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Women’s and Girls’ Football

Volume 468: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2007

I begin by thanking all those who continue to make women’s and girls’ football the fastest growing sport in the United Kingdom. They are the unsung heroes—the volunteer coaches, referees and administrators—without whose dedication the beautiful game would not be successful. This was brought out effectively by the report last year by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which shone a welcome spotlight on the world of women’s football.

The 14 recommendations at the end of the report solicited responses from both the Government and the English Football Association which, if fully implemented, would maintain the growth and the health of women’s football in this country. It is worth reminding ourselves what has happened in women’s football in just over a decade. It was only in 1993 that the Football Association had the vision to bring women’s football into the football family. Before that, it was out in the cold. There were only 80 girls’ teams in England in 1993, but a decade later, in 2004-05, that had grown to about 8,000 teams. It shows that, with a little bit of organisation, the appetite was there. Those teams played in the affiliated competitions organised by the governing body. Just under 2 million young women and girls play recreational or informal football.

We must understand that football, as our national game, brings young people, including some from inner-city areas, into sport. Through the window of football, they can go on to play other sports. It is very important that those young people, who are sometimes at the bottom of the economic ladder, should be able to find their way back into society through the world of sport. There is no better sport than football to achieve that. It is a huge sport across the nation, with 45,000 football clubs. The impact of football, including women’s and girls’ football, on our social infrastructure is not to be underestimated, and the impact on elite sports, too, in the past decade is remarkable.

I am sorry to say that the professional side of the beautiful game, with one or two exceptions, has not lived up to the expectations raised by the Select Committee in the 10th recommendation of its report. That is disappointing. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) will raise those issues later, if she catches your eye, Mr Bayley. Even now, I hope that the Football League and the premier league, along with the English Football Association, which has done a good job with women’s football—I think that women footballers recognise that—will revisit the policy on women’s football.

Money is not a problem in the national game. The TV and sponsorship deals by the Football League and the premier league in the recent past are some of the biggest in their history. It is interesting that Tesco is forming, or trying to form, a women’s premier league with the FA, and I wish them success. I hope that that lead is followed by both the Football League and the premier league, as it is important. I recommend that the professional game look at what Tesco is doing. I spoke to my hon. Friend the Minister—he is a big friend of mine: he, too, has a Yorkshire seat and came into politics through the same route as me—who shares my feelings about the matter. I hope that when he meets the Football League and the premier league he raises with them the question of corporate and social responsibility. It is in their enlightened self-interest as football clubs to pay more attention to the growing fan base for women’s football. Indeed, they should do so, even for what one might call rather mercenary reasons.

My niece was first inspired to play football after watching Sheffield Wednesday play at Hillsborough. However, she cannot regularly indulge in that practice because of the cost of the tickets. Does my right hon. Friend think that the cost of going to watch professional football teams is a barrier to engaging young women and girls in football?

That is partly true. I think that my hon. Friend’s niece ought to be paid by Sheffield Wednesday to watch the team, although that is another issue. I will receive another tirade of abuse from the Wednesdayites in Sheffield for saying so. Many professional clubs are now seeking a junior audience, and they offer family tickets. Many of them are genuinely trying to make sure that they attract a younger fan base than they have in the recent past.

Does my right hon. friend agree that the issue is not only about attending football matches, but about the coverage that women’s sport receives in the media? Compared with other parts of Europe, only about 5 per cent. of television or written media in this country covers women’s sport. Without those role models, it is almost impossible for people to follow through. Will the Minister look at ways to bring the promotion of women’s sport into the media?

I shall come on to that later in my contribution. In spite of the professional game not doing as much as it ought to have done for women’s football, the team has performed brilliantly on the world stage. It qualified for this year’s World cup in China, and went on to reach the quarter finals of the competition. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), who is a great rugby league fan—[Interruption.] Good grief, what heresy—I should have said that he is a great rugby union fan. However, he will be interested to know that when the US played England in the women’s World cup, the audience of 1.8 million was greater than that commanded by the England rugby union football team when it played later the same day. That just shows the audience that women’s football can command when it is shown on terrestrial television such as the BBC. The coverage that it receives in the media, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) has just referred, ought result in more column inches, particularly as we have a national side of whom we can all be proud.

