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Women’s Rugby: Government Support

Volume 682: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T.C. Davies.)

What better way to adjourn than to celebrate the Minister’s 50th birthday by discussing Government support for women’s rugby?

It is well past my bedtime, but I know that this debate will be well worth the wait. Before I go on, however, I should like to wish the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), a very happy birthday. I am sure he cannot think of a better way to spend his 50th birthday than talking about women’s rugby with us. I wish him many happy returns.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to you for granting me this Adjournment debate on a subject very close to my heart. Being from Wales and choosing to talk about rugby in my first Adjournment debate is, I admit, something of a cliché, but across the world, more than 2.7 million women are registered rugby players, making up over a third of all rugby players in members’ unions, and some time ago I was proud to be one of their number. I took up playing women’s rugby when I was at university, and I proudly played tighthead prop for King’s College for four years. In my third year, I was fortunate enough to spend a year teaching English in France and so, to make friends, I joined the Gourdon rugby team, again playing in the women’s first team. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment playing rugby, even the occasional bruise and graze, and especially the social aspect of the team.

I found sport at a relatively young age when my knees did not creak and I could bounce back after 80 minutes of full contact rugby, but taking up sport at any age is a life-changing experience. The transformative lifelong rewards go far beyond health and fitness. I spoke recently to a former Welsh women’s rugby international and current referee, and she was clear that she would not be who she is without rugby. She said that rugby had provided her with the confidence, skills and work ethic to be successful not just in sports but in her work and personal life. Above all, playing rugby provided her with a sense of community, no matter where life took her.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this Adjournment debate on a topic that is also close to my heart, particularly because she is talking about wellbeing in the community of women’s rugby, which extends to France. I also played my rugby for the women’s team at Benetton in Treviso during my year abroad, so obviously there are many links with rugby. Does she agree that we need to ensure that the confidence that all sport gives women continues, particularly during the pandemic, and that women are encouraged to enjoy sport, do more sport and exercise more?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I will go on to talk about some of those things later in my speech, but if we can make just one point here this evening, it is that more women need to think of ways to prioritise sport and fitness for themselves, because the untold benefits to their mental and physical health really cannot be overestimated. She and I do not agree on everything, but we certainly agree on that.

Perhaps it is the love of the game of rugby that motivates the members of the Welsh national team to compete unpaid against countries such as England, which has offered 28 full-time 15-a-side contracts to women players since January last year. With that in mind, I welcome the Welsh Rugby Union’s recent announcement of its intention to make the Welsh women’s rugby squad semi or fully professional in the future. That is not only a recognition of the hard work that these sportswomen put in but an investment in the future of the elite women’s game in Wales, and I hope to see it come to fruition very soon.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate; I spoke to her beforehand and sought her permission to make this intervention. Ulster Rugby has, in many ways, led in this area. The Ulster Rugby team wear the same shirts as the Ulster women’s rugby team, so whenever we see that shirt, we see not just a man but a woman. Does she agree that that decision gives equality and recognises the phenomenal job that the ladies do in representing Ulster? Their thrilling matches are every bit as worthy of the shirt as a men’s game, and the enjoyment is equal.

I feel honoured to have been intervened on by the hon. Gentleman in my first Adjournment debate—I have truly arrived in this House. I could not agree with him more. Anything that raises the visibility of the women’s game and puts it on a par with the men’s game is welcome, and I congratulate Ulster Rugby on that step.

The elite and grassroots of women’s rugby in Wales are closely interlinked, and I pay tribute to the rugby clubs in my constituency who demonstrate that. Rebekah O’Loughlin had her first cap as a Gwernyfed Ladies player, a fierce women’s team in Talgarth near Brecon in my constituency. Wales captain Carys Phillips even takes the time to act as an ambassador for Red Kites, a female rugby hub for ages six to 18, also based in my constituency. So-called hubs such as Red Kites, which provide the opportunity for girls-only rugby, have seen an explosion of interest and participation. I spoke with the Red Kites female hub lead, and they stressed that the game is open to all, and those of all abilities can benefit from the family, team spirit and life skills that come from playing the game. Red Kites is just one of 32 hubs around Wales.

