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Worcester University Arena: Disabled People and Sport

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 12 April 2016

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Worcester University Arena: supporting disabled people into work through sport.

It is a great pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to hold this debate under your chairmanship on my birthday and in the week after Worcester’s first successful Disability Confident jobs event in our magnificent Guildhall. I thank the University of Worcester and Leonard Cheshire Disability for the valuable briefings they provided ahead of today’s debate. In particular, I pay tribute to the people of Worcester with the vison to create a leading centre for disability sport in the heart of my constituency. I am delighted to do so with a Minister who, as a local lad, not only knows Worcestershire well but is a dedicated sports fan and passionate about improving the life chances and opportunities for work for disabled people.

My hon. Friend knows well how impressive the facilities at Worcester University Arena already are because he visited them with me last year and was able to meet some of the phenomenal and inspiring athletes who use them. He will recall meeting Sophie Carigill, captain of the GB women’s wheelchair basketball team, David Green, the Vice Chancellor, and Mick Donovan, head of sport at the university, who launched his vision for an international centre for inclusive sport there.

The Minister needs no explanation that the Worcester University Arena was the first purpose-built wholly accessible basketball venue where not only the viewing facilities and playing facilities but the changing rooms, accommodation and media facilities are entirely accessible to wheelchair users. He does not need to be told about the transformational part this can play for wheelchair athletes because he has seen it and heard about it himself. With him, I heard Sophie give the moving and important feedback that coming to play in the arena was the first time she had felt normal since her tragic car accident, and that she was not being specially catered for. She just felt that the venue allowed her to perform on an equal footing. With the Minister, I met other athletes with disabilities ranging from sight loss through to deafness and learning difficulties, who were inspired by the idea of a new international centre for accessible sport at the university.

Newly acquired land to the west of Worcester and around the existing arena for expansion, and plans to extend its reach further into blind cricket, football and tennis, as well as more wheelchair sports, has the potential to transform not only Worcester’s facilities for accessible sport, but those of the UK. Such a centre can play a crucial role in supporting more disabled people to achieve their ambitions, including accessing work. I want to set out today some of the evidence for that, some of the reasoning behind it and some of the reasons why I believe this venture deserves the Government’s support.

We know that too few disabled people have access to sport and I am glad that the new sports strategy set out by our hon. Friend the Sports Minister has made increasing disabled participation and the experience of watching sport key priorities, as well as increasing diversity in sports leadership and administration. Research from Leonard Cheshire Disability ahead of the Paralympic games highlighted the necessity of this and found that over half—57%—of disabled people surveyed said they had completed no moderate-intensity physical activity in the previous seven days, compared with just 24% of non-disabled adults. Of those surveyed, 41% identified lack of suitable activities and exercise provision as the main barrier, with inaccessible facilities and fear of injury also being identified as significant barriers.

Leonard Cheshire Disability said that the employment rate for disabled people is currently around 46.7% compared with a record rate of around 80% in the rest of the population. In Worcester, the employment rate is even higher, but a recent report from the city council’s scrutiny committee, which I support, has pointed out that it is still a concern that disability unemployment remains stubbornly high. The disability employment gap nationally stands at around 33% and, like Leonard Cheshire Disability, I warmly welcome the Government’s worthwhile and progressive goal of halving that gap. That is the right thing to do not just for disabled people but for the whole economy.

Social Market Foundation research suggests that if the disability gap was halved and those who fell out of work as a result of disability were reinstated, we could see another 600,000 people in work and the economy would be boosted by an estimated £13 billion. I welcome the progress that has been made with 293,000 more disabled people working over the last two years, but I share the Minister’s conviction that there is much further to go.

The Minister and I spoke about these issues at the last Conservative party conference and competed with each other in our enthusiasm for the employment goal, but I admit that I have learned a great deal from him in his determination to achieve it. I have shamelessly plagiarised his approach to reverse jobs fairs under the Disability Confident banner and it is greatly to his credit that the event in Worcester last week has been widely heralded as a success. It was supported by a number of local businesses, including Sanctuary Housing, Malvern Instruments, Dolphin Computer Access, Wits End Wizardry and Waitrose, whose first store in Worcester is due to open in June. It was attended by a wide range of local disability charities, including the wonderful Headway, Sight Concern, ASPIE, the Aspire Academy and the Royal British Legion, as well as the Access to Work and Disability Confident teams at the Department for Work and Pensions. I thank all those who took part, especially local businesses, the Chamber of Commerce and the Worcestershire local enterprise partnership who came along and made pledges.

