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Women’s Football: Talent Pathways and Player Wellbeing

Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered women’s football talent pathways and player wellbeing.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I want to talk about women’s football talent pathways and player wellbeing. I have raised both issues before, including in a Westminster Hall debate on a similar topic almost exactly a year ago, but they require more attention as women’s sport grows across the board. I will start by considering the talent pathways available to young girls as a route from grassroots sport to the elite levels. I will then consider the experience of girls as they grow up playing football before possibly becoming professionals, while looking at the governance and structural issues they face.

Talent pathways, which are how players make it from being young footballers to professionals, are still experienced very little by young men and women. The first step in this journey is the grassroots game and in schools. For all sports—football, cricket, rugby and tennis—we need strong grassroots games to provide opportunities for our young people. Playing a sport offers health and social benefits, and young people may find that it is something that they love, that they are good at, and that they would consider making a career of. However, we have still not reached a point where the experience of sport at grassroots level is the same for girls and boys.

At school, only 67% of girls have equal access to football, and not all children are offered a minimum of two hours of physical education a week. I echo the Football Association’s calls for equal access to football at minimum PE levels, for long-term funding settlements for schools to ensure that PE is accessible, and for Ofsted to inspect whether schools are fulfilling the requirement of equality of access in PE. In the letter that the Lionesses sent to the prime ministerial hopefuls in the summer of 2022—it seems a long time ago—after the team’s triumphant win at the Euros, they asked the candidates to ensure that all girls have access to two hours of PE.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: the success of the Lionesses, ably helped by the support of Prince William, must continue to be capitalised on. Our young girls and women are encouraged to play and enjoy the beautiful game, but greater funding is required than is currently granted. I join the hon. Lady in urging the Government and the Minister to set aside funding to enable schools to run programmes annually.

Yes, and as time moves away from the successful competition last summer, we do not want it to fall off the political agenda.

The letter from the Lionesses asked the prime ministerial hopefuls to secure the first step in the talent pathway into the sport for young girls. In response, a spokesperson for the current Prime Minister said that he

“passionately believes in the importance of sport for children’s development and would love to see all schools provide two hours of PE a week”.

I understand that this issue cuts across departmental remits—it is not just the responsibility of the Minister’s Department—but will the Minister say what progress has been made? Where are we up to with the commitment the Prime Minister made to young girls following the win at Wembley? If the answer lies in another Department —for example, the Treasury—will the Minister commit to take the matter up with that Department and get some answers as a matter of urgency?

This is a really important question, because finding interest in school is key to beginning any talent journey. It is therefore extremely welcome that this week the FA announced a new-look women and girls’ player pathway, which will come into full effect later in the year. It is a plan designed to make the game more accessible, more diverse and more inclusive, because this is undoubtedly an aspect of the game on which the sport most do more.

May I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to something fantastic that is happening in Darlington? FC Darlington Locomotives is led and spearheaded by three amazing people: Linda, Paul and Nathan Beadle. They have got more than 100 young girls in Darlington playing football each and every week, and they are a real springboard for the community, bringing people in from all across the town. Would the hon. Lady like to come to Darlington to see them in action?

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention and would love to come to Darlington; I pass through it twice a week on the train—it is not that far away from my constituency. The type of thing he mentions is happening all over the country. It is so exciting to see girls and young women coming together to play football.

Of 300 players in the women’s super league, only 29 are of black, Asian or mixed heritage. That is a symptom of the structural barriers that remain in place for so many when it comes to accessing formal pathways. There has been a problem of talent centres being typically based away from urban centres, which requires travel and time commitment, and therefore cost. That puts these facilities out of reach for many people who would otherwise benefit. The game has been missing the proactive approach that could make such a difference.

If we look at the current investment in this area of the game, we see that the central investment from the men’s game into academies via the Premier League is £88 million per year, whereas the FA’s overall budget for all women’s academies is reported to be around £3.25 million per year. That is not a sustainable budget for growing the game into what we want it to be, so it is great news that the FA has looked at the issue and brought forward the new women and girls player pathway. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister has any plans to make the funding settlement more equitable.