By qualifying for the World cup in China, that women’s side also qualified Great Britain for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Let us remind ourselves of the recommendations that the Select Committee presented to the House. In its 13th recommendation, it said that we ought to look very seriously within the football world at our ability to present teams at the Olympics. The Committee was talking about 2012, as I do not think anybody believed that the women’s team would qualify for 2008. However, it did so, and thus the same principle applies. The English FA, along with the Government, supported the Select Committee’s recommendation that we should stage GB teams for both males and females in 2012, and indeed in 2008. As I said, we have qualified for the 2008 Olympics.

When I arrived in China a few weeks ago to attend the women’s World cup as the Prime Minister’s ambassador for the 2018 World cup, I attended the semi-final in the Dragon stadium at Hangzhou. I met Hope Powell, head coach of the England women’s national football team, who was capped 66 times for representing her nation, including as vice-captain. She was very disappointed; indeed, she was annoyed. Hope went on to tell me that even though the team had qualified, it would not be allowed to represent its country, because the four football associations of England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland could not agree, so the girls, as one can well imagine, felt very let down. They had taken their nation to the football World cup, and in the process had qualified for the 2008 Olympics, but they had been let down by the Football Association.

Representations were made, as all the football powers were there, including FIFA, because it was the FIFA World cup for women. At half-time in the women’s final, Simon Johnson of the Football Association and I met FIFA’s general secretary, Jerome Valcke, who agreed that if the four football associations agreed to badge us as a GB team—whether its members were from England, or were a mix of players from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—FIFA would allow that, because the decision was entirely up to our nation. I spoke to Simon Clegg of the British Olympic Association only yesterday about the issue, and he, too, is annoyed that, although we have qualified to send a team to Beijing, we have been denied the opportunity to do so.

There was agreement all round to ask the football associations, on their return from China, to come to an agreement to allow those athletes to compete. After we had seen FIFA’s general secretary, Simon Johnson, Hope Powell and I had a chat in the hotel with Alan McRae, the second vice-president of the Scottish FA, and Howard Wells, the general secretary of the FA in Northern Ireland. On that evening, I felt fairly confident that we would reach an agreement, but it was not to be. A conference call took place between the officers of the four football associations, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but they said no, without even giving a reason for their stance, or any encouragement that the issue should even be debated.

That decision has denied their athletes and players the right to perform on one of sport’s most coveted stages—the Olympic games. Hope said to me that, on that 2008 stage in Beijing, with a fair wind and with a little bit of luck, we could have been in the medal count. That would have a tremendous impact on sport in this country. Even playing in the Olympics would have had a tremendous effect; if the team reached the final, there would be a profound effect, not just on women’s football, but on women’s sport in this country, which would provide the biggest boost to women’s football that it has ever had.

Those blazers, however, have made a decision for our nation, our women’s footballers and our beautiful game. Thanks to their decision, we now have the debacle of Sweden playing Denmark for our place in Beijing in 2008. We are the laughing stock of women’s sport throughout the world. Our women qualified for the World cup and for Beijing, but then some blazers sat down together and, without giving a reason or engaging in any debate, have denied those athletes, whom they purport to represent, the greatest stage that they could ever have: the 2008 Olympic games. It is a national scandal that our athletes should be denied the right to perform on the international stage. Those athletes have been denied the chance of a lifetime by the blazer brigade, who are protecting their own self-interest.

