First, I thank my hon. Friend for again raising this important matter, which we debated in Westminster Hall only a few months ago.
We can rightly be proud of professional football in this country. The premiership is now undoubtedly the best and most competitive football league in the world. That was underlined last week when Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool qualified for the champions league semi-finals. However, football players, who are idols and role models to millions of young boys and girls must understand the responsibility of the privileged position they hold. I have written to the chairmen of the professional clubs a couple of times now to make sure that they remind their players—and, indeed, their managers—of the fact that they have all signed up to the fair play charter, and of their responsibilities as role models in our society.
The Minister will know that the values that sport promotes—leadership, teamwork and fair play—are nowhere more important than in under- educated and poor constituencies, where there is often no male role model in the house and where parents and teachers struggle to communicate those values to children. Does he accept that the impact of the antics—cheating, cynical fouling and a lack of sportsmanship—that we see sometimes from a minority of professional footballers, who are role models for those youngsters, runs exactly counter to the efforts that parents and teachers are making? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that professional footballers, managers and chairs live up to their social as well as their sporting responsibilities?
I fully agree. We should remember that there are 40,000 amateur football clubs in this country—football is by far the most widely played sport. We should emphasise respect for referees from players on the local parks right up to the national stadiums. Many of us are fed up with the growing sport of referee bashing played by some managers, who spend most of the post-match interview defending the indefensible actions of their players. Managers should set a better example by accepting their team’s responsibility rather than berating referees, who do a pretty tough job, by and large, in a very fair way. I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend.
To continue the theme of the Minister in acknowledging that the on-pitch behaviour of some players is the responsibility of managers, does he agree that boards of directors and the parasitic behaviour of some agents and others in the game are also involved? Obviously, I exclude Colchester United from those observations. Does he agree that, notwithstanding the elite performance of some premiership clubs, the state of football in this country all the way down to the grass roots is such that it is time we set up a royal commission on the national sport?
I do not think that we need a royal commission; we just need some common sense in the game. In rugby union, rugby league and cricket, do we get the professional players or the managers arguing about the officials in those sports? No, we do not. I thought that it was time to write to the chairmen—the chairpersons, I should say, because I think that there was one lady among them. [Interruption.] If they were all chairmen, I would call them chairmen. On the very point raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), I raised with the managers the issue of bringing back that type of discipline. Without mentioning one or two clubs in the premier league, there are some—
A recent report told us that schoolgirls as young as nine or 10 have given up all playground activity, including football and other games. We are not sure whether that is because of role models and the behaviour that has been mentioned by hon. Members, but the lack of physical activity undertaken by girls of that age should concern us all. Will my right hon. Friend take up the lack of activity at school among girls as young as nine and 10, and see what can be done to increase their activity in games at school?
Very much so. More competitive sport is being played in school than has been played for many years, and football has a role in that. After “Bend It Like Beckham”, in excess of 1 million young girls and women have registered with the Football Association, and football is the fastest growing participation sport for young women, so in that respect it has done a first-class job. I repeat that there is more competitive sport in schools than there has been for many years.