I thank the hon. Lady for her generosity in giving way. Because of local lockdowns, Welsh Rugby Union training had stopped. I visited West Swansea Hawks in Gowerton in my constituency and saw its fantastic set-up for covid-regulated training sessions. I pay tribute to all the women’s rugby hubs throughout Wales and the United Kingdom, who are doing a great job in keeping people safe.

Again, the hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I congratulate all those rugby clubs who have worked incredibly hard to consider social distancing measures. It is a contact sport, and it is very much to be celebrated that we are getting community rugby back up and running again.

The number of girls playing rugby in the 95 schools and colleges with full-time rugby hub officers has gone from fewer than 200 to almost 10,000 in the space of just a few years. I can only hope that each and every one of those girls enjoys rugby as much as I did. While I am the first to admit that rugby is my sport of choice, I am a firm believer that all sports provide lifelong benefits. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that women and girls are still 20% less likely to participate in team sports than men and boys. There were, many contributing factors, but Sport England research has found that the main reason for this lack of participation is fear—something that I am sure all women in the House can relate to.

Does the hon. Member agree that it is high time that women’s rugby teams, such as Coventry Welsh Ladies in my constituency, enjoyed equality of esteem with that afforded to men’s games?

I do not disagree. I think anybody watching the women’s game derives exactly the same amount of value and entertainment, and it is a sporting spectacle in the same way.

The fear identified in Sport England’s research as the main barrier to participation is a fear of being unable to participate, a fear of the judgment of others and, for many, a fear of choosing to spend time on themselves rather than their families. That fear is in addition to many other factors. For many women rugby players I spoke to, there were practical barriers to participation too, such as not having a club nearby, having to travel long distances to fixtures and, in one club’s case, only having two changing rooms, which meant that the club was unable to arrange a fixture at the same time as a men’s match was going on. That said, I am pleased to hear that over the past decade women’s sport in the UK has been on an upward trajectory, and I wish to pay tribute to all those who have brought that about, particularly the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), whom we look forward to welcoming back to her place in this House very soon.

Increased resources from international and national bodies, alongside funding from brands, such as Vitality’s sponsorship of netball and Barclays’ funding of the women’s super league, have resulted in the growth of a variety of women’s sport. I wholeheartedly endorse campaigns such as This Girl Can, which has seen nearly 3 million women get more active, across all sports. The Welsh Rugby Union’s schemes such as Rookie Rugby and Rugby Fit are very much to be celebrated, as they challenge the perception that rugby is not for girls. This has allowed far more women and girls to reap the physical and mental benefits of playing.

However, it would not be 2020 if I did not have to mention the dreaded C word. Coronavirus is threatening the momentum generated over the past decade for women’s sport. During the lockdown earlier this year 42% of women, compared with 35% of men, reported a drop in activity levels. With a move en masse towards working from home, 32% of women said that they could not prioritise doing exercise during the lockdown as they had too much to do for others. Some 25% of women became worried that getting back into the habit of exercise would be hard, which I can say from personal experience is very true. As organised sport and exercise were put on hold for men and women alike, we saw the loss of events that showcase gender parity in sport, such as the Tokyo Olympics and The Hundred cricket competition. The visibility that these events provide for women’s elite sport is vital to making women’s sport a natural and accepted part of the sporting landscape. It can also have an impact on grassroots participation by highlighting to women and girls the possibilities of what they can do. At the elite level, although some men’s sport has started to return, women’s sport is further behind. The women’s premier 15s rugby was cancelled because of covid and started back only on 10 October, well after the men’s game, which restarted in August. In order for it to start significant changes have been made to the game so as to reduce face-to-face contact time and therefore avoid the expenses required for regular covid testing—these changes were not made to the men’s game.

