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Grassroots Football: Feltham and Heston

Volume 695: debated on Wednesday 12 May 2021

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

I am very grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate. Covid-19 has had a serious and detrimental impact on football, from premier league teams all the way down through the pyramid structure of football. The giants of the game have received much media attention recently, and not all for good reason. I joined colleagues on both sides of the House in condemning proposals for a new European super league. It is one of the reasons why I sought this debate.

May I start by sharing our deepest condolences with the family of Jordan Banks, a nine-year-old boy who was killed in a tragic incident last night playing football in Blackpool? Our hearts go out to him and his whole family at this time. That could have been anybody, anywhere. It is a tragic incident, and our thoughts are with them.

Football is so much more than just a sport, and it begins at grassroots level. When we talk about grassroots football, we need to truly appreciate what that means. Grassroots football is about every park and every playing field across the UK. It is about giving every club and every individual of all ages and genders who has the desire to be involved in the game the opportunity to do so. Even in the face of financial pressures and the disappointment of not being able to play due to the covid pandemic, the response from football clubs at all levels has been remarkable. It shows the integral place that clubs have at the heart of our communities, bringing people together and supporting one another on and off the pitch.

The Football Association’s latest report on the social health and economic value of grassroots football found that more than 14 million people play grassroots football in England alone, which equates to a quarter of the population. It contributes more than £10 billion to society each year, while childhood football participation helps with the reduction of more than 60,000 cases of depression and anxiety, and more than 200,000 cases of childhood obesity.

The grassroots game, as we emerge from the pandemic, is uniquely positioned to have a positive impact on not only the nation’s mental and physical health, but our economy. The benefits extend further, with social interactions that will help people to develop confidence, communication and resilience. The comradery, friendship and values of teamwork are all crucial in helping to shape people’s identities, supporting emotional wellbeing and dealing with difficult times, and I will illustrate that through the particular stories of two local clubs.

I thank all involved in grassroots football clubs in Hounslow and across the country, on behalf of myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury). Clubs in our constituencies are supported by the Brentford FC Community Sports Trust, which delivered more than 1,000 activity packs to children and families, supported more than 100 young carers who were shielding, ran virtual youth clubs and provided mentoring support. Starting in June, in partnership with Premier League Kicks, there will also be a new football development centre, which will be delivered at Springwest Academy in Feltham for students from local schools currently receiving free school meals and from low-income families. In partnership with Bedfont Sports FC, it also delivers a girls-only weekly training session.

In my constituency, clubs include Bedfont Sports FC, with Bedfont Eagles in the Isthmian League south central division, Hanworth Villa FC and CB Hounslow United FC in the Combined Counties premier division, and Bedfont and Feltham FC and FC Deportivo Galicia in the Combined Counties division one. Collectively they have been able to support thousands of children and young people playing each year. Everyone, from young people all the way up to people in their 60s, is able to join a club and play either on a Saturday or Sunday. At the vast array of clubs in these leagues, we have seen at first hand all ethnicities, ages and religions playing together. We also have the incredible Feltham Bees supporting football for children and young people with disabilities, run by the incredible Ray Coleman at Springwest Academy.

I want to recognise the amazing leadership that comes from within our communities to help grassroots football. I pay tribute to Dave Reader from Bedfont, who sadly passed away with covid in November last year—a legend to whom the community has not yet been able to pay proper tribute. He gave a lifetime of service in grassroots football, from the local Sixth Hounslow Cub Scouts football club in Cranford 35 years ago, to the work with Bedfont Eagles and, over the years, support for other clubs, including Whitton Wanderers and CB Hounslow United.

Last night I spoke to Dave’s son Terry about his father, who had even won a BBC Unsung Hero award. Over 35 years, he helped to build local grassroots football. Dave and Terry worked together, and Terry continues so much of that work today. They have led on the ground and working in partnership with the local authority and others. A lease and a chance are what Hounslow Council gave Dave and Bedfont many years ago.

Since then, through partnership and sheer hard work, love and commitment, they also managed to raise over £3 million in partnership with the Football Foundation and others. About 350 children play each year and about five adult teams see 80 to 100 playing also. The club has had a partnership with Kingston College for a programme for 16 to 19-year-olds, but with the football played at Bedfont. The club now even has dance classes and boxing classes. Over the years, Dave touched a lot of people and has left a huge legacy.

