I remind Members that they are expected to wear a face covering when they are not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission, and that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please also give one another and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the experience of women playing football in England.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank all Members in attendance. I can see that there is some incredible expertise on the subject in the Chamber, and I look forward to hearing others’ contributions. I am glad to have secured the debate, which has come at an important time for women’s football, not least because of the situation that Coventry United women players faced just before Christmas. The players and staff found out two days before Christmas that the club was in financial trouble and their contracts were to be terminated, only to be saved at the eleventh hour on 4 January by a new buyer for the club.
Women’s football has seen incredible growth in the last few years. That is down to increased opportunity and, importantly, visibility. The Football Association, under the leadership of Baroness Sue Campbell and Kelly Simmons, has done a great job in getting young girls and women playing football, as shown in the FA’s latest “Gameplan for Growth” report, published in 2020. Between 2017 and 2020, the FA doubled participation in grassroots football among women and girls, and doubled fans attending international and women’s super league matches. I thoroughly enjoyed, in spite of the cold, going to see the Lionesses as they played at the Stadium of Light last year in the World cup qualifiers. It is great to see them going around the country and playing to different audiences. The Lionesses will always be very welcome in Sunderland and I hope they return soon. That highlights the importance of visibility in the growth of the sport.
The BBC, for example, has done a great job in helping build the sport’s profile. It will provide live network TV and radio coverage of the women’s Euros, which take place in England this summer. It was the first to cover a whole Lionesses campaign, when it showed every game of their 2015 World cup run, and attracted 28 million people to watch the 2019 World cup campaign. Those are truly incredible numbers, showing the value of the BBC as a public service broadcaster, which I am sure the Minister recognises, while also showing that, when women’s football and women’s sport is on TV, it brings in viewers.
Do not let those stuck in the dark ages say that people are not interested in women’s sport. A report released by academics at Durham University last week exposed the levels of misogyny still present among male football supporters, with some respondents remarking how women should not participate in sport at all, or at least stick to perceived feminine sports, such as athletics, and that the media reporting of women’s sport is PC nonsense or positive discrimination.
Let me say on the record that they are wrong, and the numbers back that up. Visibility matters, and seeing women play sport on TV makes a difference. The importance of visibility cannot be overstated. Work by the Women’s Sport Trust shows that it is having an effect. Sky Sport’s new deal has already brought in almost 8 million new viewers in the early stages of the new women’s super league season. Around nine in 10 of those viewers had not watched women’s super league in the previous four seasons. The commitment that organisations, such as the BBC and now Sky, have shown to women’s football and women’s sport in general has given young girls across the country the opportunity to see good sporting role models. It is truly invaluable to see people who look like them do amazing things. It does wonders for the confidence of those just starting out on their playing journeys, no matter how far they decide to go.
I would like to ask the Minister where the Government are up to in considering adding the women’s equivalent of the men’s sports to the listed events regime. I understand that the Government are open to consultation on that. The Minister for Media wrote to me in November, saying that it takes time, but could the Minister today give me a more definitive timescale for when the consultation is likely to conclude? The case for equality is overwhelming. With the visibility of women’s sport and women’s football rocketing, there is even more reason to get the future of the sport right.
The situation at Coventry United women’s football club was so concerning, which it is why it is important to debate the issue. Coventry plays in the second tier of women’s football, turning professional only last summer, becoming the fourth fully professional team in the women’s championship. Many of the Coventry women had left good careers to achieve their dream of playing professional football. Many of them had supported the team for many years. Yet, on 23 December, two days before Christmas, the women were told that training was cancelled, and the players, who had not been paid in four weeks, were invited to a Zoom meeting at 10 am, in which they were told that their contracts were being terminated. That is a dreadful way to inform someone of that news.
One of the Coventry players, Anna Wilcox, told Radio Plus Coventry:
“It was just a feeling of emptiness, thinking that now I’ve lost the club that I played for for a long, long time…It hit a lot of players and a lot of staff so hard. I really don’t think we will be the last, unless something changes.”
There are many issues that emerge here. The first is governance. Women’s football has a range of different governance structures. Some teams are connected to men’s teams, such as in my own city of Sunderland, with some of those being rich premier league teams such as Manchester City and Arsenal. Other teams are independent of any men’s teams and operate on their own, such as Coventry United. Then there are fan-owned teams such as Lewes, who are doing extraordinary things under the leadership of Maggie Murphy. The range of governance structures means that there is an array of different financial arrangements, but the situation that arose at Coventry is one that could happen to any team at the will of their owner, especially as it is reported that Coventry were given FA money earlier than was planned, to help them through what they knew to be a difficult period. It is unclear where that money went.
The difference in the nature of ownership means that it is incredibly unhelpful to compare the situation in the women’s game with that in the men’s game. Therefore, I agree with the recommendation in the fan-led review led by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who is present, that the women’s game needs its own review to look into the issues and challenges that the game faces.
