Skip to main content

Women: Sport and Physical Activity

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 26 November 2013

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the role of sport and physical activity in providing a positive body image among young women.

My Lords, I thank the Whips’ Office for finding time for this debate and those noble friends who have stayed on.

I have a number of interests in sport—all listed in the register—but perhaps the most pertinent is that I co-chair the All-Party Group on Women's Sport with the right honourable Barbara Keeley MP, which is supported by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation. I also thank the Lords Library for its notes on this topic.

I do not think that we could have picked a better time for this debate. Anyone who was watching Rebecca Adlington on “I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here” last week will have seen her tearful reaction when talking about body image. She said: “It’s making me very, very insecure that I have to look a certain way. For me, I was an athlete. I wasn't trying to be a model, but pretty much every single week on Twitter I get somebody commenting on the way I look”.

This is a young women that we should all be proud of. She is a four-time Olympic medalist and a world champion, but many will understand how she feels. It is a worrying trend that young women are increasingly put under pressure to conform to look a certain way.

If I had said at the age of 15 that I thought I had poor body image, I would have been told to pull myself together. However, body image anxiety is a leading cause of depression and low self-esteem; health and relationship problems; poor participation at school; and lack of progression at work.

It is worrying that body image has become more important than health; that the majority of young people would rather be thin than healthy. In the UK, 1.6 million people suffer from an eating disorder. Dieting can lead to eating disorders, and girls who diet are 12 times more likely to binge eat. However, a positive body image can help with academic attainment, cutting down on smoking and teenage pregnancy

We need to understand that the relationship between body image and physical activity can be both positive and negative. The reality is that young women are facing pressure from many directions. For many women, a poor body image and lack of self-confidence is the biggest barrier that prevents them being active and it is easy to understand why. Bizarrely it is one of the things that could help them. If you put “Jessica Ennis” and “abs” in to a search engine, there are pages that show how you can look like Jess in just two minutes a day. The reality is more like six hours a day, 50 weeks of the year for about 15 years.

Skimming through some of the other comments over the weekend, I noticed that Chantelle Houghton—described as a former reality TV star, which is a whole other debate in itself—was heavily criticised for going out jogging in a pair of running tights and a cropped top. The obsession with how quickly celebrities lose their baby weight and get back into their pair of jeans puts undue pressure on others. Many of the women's magazines are full of pictures of bodies which are either beach-ready or not. It is hard to find many that do not contain some diet that will help you to look like your chosen celebrity. I cannot even begin to add up the number of women who get more coverage for the colour they have dyed their hair than they do for their achievements.

The data that the YMCA presents is compelling: more than half the UK population suffers from body image anxiety. Media, advertising and celebrity culture account for 75% of the influence on body image in society; and 95% of the population cannot physically achieve the typical “body ideal” presented in media and advertising.

Physical activity in schools is not going to right all those wrongs, but the right PE will help. For most women and girls, we know that once they become physically active, their body image and self-confidence improves, leading to greater academic success and job prospects. Research by Ernst & Young in the USA shows that many of the top female executives played competitive sport at a high level all the way through university.

We need to define a new language around sport. People often say “sport” when they mean “physical activity”—physical literacy as well as competitive sport. You have only to mention PE to most women and they shudder. We need to be clear in thinking about a health agenda and getting more people active. Getting girls to be active will lead to more of them playing competitive sport, which would be great. However, if the starting focus is on competition, it is likely to lead to fewer girls being active.

Since the Olympics and Paralympics, the Department for Education has suggested that there will be an increased focus on competitive sport in schools. That is fine for many. It would have suited me fine at the age of 20 but not when I was 13. So why do we need to find a new way of doing PE in schools? Evidence from the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation shows that 46% of the least active girls say that they do not like the activities they do in PE; 45% of girls agree that “sport is too competitive”; and over a third of the least active girls do not think that they have the skills to do well in sport, so it is obvious that we need to do more to build confidence. Some 75% of girls agreed that girls are self-conscious of their bodies and 59% of the least active girls do not think that it is important to be good at physical activity. In many schools it is okay to be a sporty boy but not to be a sporty girl.

