Skip to main content


Volume 538: debated on Wednesday 18 January 2012

I am delighted to be here and to see the Sports Minister, who will respond. I am pleased to have secured the debate and to welcome my hon. Friends—we are all friends when it comes to tennis. I am secretary of the all-party group on tennis, or as it is more commonly known, the Lords and Commons tennis club. The most enjoyable part of holding that position is getting to play.

Tennis is a sport open to all. It is played by children, as soon as they can hold the racket, through to the older generation to maintain agility, balance, flexibility and strength. It can be enjoyed by two people competing for victory or by groups and families for leisure. It is flexible and fun. Unfortunately, despite all those positive attributes, the country suffers from low participation. Sport England’s Active People survey shows that tennis participation has fallen to 402,000 regular players—way short of the 550,000 target for September 2011. Shockingly, the number of tennis courts has declined in the past 10 years from 33,000 to only 10,000.

Research shows that the public are keen to play more tennis. According to a ComRes survey carried out on behalf of Tennis for Free in September 2011, nearly half the people surveyed would be more likely to play tennis if facilities were free to use. It also found that 69% of people think that local facilities should be free and a massive 84% believe that they need to be more accessible. The serious lack of interest in the grass-roots level is a missed opportunity. Getting more Britons inspired by and involved in sports was a pledge that helped London to secure the 2012 Olympic games, but that cannot happen unless we invest in small organisations that promote grass-roots sports.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Is she aware that Leamington Spa is home to the first lawn tennis club, established in 1872, which was three years before Wimbledon? In the Olympic year, could we not make an effort to ensure that we improve young people’s understanding of the history of tennis, so that the legacy is not concentrated only in London?

As an MP representing a constituency even further away from London than the hon. Gentleman’s, I am obviously keen for the legacy of the games to be felt throughout the country. I have spent time in Leamington Spa, but I was unaware of its history, so I am delighted to have been educated. Let us get kids out playing and then teach them the history, but I welcome his intervention.

In 1997, when the Labour Government came to power, school sports were poorly funded and communities relied on badly funded local authority provision and voluntary clubs. The Labour Government set out to create a proper structure to encourage greater participation, which included the Youth Sport Trust, for schools and youth clubs; Sport England, for community support through national governing bodies; and UK Sport, for elite sport throughout England.

In December 2008, Sport England announced a £480 million investment to provide grass-roots sporting opportunities and a lasting Olympic legacy of 1 million people playing more sport. It awarded sports funding based on their expected ability to increase the number of people playing sport and to ensure that young, talented players could be identified and supported to develop their skills.

Through the four-year whole sport plan, tennis received a block grant of nearly £27 million for 2009-13—the fourth largest grant given to any sport—from Sport England. That money is channelled through the sport’s national governing body, the Lawn Tennis Association. It was originally built on a club structure, but there has been a shift to include more local authority-run parks and school sites. Almost 200 park sites, which offer affordable tennis, are accredited as beacons and the LTA also invested £200,000 in revenue funding last year to support free and affordable activities. Sport England targets tennis funding at three areas, for which it uses the terms: grow, sustain and excel. For those of us who do not like such short descriptions, they mean increasing the number of people playing tennis, sustaining their number through measuring existing participants’ satisfaction and helping young, talented players to progress and excel.

At Glenburn sports college in Skelmersdale, the LTA has invested in developing high-quality tennis courts. It is a new town that has existed for only 50 years, so it does not have the great history that the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) mentioned and had no tennis provision in a town of 40,000 people. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to ensure that the opportunity to get involved in tennis should be widely accessible, especially in communities such as Skelmersdale that did not have a tennis court? You never know, we may discover stars.

I am delighted to predict that a future Wimbledon champion will no doubt come from my hon. Friend’s constituency. She makes the point extremely well—that is exactly what needs to happen.

The LTA has undertaken significant work in the past 18 months to accelerate growth in participation in park tennis sites, schools and through its “allplay” campaign, launched in summer 2011 to help more people play tennis. The campaign includes a free website to help people to find someone to play against, a local place to play tennis, of which there are about 20,000, and coaching to help people to improve. For future projects, the LTA has invested or committed £19.9 million in total to 159 projects or facilities since 2008. Over £11 million of that comes from Sport England’s whole sport plan funding, with the LTA funding the remainder directly. That will result in 32 new indoor courts, 109 new outdoor courts, nearly 300 resurfaced or reconstructed courts and 294 courts floodlit across England. The LTA investment rightly reaches beyond traditional clubs— £7.9 million has gone into community facilities, such as parks and education sites, and no doubt that includes my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in commending the LTA for investing in one of the most deprived wards in my constituency with a fantastic indoor tennis court at Churchill community college—a very visible site that has been well used by the community. It was done in partnership with the council and is a fantastic example of an investment that will make a difference to the lives of young people in North Tyneside.