But the issues on the frontline have been devastating post covid. The impact on children has been a lot more than people have seen, with children suffering mental health issues, becoming reclusive, not wanting to be active, or putting on weight. Clubs have described to me the joy of children being able to reunite with their friends and said how brave they have been. The first ask from local clubs is about support to help in dealing with the rise in mental health issues. They say they are learning as they go to support each other and their young people, but they are not trained in mental health and would really appreciate guidance and support on what best to do.

I was told the story of one nine-year-old boy impacted by anxiety and the strain of the pandemic whose mental health deteriorated so much that he was hospitalised. Only recently he came back to the club. The huge impact of a short video from his young team-mates saying how much they needed him gave a massive boost, and they are working together to support his recovery. As Terry described it to me, he tells the coaches, “You are their second dad.”

The second ongoing issue for so many of our clubs is financial support and the financial consequences of the pandemic. Clubs have been able to benefit from grant support that has been hugely welcomed. Hounslow Council’s thriving communities fund has also been vital, and is helped with other bits of support, like that from the Mayor of London’s Laureus project, which have been vital to helping local clubs get through. However, they have raised with me the ongoing impact of having no income for a year. There is facilities upkeep and other costs, and the worry that now lockdown is ending, these challenges may be put aside as everyone thinks that things have returned to normal. For clubs to continue to grow and thrive, ongoing strategy and support is going to be needed.

The third issue is the stability of home grounds and places to play casually. One of my local clubs, started by Frank James and supported daily by Vijay Kumar and other coaches and supporters, has struggled to keep access to its home ground at Green Lane in Hounslow. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth has said that she is saddened about the situation having, as a councillor before becoming an MP, helped CB Sports with the lease and subsequent grant application to transform a little-used piece of grass into a fine set of facilities.

The club is supported very closely by Middlesex FA, which has been assisting in efforts to make sure that it has the pitch hire agreement needed to satisfy the conditions of the Combined Counties football league. The lease for the past few years, however, has been with Hounslow Sports Club, run by Mr Stephen Hosmer, which has been continuing to put obstacles in the way of an agreement even though it is a condition of its own lease with Hounslow Council. Hounslow Sports Club under Mr Hosmer has failed to maintain pitches. Shockingly, just two weeks ago, Hounslow Sports Club was prosecuted by Thames Water for offences to which it pleaded guilty relating to using an illegal water connection at the premises and a water fitting that caused or was likely to cause an erroneous measurement of water. It is surely unacceptable for the ability of children to play football and to be in supportive environments to be held back by such behaviour.

I have seen the work of CB Hounslow United. I have met the young footballers. I have spoken to the parents and I have seen the devastating impact the situation has had: the drop-off in players, because they do not know week to week where their next game or training will be; and parents trying to plan their complex lives juggling work and home. How are they going to get their children to and from practice and games? It is a really difficult and challenging situation.

Stability for play is vital to help to build the relationships that hold clubs together, and to build the family connections and wellbeing which so often support young people going through difficult times and give them the space and the support they need. What these stories also show is that local authorities are vital. There is no statutory requirement for local authorities to support grassroots football. Currently, they must provide essential services for their residents. However, sports and recreation facilities, and the delivery of community sport services, are not a requirement.

I may also raise here—I have discussed this previously with the Minister—the side issue of families using local parks for parkruns at the weekend. They have struggled to get parkruns going as lockdown ends. Jon in my constituency raised the issue of the Government’s position on when parkruns will be able to restart, so I would be grateful for the Minister’s response on that.

We must also ask the way to make sure how local authorities can be better supported to help grassroots football thrive. Hounslow Council developed a welcome local football facility plan in 2019 for pitches, changing room pavilions, clubhouses and other priority projects, but that is only deliverable alongside a national strategy and integrated place-based support. We also need a more localised approach to grassroots football that removes barriers to issues such as pitch access for training and fixtures, and engagement in the women’s game.

A localised approach to address the barriers they face should target increased funding into grassroots football and help to ensure that football remains affordable. Football clubs should never have to call off a game because their regular playing field is overbooked, or because they cannot afford the costs of the football pitch. Nor should they need to postpone fixtures due to the pitch not being of adequate quality. The popularity of the grassroots game is not yet matched by the facilities. Only one in three grass pitches is of adequate quality, and about 150,000 matches are called off every season due to poor pitch quality. This is what grassroots football needs to ensure that no one and no club gets left behind.