On average, female athletes are more likely to have a positive body image, and less likely to consider themselves overweight, than female non-athletes. Earlier this year, I chaired a Task and Finish Group for the Welsh Assembly Government, looking at the role of PE in schools. We recommended that it became a core subject, and that was picked up by the Select Committee on Olympic and Paralympic Legacy, which the noble Lord, Lord Addington, sat on.

We must teach good skills at a young age, which for girls also means a mix of sports and activities as well as being given the option of single-sex and mixed sessions. A number of women wrote to me about this issue. Arriene, who is 28, said:

“I never joined a gym because PE taught me that I wasn't good enough and sport made me feel useless”.

The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation’s Changing the Games for Girls shows that 51% of school sport and PE put girls off. Kate Allenby MBE, an Olympian who is now a PE teacher, said that girls need good role models. Keith Kendrick, who wrote on the website Parentdish, said that he desperately needed Becky Adlington to be a strong role model for his stepdaughter. Many women have written to me to express the horror of communal changing rooms—and a few men as well. I am sure that most of us can remember that dreadful feeling. However fit and strong you feel, it puts much undue pressure on people.

The YMCA suggests that if we do not get this right, we will jeopardise the health and well-being of future generations, and I agree. Its research has shown that five year-olds now worry about their size and appearance, that body image is the biggest single worry for many 10 year-olds, that by the age of 14 half of girls and a third of boys have started dieting, and that children are directly influenced by parents’ body image, whether that is positive or negative

Today’s young people aged between 18 and 34 are much more likely than previous generations to have heard their parents talking about dieting, criticising their own appearance or even teasing their children about their appearance or weight. Girlguiding UK has some fantastic research results in its Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2012. When it asked why girls do sport, 29% said that they did it to keep fit, 46% said that it was to lose weight or control their weight, but 44 % said that it helped them to feel good about their bodies. It has also shown that one in seven young people would prefer to be slim than healthy, and findings from the WSFF show that 19% have said that being slim is more important than being healthy.

There is a huge pressure on girls to be skinny. The size zero that we hear about—there is a great deal of discussion about this being the size of many models—is the size of a 12 year-old girl. It is not normal or acceptable. It is worrying that so many women have an aspiration that they cannot achieve.

We need a balanced approached in schools. We need to look at best practice; to celebrate participation and not only winning. We need to look at the uniforms that girls wear—luckily, we have moved on a long way from my days in school, where it was gym knickers and an Aertex blouse—because a key component is that many girls worry about how they look. We need to address the issue of changing rooms and consider putting hairdryers in them. If that is one of the things that stops girls being active, how difficult can it be to put a couple of hairdryers in every changing room? We need to work with young girls to give them confidence.

For me this is a very important area and I would like to ask the Minister a question: how much have the different departments—Health, Education and DCMS—discussed the matter? How can they work together across departments to find a workable solution—because a solution to this will not be found through one department alone?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for bringing this subject before us. My point, as the token man in the debate, is that although there is conclusive evidence that body image is a problem that may bite harder on women, it still bites men—and for virtually the same reasons.

Body image is where the problem starts to manifest itself and where physical activity might provide an answer. If you are doing a sport, the starting point is not what your body looks like but what it does, and suddenly a change will be there through physical activity. As an athlete it does not matter whether you look like Adonis or like Venus rising from the sea if you come last consistently. We have a little input there, a point where physical activity and sport put in a reality check.

As the noble Baroness said, what someone decides in a magazine is the fashionable and desirable size and shape, or the best shape to hang clothes on, often bears little resemblance to what most people look like. The fact that tall, thin people are easy to dress and can model the clothes, and thus become the style, does not change the fact that to sell those clothes you will have to be adapt them to what people look like. We could go on in this vein forever—I admit that I have never been able to buy an off-the-peg suit—but we have to try to insert a degree of reality.

We should also address the language of weight. We talk about weight all the time and imply from it that we are referring to fat. However, if you become more physically active it is possible that you will gain weight because muscle is heavier than fat. You can reduce all your measurements and gain weight—that is quiet easy to do. Anyone who plays a sport or takes a reasonable degree of physical activity will, at the very least, increase the density of their muscles. So the language we use and the way in which we approach this issue has to change.