The second issue I wish to highlight is the working conditions of women players. The average wage in the men’s championship is around £35,000 a week. The average wage of the Coventry women’s team when they went into liquidation in December was just £16,000 a year, which equates to £308 a week. Although there are a multitude of reasons why the pay is different—not least the 50-year ban on women playing the sport—it is obvious that women’s experience of playing football is totally different from that of men. Although I am not saying that the women’s game is at the same stage as the men’s game, it is clear that the women’s game does not receive the respect it deserves. In women’s football, contracts are often shorter and the pay is low. Therefore, it is extremely hard for players and staff alike to plan for their future.
One of the most prominent examples of the working conditions of women footballers and their experience of playing is that of Birmingham City Women. When they were in ninth place in the top tier of the football pyramid in 2021, they came together to send a formal letter to their own club to bring to light their working conditions, because their previous request to meet the board about the issue was denied. This team are connected to a men’s team, but at the point of sending the letter, only three players were understood to be under contract for the following season. In reaction to the reports, the spokesperson for the club said:
“Both men and women’s first teams are yet to secure survival in their respective leagues. This makes it hard to start contract negotiations.”
I am afraid that I disagree with the spokesperson. Not being under contract also makes it hard for women to plan their futures.
The issue of maternity rights for players impacts on their lives hugely. In research conducted by Dr Alex Culvin last year, players were quoted as saying they
“need longer contracts so we feel more secure. I shouldn’t have to think I need to sign a four-year contract because I want to have a baby, so I know they’ll pay me.”
However, I understand that a new player contract has been agreed between the FA and the Professional Footballers Association that includes maternity cover and long-term sickness cover. I understand that this is a standardised contract that would cover players playing in both the women’s super league and the championship. If that is accurate and is to be implemented, it will be a massive step forward for the status of women footballers and, more importantly, for the terms and conditions and employment rights that they experience. I pay tribute to all those who have worked so hard in the game to get to this point.
That does not mean that we stop here, though. Although it is great news, there is still work to do. At the moment, only women who have played in the top tier of women’s football—the women’s super league—are eligible for PFA support. This needs to change, and the PFA needs to widen its remit to support all professional women players. Although the PFA runs workshops for male players on post-career options and life worries, it should offer the same services to women players. That issue is one of a package of issues in the women’s game that need to be looked at.
The investment put into the game by organisations such as Barclays has done so much to further the opportunities that are available, but we undoubtedly need a new formula that provides ample funding for the women’s game at the grassroots level and beyond, because the existing funding can only go so far. That is why it is so important that the Government listen to the fan-led review and bring forward an equivalent review into the women’s game.
I know that the Minister has said that we should expect a reply to the fan-led review in the spring, but a whole season—spring—is not a deadline and the women’s game is in need of review now.
While I talk about women’s football, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the incredible work done by Khalida Popal in bringing the Afghan girls team over to the United Kingdom. This debate is focused on the experience of women playing football in England and I am extremely proud that these Afghan girls are now able to come and experience exactly that. There are tremendous opportunities in this country for young girls to advance in the sport and I am so happy that these Afghan girls were able to come here and continue to play the game they love, in safety and with support. Khalida’s work has been inspirational and I am sure that all Members here today will join me in thanking her.
In conclusion, I return to the fan-led review. The Government have said, in an answer to a written parliamentary question that I submitted earlier this year, that they
“welcome the Independent Fan Led Review of Football Governance and…endorsed in principle the primary recommendation of the review, that football requires a strong, independent regulator to secure the future of our national game.”
Can the Minister endorse in principle recommendation 45 of the report, which is that a wholesale review of women’s football should be conducted? Also, can he provide a more specific timeframe for when the Government will publish their full response to the fan-led review?
I look forward to hearing what other Members have to say in this debate and to hearing the Minister’s answers to the questions put by myself and others.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate on women’s football. I hope that she will not consider this patronising, but I have to say that I thought her speech was one of the best speeches that I have heard in this Chamber. It was truly excellent. She is right to say that there has been enormous progress in women’s football but there is so much more to be done and I am sure that many of those who wish to speak today will do so on a very similar theme. I am also sure that the Minister will heed the points that are made, because I know that he is as passionate about women’s sport as I am and as many of us in this Chamber are.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of my speech, I will just note that there are now many more colleagues across the House who are interested in women’s sport and women’s football than before. When I was first elected in 2010, I often felt like quite a lone voice in talking about women’s football. The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and I are on the parliamentary football team, as is the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater). Just by participating ourselves, we get to talk and think about women’s football much more than ever before. It feels like there has been a shift in attitude, not just outside this House but inside it, too.
The hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) referred in her contribution to people who inspire others. May I commend the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on that very basis? Back in 2014, I had occasion to invite her to come and speak at my association dinner and I also then asked her if she would like to come round and visit some of the football teams in my area, and of course she said she would. On that occasion, she visited Comber women’s football club. As I say, that was back in 2014. Today, seven years after her visit, they still remember it. So I commend her. She is looking for role models. I tell you what: she is herself a role model.
