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Sport and Physical Activity

Volume 460: debated on Monday 21 May 2007

4. What recent assessment she has made of levels of participation of girls and young women in sport and physical activity. (137929)

Certainly, more sport is being played generally, but marked inequalities still exist in women’s and girls’ participation and achievement. Through our national physical education and school sport strategy, which is engaging schools and their governing bodies throughout the country, we are working to address that. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me, however, in welcoming Sport England’s £350,000-plus grant to the Wigan community sport network to help boost young women’s participation in sport in the area. I know that her constituents will benefit from that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I understand that physical activity among girls and young women starts falling off at age 10, and then falls off considerably. In my constituency of Worsley, the proportion of all our young people taking part in physical activity is already lower, at one in five, than the national figure of one in three. I am concerned that there is not a healthy level of physical activity among girls and young women in my constituency, because they do not participate. Is there now scope for initiatives targeted at girls to ensure that they understand that sport is fun, and to ensure that they find sport and physical activity as accessible as boys and young men obviously do?

The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes. Several specific initiatives exist not just to engage girls in the conventional school sports, but, for instance, to introduce dance to the school physical education curriculum, with a high level of participation among girls. Such initiatives also take account of girls’ ambivalence about sport if they must wear clothing in which they feel uncomfortable. A range of things must be done to engage girls in such activity. Progress has been shown, but it is still slow, and we want to ensure that inequalities are properly addressed.

The Secretary of State will know that 19 per cent. of women take part regularly in sport, compared with 25 per cent. of men. Does she agree that a good way of correcting that imbalance would be through community leisure centres, such as those in Malmesbury, Wootton Bassett, Calne and Cricklade in my constituency, which were nearly closed by the Liberal Democrat council, until it was swept from power on 5 May? Now that we have a Conservative district council, I very much hope that the centres will be maintained. Does she agree, however, that it would be terrible if the funding of those leisure centres was cut in any way because of the money being transferred to the Olympics?

There was quite a lot of domestic strife in that contribution, so we shall stay well clear of that. I am delighted, however, that more is being done to engage more women in Malmesbury in sport. I am sure that they, too, will share in the Olympic spirit.

Women’s and girls’ football is increasingly rapidly in both popularity and success. Will my right hon. Friend do something to help girls such as Hannah Dale in my constituency? Hannah is a mad-keen footballer and a startlingly good player. Since her 11th birthday last summer, however, Football Association rules have banned her from playing with her local team just because she is a girl.

I commend both my hon. Friend’s and Hannah Dale’s efforts to reverse that old-fashioned regime. It is worth noting that only 1 per cent. of women play football, compared with 13 per cent. of men, but the rate of growth in women playing football is 35 per cent. a year. The inequalities that I referred to in relation to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) also apply in relation to football. Hannah Dale, Minnie Cruttwell and many other promising young women footballers around the country find their careers stalled. When facing the top brass of the FA, they were more powerful advocates than, I suspect, anyone in the Chamber could have been. We hope that the FA will realise the urgency of the issue and the public support for a change in the rules to open up opportunities for Hannah and many other young women like her.

Given that it is now 30 years since Virginia Wade won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon, and that very belatedly indeed the All England Club has recognised the unanswerable ethical case for equal prize money, in what way is the right hon. Lady using her very considerable powers of influence to encourage far more women to take up the game of tennis and to increase access to the sport for girls at state schools, and thereby perhaps to maximise the chance that before too long we might have another ladies’ Wimbledon winner?

Those of us on this side of the House would find very little difficulty in disagreeing with anything that the hon. Gentleman says sitting on that side of the House. The fact that a very substantial number of school sports colleges now offer tennis is one of the best ways of getting young people from state schools to play those sports—tennis, rugby, rowing, sailing and so forth—that for too long have been limited, or overly-limited, to young people from private schools. Opening up opportunity is how we get more champions.