I have ranted against the body mass index, which was clearly designed for an inactive person in the 1950s. I have been dead for 20 years according to the BMI, as has every other rugby player on the planet. Yet it is still actively used despite the fact that it has been proven again and again not to imply anything. We cannot counter it because people go, “Oh, that weight is not right”. We must have a better degree of education about what is required in that, with an awareness that if you are doing physical activities your body will change. For example, how many tennis players look like models? Not many. Indeed, somebody commented that the last female Wimbledon champion did not look like that, and they got their knuckles severely rapped for saying it. We must do something about that because this is a person at the top of an area of very competitive activity.

If sport provides help and a series of answers for these people, how do we access it? Looking at the same information as the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, used earlier, I note that it talks about people lacking the skills to do well in sport but not liking the activities in PE. That is not uncommon, because we do not invest in basic physical literacy and good introductory skills. Traditionally it has been far too easy to concentrate on the person who does sport naturally and well—they get the attention, not the person below them. If you do that, you allow for the idea of casual—use sport—I do not like the term “non-competitive”. The fact is we do not have that idea of sport. What you get is a long structured list, and you are expected to turn up every week to complete a series of activities. Being able to take on a casual, non-organised, occasional type of activity with a degree of confidence means that you will have greater enthusiasm for it. If, for instance, you know how to hold a tennis racquet properly and can hit a shot that enables someone to rally with you, then that becomes available, it is easier to do. Racquet sports provide us with excellent casual-use sports activity. You only need two or four of you to do it. My own sport, rugby union, needs 31.

We need to get the skill levels, and the educational levels, right. Most introductory-level types of education, even if they are based on one sport, open you up to other sports: you learn the language of movement and how to be instructed, and when somebody tells you to move your body you get an idea why you have to move your body in order to be better at it. For instance, in racquet sports you learn how to move your feet in order to make a shot. This type of education has to be instilled fairly early if we are to have easy access throughout. We can of course go back later, but it is easier this way. We must try to get into this structure.

One of the ways to improve the situation is to encourage more women to get involved in coaching. At the moment it is quite common for men to coach women; at senior level it is expected. The reverse is very unusual. There is no great difference in the way a woman throws her foot to kick a ball in the right direction to the way a man does it. I have not heard that said and cannot see why it should be true. Yet professional coaching at all levels, including high-level sport, seems to be dominated by men. When we cut into this, and those sports involved make it no longer noteworthy for a woman to coach men, we will have taken a step forward. I do not aim for parity yet, because we must take one step at a time, but we are encouraging women into some of the traditionally male-dominated sports. Surely it is time coaching followed.

To conclude, if we encourage people to be active, and they see their bodies as functional, rather than as clothes-horses, or something seen as an image in itself, then we stand a chance of giving people a better body image, so that they see themselves as individuals who do something as opposed to someone who just stands there. Take the preparation of a male model before a modelling job; it is described as being like the process a bodybuilder goes through before a competition. After amassing the muscle you go on a crash diet, strip away fluid then pump yourself full of sugar to have your photo shoot. That sounds rather more painful than Photoshop, and apparently it is about as sustainable in real life. Across the board, we must get people more used to the idea that their body is a functional thing that will allow them to do various forms of activity. In this way we will start to attack this neurosis and possibly take a step forward.

My Lords, given that both the previous speakers are sportspeople of considerable stature, I will just add to the very powerful speech of my noble friend Lady Grey-Thompson by talking a little about the landscape in which young women grow up. Unless we look at the entire landscape, we really cannot address the problem of sport, and we will never get beyond the rather shameful statistic that only 12% of 14 year-old girls are doing the recommended amount of exercise. That statistic promises a multitude of future problems for their health and probably for the public purse.