I do not often blush, but the hon. Gentleman is making me do so. It is very kind of him to say that. It is legendary that I ended up in his constituency because I did not understand what he was asking me. I just said, “Yes,” and then the email came through saying, “Thank you for accepting the invitation to come to my constituency.”
I do not want to hog the Chamber, Mr Twigg, as I have had enough airtime on football recently, but there are a few points I want to make that will build on what the hon. Member for Sunderland Central said. First, we should celebrate the remarkable growth in women and girls participating in football at grassroots level. In the five years since the FA published “Gameplan for Growth,” participation has doubled. That is fantastic and we should congratulate those involved, but we must ensure that no one is resting on any laurels. To be fair, the hon. Member for Wirral South and I met the FA last week and I do not believe they are.
There are still too many vulnerabilities in the system for anyone to take their foot off the gas. For example, there are real difficulties getting girls to transition from playing football in PE to playing it for a club outside school. That is a challenge that has existed for a long time. It requires joined-up thinking with the Department for Education and partners. It is not insurmountable but it is difficult and there is no easy answer, otherwise it would have been done by now.
Secondly, we should celebrate the incredible journey and success of the professional game. Its earliest origins date back to the 1890s. It saw record-breaking crowds during the first world war and was banned from the 1920s until 1971, before coming under the auspices of the FA in the early 1990s. With the emergence of the women’s super league in 2011 and the subsequent establishment of the women’s championship, we can now boast the leading league in women’s football, attracting players from across the world. However, the points the hon. Member for Sunderland Central made about contracts at Coventry—and I will throw Charlton into the mix as well—are valid. I hope they have been noted by Ministers and others outside this place, because we need to take the welfare and working conditions of professional female footballers very seriously.
Furthermore, during the fan-led review we heard evidence that women’s football continues to face many interconnected challenges. There were lengthy debates about the difficult questions of whether women’s football teams should be affiliated to men’s teams or be entirely independent. There were concerns about the long-standing disparity in the financing of women’s teams versus men’s teams.
There were also concerns about the overall infrastructure of the professional game and whether the gap between the top and the next level down is too big. That led us to recommend an independent review into the women’s game. While I respect that the Minister and his officials are still going through other recommendations in the report, I repeat the call that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central made: can the Minister can tell the House today whether he accepts the recommendation about a completely separate review into the women’s game?
Turning to broadcasting, we can celebrate greater visibility of the women’s game than ever before, as the hon. Member for Sunderland Central said. We have seen a 257% increase in domestic games broadcasts since 2016. Broadcasters have come a long way since the current Mayor of Manchester, then the Member for Leigh, and I ganged up on the BBC and persuaded it to show England in the 2011 women’s World cup quarter- final on BBC2. I am sure that at the time the BBC just thought, “We’ll show it to shush these pesky MPs,” but it was pleasantly surprised that it was well watched and well received. The director of sport at the BBC, Barbara Slater, deserves a lot of credit for persisting with an agenda to ensure that women’s sport is shown on domestic TV.
People should also thank Sky Sports for its continued commitment to women’s football. The current deal is definitely a landmark and an exceptionally welcome addition to its wider sports agenda. However, it would be game changing if the women’s football World cup and the women’s Euros were added to the A list of listed events. That would provide parity and equality with the men’s games. These events are themselves pre-eminent international events that command a large TV audience. Given that we are expecting FIFA to tender the rights to the 2023 World cup shortly, if these events are not listed there is a likelihood that at some point in the future they could end up behind a paywall, which would be a shame for all the budding girl footballers out there, who want to see their heroines in action. If the Minister could give an update on where the Government are at with the consultation on listed events, that would be extremely helpful.
There is more I could say, but I will not. However, I will briefly mention that the all-party parliamentary group on women’s football is still waiting for a response from the Minister to a letter sent before Christmas regarding the disparity in legislation that protects players from pitch invaders. I could also build on points made by the hon. Lady on the prevalence of misogyny towards women who play sport, but time is short, so I will end by thanking all those who are helping to grow the game and supporting women’s and girl’s football through broadcasting and sponsorship, and of course by wishing the Lionesses every success in their forthcoming Euros campaign.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate on the experiences of women in football. It is a real honour to follow the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). I start by declaring an interest as a proud new member of the cross-party parliamentary women’s football team.
Many of us in the team are not experienced footballers and, as someone who has played hockey for 30 years, I still spend most of my time trying to put my feet in the way rather than getting them out the way. The team brings together female MPs, peers, staff and journalists from across the parliamentary family and political spectrum. We are an excellent example of the power of sport, and specifically football, in bringing people together and bridging any differences we may have.
I have a background as a lecturer in sport and physical activity and as a group exercise instructor. Alongside my own adventures on the hockey pitch, I have worked with many female clients and students over the past 20 years to create and facilitate positive experiences of sport and physical activity for women, to enhance physical and mental health and wellbeing, to provide positive social interactions and to develop friendships and support networks for busy women who far too often put themselves at the bottom of their list of priorities and responsibilities.