I welcome that; such work is important, but it still has not achieved the participation that it should. The barriers to more people playing tennis must be addressed.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Sport is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and although we are talking about England, I want to add to the debate an example of what has been done there. The Ulster branch of Tennis Ireland’s initiative over a weekend last summer introduced 508 people to tennis with the support of councils, tennis clubs and private enterprise—Asda’s sporting chance programme sponsored it. That is an example of how, with promotion and encouragement, we can get more people involved and other people to help.

It is good to hear about that, because we must address the barriers to more people playing tennis.

I am sceptical that the LTA can achieve the surge in participation that we are all talking about and all want. In my experience, lasting involvement is often achieved by local people coming together and deciding to do something, by people getting involved for not just two weeks, during Wimbledon or when something is first there, and doing something that continues and enables people to take up a sport, which, as I said earlier, they can keep on playing well into their 60s, 70s and even 80s. For instance, a group of parents might want to do something for their children, or a group of women might want to get together and get active, while having fun. What prevents people from seeing tennis as the way to do that is the lack of courts and equipment, and probably most difficult to overcome is the sense that tennis is a sport for better-off people, with too many children and adults seeing it as elitist and not for them.

An organisation that has set out to change things is Tennis for Free, which starts from a simple point of view. If children want to play football, they get their ball, find a patch of grass, put down a couple of jumpers and start playing. It costs them nothing. Charging to use tennis courts has helped the decline in participation, by making tennis too expensive for many people to play, and councils need someone collect the money. The result across the country has been poor-quality tennis courts that become underused and fall into disrepair.

Tennis for Free works with schools, tennis clubs and local authorities. It uses public park court facilities to create tennis communities. It provides free equipment and a free two-year coaching programme, run by qualified coaches and available to young people and adults of all ages, standards and abilities.

I declare an interest as vice-chairman of the all-party group on tennis. I am, however, a very poor player, unlike the hon. Lady, whose skills are renowned throughout the Palace of Westminster.

Indeed. I should like to put on record my thanks to Mr Speaker for his active support of tennis and of Tennis for Free in particular. Given the huge amount of money going into tennis generally, from the Exchequer and the lottery, does the hon. Lady accept that a future Wimbledon champion—junior or senior, male or female—is as likely to come from the Tennis for Free courts as from private courts or those where an entry fee is charged?

As the hon. Gentleman is probably aware, my view is that talent is certainly likely to be spread equally across the whole population. However, it is not just about getting the person who is going to do well and represent the country, but about getting everyone else involved, too.

With Tennis for Free, we are seeing a way of opening tennis to even more people, by providing free equipment and a free two-year coaching programme and, at the end of the two years, a friends community group is created to provide a free coaching programme with the same inclusive and welcoming ethos. Such community-based techniques have been shown to work. Tennis for Free’s approach offers value for money and is, importantly, sustainable. It has had more than 16,000 attendees at its coaching events over the past year and is now embarking on a programme of renewing and renovating courts. It has also targeted low-income groups, thus ensuring that the schemes are promoted to families in areas of high deprivation, to spread greater provision to where there have traditionally been no tennis courts. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) described the importance of that.

A vital part of Tennis for Free’s activity is persuading local councils to make access to tennis courts free of charge. That improves value for money, because the maintenance budget is helped by the fact that well-used courts are less likely to become overgrown and vandalised. There are now more than 2,600 free park courts in the UK, up from just 700 in 2005—a real achievement for a small organisation. The approach matches public need. The ComRes survey found that a third of people would be more likely to play tennis if courts were open for longer, were in better condition and offered free coaching. The great thing about the approach is that it is relatively cheap to set up; provided that it is done in partnership, a two-year coaching programme costs about £15,000. Tennis for Free’s success shows us that there is potential in grass-roots activity.

Investment in tennis is crucial. The coalition Government have announced a new youth sport strategy, to invest £1 billion of lottery and Exchequer funding in partnership with Sport England to ensure that more young people regularly play sport and will continue to do so into adult life. The funding is dependent on a performance management regime, whereby national governing bodies must demonstrate local impact to avoid the funds being withdrawn. So far, public funding for tennis has not produced the growth in participation that could have been achieved, but this is our opportunity to get it right, and the 2013-2017 plans for each national governing body are being developed over the next few months.