Adolescence is a time of extreme self-consciousness as the body makes the crucial developmental journey from childhood to adulthood. It is a journey fraught with hormonal changes, where the relative anonymity of being camouflaged in a group of little people suddenly changes when differences in shape and image become very manifest. Clifford Nass, who was a professor of communications at Stanford University, did a lot of work on investigating the way that young people see themselves as a reflection of how they see others. He found that the narrow definitions of social success and desirability that are fed to young women distort their self-image, and that heavy users of social media are measurably more negative about their own image and emotional state as they seek to emulate the unachievable. The message of that is almost identical in the Government’s report on body confidence, led by the Minister for Women and Equalities, Jo Swinson. It is in this context that we ask young women to make mature choices about their bodies.

For young women, one of the biggest obstacles to participating is the question of what their friends are prioritising. What we increasingly understand from the data that we are collecting is that they are prioritising their bodies for the way they look and not for what they can do, as the noble Lord said. In this context, it is hugely important that young girls have safe and secure opportunities to talk about their fears and anxieties around their bodies, for example in high-quality PHSE, in addition to the opportunities they may or may not have within their own families. It is important that they see women celebrated for qualities other than their ability to wear a dress, and it is essential for them to be invited into the sports arena in a participatory way. There is some dispute about competition, but I would say that in team sports you learn not only the limits of your own body but the strengths and limits of other people’s contributions. That is a social skill and a skill for life way beyond that of an individual’s fitness.

The Sport England activity programme report says that girls leave school only half as likely as boys to meet the recommended activity level, and one-third of 16 year-old girls do no physical activity at all. It is crucial, even within the terms of this debate, that we imagine how adult women provide role models—or, I would suggest, a lack of role models—for young women. We have to resource and promote activity among the mothers of these young girls, otherwise we will never break the cycle.

For a number of reasons recorded in the register, I visit scores of schools each year. So many girls describe the sports changing room as if it were a gangplank. It is simply the worst moment in their time at school. This needs to be addressed. As my noble friend said, there are specific things here.

I am also a bit concerned as a non-pro about some of the murmurings that I am beginning to hear that sport has become more competitive and that this focus on the elite, the good and the excellent is further alienating young women who should be being encouraged to participate.

I wonder whether Her Majesty’s Government could insist that UK Sport and Sport England take a much stronger position on gender and make their funding of professional sports bodies conditional on imaginative and proactive programmes designed to redress the balance between sportswomen and their male colleagues. As it stands, there are six governing bodies, including cycling, that do not have a single woman on their board.

How important is it for the young women whom we are discussing in this Room that the vilification and objectification of sportswomen, such as Rebecca Adlington or Marion Bartoli, to name just two, should be simply unacceptable? Those women, both talented and triumphant in reaching their aspirations—and ours for them—are a crucial part of the solution. John Inverdale and Derek McGovern today are part of the problem. I feel that all publicly funded bodies—indeed, all sports bodies—should speak publicly and loudly against this kind of offensive abuse of women at the top of their game and the top of their bodies.

It is a miserable state of affairs that the promise of the Olympic legacy one year on has been found so wanting. The Beyond 2012Outstanding Physical Education For All report states that very few schools have found a balance between participation and elite performance. I am consistently disappointed that the Minister for Education fails to recognise that we must educate the whole child in drama, art, relationships and sexual education, and sport. Happy, fit and confident young people are ready to learn and excel in the ways that we wish them to.

Sport delivers physical confidence and competence. It is essential for health, and it plays an important part in rehearsing social relationships. It allows a young person to feel their strength rather than worry about how they are seen. It helps brain plasticity and developmental growth. As my noble friend said, it is disappointing that DCMS, the Department for Education and the Department of Health publish report after report, all of which we were sent by the Library, yet we do not have a joined-up and effective post-Olympic strategy that even begins to address the statistic that only 12% of girls undertake the recommended amount of activity. That young women do not participate is a problem for us all. In the words of the previous debate, we must not leave them behind.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, for initiating this debate today, contributing in a thoughtful way and raising some important and complicated issues, as did the other speakers. We have had a very wise and well informed debate, and I am conscious that I may not be able to live up to it because, rather like the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, I can talk about sport more than I can do it. I occasionally put my running shoes on—not often enough, I am sure.