Unfortunately, as sport returns, fans will not be returning. Admissions to matches provide a key funding source, particularly for rugby. Without that money, the WRU announced yesterday that its revenue was down from the £90 million level in 2019. The Rugby Football Union has predicted potentially losing up to £142 million and the rugby league union is also expecting losses, with the cancellation of the first home ashes series since 2003. As the rugby unions tighten their belts, I am extremely worried that women’s rugby will be the hardest hit. The RFU has already taken the decision to cut financial support to each of the 10 teams in the premier 15s by 25%, which means that each club will be receiving just £56,000, a reduction from the £75,000 this season.

At a grassroots level, clubs I have spoken to also have serious concerns about the finances of the women’s game. Some are worried that because women’s and girls’ rugby does not receive the same financial support as the men’s game, they will struggle to restart training and matches. But it is not all bad news, because in July the WRU committed to providing an additional £600,000 fund to support clubs in Wales. Enabled by the UK Government funding of more than £4 billion to cope with coronavirus, the Welsh Government have recently announced a £14 million fund for Wales’s sport and leisure sector. Significant support has also been provided to clubs by the Be Active Wales Fund, which has also seen funding awarded to seven bids from rugby union which positively target women and girls.

I was pleased to see the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport work with Sport England to make up to £195 million of funding available to help the sport and physical activity sector through the ongoing coronavirus crisis. The UK Government are also making more than £11 million of Sport England investment in the Rugby Football League. In May, the Government announced that the RFL would receive a further £16 million cash injection to safeguard the immediate future of the sport for the communities it serves.

I welcome the investment of up to £10 million in rugby league facilities to help drive the legacy from the 2021 rugby league world cup, which will, for the first time, see a combined men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournament. The visibility provided by the 2021 rugby league world cup and other future events, such as the Birmingham Commonwealth games, could really help to boost participation in women’s rugby. As the organisation Women In Sport has said, “Given the gap in participation between women and men, which has widened during covid, the visibility of women’s sport has never been more important.”

While I welcome the much-needed funds being made available for sport across the UK, we must fund the change we want to see in the sport. As we recover from covid-19, we should be aiming to increase the participation of women and girls in sport, the accessibility of women’s sport and its visibility. At the very least, we should not be prioritising men’s sport over women’s.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. A year ago, Wrexham rugby club set up the Valkyries rugby cluster, which recruits young women from across north-east Wales. It is vital that we in the House promote the role of women in rugby and get whatever financial support we can. I appreciate her doing this tonight.

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour. I would be delighted to learn more about rugby in north Wales. As far as I am aware, it is more of a south and mid-Wales sport, but I would love to see even more participation in north Wales, where people seem to be obsessed with the funny-shaped ball, not the proper-shaped one.

Here is my ask to our Governments: to the UK Government, the Welsh Government, sporting bodies and rugby organisations alike, please ensure that women’s sports receive their fair share of this emergency funding and that we continue to encourage more women to play sport.

When I began playing rugby at university, we were in a tiny minority and were seen as women playing a man’s game. That is far from true now, so let us not allow all the progress we have seen in recent years to be undone.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) for tabling the debate and those who have already contributed; many of them are very knowledgeable on the subject. It is a genuine pleasure to be talking about women’s sport—one of my top political priorities —on my birthday. I can look my daughter in the eye and tell her that this is what I spend my time doing.

It is vital that we continue to strive for greater equality and opportunity in sport. Women’s rugby is a great example of the benefits that sport and physical activity can bring. It boosts self-esteem, builds resilience, is empowering and is fun to play. We have seen a number of successes in the professional game, with the Red Roses winning the women’s six nations championship on 15 out of 24 occasions, and winning the grand slam 14 times and the triple crown 21, although I appreciate that my hon. Friend, being a Welsh MP, might not be as enthusiastic about that celebration as I am. She articulated the great progress being made by Welsh women’s rugby, which is no surprise for such a proud rugby nation. Sport is primarily a devolved matter, although much of what I have to say applies across the UK.

It is vital that we maintain our focus on women’s sport and build on the fantastic progress made in recent years. I pay tribute to those national governing bodies and competitions that have showcased women’s sport in their behind-closed-doors programmes over recent months. It was great to see the return of the women’s Premier 15s on Saturday, for example.

