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Covid-19: Women’s Sport

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to support women’s sport after the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, it is vital that we continue to strive for greater equality and opportunity in sport. I am keen that we maintain the focus on women’s sport and build on the fantastic progress of the last few years. That is why on 29 May we wrote to the Football Association, the Rugby Football Union, the Rugby Football League, the Lawn Tennis Association and the England and Wales Cricket Board to ask about their plans to promote sport at the elite level and to grow women and girls’ wider participation, and how we can support them to do that.

I thank my noble friend for her Answer. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Saracens Sport Foundation. We know that many girls drop out of sport and physical activity by the age of 14. What does my noble friend think can be done to improve the situation?

My noble friend is right that more needs to be done to tackle the decline of physical activity through secondary school. One way we are approaching that is through Sport England, which is providing free training for two teachers in every secondary school in England to help foster positive attitudes towards physical education and sport. We recently announced a £17 million investment so that that additional support can go to primary schools as well across the country.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a director of Carlisle United. Recent years have been very exciting for women’s sport, including football. As the Minister knows, many of the lower Football League clubs have given great encouragement to women’s football locally. Now of course they find themselves in great financial difficulty themselves. Will the Minister do her best to ensure that none of this valuable contribution and co-operation is lost?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. As I have declared previously in this House, I am a shareholder in Bath City Football Club—so we are as one on the importance of grass-roots sport and football, and the Government are clear and committed that that part of the fabric of our community should be maintained.

My Lords, community sports centres have proved to be key in getting women involved in sport and keeping them there. What will the Government do to encourage them to open up as quickly as possible?

The Government have been working very closely through the recreation and leisure task force, as the noble Baroness may be aware, to plan for the reopening of community sports centres. They play a crucial role in keeping everyone active, including younger and older women. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State indicated that our aspiration is to open those centres in mid-July, if it is safe to do so.

My Lords, is it not the case that one of the best ways of improving the opportunities for women and generally diverse communities is by changing the structure of the governing bodies of so many sports? Could my noble friend consider recommending to governing bodies that they adopt something similar to the Rooney Rule to enhance their diversity?

My noble friend is absolutely right. Women now make up an average of 40% of board members across bodies funded by Sport England and UK Sport. Three-quarters of these sports have already achieved the gender benchmark of 30%, as set out in the Code for Sports Governance. My noble friend may have seen that on 11 June the Sports Minister announced his intention to review the code more broadly, with a view to introducing a target for more black, Asian and minority-ethnic representation on the boards of sports governing bodies.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the biggest steps forward has been that it is normal to see elite-level female competitors taking part on our TV screens? Will the Government look at why, in great football matches of the past, the women’s competitions that were shown were not given more prominence?

This is a highly relevant topic. The noble Lord is right about the opportunity to broadcast some of the inspiring women’s games that have taken place. Obviously, the editorial independence of broadcasters is key, but we are also clear that the visibility of women’s sport is critical.

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of Northamptonshire County Cricket Club. Will the Minister recognise the enormous progress that has been made in cricket, particularly women’s and girls’ cricket, in recent years? Will she also listen sympathetically to any proposals that come from the ECB, in light of the financial constraints this summer, and look urgently at getting club cricket, in particular for girls and boys, on the pitches, because at the moment they cannot even start to play the game?

I am sure that my noble friend also was pleased to see the appointment of Clare Connor as the first female president of the MCC. There is a great commitment to getting cricket started again. The county cricket season starts at the beginning of August; the ECB is committed to staging women’s cricket during 2020. Thanks to Sky’s coverage of the women’s game, we will see free-to-air coverage of women’s cricket return on the BBC later this season.

My Lords, women’s sport depends on getting girls and young women active, but they frequently have a negative association with sport, especially as they go through the changes of adolescence, because the physical exposure too often leads to body shaming. Does the Minister agree that the pressure on female athletes, laid bare by Mary Cain’s brave testimony, is the tip of the iceberg in a culture in which body shaming is all too prevalent? What are the Government doing to educate sports coaches about the negative impact of body shaming and to drive this harmful practice out of the sports arena?

The noble Baroness raises an important issue. I point to the campaign This Girl Can, of which I am sure she is well aware. It has highlighted and celebrated how normal girls and women look and has inspired 3.9 million women and girls to get active since it started in 2015. That has been an important part of this, but the body shaming issues she raises are real, and I think are even more so for women of colour, who can feel pressure to whiten their bodies as well as reshape them.

My Lords, as a Lady Taverner, I too welcome the appointment of the former captain of the England women’s cricket team as the first woman president of the MCC. Does the Minister think that one way forward in women’s sport is to appoint more women to high-level posts and to increase funding to the level of men’s games?

I think the noble Baroness knows the answer to her question. Of course senior role models are absolutely critical, and we are fortunate to have several in this House, including the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, with her leadership role in women’s football at the FA. However, we need role models at every level in sport, not just the most elite, and that is part of what we are working on with all the different bodies involved.

The Minister has acknowledged that young sportswomen need opportunities. What financial support are this Government willing to provide to improve these opportunities?

Particularly in relation to Covid, we have made a generous funding package available. More broadly, we are working with the governing bodies of all sports to make sure that resources are committed to the women’s game and that the positive momentum we have seen in recent years is continued.