The fact is that we have been faced with some pretty depressing statistics about young women’s alienation from sport and exercise. If we are not careful, this will develop—we can already see it developing—into on the one hand an epidemic of obesity among young girls and on the other a whole strata of young women with eating disorders or who resort to cosmetic surgery as a solution. That cannot be right and it shows a real distortion in the minds of young people that that is thought to be the solution to having a beautiful body. If we allow those trends to carry on, it is predicted, for the first time since records began, that the next generation will have a lower life expectancy that the previous one—and that when we have so much good food and capacity for healthy living. It is a real challenge to us. Meanwhile, as noble Lords said, an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image heard evidence that more than half the public had a negative body image, and girls as young as five worry about how they look.

We can place clear responsibility for this at the door of the media. We have heard some examples of that this evening. But that is an easy cop-out because, in a sense, we all bear some responsibility for what has happened. All of us, to a greater or lesser degree, have subliminally absorbed some of those messages. Even people who should be more intelligent and knowledgeable seek to improve their body shape and allow their self-confidence to be damaged by images of people with a more perfect body. For example, I think I have been on a diet for most of my adult life. I am probably still on one. I am not quite sure when the last one finished and the new one started. I would like to think I am a sensible grown-up but I still allow myself to be trapped by those sorts of quick fixes about how to get my body back in shape.

As noble Lords have said, although exercise has a crucial role to play, nutrition and the whole concept of food—understanding it and a healthy relationship to it—are equally important in this whole debate. For example, schoolgirls often oscillate between skipping meals and snacking on calories at fast-food outlets. They get into a cycle of unhealthy eating and body rejection. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, made the point that this is not just about girls but about all young people, yet there is a particular problem about girls. A research project by University College London showed that only 38% of girls had an hour’s exercise a day compared to 68% of boys. We can probably all identify with that: it feels about right.

How do we address this problem? We have to start with the school experience. Regrettably, we are still picking up the pieces from the early decision of the coalition to pull the funds from the school sports partnerships. For the first time, we had a successful model of school activities for all ages, combined with targets for every child to do at least two hours’ PE a week. We were well on the way to achieving that goal when the funding was withdrawn. Although some of the money has been reinstated following massive protest, it no longer has the same coverage, co-ordination or clout. In retrospect, that decision was a disaster for sport in schools, particularly as it coincided with the Olympics. It is not surprising that the recent Lords Select Committee on the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy was so critical of what had happened in school sports over that period. What steps are being taken to retrieve the situation and ensure that, going forward, we provide a comprehensive PE programme in schools?

There is another aspect of school sports policy, one that has already been touched upon, where the Government have been equally misguided. Unfortunately, Michael Gove’s decision to focus on competitive team sports has been a complete turn-off for many girls. This has been compounded by the Prime Minister’s disparaging comments about Indian dance. Sadly, both examples illustrate that the Government do not really understand the psychology of teenage girls. We have heard some examples of the problems of teenage girls and how anxious they feel about being expected to join in some school sports activities. Can the Minister reassure us that the Government have now got the message that we need a range of exercise options to ensure the widespread participation of girls in school sports?

Surely, the strategy has to be to start addressing the issue in early years. We have to find ways of making sport fun; anything, I would say, to keep girls moving so that they get to the point where they feel the natural high that you get from exercise. If you have not had it once or only have it occasionally, you do not crave it any more, but we all know that when you are exercising well and properly it is both physically and, in the same way, mentally rewarding. We somehow need to get them on that loop of progressive physical and mental benefit. We obviously welcome the money that the Government recently invested in primary school sports but, again, we are concerned that it has a two-year limit. I am anxious that that is not enough to ingrain a new sports ethos. Perhaps the Minister can also address that point.

If we are to be effective, we have to create a “sport for all” policy which is not just about the achievement of the most talented and able. Sport in schools should be about establishing healthy lifestyles that can lead to a healthy body weight in adulthood as well. As the noble Baroness pointed out, we need to break the cycle whereby young girls are so embarrassed about their bodies that they refuse to wear sports clothes, which they feel would expose them to ridicule. For example, a recent study found that 41% of women avoid exercise altogether because they are worried about their appearance and the clothes that they would be expected to wear. A survey by the beauty product brand Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty showed that 22% of girls would never go to a beach or a pool for similar reasons—because they are concerned about the clothes that they would have to wear in their circumstances—and that is just very depressing.

