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Grassroots Football

Volume 578: debated on Tuesday 1 April 2014

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the Speaker for granting this important debate, because grassroots football is in crisis.

The Football Association is about to lose £1.6 million of public funding for the amateur game in England, after it failed to reverse a sharp decline in the number of people regularly playing football. Sport England says that that is a clear message that football must change its grassroots strategy. The FA has called the funding reduction disappointing. Frankly, it should be more than disappointed; it should feel ashamed, because if it is failing the grassroots game, it is failing the game itself and everything that the FA should stand for.

Of course, it is not all the fault of the FA. Local authorities own 80% of pitches, and local government funding has been cut by 40% over this Parliament, with councils having to reduce their budgets by £20 billion by 2015-16. Local councils have tough decisions to make, and when faced with sacrificing investment in sport in order to protect vulnerable children and adults, they will inevitably—albeit reluctantly—opt for what they see as shielding the weak and defenceless.

The lack of local authority investment in football is bad enough, but many authorities feel that they will have to increase fees dramatically, which will inevitably discourage participation in the game. One midlands council has proposed increasing the price of pitch hire for junior football next season from £382 to £1,613—that is a 323% rise. What with poor pitches, weeks of play lost to bad weather, no changing facilities, no showers, increasing pitch fees, poor families priced out and other families deterred by the shoddy conditions, participation is unsurprisingly falling.

According to Sport England, 1.84 million people play football regularly—a fall of 100,000 since April last year. More than 2 million people played regularly in 200. We are witnessing a long-term decline. What was once a working-class game is steadily becoming a game that can be afforded only by those children with better-off parents. It is already difficult enough to drag our kids off the couch, away from the Xbox and into the car in order to play proper football in the open air, but for a child with poor parents who cannot afford the fees, let alone the kit and the football boots, and who do not have a car, the prospect looks even bleaker. Often, such children will be denied the opportunity to play.

I met a married couple in Horwich in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) who do a fantastic job running a league and a team of their own. Those people are the absolute salt of the British earth, because without them the game would flounder and die. They are not unusual in being expected to pay for their training courses, and they frequently put their own money into the sport because they know in their hearts how much good they do. They told me that they had started a boot club, because one of their players turned up in wellingtons as his football boots had become too small. They now collect boots from children who have grown out of them and pass them on to others.

I do not know about other Members present, but I hate the idea of wearing other people’s footwear, even in new socks. It takes me back to my days as a poverty-stricken child in the 1950s, but this is 2014. The fact is, we really should be doing much better. I know that these are difficult, austere times for the country’s economy, and no one really expects the Government to find the millions and millions of pounds needed to fund the game properly. However, while local authorities have lost income, the Premier League has been handed an even greater windfall. Domestic broadcasting rights for 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 were sold for £3 billion, with an estimated £2 billion expected from international rights. That is £5 billion in total—nearly as much as the value of Royal Mail. We need a new settlement for grassroots football. After all, it is the national game, not the Premier League’s game.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing such an important issue to Westminster Hall for debate. Sport in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure not only gives to teams in the premier league, but filters moneys down to the intermediate and lower leagues. Each level gets some of the money. Would the hon. Gentleman like to see that happen in England as well?

I will come on to that later in my speech. We must have a bigger commitment from the Premier League in order to keep the game healthy and alive.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I spotted that it was taking place only this morning, but I am a great fan of local and non-league football. Does he agree that such football is why people progress to watching premier league football? As a small boy I watched teams such as Buxton, and that fostered an interest that attracted me to top-tier football.

Absolutely. It is very much in the premier league’s interest that grassroots football survives. That is why I started an online petition that called for a new arrangement, whereby 7.5% of the proceeds from broadcasting rights is used to fund grassroots football. It called on the Government to ensure that grassroots football receives financial support from the Premier League, a call I repeat today. By the time it closed, the petition had received 30,599 signatures, and I did not receive one message, by any means, of principled disagreement from anyone.

Of course, the Government responded when the number of signatories to the petition passed 10,000—well, they did not actually respond right away, even though I wrote to the Leader of the House twice. I am sure that it was a coincidence, but they responded just after midnight on the day that I was listed on the Order Paper to put an oral question to the Minister, asking for a reply. Although the response was welcome, I am afraid to say that it was an apology for the football authorities, which even Sport England says have failed.

The resolution of the grassroots crisis will, of course, take a lot more money than the £1.6 million that has been cut by Sport England. In the football world of billionaires, £1.6 million is not exactly a fortune. It is probably about six weeks’ pay for a top premiership player. Now, do not get me wrong: I do not blame young footballers for accepting £300,000 a week for playing a game that they would probably play for the minimum wage. What do we expect them to do? Say to the multi-millionaire owner of the club—the Russian oligarch, American billionaire, or Arab oil sheik—“No thanks; keep the money and buy yourself another ocean-going yacht”? Of course not! Nor do I blame clubs in the premier league for offering the money, because they are caught in a trap, knowing that if they do not pay players ridiculous wages, one of their rivals will.