However, I know that this positive experience is sadly not shared by many women across the country, who face a number of barriers to getting into sport, a lack of support once there or, worse still, totally unacceptable discrimination, sexism and abuse. I am keen to use my role in Parliament to be an advocate for all women who face such challenges, which is why I was keen to take part in the debate. I recently with Sport England to discuss women in sport, and just this week I spoke to Sam Keighley, strategic director of the Yorkshire Sport Foundation, who gave me a comprehensive overview of the issues faced by women when playing, spectating, refereeing and coaching football. Sadly, there are too many to mention, but I will share some of the highlights, or should I say lowlights, with hon. Members.
On playing, there is a lack of access to facilities for women’s teams. Poor pitches are often used for boys’ or men’s games prior to the female game taking place and they are left in a terrible state. Female footballers feel that sometimes they are treated as second-class citizens. Female football is always second to male football in funding, access to training, pitches and media coverage. Girls’ and women’s teams often get given second-hand equipment after the boys’ have finished with it.
There are fewer opportunities, with fewer teams, and there are fewer opportunities to progress. Often teams have to travel further distances, which is difficult for those girls without parental support or access to transport. There is still far too much, “Girls don’t play football,” with people not talking to girls about what they actually want to do. There is little use of female role models in football, and any prizes or match tickets given out tend to relate to the men’s teams, with no effort to link to the local women’s teams.
With regards to coaching, coaching courses are male dominated, and there are still only a handful of female coaches and managers. Sadly, research shows that few junior boys’ teams would welcome a female coach. There is abuse of coaches from parents and spectators during competitive matches, and there is a lack of opportunities for female coaches to develop. In terms of female referees, they sadly experience significant abuse. They experience sexist attitudes at clubs, such as, “Why have we got you refereeing?”, “Are you even qualified?”, and, “What do you know about football?”—some of the cleaner versions of comments made. The situation is improving, but it is a real issue and will continue to put females off officiating.
In terms of spectating, female spectators feel uncomfortable and are on constant edge when watching games with a female referee, waiting for the abuse to start once someone disagrees with a decision. Opinions and comments of female fans are often dismissed, to then be repeated by someone—a man—a minute later. This has happened to me on numerous occasions. There are even reports of a female physio in the professional game getting wolf-whistled every time she comes on to the pitch.
To conclude, I am sure we can all agree that football, and sport generally, play a crucial part in bringing people together, keeping us fit and healthy, both physically and mentally, and providing fun and entertainment for millions and sports clubs that are often at the heart of our communities. As has been said, women’s football is growing at an incredible speed, with the women’s World cup, the women’s super league and the women’s FA cup, and that should be celebrated. While there has been progress over the last 30 years, it is too slow. Before we can secure football as a sport that girls can play and get involved with as easily and comfortably as boys can, and before the women’s game is treated with the same level of respect, funding and resources as the men’s game, there is work to be done. We must get the grassroots and lower league stages firmly established. We must have a fully informed strategy to stamp out the abuse and sexism that are all too common.
I could talk about the broader issues around the importance of physical education in the curriculum and about many other subjects associated with women and girls in sport and physical activity, but I will conclude by saying what a pleasure it has been to take part in today’s debate with some well-respected colleagues.
Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for her excellent and detailed speech and for securing this important debate. I also thank all those who continue to make women’s and girls’ football the fastest growing sport in the United Kingdom. Over the past decade, we have seen more and more clubs take on a women’s squad on a full-time basis, and grassroots football has made huge progress in ensuring that more women’s teams are able to thrive.
I grew up playing football, and as a teenager I absolutely loved the game. Many of my fellow female MPs are keen followers of the game, as we have heard today, and I am sure they will agree that it offers so much more than purely health-related benefits. Football taught me about communication, teamwork and competition. Had I not been given the opportunity to train at an academy, I doubt I would have had equal access to football and its many benefits. I am so grateful to have this opportunity to speak today on behalf of all the women and girls who simply do not have the same access to our national game as their male counterparts.
Progress in increasing participation has been made largely by the unsung heroes of the sport: the volunteer coaches, referees, administrators and community groups, without whose efforts women would not even have access to the game. Too many girls who love playing football constantly find themselves facing unnecessary barriers. For example, girls often cannot access teams because there are so few teams playing in organised leagues that it is not possible to get a proper fixture list together. That is why it is really important that we are here today looking at how we can best support new and existing women’s clubs so that women can have equal access to playing football, and that goes for all programmes, both amateur and professional.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central outlined, the professional women’s team in my own city of Coventry, Coventry United Ladies FC, was recently narrowly saved from liquidation. The club experienced significant financial pressures as a result of the pandemic, meaning it was forced to enter voluntary liquidation days before Christmas. Players and staff faced losing their job at the worst possible time. The club would have gone bankrupt, were it not for the 280 private donations from community members and an eleventh-hour takeover by a local midlands-based energy company that helped provide the necessary funds to keep the club afloat.