We will not break these cycles of the lack of exercise and body loathing unless we educate young women to rise above the advertising and social media hype, and love their bodies for what they are. There is a role for role models, particularly sporting icons, but it is wrong to place too much emphasis on them. What we need are images of women being active in all sorts of aspects of their lives—as second nature and as an essential part of their lives. Media coverage of women’s sports could also do a great deal to spark interest and participation. We could also do a great deal more to invest not only in women coaches but in local women’s sports clubs.

The Government’s Body Confidence campaign is a good initiative but it needs to be rolled out as part of a comprehensive PSHE curriculum. Perhaps the Minister could update us on the plans for the roll-out of this campaign. At the same time, we have to accept that health professionals need better training, so that they are better able, particularly in schools, to address the issues of obesity and body image when they talk to young people.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that the use of the body mass index as an indicator of health is very limiting. Perhaps we should be looking at replacing it, or supplementing it with more accurate measures of overall health, such as cardiovascular fitness, waist circumference and body fat composition. There is a debate to be had about that. Can the Minister confirm whether such a move is being considered? Ultimately, I believe that we will only improve young women’s body image and physical health if we can find a way of making sport enjoyable again at all ages. That is our real challenge and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on the issue.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson for tabling this important debate and opening it so effectively. The debate has been wide-ranging, as was the previous debate, and I may need to write to cover anything that I do not have time to address.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and other noble Lords are right. There is no doubt that sport and physical fitness play a significant role in promoting a positive body image among young women. Similarly, women with good body confidence are far more likely to participate in sport. Participation in sport does not just get women fitter, it improves their resilience, confidence and self-belief, as noble Lords have said. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, it is physically and mentally beneficial. Noble Lords will be familiar with my honourable friend Jo Swinson’s work on body confidence. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for her tribute to it and the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for her reference to it.

We know that girls and women, in particular, but also boys, can have low body confidence which affects their very sense of self. Low body image can contribute to poor mental well-being, eating disorders and a number of risky behaviours. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, made clear, the media’s focus on an unrealistic image can be very damaging; my noble friend Lord Addington also took up that point. It is not just girls who are affected. Studies show that one-third of adolescent boys have been on a diet to change their body shape. That is chilling.

We have been working with the media, advertising, retail and fashion industries to encourage a more diverse and realistic representation of human bodies. I note what my noble friend Lord Addington said about what bodies are for, as opposed to what they might look like. Clearly, the way that the media represent bodies affects involvement in sport. Almost a quarter of girls aged seven to 21 do not participate in exercise because they are unhappy with their body image. I was struck by what the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, said about changing for PE and games.

More than half of the bullying experienced by young people focuses on appearance, so the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and others are right: poor body confidence can block people from involvement in sport; yet involvement in sport can promote better body confidence. Sport has the potential to show young people that they can master new skills and increase their self-esteem, whether individually or in teams. There has been some discussion of that.

Physical activity helps children developmentally and can often promote a sense of well-being. My noble friend Lord Addington is clearly alive and well despite whatever his BMI might be, which is clearly made up of some weighty muscles. I can vouch for that by his effectiveness when it comes to the annual parliamentary tug-of-war. You want to have him on your side.

The point has been made to me that we need to help not just young women but middle-aged and older women to tackle negative messages. We have packs for parents and teachers of primary school children, which have been developed with the Media Smart trust. They have been downloaded 35,000 times, so they are obviously being used. They will include a guide for parents of teenagers during 2014. I hope that the noble Baronesses, Lady Kidron and Lady Jones, will be pleased to hear about that.

Obviously, we recognise that competition is not for everyone—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron. Just as people are diverse, sports in schools need to be diverse. We share the goals of noble Lords in trying both to address body image and to encourage children, young people and everyone to keep themselves fit through various physical activities or through involvement in competitive sport.