A vision for developing grass-roots tennis has been set out in the charter for tennis. It includes enabling wider participation, so resources spent on tennis must be focused on grass-roots development. Sport England funding from 2013 should be channelled to organisations dedicated to grass-roots development and allocated on the principles of transparency, accountability and value for money. By concentrating on grass-roots tennis and getting more people playing, we increase the number of people who find it an enjoyable and worthwhile activity in its own right. Will the Minister therefore consider guaranteeing that a proportion of tennis’s future funding goes directly to grass-roots organisations such as Tennis for Free, rather than being channelled through only the national governing body?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on securing this debate, and I thank Members for their many contributions during her speech. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: tennis is a game enjoyed by many millions of people in this country. Absolutely central to our plans for the Olympics, and beyond, is to get people to focus on tennis for not just two weeks at the end of June and the beginning of July.

We want to ensure that tennis is played by as many people as possible, for as much of the year as possible, and I was very encouraged to see in a recent survey that tennis was highlighted as a sport that many more people wanted to play. Interestingly enough, although everyone concentrates on those at school and in their early 20s, tennis was seen in the survey as an incredibly popular sport among those who want to play it later in life; so although people are rightly enthusiastic about getting more young people playing, it is also important to remember that fact.

I thought I would first quickly give the hon. Lady a bit of background, talk about the opportunity, which she rightly highlighted, offered through the new sport strategy, and then address the issues she raised about Tennis for Free. She is absolutely right that by 2013, Sport England will have invested more than £26 million of public money in the Lawn Tennis Association, much of which is driven by lottery receipts. The hon. Lady mentioned that when she talked about increased investment in sport. Sport now gets 20% of the lottery take, up from 13.7%, and lottery receipts are rising, so more lottery money is available for sport than ever before.

The hon. Lady made her points very fairly and did not line the LTA up directly in the shooting gallery; nor should she—the contributions of many other Members have shown what the organisation has achieved. It is important for a Government, and indeed for Sport England, to have just one point of contact in any sport. When I took over the role of shadow Minister for Sport, someone told me that golf has 19 representative bodies in this country. It is important to have one body in overall charge, and clearly that should be the sport’s national governing body. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this argument, the LTA has, as Members have pointed out, worked hard to bring more tennis into schools through the AEGON partnership and the new allplay scheme it has just launched, and wheelchair tennis is one of the fastest-growing disabled sports in the country. The LTA deserves enormous credit for all that.

The hon. Lady mentioned the youth sport strategy. She is absolutely right—there is nothing party political about it—that lottery funding has injected a considerable amount of cash into sport for the best part of 15 years, which has transformed funding for both Olympic and community sports. To be honest, it is deeply shaming that over those 15 years, the number of people playing sport—the problem is not confined to tennis—has flatlined or gone down. There are a number of reasons for that. First, the target of 1 million was, to say it in the nicest possible way, what a target of 1 million sounds like: plucked off the wall as a nice round number. It was not gained by burrowing deep into sports, finding out what they could deliver and coming to a target.

The second problem is that the measurement is now generally regarded as faulty. Active People uses the measurement of three separate sessions of half an hour’s exercise a week, a direct lift from the old health model. The perfectly sensible idea was to streamline all this, but it is extremely difficult for most people to manage three separate sessions of half an hour’s sport. The problem was brought home to me by England Hockey, which produced the example of a young hockey player, playing in the top levels of the southern leagues, who trained on a Tuesday night and played league hockey on a Saturday, but who failed the Sport England measure because they were not doing three separate sessions of sport.

That problem was compounded by the fact that the survey is collected solely through fixed telephone lines. As hon. Members will know, hardly any young person in this country operates on a fixed telephone line any more; everybody uses mobile communications, social media and the rest. As the Minister, I have suffered the ridiculous situation of calling in sport governing bodies such as the LTA to explain why their figures are falling and being told, “Actually, our figures show that the number of people playing is rising, but the survey is not picking them up.” In my 18 months as Minister, I have found that the single most frustrating thing. Using a survey that measures more accurately what is happening is key.

The third issue involves how sport governing bodies—the LTA is not exempt from this criticism—went into the whole sport plan process. It was a good idea of James Purnell, as Secretary of State, to empower governing bodies to drive up participation, but some saw it as a means to drive the commercial model. They would get more people interested in a sport, and then those people would pay money to watch the pros play. That is different from influencing consumer behaviour and driving the societal change we need if we are to get more people to playing sport.