Even though the team has now survived this ordeal, the episode serves to highlight the systemic challenges still facing women’s football. The players were left in a precarious position after they were told that their contracts had been terminated. In a sport where women already have to contend with short contracts and low pay, these players also had to deal with the near collapse of their team with no safety net.
The barriers that women in professional football face are not only financial but cultural. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central about Durham University’s recently published report examining UK men’s football fans’ attitudes to women’s football. This study was, sadly but unsurprisingly, the first of its kind. Ridiculously, 68% of those polled thought women should not participate in sport at all, or if they did, that they would be better suited to more feminine pursuits than football. This attitude is appalling and is reflected in how unequally women’s football clubs are treated in this country.
The change in tone and in the perception of women’s football needs to be set from the top. If the Government truly want to create equality between men and women in football, they must do more to support women’s football clubs. As a proud sponsor of Coundon Court Ladies FC in my constituency, a former amateur player and a lover of the game, I urge the Government, mayors and local governments to do everything they can to support women’s football.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am the author of “Don Revie: The Biography”, about the Leeds manager. I mention that because I want to mention him today. Don Revie was a victim of cancel culture. He resigned from a job he did not like, and the FA banned him for 10 years. I have asked the FA to apologise, but it has not. What is extremely important, and why it is so pertinent to mention him in the debate, is that women were the victims of cancel culture 100 years ago.
During world war one, women’s football was incredibly popular. Like in the men’s game, many teams grew from the factory workforce, with factories setting up their own teams. Games attracted thousands of spectators, with one Boxing day match watched by more than 53,000 people. Celebrity players came to exist, such as Lily Parr. Women’s football was thriving, with female players given offers to play all around the world. On 5 December 1921, that ended. The Football Association passed a resolution banning women from playing in its stadiums. Bolstered by sexist and selective medical opinions on the unsuitability of women for the sport, the FA delivered a death blow to women’s football. In all likelihood, the reasoning behind the ban was due not to the health concerns of female players but more to the popularity of women’s football, which was drawing spectators away from the men’s game.
Although that was not an outright ban on women playing football, it took away the big stadiums and the media attention. Women could no longer play in front of big crowds, and without media coverage and the ticket sales from larger stadiums, most clubs were forced to disband. It was not until 1971 that the FA lifted the ban on women’s football, and it was not until 1993 that the FA brought all women’s football under its direct control. Let me put that in context. When England won the World cup in 1966 and, it is said, modern football began, with football fever sweeping the country, women were still banned from playing football by the Football Association.
The season before women’s football was banned in 1921, there were only two professional men’s leagues in England. Since then, men’s football has grown to the point where it attracts the eye-watering salaries for the top footballers and can support four professional divisions. Women’s football was not given the same opportunity. The women’s game was cut off at the knees by the FA in 1921, just as it had become popular and mainstream.
I believe it is the duty of the Football Association to correct that. Given that a deliberate intervention by the Football Association caused the demise of women’s football in 1921, the FA ought to deliberately intervene to build up that sport and make up for the last 100 years. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) will smile when I say this, but I have to mention Don Revie again. When I have written to the FA in the past to ask for apologies on behalf of the Revie family, it has dismissed that out of hand. That is an absolute disgrace. And I have no doubt that the FA will do the same if we try to do the same for women’s football.
Without the FA’s intervention by banning women’s football, who knows where it would be now? The FA has a debt to repay. Investing in women’s football clubs and academies, increasing media coverage of matches and encouraging spectators is not “positive discrimination”; it is something that is needed in the game now. It is necessary and should be brought about.
John Williams from the University of Leicester has said:
“The increase in media coverage of women’s sport…was openly supported by some men. But it also clearly represents, for others, a visible threat”.
That perception that the popularity of women’s football could be a threat to the men’s game is not new. It was the reason why women’s football was originally banned, 100 years ago. There are those who criticise women’s football as being less in some way—less skilful, less popular or less commercially viable. However, that is not intrinsic to the sport. In fact, women’s football in the UK was once more popular than the men’s. It was the actions of the FA that changed that.
Unfortunately, we have long heard male football fans—I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) on bringing this issue up—criticising and belittling the women’s game. In fact, an academic study by Durham University reported that openly misogynistic views of women in sport were far too common among male football fans, irrespective of age. Lead author Dr Stacey Pope said of the study:
“Our research showed that attitudes towards women in sport are, to some extent, changing, with more progressive attitudes. However, the findings are also reflective of a patriarchal society in which misogyny is rife. There were numerous examples of men from across all generations exhibiting highly sexist and misogynistic attitudes.”
Participants described media coverage of women’s sports as “positive discrimination” or “PC nonsense”. That needs to change.