The inequalities in the game need to be rectified. I pay tribute to Fern Whelan, the former Brighton and England player who is now at the Professional Footballers’ Association as its first ever equality, diversity and inclusion executive. She has done some incredible work to address the lack of diversity in the game, including launching the “See it. Achieve it.” campaign, which has been backed by a number of other successful players. The campaign aims to use and highlight role models in the game to help to create supportive communities and encourage more diverse engagement in the sport.

There are good examples from other sports. In tennis, for instance, 49% of those on the performance pathway are women, because the performance pathways through regional development centres and national academies are the same for men, women, boys and girls. That is what we should be aiming to achieve in every sport. I am sure that the FA’s new women and girls talent pathway will go some way towards achieving it in football, but it will require investment, as well as reform through regulation.

When the Government publish their White Paper on football regulation, we will be able to see whether they have plans for proper funding settlements across the board. Such settlements will hopefully free up finances in the lower leagues for teams that are embedded in their local communities, potentially enabling them to open up their own pathways in the communities they represent. We know that the White Paper’s release has been delayed, but I am keen to hear whether the Minister can give us a definitive date for when it will be published. The sport needs regulation and the Government have promised it. I sincerely hope that the delay is not an indefinite one.

The issue of finances in football, and in this case women’s football, leads me to my next point about player wellbeing. The sport is growing and the experience of players now is much better than it used to be, especially in comparison to the time when I was a girl, when we were not allowed to play football at school. It is totally different now, but there are still massive concerns for players about job security and their working conditions.

We know anecdotally that too often players find that the idea of them being pregnant is informally discouraged because of the complications that would bring for the clubs they play for. We also know that players are reluctant to call out safeguarding issues, because they fear that complaining to their club about any such issue will damage their career. This is simply not good enough. We need the players to feel they can trust the system and to have trusted people they can go to who are independent and can help and advise them.

There has been a continuous growth in the uptake of the PFA’s welfare services in the women’s game, with support provided to address really important issues such as eating disorders and mental wellbeing. We need to ensure that safeguarding processes are trusted and independent, because with the rise in visibility of the sport, we have to recognise that welfare and safeguarding issues will become more relevant, too. New image rights deals, for example, bring vital revenue to players and the sport, but also new challenges, such as pressure on body image and issues such as online safety.

We already know the effect that that sort of concern has on teenage girls, where we often see in many sports a drop-off of young women playing through their teenage years. To keep growing the sport, we need better infrastructure for girls through those years, to ensure that all young women feel it is an environment they want to work and succeed in, and where they can have a viable career.

Of course, football is not the only sport with such problems. In English rugby union, for example, the lack of formal recognition from the Rugby Football Union to the Rugby Players Association is holding players back, and it is affecting the women’s game. As the women’s premier 15s look to move towards professionalism, players must be protected with standard contracts and supported in their needs to be dual-career athletes. I am keen to hear the Minister comment specifically on that and on whether there have been any conversations with the sport about it, as well as his view on the importance of players’ voices being heard.

Finally, through talent pathways, grassroots sports and even elite sport, it all comes down to facilities. They are being threatened by increased energy costs that risk them going out of business or being forced to reduce services. I am interested to know what more the Minister is doing to support these vital community assets. Community facilities play a key role in making sports accessible to a wide range of people, ages and ability. It is important that the sector is protected. Ultimately, today is a great time to be a female sportsperson. Visibility, revenue and participation are all massively on the rise, but the perils of precarious job security, health concerns and lack of investment make it a real challenge.

I will repeat for clarity the questions I have posed to the Minister. I would be grateful if he updated us on the Prime Minister’s commitment on access to football in schools, with equal access for boys and girls. When will we see action, not just words? Will the Minister tell us what plans the Government have for greater equity in funding between the men’s and women’s games talent pathways? What plans does he have to support vital community leisure assets that are struggling with energy bills? Finally, will he give us a definitive date for the publication of the White Paper on football regulation, or even narrow it down to a week or two? That would start to answer a lot of the sport’s long-standing questions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for securing time for this important debate. I have made it my personal commitment that inclusion in sport will be a high priority for me. That will, of course, include access to all sports for women and girls, not least because last summer we witnessed major successes in women’s sport, as our own Lionesses beat the German team at Wembley to lift the UEFA championship trophy.