I assure noble Lords that the Government remain committed to delivering a lasting sports participation legacy from London 2012. The long-term trends show that we are on track; 1.4 million more people are playing sport regularly since we won the bid in 2005. We are committed to building on that and are delighted that there are good underlying trends in the number of young people, women and disabled people playing sport regularly. Recent data show that 6.8 million women do sport at least once a week, every week. This demonstrates an increase of half a million from 2005. However, we are not sanguine about this and realise that it needs to go a great deal further.

There is still a gender gap in sports participation, but it is shrinking and our ambition is to close it by 2022. That is why, through Sport England, we have put in place a strong programme of different approaches designed to get more women playing sport each week. These include investing £2.3 million of lottery funding in the I Will If You Will project, a year-long pilot in Bury that began earlier this year. This project focuses on listening to why women are not attracted to sport and exploring ways to give them the fitness opportunities they want. There is scope to roll out the emerging solutions across the country so that others can share in the programme’s insights. There are now 100 girl-only satellite clubs in secondary schools which offer opportunities to take up a variety of sports, including netball and football.

My noble friend Lord Addington referred to coaching. Some 31% of sports coaches in the UK are women and Sport England is investing £5 million to improve the standard and availability of coaching. That includes a pilot project to recruit and retain 500 new female coaches in the south-east. The aim is to roll this out nationally from 2015 and to recruit up to 5,000 new female coaches. We recognise the importance of what the noble Lord is saying.

In addition to these activities, we recognise that we need to focus on the involvement of women in sport at the highest level. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport recently set up a women and sport advisory board. It has some impressive people serving on it and they are already providing new ideas and support to take the programme forward. We are determined to increase women’s participation in sport, to raise the profile of women’s sport in the media and to get more women into senior roles within sports bodies.

One of the challenges this group will examine is how to raise the profile of women’s sports coverage. In many ways it is encouraging to hear the noise that is being made, not least by women journalists, about this and to see it being pushed forward. Having been familiar with this field for many years, it is good to hear different voices coming in and arguing the same case. The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation estimates that before the 2012 Games, only 5% of sports coverage was dedicated to women’s sport. While broadcasters, in particular, have improved things recently, we are always looking at ways of boosting the media profile of women’s sport.

We are also working to help make sports boards more balanced and representative bodies, and Sport England and UK Sport are leading by example on this with women in senior management positions within the organisations at board and CEO level. I should tell the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, that we expect all national governing bodies for sport to have at least 25% of women on their boards by 2017, and 24 out of 57 national governing bodies already meet this target.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked me about school sports. She will be aware that despite the previous Government’s no doubt admirable efforts to try to improve them in their time in government, and despite a £2.4 billion investment, only two out of five pupils were competing regularly, which did not seem to be the most effective way of moving the issue forward. Schools obviously remain free to work in partnership if they wish, and a £300 million fund has gone into school sports, which is in the hands of head teachers. We are seeking above all to increase participation for everybody right across the age range. I recognise what the previous Government did and hope that we can take forward that further and wider participation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, asked about working across departments. Sometimes I think that we Lords Whips are joined-up government. I used to deputise in health and DCMS matters, and I now lead for GEO and various other things. From my time working across all these departments, I know that these issues come up in every department and I assure the noble Baroness that there is discussion between them. GEO is currently housed within the DCMS, so Helen Grant is in both, and Jo Swinson is working across departments from BIS to GEO and the DCMS.

I realise that I am about to run out of time. In conclusion, it is enough to make me weep to hear about Rebecca Adlington. I know, tangentially, as it were, how much she has put in to reach this point. My kids trained at the same swimming club as her fiancé, Harry Needs, and I know about the early mornings, the late nights, the galas and the falling into bed absolutely exhausted. That is what she has done, and much more, to get to where she is. She should be proud of what she has achieved, and we should be proud of what she has achieved. As we celebrate people’s diversity and encourage girls, as well as boys, to have the confidence to participate in sport, keep themselves fit and find satisfaction in doing so, we will help to address this linkage between how people view themselves and their body and the way they participate in society and, through that, in sport.

Committee adjourned at 7.42 pm.