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Sport: Disabled Officials, Referees and Umpires

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 25 May 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members attending the debate physically should clean their spaces before they use them and when they leave. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered encouraging more disabled officials, referees and umpires into sport.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am particularly grateful that the debate has been selected and that the Minister for Sport is here to respond.

Inclusivity in sport is something we all believe in and want to promote. Great strides have been made in Paralympic sport, the amazing Invictus games and disability cricket. I have to pay tribute to the England and Wales Cricket Board for its amazing and inspiring work enabling people with disabilities to play cricket. We have a whole range of thriving disability sports, enabling access and participation. But what about officials who have disabilities? What about officials who are wheelchair users? I am sad to say that this is an area that has been overlooked. It is seen as a barrier too far, a hurdle too high.

What does a young person born with cerebral palsy do if their dream is to be a football referee? What does a cricket umpire with a lifelong passion for cricket do if they develop a condition that means they have to use a wheelchair? Should they just accept that they must abandon their dream? Should they just give up on their passion and allow their disability to stand in their way? We are all here in this place to tear down barriers that stand in the way of the hopes and dreams of those we represent. That is what I am seeking to do today.

I would like to bring to the attention of the Minister, who has been doing a fantastic and impressive job during this covid period, for which I thank him, the extraordinary campaign of my constituent, John McIntear, who has been championing access for people with disabilities to officiate in sport. John is an inspiring person. His passion is cricket, and he is a qualified cricket umpire. He is also an ex-serviceman and he uses a wheelchair. John has a life-limiting condition and the prognosis, I am sad to say, is not good. John was determined that his condition would not prevent him from continuing to umpire cricket, so he embarked on an inspiring campaign: sports officiating from a powered wheelchair—SOPW. It was a campaign that captured the imagination of cricket and other sports across Shropshire. Working with the Royal British Legion, Motability, the Shropshire Association of Cricket Officials, Shropshire Disabled Cricket Club, the Shropshire Cricket Board and, of course with support from the Shropshire Star, John set about raising funds to buy a specially adapted powered wheelchair, which has enabled him to continue his passion for cricket by officiating at cricket matches as an umpire.

When I saw that we would debate this topic in Westminster Hall, right away one of my constituents came to mind: a young fellow called Scott Hilland. I know his dad, mum and the family very well. Scott was born disabled, and he has a powered wheelchair. He plays for and is the captain of the Northern Ireland wheelchair football team. It is clear to me that he could be an official—he has officiated some of the matches I have been to watch. The hon. Lady has been inspired by John McIntear, and I have been inspired by 17-year-old Scott Hilland.

The hon. Gentleman’s constituent Scott is a testament to what can be achieved by anyone who sets their mind to it. He sounds a wonderful person.

Despite the disruption caused by covid, John McIntear has now used his specially designed powered wheelchair to umpire his first match, which is a huge achievement. John’s success led him to wonder whether there are other officials using wheelchairs to participate in umpiring. He found that, in fact, there is only one other disabled person doing so. So John decided that in the time left to him he would campaign to give people who are disabled the opportunity to officiate in whatever sport they wish to. His aim is to work with organisations to secure the provision of powered and suitably modified wheelchairs to enable those with mobility impairments to officiate in sports.

I will quote John McIntear, because I would like his words to be put on the record. He says:

“I want to inspire and encourage people who are disabled to go out and follow their dream. From the start, the principle of umpiring from a powered wheelchair has never been about me. It is all about giving people with a disability the opportunity to officiate in whatever sport they wish to.”

So often in life, we need someone to show us the way; someone to show us that something can be done; someone to raise our horizons, to enable us to believe that the obstacles in our path can be overcome; and someone to give us the ambition and tell us that something is possible. John has done that and it is awe-inspiring.

John has shown the way to sports organisations, sports clubs, disability access organisations and people with disabilities who want to officiate in sport. Indeed, I would say that John has also shown the way to us in this place. John’s work gives people hope and creates opportunities where people believed there were none. John is a trailblazer and we can see from his example that mobility impairments are not a barrier to officiating in sport.