The most impressive team at the Disability Confident event was the team from the University of Worcester, comprising two wheelchair athletes, Alex Giles and Tom Horrocks, and the England and GB blind football star and University of Worcester communications manager, Will Norman. Each of these athletes spoke about the vital importance of the facilities the arena provides, the huge potential of its future development and the employability benefits, such as communication skills and teamwork, that accessible sport has given them.

Will Norman is not only a brilliant role model in his sporting achievements, but a wonderful ambassador for the university and its wider support for job opportunities for people with disabilities. He is a highly successful communications professional, as well as a national athlete and footballer, who has written passionately about the benefits of supporting disability sport and real inclusion that treats those with disabilities not as other, but as part of the whole.

We were joined at the event by a former student of the university whose testimony is worth bearing in mind because it exemplifies both the challenges that disabled people may face and the huge success they can achieve when those challenges are overcome. Jordan Powell, aged 24, a graduate in history and politics at the University of Worcester, said he spent two years not even getting interviews for hundreds of jobs until he deliberately neglected to tell recruiters he was disabled. Within one week of not declaring it on job forms he was offered interviews at four different companies, and now works in telesales for London estate agent, Ludlowthompson. He said:

“In two years I applied for jobs every day, I went for hundreds of them and couldn’t get anything,”

He continued:

“So I decided not to tell people and within a week I’d got four interviews—I’m now a telesales executive and I’ve smashed sales records for my company.”

Jordan came to see me some months ago in my surgery in Worcester to share his story and his concerns about the prejudice and fear that too many employers still feel towards disabled people. He explained that he felt that much of the prejudice was based on unfounded fears that they would not be able to support someone with a disability, and said that he wanted to help address those fears. He told me how Ludlowthompson had gone out of its way to make him welcome and even offered to tear its offices apart if it would help him, but that other companies had invited him to interviews that were upstairs and then failed to make allowances or adjustments when he turned up in a wheelchair. Within months of getting the job with Ludlowthomson in Worcester, he was setting new records for the company, and he told me that it was having to rewrite its remuneration policy to take account of the level of sales he has recently been achieving.

I was delighted when Jordan, who has also run as a council candidate for the Labour party in Worcester, agreed to work with me on a cross-party basis to deliver the recent Disability Confident event. His testimony was a powerful addition to it. The head of human resources at Sanctuary Housing, the largest residential social landlord in the country, said she had been convinced by his testimony and that he has changed some of Sanctuary’s policies and made it a more disability-confident employer.

Jordan also told me how playing accessible football at the university helped to build his confidence and enabled him to recognise that being in a wheelchair need be no impediment to achievement. Jordan’s story is by no means unique. The facilities that the university arena offers have already impacted thousands of people both with and without disabilities. In its first 12 months of operation it welcomed over 500,000 people, including 150,000 children, and staged 70 major national and international sporting events, 40% of which had a disability focus.

A direct impact of inclusion by design has been that Worcester has welcomed thousands of disabled and non-disabled athletes. Activities range from beginner classes for youngsters who have never engaged in sport to international junior wheelchair basketball championships. Student coaches currently deliver outreach wheelchair sports and inclusive sports sessions in more than 50 partner schools in the region and present inclusive coach education programmes and workshops in the arena to more than 60 disability organisations each year.

The economic impact of the arena for the local community has been estimated as at least £9.4 million.

The university’s unique disability sport coaching degree is developing the next generation of inclusive coaches who have an impact on hundreds of local schoolchildren who will go on to have an impact at local, national and international level. Significantly, more than 300 students on other degree courses at the university have selected specialist modules on inclusion and disability sport coaching. One of the most impressive things to see on a visit to the arena is not only the many students with and without disabilities training to teach disability sports, but the number of disabled athletes and students training to coach sports in mainstream settings. What a wonderful example it would set to have in mainstream schools more sports and PE teachers who themselves have overcome the challenge of a disability and can demonstrate to students of all abilities their passion for and achievement in sport.

It is no wonder that Sir Philip Craven MBE, president of the International Paralympic Committee, who officially opened the venue, said:

“I’m blown away by the University Arena. It goes to show what can happen when you have the right people with the right attitudes—they’ve created a wonderful place. This facility has clearly come from a passion for sport—a passion for everybody being involved in sport.”