That final at Wembley was attended by a record crowd of more than 87,000 people. Not only was that a new record for a women’s international in Europe, but it broke new ground for women’s and men’s Euro final tournament games. The tournament also became the most-watched women’s Euro ever, with a global cumulative live viewership of more than 365 million, which was fantastic to see. It was truly a groundbreaking moment for the sport and has supercharged interest in the women’s game, bringing it to the forefront of so many people’s minds.

The Lionesses’ fantastic performance at the Euros has inspired the nation. It is great to see that figures published by UEFA in October in its post-tournament flash report confirm that. For example, more than half of local residents and two in five spectators and tournament volunteers have been inspired to do more sport and physical activity generally, and 84% of those participating in UEFA women’s Euro 2022 legacy activities reported that it has improved their confidence and self-esteem, which highlights the importance of participation in this area.

We want to build on this momentum, to ensure that every woman and girl has the opportunity to take part in football if that is what they want to do and, more importantly, to get active in a way that suits them. Programmes such as Game On, Shooting Stars and Barclays Girls’ Football School Partnerships are engaging more girls in football at school. For example, over 3,200 primary schools are participating in the Shooting Stars programme. Initiatives such as Sport England’s This Girl Can continue to inspire millions of women to get active, regardless of their shape, size and ability.

We are investing over £300 million between 2021 and 2025 to improve grassroots facilities across the UK, to help more women and girls access the high-quality facilities that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central rightly alluded to. To commemorate the Lionesses’ incredible achievement, we are also working with the Football Foundation and the FA to name sites after the players in the towns and cities that shaped their careers. The Lionesses have become extraordinary ambassadors for sport, and we will continue to invest in grassroots sport to bring on the next generation of Lionesses.

We know how valuable PE is at school. It gives pupils an opportunity to excel, to be active and to lead healthy lives. We are actively working with colleagues in the Department for Education to understand the barriers that prevent the ambition of two to two and a half hours of PE a week from being achieved, and we will continue to work with them to ensure that girls have equal access to sport. I was struck by the meeting that I attended with the Secretary of State for Education and the Lionesses about shared ambitions to do that. There is more work for us to do to identify and address the different barriers to participation that exist, but we are working on that. We will continue to adopt a more targeted approach as part of our new sport strategy, which we are working on at the moment. Alongside that, the Department for Education is working on updating the school sport and activity action plan, which will set out actions to improve PE teaching in primary schools and help schools to make better use of their sport facilities.

I am pleased to learn that this week the FA will launch its revised women and girls player pathway, which focuses on providing a wide and diverse pool of players ready for senior domestic and international football. I am determined to strive for greater diversity and inclusion in women’s sport. According to the Professional Footballers’ Association, just 9.7% of footballers in the elite women’s game are from diverse ethnic backgrounds, compared with 43% of male players in the premier league. I am glad that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central mentioned this, because it shows that there is more work to do to ensure that all women and girls, no matter their background, have access to football and the opportunity to progress, if that is what they wish to do.

The pathway that the FA has been working on includes measures specifically focused on access for a diverse pool of talent, with the Discover my Talent referral programme already seeing a more diverse cohort of players, particularly at the under-17 level. This shows progress, but that work must continue, and we will continue to work with the FA to drive for further, immediate action in this space.

There is no doubt that the Lionesses’ win last year has inspired the next generation and was a turning point for women’s football. However, I recognise that much more still needs to be done to achieve parity with the men’s game and to drive progress more widely across women’s sport.

I thank the Minister for his positive response. There are good things being done across the four regions of the United Kingdom, in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. My granddaughter is an example of that. She has taken up football and enjoys it, as does her wee sister. There are good, positive steps taking place across all the Administrations. Has the Minister had an opportunity to speak to them to see what they are doing to work together?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. We have inter-ministerial groups with the devolved Administrations, so I would be keen to focus on that. He is right that there is no need for us to reinvent the wheel. If there are actions that work and deliver results, I am happy to learn from them, and I am happy to share our experiences with representatives in the devolved Administrations.