The number of women and girls playing football in England hit 3.4 million in 2020. The desire to play and the desire of fans to see more women’s football are evident. We saw that in the 2015 World cup: the Lionesses’ games were extremely popular. When women’s football is given the coverage that it deserves, people will watch. We simply need to give them the choice by showing more games on mainstream channels. That will only bring more young girls into the sport and strengthen the game’s future—something that we would all welcome.
I will be brief, Mr Twigg. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for obtaining this debate. She is an incredible champion for women’s sport in general and football in particular; and, Mr Twigg, nobody could be more perfect to chair the debate than your good self, a supporter of women’s sport, including women’s football, and the finest football team on the planet—that is the women and the men, I should say.
This issue obviously has a long history. I was going to begin by saying that often we talk up women’s football and the position that it has got to because growth has been significant in recent years, but that often people do not talk about the cause of the demise of women’s football previously. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) has just done me a favour there. There is a tendency not to talk about the fact that women’s playing football professionally in this country was banned for 50 years. Many of the problems that we are trying to tackle today, and which have been covered already in this debate, stem from that ban. We have to accept the truth of that. It is not good enough to cheerlead for women from the sidelines; we have to accept the consequences of the ban, which affect every single part of the women’s game today, whether it is the professional game or the grassroots game.
In relation to the professional game, people who love women’s football and want to see it succeed are often told, “We can’t pay the players more, because of market forces being what they are. People want to watch the men’s game on the telly, and unless more people watch the women’s game, the pay for women is going to be lower.” Well, we have just heard that actually there is a root cause as to why more people watch the men’s game than the women’s game. That is why we need extra effort, to restore the women’s game to the place where it should be.
The situation is the same for the grassroots game. I do not just play for the women’s parliamentary football team; I occasionally manage to make it to Wirral Valkyries FC, in the Wirral, and you would not believe, Mr Twigg, how hard it is to get a pitch for a women’s grassroots team. That is because we really have only enough pitches for half the people who want to play football in this country. We are going to double the number of people playing football at grassroots level, so we need some more space for them to play in. That inequality causes tension the whole time. Map the level of abuse that we all receive from a patriarchal society—as rightly said by my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn; I would not get away with such naked feminism!—and we can see we have a problem.
Rather than going over all that, I would simply ask colleagues one question. There are two professional football players in this country who play for the same team and who are brother and sister. Lauren James, who is 20 and has incredible talent, will probably never be a millionaire; her brother, Reece James, who is 22 and plays for Chelsea—the same team—almost certainly will. That is a level of wage inequality that we would consider absolutely unjust and intolerable in any other sphere of British life. How long are we, in this room, going to look the other way while women in this country face that kind of unjust pay gap? Women who play football professionally do so with a determination that is almost irrational, given the lack of fortune that might reward their talent. It is as simple and as stark as that.
Very briefly, I pay tribute to the fantastic Sue Campbell at the Football Association, who is an incredible woman, as well as Kelly Simmons, the director of the women’s professional game. They do not get enough credit and we should all thank them. I also thank Suzy Wrack at The Guardian, who has covered women’s football absolutely brilliantly, and younger journalists such as Katie Wyatt and Caoimhe O’Neill, who write for The Athletic and are just brilliant. They are changing the fortunes of women’s football.
I will finish with three very direct questions to the Minister—I could talk about this subject for about seven hours uninterrupted, but I will not. First, the Government could do a really helpful job that would not cost them any money, which is to benchmark the interventions that they are already making. Could they check that all the money they already spend on the grassroots game of football is being spent equally on men and women? That would make a big difference.
Secondly, could they ask the FA to look at the FA cup prize money? Nearly 2 million quid for the men’s FA cup prize money does not really make a difference to the winners, but the women only get about £25,000 in prize money. There is absolutely no objective justification for that incredible disparity in prize money. It is our flagship competition. Could the Government ask the FA to look at that?
We have heard my final question from everybody; the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who has done an absolutely brilliant job for football in this country, recommended it in her review. We need a women’s review—please may we have one? Let us crack on and deal with these issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second day in a row, Mr Twigg. It is good to see you here. It is a pleasure to respond for the Opposition in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing it and on her excellent opening speech, as well as all hon. Members who have spoken.
It was especially good to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) speak about the power of sport to bring people together and her experience as a new member of the parliamentary football team, noting the issues around girls’ participation. It was eye-opening to hear about the experience of women fans and the anticipation of abuse or sexism relating to female officials, which is an angle that I had not really thought of before. It was very interesting.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), who spoke about how women’s football taught her about communication and teamwork, which has stood her in good stead for her role in the Opposition Whips Office. I join her in thanking the unsung heroes who keep women’s football going—the volunteers. Importantly, she outlined the ordeal of Coventry United, which I will return to briefly.
As always in any debate on sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) gave us a lesson. The history of women’s football is a fascinating background to the issues in women’s football today.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), my predecessor, for everything she did when she held this role before me. I agree with almost everything she said, although I am not sure about her team being the finest team on the planet—they are trailing in second place in the premier league at the moment. I agree with just about everything she said, including on the extra effort that we need to put in to support women’s football in this country.