The fact is that the market is broken. There are clearly not enough talented young footballers, and, at the same time, billions of pounds are slushing around from TV rights. So what do we do? Well, it is not really that complicated. We should invest much more in grassroots talent, and we should do it by using much more of the money from rights.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for being gracious in allowing interventions. Ards football club in my constituency is in the Irish premier league. It is a locally focused, community-based club, and its relationships within Ards borough are the envy of many football clubs across Northern Ireland. It is focused on the community, which endears the club to the community. Does he feel that the Government should encourage more of that community-based spirit?

I very much think so. I am sure that the Government do encourage the community to participate in grassroots football; my argument is that more money must be made available to the volunteers who run the game, and that the place to take the money from is the lucrative professional game. Committing 7.5% of the £5 billion from television rights would deliver £375 million over three years. That would not exactly break the premier league, and I do not envisage any starving players, either.

The harsh truth is that the Government should top-slice the TV money before it gets into the hands of the professional game. The professional game is a hugely competitive business, and we cannot expect one professional football club to support the amateur game sufficiently if its neighbouring clubs do not. The premier league is the envy of the football world, with huge amounts of money pouring in and endless stories of enormous wages and excessive lifestyles. If English football is doing so well, why do we allow all the money to stay at the top of the game and not filter down to the grassroots? Why are our international teams so unsuccessful? The fact is that there is a short-term obsession with the premier league in British football. If we are to succeed as a footballing nation, we must broaden our horizons.

Every Saturday morning, premier league scouts tour children’s football grounds scouring for talent. When they find it, they tempt the child and his parents away, delivering the best of coaching and facilities, not to mention various other goodies, but leave all the other children in the team behind, with no changing facilities and no showers, stripping off at the side of the pitch in the depths of winter. Talented young footballers are obviously important, but so are the rest. I want to live in a country where all of our children who want to play football get the opportunity to do so. If we do not pay urgent attention to the grassroots game, there will be no one left in the UK for the professional football club scouts to recruit, leaving the leagues to ever younger foreign players recruited from around the world, some of whom are, frankly, too young to be away from their parents.

My concerns do not just include children. Football can make an enormously positive difference to the lives of developing young people. I talked to a mother who told me that her two sons had been picked up by a premier league club and were very well supported, but when they got to 15 and 16 years old, the club decided that they were not strong enough and let them go. The boys inevitably found that difficult to take, but what made it much worse was that once they were dropped from the club, they had nowhere to play the game that they loved so much.

In 1999, the football taskforce report committed the Premier League to a 5% contribution of its broadcasting income to grassroots projects, which was agreed, but the Premier League never fulfilled that commitment, and anyway much of the money has gone to professional football clubs lower down the leagues. Less prosperous professional clubs are important, of course, and I want them to survive as much as anybody does, but the grassroots game, especially children’s grassroots football, is even more important to me, and it should be more important to the country.

The present arrangement is just not good enough. The Football Association, the Premier League and Sport England work closely together to invest in facilities through the Football Foundation, but between 2007 and 2013, only 6% of football facilities were redeveloped. We clearly need many more artificial pitches. Grass pitches can sustain only five or six hours of football a week, but artificial pitches can take up to 80. In the present economic circumstances, we will not have the number of pitches that we need for at least another generation.

The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way so often in a 30-minute debate. I concur. We have an artificial pitch in my constituency at Glossopdale school; it can be seen as one comes over the hill into Glossop. Every evening it is floodlit, and kids play on it night after night. To mention something that we have not discussed, on Sundays there is football for elderly gentlemen—I actually qualify—which gets people of my greying years out playing football as well. That must be good for the health agenda.

Those pitches cost money, and the only source of honestly available money is the Premier League’s billions. If we do not deliver the number of artificial pitches necessary, we may well destroy our seedcorn for the premier league.

I end by quoting Bill Shankly, who once famously said:

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

I think Bill Shankly only applied it to Liverpool FC, to be honest, but I apply it, as we all should, to the grassroots game.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby) for securing this important debate, and to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) for their important contributions. Along with many parliamentary colleagues, the hon. Member for Bolton North East has been a vocal advocate for grassroots football for a considerable time. I reassure him that I, too, want a vibrant sports sector that encourages participation and provides opportunities up and down the country.

Apart from the health and social benefits of sport participation, sport is vital to raising aspirations in young people, and it has the ability to transform lives. Through Sport England, we are committed to delivering community sport, including football, and the many programmes tackling barriers to participation in sport. The youth and community sports strategy, announced in January 2012, committed £1 billion of investment to community sport to 2017. The strategy is led by the national governing bodies of sport, which will receive nearly £500 million of investment for 2013 to 2017 to deliver year-on-year increases in the number of people playing sport.