In March, I was pleased to attend the launch of the Football Association’s new grassroots football strategy. This is an excellent basis on which to address some of the challenges we face. I am pleased to see a commitment to ensure pathways into and through the male and female games, including disability provision, with bespoke participation opportunities as needed. Looking ahead to ensure the game thrives, they emphasise not only encouraging new participation at every age group and from historically underrepresented groups, but harnessing the power of digital to better connect participants to the game they love. It also means ensuring the game is played in a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment free from racism and discrimination.

On that point, earlier this month Ian Wright shared a video on social media where he discussed, with Alan Shearer, the racism he receives as a black ex-footballer and football commentator, showing how important it is to foster a more inclusive environment throughout football. I have heard from young people in my constituency about the racism they face which on occasion has forced them out of clubs. I know it is very much a problem that is still live, and there needs to be accountability and action to address it. There needs to be support for those who are victims of racism, so that they are not the ones who have to leave, but those who perpetrate racism. The Premier League’s social media blackout over the bank holiday weekend was a welcome show of solidarity to those suffering from racism, but we need tangible action, not just symbolism, if this issue is to be tackled effectively and I would be grateful for the Minister’s response on this issue, too.

In conclusion, I hope the Minister will join me in celebrating the contribution of grassroots football for millions across our country as the base from which national players are first given the opportunity to play. Volunteers such as Dave and Terry Reader, Ray Coleman, Frank James and Vijay Kumar in my constituency are second to none, but in the challenges that they all face, they need greater support to provide the service that our communities need and to support the volunteers who work with them to do so.

I would be grateful for the Minister’s response on the issues I have raised, particularly on extra support and guidance to train volunteers in helping to deal with mental health issues; on sustained funding and support post-lockdown, because things will not be returning to normal overnight; and on the delivery of an inclusive national grassroots football strategy, free from discrimination, that also supports local authorities in their key role in working with the FA and the Football Foundation in delivering the opportunities for the game on the ground.

At the beginning of your speech, Seema Malhotra, you mentioned the tragic death of the nine-year-old lad from Lancashire, young Jordan Banks. On behalf of the Speaker and the British Parliament, I should like to send our condolences to his family, to all his team mates at Clifton Rangers junior football club and to all his friends. The hearts of the British Parliament, and our love, go to you all.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing this Adjournment debate and on raising the important issue of grassroots sport, and football in particular, as well as the role that local authorities can play in supporting sport, the role of sport in local communities and a wide range of other issues. It is a pleasure to respond to her.

Following the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady and by you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton), whom I spoke to earlier, I would also like to express on behalf of the Government and many others in this House our condolences to the family and friends of Jordan Banks, the nine-year-old boy who it would appear was tragically struck by lightning and killed while out playing football on Tuesday evening at Clifton Rangers junior FC. The club and the local community are clearly devastated by his loss, as evidenced by the outpouring on social media, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this incredibly difficult time.

It is clear from the hon. Lady’s comments that she shares my view that sport and physical activity are hugely important for our physical and mental health, and I really appreciate the focus that she put on mental health. Indeed, that is why the Government have ensured that people can exercise throughout the national restrictions and why we have prioritised sport to open first when easing those restrictions. The road map out of lockdown in England laid out by the Prime Minister included a step approach to the return of outdoor and indoor sport. In March, school sport was allowed to resume, recreation or exercise outdoors with your household or one other person was permitted, and outdoor sports facilities were able to reopen. On 12 April, indoor leisure facilities including gyms and swimming pools were able to reopen for individual use, and on 17 May, almost all the rest of the sector will be able to reopen, including remaining indoor leisure facilities and adult indoor group sports and exercise classes, as well as some large events.

The hon. Lady mentioned parkruns. I have met recently members of the leadership of Parkrun, and they take their responsibility to run those events incredibly seriously, with volunteers and others throughout the country. There is nothing to prevent them from starting very soon, and I understand that their plans are to start again nationally from early June. I encourage local authorities that work with Parkrun to ensure that these events can open safely to take the applications seriously and sympathetically, because I think we would all like to see parkruns start again very soon. Looking forward, no earlier than 21 June, we hope that the remaining settings will open, including even more large events.

As the hon. Lady said, football is our national game, and it plays a really special part in many people’s lives up and down the country. It is clear from her comments that grassroots football clubs in her constituency have a really important role to play. It is the same in my constituency and in many others. Football is often the social glue that binds a community together, with young and old getting behind their team and supporting together come thick or thin. I saw many of those benefits at first hand when I was put through my paces—literally—during a visit to Rectory Park in west London to celebrate the reopening of grassroots sport last month. More recently I also visited Solihull and, at the end of the spectrum, Everton, and saw the great work done in those communities.