In many ways, these are good times for women’s football in England. The successes of the Lionesses in recent years—notably, taking third place in the 2015 World cup and then again making the semi-finals in 2019—have helped to boost the game’s profile, and growth in interest, spectators and participation have followed. The Women’s Super League has attracted record crowds, and we had 40,000 people watching the FA cup final at Wembley in December. Driven by the FA’s efforts, the participation of women and girls in grassroots football doubled between 2017 and 2020.
The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) referred to the increasing interest in Parliament on this issue. I would put that down partly to the general increase in interest in women’s football, but also to her work as an absolutely fantastic champion not just of women’s football, but of football in this country. I thank her for her work on the review and for her wider work on football.
As the country looks forward to hosting the Women’s Euros this summer, enthusiasm for the women’s game will grow, attracting more fans and inspiring budding footballers. I would agree that coverage on the BBC and on Sky has raised the profile of the game, with more and more people watching women’s football on TV, driving participation. I would echo the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central to the Minister about listed events, and I hope that he will respond.
In general, the future looks bright for women’s football, but as we have heard today, there are challenges. To build a future that is fair and works for players, staff and fans at all levels, some issues need to be addressed. That is a job for the FA and for leaders in football, but also for the Government.
Today’s debate was partly brought about as a response to the recent situation at Coventry United women’s team. The team narrowly avoided disaster thanks to a last-minute buyer, and I am pleased that Coventry’s players are going to be able to continue to earn a living playing the sport they love, but it should not have come to that. This was a full-time, fully professional championship club, but to the shock—complete shock—of the players and staff, they found themselves hours away from ceasing to exist.
Coventry is not the only example of the precarious nature of the existence of some women’s clubs. Just as the Women’s Super League was due to start in 2017, Notts County folded. In 2019, Yeovil Town dropped two divisions from the WSL as a result of financial problems. Leyton Orient cast aside its women’s teams last year, forcing the creation of London Seaward to ensure that the players could continue to play. Fylde women’s team was disbanded in 2020, only for the decision to be reversed some time later, and Holwell Sports Women FC in the fourth tier of the football pyramid announced that it would have to fold just at the beginning of this month. So there are challenges, and it is not just problematic governance and job insecurity that need to be fixed. There is great growth in participation, as we have heard, but there needs to be more work on encouraging people to participate and on breaking down the barriers.
In the professional game, when things go wrong women’s players are only eligible for support from the Professional Footballers Association if they have played in the top league of women’s football, leaving most women players with nowhere to turn. As we have heard, levels of pay across women’s football are generally low, with players often needing to work on other jobs alongside football to make ends meet. Many players, as we have heard, have poor access not just to pitches, but to the medical and fitness facilities needed to play safely. Employment contracts are often poor, short term and ill-suited to the specific needs of women. Generally there has been poor maternity support for women who wish to have children, although we have had encouraging news from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central about the potential change to that—so, fingers crossed.
Our women footballers deserve better. There is, of course, the issue of the abuse and harassment faced by women in the sport. Women in Football reports that almost a third of their members have experienced gender-based social media abuse, and that is one aspect of what many players have to endure. So there is progress, but more needs to be done.
We have had the excellent fan-led review of football governance, led by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, which the Government are still dragging their heels on responding to in full or implementing. That review called for a separate dedicated review of the women’s game, and that is really the key ask I have of the Minister today. We have had a number of asks, but I think the encompassing action for the Minister—I note that you want me to finish, Mr Twigg, so I will be brief—would be on that key ask. Given the complexities of women’s sport and the crises that have cropped up, a full review of the future of women’s football is urgently needed. The Government have said they would respond in full to the review in spring, but why the delay? Will the Minister clarify whether there is any truth in the rumour that the Treasury are the block on progress? The issues raised in the debate mean that a separate women’s review is needed, so why not get on with it? The Government have accepted in principle the fan-led review’s recommendation for an independent regulator. I repeat the request of other Members that the Minister should now endorse its call for a review of women’s football. That is what we need. Let us get on with it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, for the second time this week. I thank the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for securing this debate, and everyone who has participated so eloquently and knowledgably. I wish a happy birthday to my opposite number, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith).
The debate is particularly timely, given that we are counting down to 6 July, when England will kick off their first match in the women’s Euros against Austria at Old Trafford. As many hon. Members mentioned, women’s football has made significant progress recently. I was fortunate to be at Wembley last December for the Vitality women’s FA cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal. It was a brilliant match, and it marked the 50th anniversary of the first women’s FA cup final—interestingly, it was only the 50th, for the reasons the hon. Member for Sunderland Central outlined. It achieved, my notes say, a record crowd of 40,000 people, but that is corrected by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who mentioned there being a 53,000-person crowd in the past, so we still have a way to go. In addition, a record audience of 28.1 million viewers watched the BBC coverage of the 2019 FIFA women’s world cup on television and online. I praise the work done by the BBC and many of the public service broadcasters in their broadcasting.