Other sports and teams will perform on that stage in 2008. The partially-sighted team will play football in Beijing, as will the disability football team, but not the women’s football associations’ team. That ought to be questioned. All sports-loving organisations should ask those football associations why they made that decision. Every women’s organisation ought to write demanding why they denied the greatest lift to women’s sport that we could have had in this country. That question should even be asked by the media—back-page writers and sports writers ought to ask why we have denied those people the opportunity to perform on the greatest stage in sport at the Olympic games. We have to ask those questions, just as the Select Committee did. My hon. Friend the Minister has been at the forefront of the campaign to get the football associations to change their minds, but without success. Unfortunately, I accept that it is too late for our team in 2008, but I believe it necessary for us to raise this issue. It is right for the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister and others to do so, because it is one of the biggest disgraces for women’s sport that we have seen for many years.

May I put on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) for being such an able champion, not just of women’s football, but of our national team, by whose achievements we were all so impressed? Those achievements were the result of tremendous efforts on the part of the team and of a small and honourable number of supporters. We members of the Select Committee that prepared the report brought before the House were pleased to see that the Football Foundation has joined that group of active supporters by changing the way that it makes grants for community support across the country, ensuring that there are pathways for girls into sport.

Some very laudable changes have been made, but we have to see many more. All too many girls—who are incredibly enthusiastic about football and really love the sport and want to achieve personally—constantly find completely unnecessary barriers in their way. Girls cannot get access to teams, because there are so few teams playing in organised sport that they cannot get a proper set of games together; they find that they are not allowed to play until Sunday night, when the fields have all been mashed up; and, at school, there might be boys’ teams, but there are not girls’ teams.

People do not seem to realise that more than 1 million girls play organised football in the UK. It is the fastest-growing sport for girls and the best way out of obesity, but it also lets girls achieve, just as boys can, and do things that they really enjoy and are good at. They can participate and learn the other life skills that people who play football learn.

Like my right hon. Friend, I think that it is absolutely appalling that we are letting down our national team. We must take action to ensure that we give a consistent message of support to our players. We are their supporters, and we must ensure that they do not have barriers put in their way and that they can achieve for themselves and for us.

It is good, Mr. Bayley, to welcome you to the Chair again—we met here earlier this morning. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) not only on securing the debate but on all that he did for sport in his time as Sports Minister. I know that even before then, sport was a great interest of his. As he rightly said, we have been involved in similar things for many years, and sport is a passion for both of us. I thank him for all the support that he has given me in my role as Minister with responsibility for sport.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has brought a strong team with him today: my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) and for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth), who sits on the taskforce on women’s football. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) is sitting behind me offering support and assistance. I know that he is a passionate supporter of sport in all forms.

I offer my strongest support for the points that my right hon. Friend has made and the way in which he has made them. What has happened to the England women’s football team is a scandal. As the Minister with responsibility for sport, I have been struck by the passion and commitment that sport can inspire, and never more so than in the case of women’s football. Since my appointment to the post, the work of the women’s game has been one of the greatest matters of pride, but also the greatest concern to me, because of where it fits in the beautiful game, as my right hon. Friend has said. There is a dichotomy in the success of the national team and the frustration of their being taken out of the 2008 Olympics, at which they would have had the opportunity to play on the world’s greatest stage.

We are at a crucial stage for the future of women’s football. As my right hon. Friend has said, women’s football is the number one female participation sport in England, with more players competing in affiliated competitions than in any other team sport. In the past seven years, there has been a 227 per cent. increase in the number of female football teams and a 165 per cent. increase in the number of players. However, there are real and clear challenges ahead. How do we capitalise on the fastest-growing participation sport in the country? How do we harness the talent and commitment of women players and provide the support and infrastructure to allow our players to compete at the highest international levels?

Before my hon. Friend moves on from that point, I want to mention that, as he knows, Loughborough plays a key role in preparing the women’s team. Does he believe that the blazers, as we call them—quite rightly—understand even one iota the amount of dedication that the young women involved put in to train to be top-level athletes? Does he agree that it seems ridiculous that all the effort that he has talked about has been thrown away by a ridiculous decision?