Football has important physical and mental health benefits, which are rightly being recognised as we emerge from the pandemic with a fresh determination to be a fitter and healthier nation. I completely agree with the emphasis that the hon. Lady put on the importance of sport and football in improving mental health. She also rightly focused on financial support. It is in recognition of the benefit of grassroots sport, including football, that the Government have provided a large amount of financial support. That includes pan-economy support to businesses through tax reliefs, cash grants and employee wage support, which community clubs up and down the country have also drawn on to help them through the pandemic.

Sport England has also provided £220 million directly to support community sports clubs and exercise centres through the pandemic through a range of funds, including its £35 million community emergency fund. As the hon. Lady knows, three football projects in the Feltham and Heston area have received funding from the community emergency fund: the Indian Gymkhana football club, Bedfont and Feltham football and social club, and Hanworth Villa FC. More support has recently been announced with the publication of Sport England’s “Uniting the Movement” strategy, which commits an extra £50 million to help grassroots sports clubs and organisations affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

It is important to recognise that, as well as standing behind local clubs during the current coronavirus crisis, support for grassroots football long precedes the pandemic. The Government have consistently invested significant sums through the Football Foundation over the past few years, as part of an established partnership with the Football Association and the Premier League that is focused on investing in community facilities, with the Government contributing £18 million each year. This three-way partnership sees a combined £70 million going to new facilities delivered by the Football Foundation charity every year. I am pleased to say that this investment is being felt directly in the hon. Lady’s constituency, with the Football Foundation awarding 10 facilities grants in the area totalling more than £750,000 since 2009.

We intend to build on that good work in the future, which is why in our 2019 election manifesto we pledged an additional £550 million investment in community sports facilities over the next 10 years. This will build a strong foundation for the bid for the 2030 men’s FIFA World cup. At the last Budget we announced the first tranche of that investment, with £25 million to be spent across the UK. I would like to recognise the Football Association in particular for the huge role it continually plays in encouraging and cultivating grassroots football across the country.

The hon. Member also mentioned the stability of clubs and challenges around leases. I cannot comment in detail about the particular circumstances mentioned, but I am alarmed to hear about some of the difficulties and I sympathise over the concerns she has expressed. I certainly hope that all stakeholders involved in the discussions can find a route towards a long-term future for the club. Unfortunately, I am also hearing about similar patterns across the country.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the important issue of racism in sport. She and I agree—in fact, the whole House agrees—that there is no room for discrimination and racism in sport. Recently I met with footballers, social media companies and many other stakeholders, as well as football authorities, to discuss racism and discrimination in sport. The Government are taking action, including through the draft Online Harms Bill announced this week.

We should also bear in mind that a lot of harassment is already illegal and it is not all online, although unfortunately, a large amount of it is. I encourage all those who suffer discrimination and abuse, online or offline, to make sure that they report it to the police and indeed to the social media companies, who do take their responsibilities seriously. Of course, with the new Bill we will be encouraging them to take those responsibilities even more seriously—there is the potential for fines if they do not remove inappropriate content. So further action is being taken, and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and others in progressing that Bill.

It goes without saying that the past year has been like no other. I am determined that the sport sector, including grassroots football, emerges from the pandemic even stronger than ever. This Government made sure that grassroots sport was the first to return after lockdown, and they will continue to invest in the game to ensure facilities for all.

I am grateful for the Minister’s responses on some of the issues raised. I wonder whether he would say a little more about mental health support and the experience of clubs at the moment, and whether more can be done to give advice, training and guidance on what they are clearly now doing on the frontline, which is supporting children in our community.

I thank the hon. Lady for that comment. She raised an important point during her speech, and I would be happy to continue the dialogue with her on this. I have spoken to many clubs and, as I say, the work they already do in providing additional support, often in association with support facilities—local councils and others—is vital. Unfortunately, we have seen real challenges, particularly for children, and the suffering they have gone through with mental health challenges during coronavirus. It is important that we all do more. There is a role for Government, for local authorities and for sport, which has stepped up to the plate. The clubs have stepped up to the plate and are extremely innovative. I have been very impressed with some of the initiatives I have seen at clubs up and down the country. I would like to see more, and we would be happy to work with the sector to see more.

The hon. Lady raised many important points and we will not be able to address them all today, but I thank her for her commitment and for all the points she has raised. I look forward to continuing the dialogue with her and others.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.