We have seen other kinds of progress. There have been bespoke women’s sports deals, such as the Barclays’ sponsorship of the FA women’s super league, which the hon. Member for Sunderland Central mentioned. We need that sponsorship; it is really important that this money flows into the game. England’s men and women senior players are now being the paid the same match fee for representing their country, but there is still huge progress to be made in equality of players’ pay, as many hon. Members pointed out. I praise teams such as Lewes for the progress and leadership they have shown.
Despite the positive signs and progress, we cannot be complacent. Since becoming the Minister for sport, I have made it a personal priority to champion women’s sport, including women’s football, at every opportunity. That is why last year I established a working group to explore the challenges and opportunities in women’s sport. The group included Women in Football and the FA, and it discusses challenges, opportunities and how best to overcome obstacles. The work of that group has already shaped thinking in the Department considerably.
I think I can make a few people happy today by announcing that I have written to sports’ governing bodies and broadcasters outlining that the Secretary of State and I are minded to add the women’s World cup and the women’s Euros to the listed events regime. We will have a short re-consultation, which will end on 16 February. This is a huge opportunity for women’s football; it can bring those tournaments to an even larger audience. We are working on several other areas, including the refresh of sport.
Many hon. Members mentioned misogyny and the hatred spread online. I am looking closely at how the online harms Bill might tackle the persistent and utterly unacceptable misogyny that continues to blight women’s sport.
As many hon. Members have mentioned, there has been considerable growth of the sport at grassroots level. The FA published its “Gameplan for Growth” and highlighted that women’s and girls’ participation has doubled over the last few years. There are 12,000 registered teams, and there are 2.4 million women and 1 million girls under the age of 16 playing football.
Many hon. Members mentioned the importance of access to facilities, and I completely agree with them on that. That is precisely why we are investing hundreds of millions of pounds in pitches and multi-sport pitches, and why I am working with the Department for Education on how we can make further progress on schools’ access to sports.
Despite the momentum in recent years, women’s sport, including football, has been heavily impacted by the pandemic; there is the slow return of spectators, a lack of media coverage in some cases, and a loss of sponsorship deals—deals that women’s sport has historically found it difficult to attract. As several hon. Members mentioned, we saw that most recently in the near liquidation of Coventry United ladies football club.
I turn to the fan-led review. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch)—like the hon. Member for Sunderland Central, and indeed everybody here—is a passionate advocate of women’s and girls’ football. The review, which published its final recommendations in November, not only considered the issues affecting the men’s game in this country, but examined the complex future of women’s football, which has a growing number of participants and fans. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford set out, fans and advocates of women’s and girls’ football gave evidence to the review, and starkly set out the fact that the women’s game is at a crucial point. Many who gave evidence spoke passionately about the need for women’s football to be properly financed; that should include a consideration of sponsorship and many other areas.
As many hon. Members have acknowledged, the review concluded:
“Women’s football should be treated with parity and given its own dedicated review.”
I am afraid that I cannot promise to give the Government’s response today, but I can tell hon. Members that we are working on it every day; many people are working on it. I will ensure that I give a full response in the spring. There is no dragging of feet here. I thank the many people who have done work on this, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. It is because that work was so comprehensive that we want to do it justice and give it a comprehensive response. My hon. Friend mentioned the letter that she and others wrote to me. I will reply to her letter regarding the designation of women’s football matches under the Football (Offences) (Designation of Football Matches) Order 2004.
It is worth pointing out that football banning orders are a Home Office policy, although we at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport do work very closely with the Home Office on that. I can confirm, however, that the football banning order legislation covers both women’s and men’s designated matches where there is a high risk of disorder. However, there may well need to be consideration of whether the scope of the order needs to be widened. I will happily raise that with my Home Office colleagues. Members mentioned several other requests.
The Minister will be aware that the Home Office has tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is in the House of Lords, to extend the scope of football banning orders in order to tackle online racist abuse. Is this not an opportunity to ensure that football-related matters are covered?
I will happily raise that with the Home Office, though I cannot make promises about legislation on behalf of another Department.
I hope I leave hon. Members in no doubt that I am personally committed to continuing to help women’s sport, including football, to come out of the pandemic stronger than ever. I will continue to work with the sector, and with all stakeholders across the House, to make that happen.
I thank all colleagues for their contributions. There is general consensus on the broad issues that women’s football faces. I thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), for his contribution and the Minister for his response. I am pleased about what he said about listed events. I am disappointed that he has not gone further on the fan-led review, and that he has not committed in principle to starting the women’s review, which was recommendation 45 of that review. We do not need to wait for the entire Government response to the incredibly thorough fan-led review before agreeing to that in principle. I ask him to look at that again, and to see whether the Government can respond sooner. They need only say, “Yes, in principle we agree.” That does not merit our waiting for the response to the whole review. I thank everyone for attending; it has been a very worthwhile debate.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).