I agree and, as my hon. Friend knows, I was happy to visit Loughborough and see the wonderful facilities that are available for all sports. I share his compassion for the women who have been denied that opportunity, which will never arise again for some of them—hopefully, it will arise again for some of them in 2012, but it will not arise for others. The players have shown commitment and enthusiasm in difficult circumstances. Many of the women players have child care responsibilities and had to deal with extra commitment at work just to get to the World cup.

We have a massive opportunity in front of us, and I fully intend to ensure that we do not miss it. Although we criticise the blazers, we have a strong and positive base. Nobody can deny the huge strides that have been made in the past 10 years, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central has said, and I applaud the FA for its ongoing commitment to the game, but we want a lot more, a lot faster. We saw England reach the quarter finals of the World cup, holding the eventual winners, Germany, on their way, and being the only team to do so and to prevent the Germans from scoring. Like my right hon. Friend, I was interested to see that more people watched that game—1.8 million people in total—than the England versus Samoa rugby world cup match, which was happening at the same time. England are now ranked 10th in the world and have won all three of their opening qualifying games for Euro 2009. Arsenal—unfortunately, or fortunately—have continued their dominance of the women’s domestic game, winning the FA cup in front of a record crowd of more than 24,000 at Nottingham Forest, with a further 2.1 million people watching at home. Perhaps more significantly, it also became the first British club to win the UEFA cup.

We are seeing great strides in the elite aspect of our game, and I am delighted that that success is being transposed to the grass-roots level. I have already mentioned that we have seen a huge rise in the number of women involved in football: the “Active People” survey in 2006 highlighted that 250,000 women and 1.1 million girls play some form of football. We have also seen a rise in the profile of the sport, with a recent FA survey indicating that 5 per cent. of the adult population in England claim to follow the women’s game.

Campaigns such as the FA’s “Girls United” initiative have sought to build on that base, using England’s participation in the World cup to increase participation and improve the perception of the game among the nine to 11 age group. The site received more than 25,000 hits during the World cup. My right hon. Friend has mentioned a new and welcome partnership between the FA, Tesco and the national sports foundation, launched in October. It will deliver more than £1 million of investment directly to the game at county level and support the invaluable army of volunteers who continue to allow the game to thrive at that level.

The FA Tesco skills programme has been rolled out across 12 counties, attracting 50,000 participants in the first two months, 23 per cent. of whom were girls. We have also seen the first Tesco skills centre for girls, which feeds the FA’s Colchester centre of excellence. The FA has begun to focus its attention on youth development, with a restructuring of the 52 girl’s centres of excellence and an increase of funding and support to deliver twice-weekly quality coaching and localised fixture programmes in every region for the first time.

Women’s and girl’s football development officers are in place in every county, and we have more than 13,000 coaches, all aiming to emulate the incredible achievements of Hope Powell, England’s head coach for 10 years and the only woman in the UK with a UEFA pro licence. My right hon. Friend and I know her personally, and her dedication is unsurpassed. She was delighted by the success of the team.

Hope could not be here today, because she is in South Africa coaching youngsters in Cape Town. I have consulted her on a wide variety of issues, and the fact that she is in demand internationally as well as nationally shows her quality.

I congratulate and applaud Hope on her work as a coach.

All the initiatives are to be welcomed and applauded, but are they enough? I, like my right hon. and hon. Friends, am clear that they are not. The achievements, particularly of our teams performing at the highest level, have come against the odds and against expectation, so we must ensure that we move forward with the game. The two incidents that sum up my frustration are those that my right hon. Friend has mentioned.

First, our women’s team will not be able to compete at the Olympics in 2008. My right hon. Friend said that they won their place on merit and that the situation was not fixed in any way. It is sad that the home nations could not even offer an explanation why they would not allow them to compete on behalf of Great Britain. An explanation is important to us, because we want to ensure that we understand the reasons. As my right hon. Friend has said, we understand that FIFA made assurances about the independence of the home nations in the wider football world, so the decision is appalling.