The arena now forms the heartbeat of the university’s recently launched international centre for inclusive sport, which has attracted partners from around the world in all forms of sport, including universities in Europe, the US and China and international disability sport governing bodies from around the world, which will be invited to conferences and workshops to share good practice for the benefit of youngsters on their programmes.

The European wheelchair basketball championships of 2015 attracted 400 athletes and officials and were viewed in person or online by more than 200,000 spectators. That was the single most successful inclusive Paralympic sporting event since the London 2012 Paralympics, which did so much to inspire a generation about the potential of disabled athletes and increase the media following of accessible sport.

Subsequently, there has been a surge in interest from universities and sporting clubs wishing to visit Worcester and look at ways of replicating the design and inclusive agenda of our arena. For Worcester as a city, the spectacle of hundreds of athletes in national team colours arriving in their wheelchairs has already done wonders for local people’s appreciation of disability confidence and disability sport in general. I am delighted that the city continues to build on that legacy and that later this year the Worcester Warriors, my local rugby team, will host the county’s first international mixed ability rugby tournament, in conjunction with charities including Combat Stress. I am proud that our local premiership rugby team are the first in that league to be supporting mixed ability sport.

The arena has also delivered direct benefits in terms of employment for people with and without disabilities. In recent years, thousands of University of Worcester students have actively engaged in work placements with a focus on disability sport. It is significant that a vast number of graduates have secured posts throughout the UK that specialise in disability and disability sport-related activities. Many of them have disabilities themselves. Just a short round-up of recent examples would include a wheelchair user in a sports media post, a visually impaired student who is now in a media post, wheelchair users and power wheelchair users who have secured coaching roles, a double amputee who is a sports development officer in the south of England, a deaf student who is now a teacher in a special school for pupils with behavioural problems, a blind footballer working for a leading telecommunications company, a power wheelchair user who is now a community power wheelchair coach, a wheelchair user doing performance analysis for the GB wheelchair basketball team, a blind student who is now working for a national company as a provider of disability equality training and another blind student who is now working for a national foundation supporting disabled and disadvantaged people.

Many current University of Worcester disabled students are also employed as ambassadors for the university in outreach work throughout the UK to inspire others. The list of non-disabled students who have entered careers as strategic leaders, coaches, teachers or support workers for those with disabilities is too extensive to include in this speech. Beyond that are hundreds more—

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this extremely important debate to Westminster Hall. I am heartened by the work that he is describing. Will he do the all-party parliamentary group on disability the honour of linking us to the university arena and also coming to speak in that forum in order that we can look at continuing that work elsewhere?

I would be delighted to do that and I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I would also be delighted to extend an invitation to the all-party group to come and visit the Worcester arena, because I think it is a genuinely unique national asset and something that we should draw to the attention of that group, so I am very grateful for the intervention.

Beyond that are hundreds more people who will be inspired to believe in themselves and develop their skills at both competitive and participatory level by the arena and the access to sport that it provides. Crucially, it is not just a venue for international level or even university level sport, but a key facility for encouraging and supporting basic participation and inclusion for groups ranging from schools to hospices to the elderly. Charities such as Whizz-Kidz nationally and Acorns Children’s Hospice locally have already benefited from its facilities, and I expect many more to do so as the international centre for inclusive sport widens its scope and reach.

The arena received some of its initial funding from the national lottery’s Iconic Facilities Fund and later received the Guardian award for a building that inspires. I suggest that its contribution, both present and future, to disability confidence and disability employment is one more reason why it should continue to inspire and be an icon.

I know that the Minister shares my enthusiasm for this inspirational Worcester landmark. I urge him to ensure that colleagues across Government share the knowledge of what it does and can do for disabled people. I ask for his continuing support as we seek to create in Worcester a genuine gold standard for disability confidence, with a gold-clad heart in our international centre for inclusive sport. I hope that he will continue to work with me to ensure that Worcester can become a beacon for disability confidence and to improve the lives, the life chances and the working opportunities for disabled people.