Sponsorship and commercial investment are key to growing elite sport, so I welcome the recent announcement that Allianz Insurance has agreed a sponsorship deal with the Rugby Football Union, which will see funds flow to women’s rugby teams. That partnership means the Premier 15s, which is the top-flight women’s domestic rugby competition in England, will receive a landmark investment to grow women’s and girls’ rugby, but I recognise the impact that covid has had on sport and that women’s sport has been hit particularly hard. That is why I met governing bodies, including the RFU, the Rugby Football League and the chief executive officer of the charity Women In Sport, over the summer to explore the challenges covid has brought and discuss what more can be done. I am happy to say that there was a real shared commitment to protecting investment in women’s sport and promoting its growth.

I know covid has had an impact on rugby and the Rugby Football Union has had to make difficult decisions, with cuts in its workforce and a reduction in its investment in grassroots development. I want to take this opportunity to assure hon. Members that I am personally committed to helping women’s sport to come out of the current crisis stronger than ever, and I am working closely with the sector to ensure that that happens. As I have said before at this Dispatch Box, and as I have made clear to sporting bodies in receipt of public funding, I expect a fair share of that public funding to benefit women’s sport and physical activity.

As we have seen in recent months, sports clubs have an impact and reach that goes well beyond sport. During the pandemic, they have proven themselves bedrocks of their communities, hosting test centres, looking after the vulnerable and organising food deliveries. Hon. Members will be aware of the incredibly challenging circumstances that many of our sports currently face. My Department continues to work closely with sports, including both codes of rugby, to understand what support they might need.

In May this year, rugby league received a £16 million support package from the Government to safeguard the immediate future of the sport for the communities it serves. The Government are also supporting the Rugby Football League with more than £11 million of Sport England investment over the 2017 to 2021 period.

Women’s sport as a whole has come a long way in recent years. To choose just two events, the women’s Six Nations championship and women’s rugby world cup are fantastic events that shine a spotlight on brilliant women rugby stars. We are seeing the popularity of women’s sport continue to grow, with record audiences attending international and domestic women’s events and watching them on television.

These events are inspiring more women and girls to become active. The latest data from Sport England’s Active Lives survey in April this year showed that before covid, there were more than 210,000 more active women than in the previous year, and we want to continue to encourage more women and girls to get active and build on the momentum that initiatives such as Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign have generated.

Domestically and globally, female rugby participation is growing at a faster rate than male participation. Overall, the RFU has said it is seeing 17% year-on-year growth in participation; as of June this year, there were 40,000 female registered players in more than 400 clubs, up from just 13,000 in 2012. Furthermore, 90,000 girls are taking part in rugby through schools, colleges and universities. The RFU has also developed a range of programmes to encourage women and girls to take part. Inner Warrior is a series of camps, which has benefited from Sport England funding, aimed at introducing women to rugby in a fun and accessible way. The programme started in 2016 and since then 23,000 women have taken part.

The All Schools programme was a 2015 rugby world cup legacy programme, which got 750 more state schools playing rugby and has seen 80,000 teenage girls take part. O2 Touch is a non-contact form of the game, which has 10,000 registered female players. The women and girls’ game remains a priority for the RFL, too, especially in the lead-up to the rugby league world cup in 2021. Its aim is to use the Women’s Super League to raise the profile of the game, increase commercial interest and revenue, and drive participation.

The Government have also helped to secure a wide range of major sporting events in this country for the next few years. The rugby league world cup 2021 will bring additional significant exposure on free-to-air TV. It will also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned, be the first time that the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments will take place at the same time. It will be a great opportunity to showcase the women’s game and encourage more people to get involved. We are continuing to explore a number of other hosting opportunities across the range of men’s and women’s elite and professional sports.

To conclude, the past few years have seen fantastic progress with women’s sport, including rugby, starting to get the profile it deserves. We definitely have our challenges, as my hon. Friend and others have mentioned, but we want women’s sport to continue to inspire increased participation in sport and physical activity. Women’s rugby is a hugely important part of that, and we will continue to support and raise the profile of it wherever and whenever we can. I once again thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate tonight to shine a light on women’s rugby and the vital role it plays in our communities.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.