The latest active people survey figures from December 2013 show a long-term trend of sport participation increasing, which is very good and is what we want. There are now 1.5 million more people playing sport once a week than when we bid for the Olympic games in 2005, participation among disabled people is at an all-time high and more women are getting involved, which is beneficial in closing the gender gap. I am absolutely determined to see that progress continue.

Football is, of course, an important part of that picture, and the Government’s support for grassroots football is strong. Sport England is directing significant levels of funding at the sport to boost participation via the national governing body and through other direct investments in programmes and facilities. Between 2013 and 2017, the FA will receive £28.4 million from Sport England for delivering against its whole sport plan.

Football remains one of the biggest participation sports in the UK, with more than 1.8 million people playing the game on a regular basis. However, there has been a sharp fall of more than a quarter of a million participants in the last year, so clearly something has to be done. Several hon. Members have noted today the £1.6 million of lottery funding that Sport England has withdrawn from the FA’s whole sport plan funding, as a result of the decrease in participation. I want more people to get involved in all sport, and I am pleased that Sport England is committed to working closely with sports governing bodies to make that happen. However, we have to get results from the £500 million of public money that is invested through those bodies. If their plans are not working, it has to be right that Sport England invests some of the funding in other ways.

However, there will certainly not be a financial loss for grassroots football. Instead, Sport England will reinvest that £1.6 million to create a grassroots “city of football”, working in one place to create a range of new opportunities to encourage more people to play football regularly. Sport England will also share with the FA the insights that are gained, to help the FA continue to grow the game across the country. To date, that model has proved successful in an intensive year-long pilot in Bury, which has looked at ways to break down barriers and to get the town’s women and girls more active and involved in sport. I look forward to there being similar exciting innovation in developing the football city.

Although innovative opportunities can increase the appeal of, and participation in, all sports, high-quality facilities for community sport remain absolutely essential in supporting football. The hon. Member for Bolton North East referred to the importance of such facilities. I am very pleased indeed that Sport England has invested more than £80 million of Exchequer and lottery funding in facilities for football during the past three years. It has also been working very hard to protect playing fields, to fund the Inspired Facilities programme, to fund iconic facilities and to improve existing sites.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the undeniable impact that the winter’s floods have had on sports facilities in affected areas. I am sure that he has already read about this in newspapers and various statements, but I am pleased that we have been able to respond to the flooding with a £5 million Sport England fund to support affected sports facilities.

We also invest in the Football Foundation, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, along with the Premier League and the FA. The new grassroots fund will improve existing facilities and create new pitches across the country, including the invaluable astroturf pitches that the hon. Gentleman referred to. I absolutely agree with him that such pitches are brilliant at maximising the capacity of various grounds, and the contribution made by the Premier League, the FA and ourselves amounts to more than £100 million during the next three years. I hope to see many more 3G pitches constructed.

Of course, that shows that it is not only the Government who are investing in and funding expertise in grassroots football. The FA invests approximately £40 million a year to support its national game programme, most recently implementing the outputs of its youth development review. Typically, the FA spends a further £15 million a year on projects that benefit every tier of football, such as the FA’s Respect programme, which aims to improve the conduct of participants and spectators right across the game.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the contribution that is made by the Premier League. The Premier League is investing £56 million a season between 2013 and 2016 on community-focused projects and facilities, and as he will know, the constituent Premier League clubs often deliver significant programmes in their own local communities, independently of the FA’s collective action.

I will make a further point about the contribution that is made by the Premier League. I just want to clarify to the hon. Gentleman that during the next three seasons, it will redistribute more than £850 million in total to help to strengthen football below the top tier, which includes solidarity payments to support the 72 clubs in the Football League and the 68 clubs in the three divisions of the Football Conference. Those payments are partly ring-fenced to support the work of those clubs in their local communities. I know that such work is very important to the hon. Gentleman.

With regard to the question of whether any more can be done, let us see what can happen. I am open to discussing new ventures with the FA and the Premier League. However, I believe that they are already making significant contributions of their own accord, which should not be underestimated.

The hon. Gentleman also rightly referred to the fact that some local teams cannot afford the fees that local authorities are charging to use various facilities. That issue is of concern to me; I am aware of it and I am investigating it. I had a meeting with the FA this morning and raised the matter again. I know that the FA and Sport England are working hard on that issue, which has to be dealt with. All sorts of ideas are being considered, one of which is encouraging the county football associations to work much more closely with local authorities to manage community sports budgets. Ultimately, however, that arrangement sounds perhaps a little ad hoc, so some new model of ownership of sports facilities may need to be looked at. However, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I will work closely with others to establish what can be done to deal with that important issue.

I hope that hon. Members will see the considerable sums of money that the Government and the football authorities are ploughing into football right across the country. In my opinion, the outlook remains very bright indeed for opportunities to participate in football, and I am pleased that the Government play a big part in that process.

I am afraid that there is no injury time in Adjournment debates, so I will have to suspend the sitting until 2.30 pm.

Sitting suspended.