I am sure that there will be general rejoicing on the streets of Worcester today, but let me add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on the occasion of his birthday.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, wish my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) a very happy birthday. He highlighted the fact that I was a local Worcestershire lad. I remember, on my 18th birthday, on that Saturday afternoon, purchasing a record from Pure Records—happy memories.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a real local champion. The majority of my response will be on sport, but first I want to comment on his hosting of the Disability Confident event and the success of his own reverse jobs fair in engaging with the local business community to create crucial opportunities for disabled people to get into work, as part of our commitment to halve the disability employment gap. All too often, businesses lack the confidence to make what are often very small changes. In introducing such employers to the vast wealth of support groups, charities and organisations that will help disabled people to find work, my hon. Friend can be very proud of what a great success he made of that event. There are people who will now get an opportunity that, had he not made that effort, they would never have had.

I am delighted to talk about sport. Clearly, it is crucial to healthy, active lifestyles—disabled people are twice as likely to be inactive as non-disabled people. Sport can directly create job opportunities, as has been highlighted throughout this debate, and we also saw, in the case of Jordan Powell, how it helped to build his confidence to go on to find work. Sport creates role models to inspire people, in particular young people, and also, all too often forgotten, there is the actual enjoyment in sport. Certainly my visit to Worcester arena was really enjoyable. There were inspirational people delivering transformational opportunities. There is a track record of success where it has genuinely made a difference. The irony was that before I arrived to see all those healthy, active people, I had a McDonald’s breakfast, as I had arrived early, so there is still some way to go for me.

The facilities at Worcester arena are fantastic. It caters for disability by design—it is not an exception, but a given. The arena was specifically designed to be accessible to all. This is not just about the physical structure; it is also about the need to allow assistance dogs—they are welcome throughout. There is an induction loop system throughout the building. There is also the extensive training for staff and the awareness. It is just a case of disability being a given, not the exception. The people who designed the arena did not just think about the obvious, such as where the sport would take place. This goes right across the board. It includes the changing rooms and the accommodation. The student halls were built at the same time, and people were working on the assumption that outside term time, when the competition events took place, they would become accommodation for the athletes. As a given, they were 100% fully accessible, as were the media facilities. Therefore, unsurprisingly, the facility was busy. That seems like a silly, obvious thing to say, but actually too often we go to iconic buildings and they are amazing but hardly anybody is using them. That is not the case with the arena, which is permanently in use and therefore able to attract major sporting events, which is brilliant for creating role models. That was not an accident; inspirational people realised that they had to work in partnership.

The arena was created in conjunction with organisations such as Sport England, through its Iconic Facilities Olympic Legacy Fund—a catchy title—as well as with the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, Basketball England, Badminton England, many other sporting groups, the local authority, local businesses and the local community. It is not just the students who benefit, although it is great that they do; people come from far and wide to benefit from the fantastic facilities. By listening to and engaging with them at the concept, we got a facility that would always be a success.

Underlying all that was the aim to ensure that the facility was commercially viable. Too often, a ribbon is cut and the great and the good turn up to celebrate the opening. Without a good business plan behind that, there would be savings on the maintenance, opening times, programmes and activities. Right from the beginning, it was understood that the facility should never lie dormant for long periods of time and should maximise commercial opportunities—students, local sports clubs and the community, as well as the elite and professional athletes.

I was interested to see that Worcestershire County Cricket Club, Worcester Wolves, Aston Villa Football Club, Birmingham City Football Club, West Bromwich Albion Football Club and many other groups were taking part. Those are household names and they provided support, including enjoyment, performance analysis—that would have been a pretty painful thing for me during my sporting career—and fitness and nutrition advice. That was my McDonald’s breakfast; they knew I was coming. The arena has become the home ground for sporting clubs such as the Worcester Wolves basketball team and the GB men’s wheelchair basketball team. That is a fantastic legacy.

It does not stop there. The ambition is to continue to expand to create further partnerships. Worcestershire County Cricket Club is looking to do a lot more with its Chance to Shine programme and new inclusive cricket centre. As a cricket fan, I would be delighted to make a return visit. The arena really has helped with Sport England’s narrative of saying that where it is providing funding, major capital investments are required to make its facilities accessible.

Sport England goes further by publishing free online tools and guidance to support designers, building owners and operators to create accessible facilities. Having such a success story makes it an easier sell, as it can say, “Look, this isn’t an inconvenience for you. By making those changes at the beginning, you will benefit commercially and with usage. This is a win-win for everybody.”

We want to ensure that not just the people who go along to Worcester Arena benefit but that, right across the board, accessible sporting opportunities are a given. Part of that is ensuring that the topic is part of the education of the next generation of PE teachers. The University of Worcester has led on that, because it is a given that it is part of its education process. It is integral, as it is part of modules.