The Minister will understand that I have some asks of him and his Department today. I ask him to reflect on what more can be done to support people with disabilities to officiate in sport, and I ask him to support John McIntear’s campaign, by encouraging sporting bodies to engage with it and consider how they can train people with disabilities to become referees, umpires and officials of all kinds, and how they can create opportunities for participation. Also, can he please consider what his Department can do to promote and create opportunities for people who are mobility-impaired to officiate, including at high-profile events such as the much anticipated Commonwealth games in Birmingham, which would be a massive opportunity to show the UK’s commitment to inclusion and mobility-impaired officials? I know that the Minister is, in fact, the Minister for the Commonwealth games; he has that great honour. It is possibly a very arduous task, but it is also a great honour. So I know that it is in his gift to make that ambition a reality.

Consequently, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments today. However, I would also be most grateful if he could come back to me, once he has had the opportunity to discuss this issue with officials, and set out ways in which we can all build on John’s remarkable efforts.

Very sadly, the prognosis for John McIntear’s condition is not good and the time left for him to campaign on this issue is very short. In closing, I must pay tribute to John and his inspiring work, and I know that he will continue to champion this cause with energy and determination for as long as he can do so. I also know that he will have every success. Perhaps he could be persuaded to come and umpire a Lords and Commons cricket match, to shine a light on his campaigning efforts.

Ultimately, I know that one day we will see a test match or a Premiership football match being officiated by a mobility-impaired individual in a powered wheelchair, and we will have John McIntear and his campaign to thank for that.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Dowd.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this debate, and on raising the important issue of inclusion for disabled people in all aspects of sport and in officiating in particular. She is always a great champion of her constituents and it is a pleasure to respond to her. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution and for highlighting another inspirational person, his constituent Scott.

It is clear from my hon. Friend’s comments that she shares my view that sports and physical activities at all levels are hugely important to disabled people. That is why the Government and their arm’s length bodies, Sport England and UK Sport, have worked closely with the sector and national governing bodies, including the ECB, which my hon. Friend highlighted, to ensure that inclusion in sport remains a priority at all levels from grassroots through to pathways to elite sport and governance.

At the outset, I would like to say that the Government are absolutely committed and recognise the great importance of sport and physical activity for disabled people who take part, including officiating and referring. The opportunity to have a parliamentary debate on what steps the Government are taking to support disability officiating in sport is a positive message in itself to send, highlighting the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion at all levels of sport. I warmly welcome the efforts of campaigns to increase diversity and inclusion, such as sports officiating from a powered wheelchair—SOPW—founded by my hon. Friend’s constituent, the truly inspirational individual Mr John McIntear, a Royal Navy veteran and a cricket umpire who uses a powered wheelchair. I would like to put on record my admiration for his work and encourage other governing bodies in sport to engage with his campaign, as my hon. Friend requested.

The Government’s strategy, “Sporting Future”, is aligned with Mr McIntear’s ambition for more inclusion in sport. It stresses the importance of helping under-represented groups and isolated communities, including disabled people, to take part as active participants, spectators and in the workforce. In addition, Sport England has recently launched its new 10-year strategy, “Uniting the Movement”. This strategy reinforces its commitment to increasing participation in sport and physical activity for those from under-represented groups, including disabled people.

I am aware that even before the effects of the pandemic, disabled people and people with a long-term health condition were twice as likely to be physically inactive as those without a disability or health condition. There are deep-rooted inequalities in participation levels in sport and physical activity. We know there are people who feel excluded from being active and participating in sport, because the right options and opportunities simply are not there. That does not only apply to taking part in playing, it also extends to the sporting workforce and officials. That only strengthens the resolve of the Government and national governing bodies to redouble efforts to ensure we keep the focus on increasing opportunities for disabled people.

We have been working with Sport England, UK Sport and sports organisations such as Activity Alliance to ensure that guidance is in place. That will help disabled people to get back to playing, volunteering and participating in the sports they love as safely as possible.