I appreciate what the Minister says about the difficulty of counting how many people are playing, but one thing we can count is the number of courts. From my constituency and others, we know that some areas have no courts and that many courts are in disrepair. That is important and must be addressed.

The hon. Lady is absolutely correct, as she has been in much of what she has said. Having given her a bit of background, I will move to the youth sport strategy.

The strategy was announced a week ago. Instead of continuing with the old strategy and its flatlining figures, we will encourage sport governing bodies to concentrate much more effectively and in a more focused way on the 14 to 25 age group, in the hope that if we can get people out of school and into community clubs playing much more sport, there is a much better chance, because sport has been established as part of their daily lives, that they will keep playing later. We will not demand that all sports focus exclusively on that age group, but we definitely want a renewed focus on it.

As part of that, voluntary groups and sports clubs will have the chance to access a £50 million pot to help ensure that the widest range of sporting opportunities are available to that age group. That is exactly the sort of pot that such schemes ought to pitch into. Alongside that sits the 2012 legacy scheme Places People Play, which will provide £135 million in funding, the majority of which will be targeted at small facility improvement through grants of less than £50,000. It strikes me that a great many tennis facilities would benefit from precisely that sort of funding.

I am glad to say that the scheme has proved far more popular than we ever thought. The first round was dramatically oversubscribed. The funding extends right across the piece, from fixing boilers and doing up changing rooms to repairing holes in roofs. Those are the sorts of thing for which small clubs find it difficult to raise money, but they are essential to increasing the number of people playing sport. Sport England will do a series of subsequent rounds of the programme. I encourage everyone here to get their local tennis facilities to apply for the fund. There are two streams. One, at the top, is Iconic Facilities. If Members have a big sports club in their constituency to which a lot needs doing—many of them will have tennis facilities—it can apply for funding. The other stream is Inspired Facilities: a sub-£50,000 pot to cover exactly this issue.

On Tennis for Free, I must be a bit careful. It is absolutely my job as Minister to set the overall strategy and then hold sport governing bodies, in particular, to account for how they spend their money. Over the past year, participation figures for a number of sport governing bodies—I will not name and shame them publicly—have tailed off. In some instances, we have removed funding from bodies that have failed. The new youth sport strategy will give payment by results. If we find that some sports are doing well, they will get more money. Those sports that just continue in the same old way and do not increase numbers will have their funding taken away.

However, it would be going further than a Minister should to delve into a sport and instruct the sport governing body exactly how to allocate its funds. I hold governing bodies to account for what they are doing across the piece, but I do not tell them to fund individual organisations. There is also a secondary point. The part of the whole sport plan into which I suspect Tennis for Free will fall is lottery funding, not Exchequer funding, so it is illegal under additionality rules for me to tell the LTA how to spend its funds. That said, I am keen for the LTA to work much more closely with Tennis for Free, which is an interesting and innovative scheme. I hope, as does the hon. Lady, that it will succeed. Clearly, it must prove that it can, but I suspect it will have an important part to play in the mix for achieving her aims.

The most constructive thing that I can do as a result of this debate is to give the hon. Lady an undertaking that I will write personally to the chief executive of the LTA asking him to meet Tennis for Free to bottom out exactly what can be done and what issues remain, and to write back to me. I will then copy that reply to her, so we can be sure that something will come of this debate.

Can I press the Minister slightly? I accept entirely what he said about his overall strategic role, but can he also give direction to governing bodies across the piece on ensuring work and partnership with grass-roots organisations?

Absolutely. That is part of the whole sport plan process. My instinct is that that principle is probably there already. The whole sport plan, as it works at the moment, has not changed at all since the last Government were in office. A better way of answering that might simply be to say that sport governing bodies have a fair degree of autonomy to drive up participation in any way they see fit, as long as they get more people playing.

Clearly, it is a new idea. If we are investing public money, either through the lottery fund or the Exchequer, we need to ensure that it gives value for money and works. I encourage Tennis for Free and the LTA to work together more closely. I will broker that meeting and monitor what happens.

Finally, such relationships are important. In some sports, they work well; in others, they work less well, and tennis might be one of them. The important thing is that both sides take an open and constructive approach. I leave the hon. Lady with this thought. It does not help if organisations trying to get funding from sport governing bodies are permanently hammering them in the press. That produces a siege mentality that I suggest might be part of the problem.

Sitting suspended.