I shall pursue the questions that my right hon. Friend has asked. He is right to say that everybody should do so, because we do not want the same thing to happen in 2012. We want to ensure that when London hosts those games, men’s and women’s football teams represent Great Britain. My right hon. Friend is right. Despite the best efforts of us all, including him and the Government, we tried to resolve the issue, but we were frustrated by off-pitch issues.

We were happy to give the team a drinks reception at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in order to honour its achievements. We talked to the players about their payments during the World cup, and my second frustration is with the reported £40 a day they received, which does not constitute a sufficient or proportionate return. The players are realistic about the current status and financial position of the game and have not called for payments equal to those of their male colleagues—perhaps it is to be hoped that one day they will. Instead, their arguments focused on the impact that that level of remuneration has on the game more widely. The majority of players took unpaid leave to take part in the World cup, which meant that they lost wages and have to recoup their working hours, which in turn severely limits the hours that they can train for club or country.

I have said that Arsenal have been successful in the European cup, but they were recently knocked out. The coach puts that down to the fact that the players had to recoup their earnings owing to the time that they spent away for the World cup. Effects can be seen on the pitch, too, and both Hope and Arsenal have reported a noticeable impact on the fitness of, and injuries to, players. That is not acceptable, but it encapsulates the problems facing the game.

Current success, therefore, comes in spite of the structure, rather than as a result of it, which for me is where the real challenge lies. As my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough has said, no one can question the dedication and commitment of our players, or of the millions of women and girls who participate every year. However, what more could have been achieved with greater resources and support? How can we build upon our success and progress in order to take the game to the next level and to ensure excellence at all levels? We need a sustained approach to the domestic league game, which will hopefully become fully professional, so that role models can be provided to girls and women who want to play.

The women’s game is an example of what the DCMS is trying to achieve in sport. We want to ensure that we touch those who do not see sport as a route out from the situations exemplified by my hon. Friends. The women’s game has shown that it can provide such a route. I was pleased to speak with Brian Barwick last week, who shares our view that a commitment to women’s football is needed. I was delighted to hear that the FA intends to back those welcome sentiments with positive and timely action.

The women’s game is gaining increased corporate recognition within the FA and has an extra representative on the FA council. Its revised national game strategy has set stretching targets for the women’s game aiming for a 15 per cent. increase in women’s teams, a 50 per cent. increase in girl’s teams and 100 new female disability teams by 2012. However, we need to go further and quicker. The FA’s review of the women’s premier league will consider how it can become more competitive and how that, in turn, can contribute to the England team’s future success.

The review will also consider how we can create a more sustainable professional model, seeking greater investment from established men’s clubs as well as wider funding options to allow the women’s game to stand apart from the men’s game. The recently-established, highly-successful partnership between Leeds United Ladies and Leeds metropolitan university is a key model that I hope to visit early in the new year. The important point is that we do not want the women’s game to be just a mirror of the premier league or Football League, but to evolve independently and to be sustainable, so that we avoid incidents such as the Charlton incident—when Charlton were relegated, the women’s team were the first casualty.

Another key element of the FA’s work is the ongoing assessment of mixed football. The FA is conducting a season-long trial allowing over-11s to play in mixed teams. We shall await the outcomes of this trial before considering further rule changes.

Finally, the FA is committed to reviewing the resources provided for the England senior women’s team as part of the FA’s strategy review, which is due to be published early in 2008. I also welcome the work of the Professional Footballer’s Association, which has given membership to female footballers in order to support them in the national team and to encourage the women’s game more generally.

This has been a timely debate and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central for raising it. A lot more work needs to be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South is on the taskforce and I know that she will keep the pressure on to ensure that we deliver what we want to achieve. I thank hon. Members who participated in today’s debate. We look forward to successful women’s football at all levels.

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.