this drive, for all their excellent work, do not have the mechanisms, means or metrics to deliver those step changes. I worry too that we have not made enough headway among groups that face particular barriers to access and participation.

Take the example of women’s sport and physical activity. The last few years have seen huge steps forward in the prominence, success and coverage of professional women’s sports, in particular following the phenomenal achievements of England’s Lionesses, but also in cricket, rugby and many other sports. Football’s Women’s Super League in England saw an extraordinary 40% increase in attendance during the first half of this season alone. Average crowds are now well over 7,000, which makes it Europe’s most attended league. Yet sporting participation rates for women have been static for nearly a decade. Of course, the main metric for elite sports is not simply the extent to which it triggers a participation revolution at grass-roots level, but I wonder whether we have as a country placed a bit too much faith in the catalytic effect of breakthrough moments and achievement in unleashing a participation revolution, especially among groups that have historically engaged less in sport.

Key to delivering on this revolution is money and funding. There can be no doubt about the economic value of the UK sports industry. Sport’s total contribution to the UK economy in 2022 was £18 billion, about 0.8% of total GDP. The industry supports over half a million jobs in our country, and the sector has grown 50% faster than the rest of the economy since 2010. The benefits of sport at all levels are felt across different parts of British society and, of course, make huge contributions in areas such as healthcare, crime reduction and education. It does not rob us of the right to have strong views about reforms to football governance to celebrate at the same time the extraordinary economic success of the Premier League, the biggest audiovisual exporter in the UK, with an audience of 1.8 billion people in 190 countries.

Sport is both a constant companion for the majority of people in our country and a powerhouse of our economy. But when it comes to public funding for sport, we still lack consistent commitment across the sporting landscape, especially at grass-roots level. These challenges pre-date the obstacles that came in the wake of the pandemic. Spending on grass-roots sports and recreation facilities fell by 47% between 2010 and 2020, when Covid hit us. In the same decade, the number of PE teachers in schools fell by 2,500. On top of this, we have seen the cost of living crisis impact on poorer families’ ability to engage in sports, so now over two-thirds of parents say that worries about affordability have limited their kids’ participation in sport.

Facilities, in particular, have borne the brunt of many years of austerity. Cutbacks to council budgets have had a dramatic impact on a range of local sports infrastructure, and a recent survey indicated that 70% of councils are considering further cutbacks as their finances tighten further. Many community clubs, in poor states of repair before Covid, have stayed shut or closed permanently in the years since. Sport England has taken steps to protect hundreds of community facilities, which I am sure we all welcome, but the challenge is absolutely immense, with 45% of our country’s public park tennis courts in poor, very poor or unplayable condition. The FA reports that only one in three grass pitches is of adequate quality; 150,000 matches a year get called off because of unfit pitches. We have very low numbers of artificial sports pitches compared with many of our European neighbours and, as Sport England’s chair, Chris Boardman, outlined just this morning:

“Extreme weather is increasingly making it difficult for us to live healthy, active lives”.

It is a problem that will only get worse. In the next half century, for example, wetness is predicted to increase by 30% in British winters. Just imagine the effect that will have on people’s ability to engage in community sports.

Again, I do not want to underappreciate areas where the Government provide strong financial support—in particular to Sport England, which receives £250 million a year from government and Lottery sources—and long-standing support for initiatives such as the Football Foundation, which has supported over £1.5 billion in investment in community facilities. I hope the Government, whoever they are, commit to continue this important funding in the years ahead. The predominant picture at grass-roots level is one of multiple long-term challenges: underfunding, climate change, cost of living pressures, councils forced to deprioritise sport, and inequalities of access. These urgently need not just more financial support, of course, but more certain and longer-term financial support.

The funding challenge is actually more complicated than simply more money for sports, although of course that is crucial. Protecting local facilities and community sports requires a step change from the last 14 years in protecting councils’ budgets and their autonomy to spend with more freedom, because only with a broader securing of local authority finances can sports and leisure services be protected from their all-too-frequent fate of being the first items to get cut when pressures increase. At central government level, the paradox of sport is that it benefits the outcomes of many other departments—education, health, home affairs—but those departments do not see sport as a central priority for their own funding programmes. This kind of paradox led, for example, to the very ill-advised decision in 2010 to end government support for school sport partnerships. Part of the policy challenge is aligning the funding streams for sports with the areas in which sport has such positive impacts on people’s lives. That is a difficult task, but I am hopeful that my own party’s commitment to radical new devolution may allow more discretion on spending allocations for combined authorities, for example, to make that alignment happen a bit better at local level.

There is also a range of issues in the way elite sports operate in our country that need to be addressed and debated. The infrastructure of our most popular national sports is increasingly dependent on trickle-down support from a narrow top tier of successful leagues and competitions. Financial precariousness and dependence have become a constitutional condition of lower-league sports teams all the way down in our country. Alongside this, we have understandable and widespread concerns about the way in which the quest for broadcasting revenues, corporate backing and sponsorship, catering to the demands of foreign audiences and the interests of shareholders in large sporting clubs and organisations are all impacting on the character and integrity of the sports we love. These are concerns we will debate in relation to football governance, for example, but they also encompass the LIV tour controversy in golf, global cricket’s dependence on India for its survival, and issues to do with ensuring that sporting events are available free-to-air not only in their live form, as now, but on digital catch-up.

Lastly, there is a host of issues around the culture within elite sports, from combating doping and corruption to eliminating abuse and exploitation. These remain serious challenges on which my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, has done so much work, including her recommendation from seven years ago to introduce a duty of care to elite sportsmen and sportswomen, supported by a sports ombudsman.

We need to think more forensically about the methods by which increases in participation can be delivered, be successful and be sustainable, and how disabled people, young girls, minority children, lower-income families and rural residents can be engaged in sporting activity more regularly. We need to map the funding structures for sport in ways that mirror more accurately the areas of society in which sport has such a huge impact. We need to ensure that governance, culture and finances in sport continue to embody the values that give sport its popularity and integrity.

We need to celebrate the remarkable power of sport in our country, and I look forward to hearing examples from noble colleagues showcasing that. I also look forward to hearing the maiden speeches of two new colleagues in your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord, Lord Hannett of Everton—yes, I did bring myself to say “Everton”, even though I am a Liverpool fan—and the noble Lord, Lord Shamash, whose beloved Manchester United, I am glad to say, have avoided relegation this year. I hope to hear ideas from noble Lords about how our approach to increasing the value of sport’s contribution to our country and widening the net of those who enjoy full access to sport can be improved. I beg to move.