I know how important educating PE teachers on the subject is because, randomly, I was selected to open a PE conference on behalf of the Government—I think somebody misread somebody else’s biog and attached it to me, so I had to do a keynote speech on the topic. I had to be very creative that morning. One thing that came back to me was the number of PE teachers who wanted to offer more accessible sporting opportunities but feared that perhaps they would get it wrong, end up doing something where they might be sued, that there would be an accident or that things would not go right. As a given, the next generation will have that confidence. I give credit to the English Federation of Disability Sport and to Sainsbury’s for their successful course to upskill existing PE teachers to ensure that PE staff have that confidence. I pay tribute to the PE teachers I met, and there were hundreds. There is a genuine appetite to do this.

I do millions of visits. One of the most fun visits I ever did was to see the Swindon Vixens disability netball team—young adults who had never ever had an opportunity to enjoy sport. They were put through a weekly one-hour session with professional coach. The session was enjoyable but structured, and they were gaining genuinely good skills. The enjoyment levels of those young adults was such that I genuinely thought they might explode! The serious side of it was that one of the girls lost 3 stone in the first few months of doing netball because it was the first and only time that she had ever had a sporting opportunity.

The Minister’s information shows very clearly—I hope he would agree—that sport is not just about physical activity and physical health, but about mental wellbeing, mental health, self-esteem and self-confidence.

I could not agree more. I am delighted that the hon. Lady has extended an invitation to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester to speak at her all-party parliamentary group. I spoke there previously and I know what an engaged group it is. That is a great opportunity to highlight the topic further.

The Government are bringing forward the sport strategy. Part of that will be how Sport England spends its £170 million to make sport a practical and attractive lifestyle choice for disabled people. That is vital because currently only 4% of elite coaches are disabled. Jordan Powell was a great example of how sport gives young people the skills and behaviours that are linked to school attainment and employment opportunities. Across sport, there is a lack of disabled employees, but there are lots of examples of how we are creating more opportunities.

Sports bodies and groups are currently not capitalising on the talent, skills and diversity of the entire population. I am forever highlighting the fact that one in six people in this country have a disability. Their combined spending power is £212 billion. It is called the purple pound. It is not Nigel Farage’s utopian dream; it is something that has been highlighted by sporting groups making those changes and I have heard, time and again, just how they have benefited from doing so.

We are not resting; we are not waiting for this all to happen by accident. I set up a round table, which included the Sport and Recreation Alliance, Sport England, the English Federation of Disability Sport, the Youth Sport Trust, the Amateur Swimming Association, the Tennis Foundation, the Royal Yachting Association, Boccia England, British Wheelchair Basketball and Disability Rights UK. The aim was to look at how we can further shape the sport strategy. I have regular meetings with many other sporting organisations, including the Premier League and the Football League, about making facilities more accessible for disabled supporters, as well as with the Rugby Football Union and the British Paralympic Association. Some fantastic work is going on and, at the heart of that, Worcester arena is held up as a shining, beaming example.

I pay tribute to Channel 4, because there are also employment opportunities in the media. It has been successful in securing the rights to cover the Rio Paralympics and made a genuine commitment that half its presenters for that event will be those with a disability. It is not just doing that to tick a box—that would do a disservice to potential disabled presenters. The channel wants people who have a talent to take advantage of the opportunity to further their careers and to have further opportunities, whether with Channel 4 or other media organisations. It has gone right back to the training colleges and the performing arts people, saying, “Look, we wish to recruit. You find people who have the enthusiasm and the talent. You train them.” There are genuine job opportunities coming from there, which is a real credit to those organisations.

I went on a brilliant visit, championed by a fantastic constituency MP who is held in such high regard. I saw that as we visited all those people. There were so many inspirational people who have made Worcester arena such a success. I am excited that it does not stop there and that there will be further opportunities. My hon. Friend made it very clear that he felt that Worcester arena was gold standard. I think it is platinum standard. In material terms, that is even higher rated.

I hope that many other organisations can look and learn, and create the same sorts of enjoyment and opportunities that Worcester Arena does. It is a real tribute to my hon. Friend that he has highlighted that today. He will have a further opportunity to showcase all the fantastic work that is going on right at the heart of his community with the all-party parliamentary group. Once again—what a way to celebrate my hon. Friend’s birthday.

Question put and agreed to.