Sport has so much to offer. Everyone should be able to take part. In turn, sport has so much to gain from welcoming everyone in the community, including disabled people. Diversity of experience can only be an asset.

With the opening up of sporting activities over the next few months, projects such as sports officiating from a powered wheelchair will help to focus attention and resources on disabled individuals to have the opportunity to officiate in any sport they choose to participate in. As my hon. Friend the Member for Telford said, the UK has led the way in supporting, for example, Paralympic sports and disability participation at a grassroots level through Sport England with initiatives such as the “We Are Undefeatable” campaign; and partnerships between Sport England and Disability Rights UK, Aspire, Sense and international mixed ability sport.

However, many who wish to officiate are hindered by lack of access due to their level of mobility. Although programmes that focus on disabled coaches, volunteers and leaders are available, Sport England has also identified a gap around disabled officials and referees and is actively reviewing how to address this going forward. I would be happy to continue the dialogue with my hon. Friend on this area.

In his capacity as Minister for the Commonwealth Games, will my hon. Friend consider opportunities for disabled officials to participate?

I am delighted to comment on that. My hon. Friend is right: I am indeed the Minister for the Commonwealth games, which is an absolute honour. As we get closer and closer—we are not too far away from one year to go—the excitement and responsibility are certainly building up. It is really important that we do include disabled people in the games, with the motto being “a Games for everyone”.

That is absolutely right; that will be a focus. For the first time, Birmingham 2022 will deliver the largest fully integrated parasport programme of any Commonwealth games. It is an important distinction that the Commonwealth games, unlike the Olympic games, is integrated. Therefore, we will look to further promote opportunities for equality and inclusion, including officiating, in the lead-up to and throughout the games. I would be happy to give my hon. Friend an update on that at the appropriate time.

In terms of funds, certain funds and efforts are being made, such as the £20 million Tackling Inequalities Fund from Sport England, which will be essential to providing the necessary support at a community level, catering specifically to the needs of under-represented groups through trusted community partners and alliances. Currently, £13.5 million has been awarded and £9.7 million has already reached community organisations and groups across the country.

As a result, over 2,800 projects are actively being delivered by trusted partners close to the communities that have previously been unserved or underserved by more traditional delivery structures. Of these, almost £2 million has been awarded to 500 projects specifically targeting disabled people in sport.

We also welcome the efforts of inspirational individuals such as John McIntear and the FA licensed referee Nathan Mattick, who showcase first-hand that disability is not a barrier to officiating. They are indeed role models.

There are also organisations such as the National Star College UK, which target their campaigning, funding and support into education, refereeing and officiating opportunities for disabled people. It is now our job to ensure that the momentum continues and that the same level of effort and support is provided to disabled individuals who want to coach and officiate in the sports that they so clearly love.

Before closing, I should also mention that the Government are keenly aware that the last year has been particularly difficult for many disabled people. The recent Active Lives survey from Sport England has indicated that there was a general decrease in activity levels, but disabled people in particular were less active. That is probably in part because they are more likely to be reliant on facilities to participate in sport, which, of course, in many cases had to be shut. However, I am more determined than ever to work closely with the sector to ensure that activity levels return as quickly as possible to pre-pandemic levels and then beyond. As part of that work, there will be scope to look at the opportunities for disabled people to officiate and referee, as well as coach, volunteer and serve in leadership capacities in sport.

It has been a pleasure to respond to this debate today and to speak on this really important issue. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Telford and her constituent again for their work on this. It is clear that this needs to be a joint effort; the arm’s length bodies that I work closely with, who are true experts in the field and care deeply about inclusion within sport, will be vital in reducing broader inequalities in sport and creating officiating opportunities for disabled people.

Understanding the needs of diverse communities, including disabled people, within sport is key to taking the first step to creating a level playing field, and today’s discussion has been genuinely useful in that regard. As we emerge from the pandemic, now more than ever it is important that we keep progressing. I am more determined than ever that the sports sector emerge from the pandemic stronger, with inclusion at the centre of everything it does.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.