One area where we want to see more parity is in player welfare, as the hon. Member for Sunderland Central mentioned. Progress has begun. The England men’s and women’s senior players have been paid the same match fee for representing their country since January 2020, and professional female footballers in England will now benefit from a level of maternity and long-term sickness cover in recent changes to their contracts, but challenges remain.

Last year, UEFA doubled the women’s Euro prize money, but it is still a fraction of what the men get. The 16 qualifying teams for the women’s Euros shared a pot of €16 million last year, whereas the 2021 men’s Euros saw a prize pot of €371 million. In January last year it was announced that the FA would increase prize money for the winners of the women’s FA cup from this season. However, there is still some way to go for that to equal the prize money for the winners of the men’s FA cup. In the 2022-23 season, the winners of the men’s competition will receive £2 million, with the winners of the women’s FA cup receiving £50,000.

Historically, women’s sport has not had the profile or media coverage that the men’s sport has achieved over the years, but that is now changing. Attendances and viewing figures for women’s sport are growing at an extraordinary rate, and there is an opportunity to level the playing field when it comes to prize money.

Player welfare in terms of medical care is another key area of concern. The Sports Personality of the Year winner Beth Mead has called for more research into women’s anterior cruciate ligament injuries as a result of five of the top 20 women’s footballers suffering serious knee injuries at the end of last year. More needs to be done to understand why women appear to be more likely to suffer from those injuries than male footballers do. We need to protect female players from injury and ensure that they receive the same level of treatment as their male counterparts.

I am acutely aware that player welfare goes beyond prize money and medical provision into the space of safeguarding and mental health. I do not wish to pre-empt the findings of the future of women’s football review or comment on recent press coverage, but I am aware that the review is inviting evidence from current and former players on their experience of the professional environment. I will pay particular attention to any recommendations that the review makes, based on their evidence. I welcome the work of the PFA in providing support for female footballers, and of organisations such as Women in Football in challenging the status quo. I will certainly follow up many of the points that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central raised.

The ongoing review of the future of women’s football, which is chaired by former England and Great Britain footballer Karen Carney, will look at how to deliver bold and sustainable growth of the women’s game at elite and grassroots levels. There is now an urgent need to ensure that the basic processes and structures are in place to protect the interests of the game and the people working in it. This is a defining period for women’s football, and this thorough review will be at its heart.

The hon. Member for Sunderland Central mentioned the funding settlement. The FA is at an inflection point in the development of the elite game, and it has flagged issues in funding the elite pathway. The review of women’s football will look at the matter in great detail to see how payment is provided. As I said, I will not pre-empt anything that is said in that review, but given that such a formidable ex-player is chairing that important work, I am confident that football, talent pathways and player welfare will be cornerstones of its findings. I look forward to working with the chair as the review progresses towards its final report in the summer of this year.

The hon. Lady also raised facilities and the increasing costs they are facing. I have been holding a series of roundtables and have had regular engagement with a number of organisations up and down the country. Although we have provided a tremendous amount of support, I recognise that there are still challenges, and I am working with colleagues in the Department and other Departments to see what other work can be done to help.

The FIFA Women’s World cup in Australia and New Zealand this summer will continue to shine the spotlight on women’s football, and rightly so. We should use the opportunity to build on the tremendous momentum that has already been created and drive change forward.

I thought I might get away with that one. All I can say to the hon. Lady is that it is extremely imminent. I keep saying it is imminent and that we are working at pace, but I assure her that there is no one more eager to get this White Paper out there than me. I hope I can give her some crumbs of comfort by saying that she will not have to wait too much longer.

I hope this debate has reassured hon. Members about our commitment to ensure that all aspects of women’s sport, including football, continue to flourish. We will continue to work with the sector to make that happen, building on recent successes such as the women’s Euros and looking ahead to future opportunities such as the FIFA Women’s World cup and, of course, the important sports strategy, which, if I get my way, will have inclusion right at its heart.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.