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European Women’s Football Championship: Girls and Young Women

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 9 November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the 2022 UEFA European Women’s Football Championship and participation of girls and young women in sport.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Before we kick off, I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who has shown great leadership in this place, not just on women’s football but women’s sport in general. I really hoped she could be with us today, but sadly she cannot.

I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate, which has been a little late due to the sad death of the Queen. It was scheduled for just after the summer recess following the Lionesses’ success but had to be pushed back. I want to take this opportunity to record my and the House’s congratulations to our fantastic English national football team, the Lionesses, on their historic win at the European championships earlier this year.

After 56 years of hurt, England finally brought football back home, and it took the women to achieve it. The nation celebrated and we were all bursting with pride. It was the first time in my life I have ever seen England lift an international trophy in football, and I was bawling my eyes out as it happened. The residents of Teddington in my constituency were so proud that the Lensbury club was the Lionesses’ training base for the tournament—and still is for some of their home fixtures—that crowds gathered that night at about midnight or 1 am to welcome the Lionesses back from Wembley to celebrate their awesome victory.

There is no doubt that the Lionesses brought the nation together this summer, and the legacy of their stunning win is there to be shaped. News this week from YouGov that an extra 4 million of us now define ourselves as fans of women’s sport is testament to their performance. Indeed, women’s participation and profile in other sports is increasing. But like many of the Lionesses themselves, I strongly believe that that legacy should be more than just warm memories. It must mean support for the generation of girls and young women now inspired to get out on the pitch and bend it like Beth.

Only 63% of young girls have football offered as part of physical education in school, and football continues to largely be seen as a sport for men and boys. Does the hon. Lady agree that this cultural change should start at a young age to drive passion for the sport among girls and young women, and nurture future talent?

I could not agree more. The hon. Lady has already cited a statistic I was going to come to later on. I could talk in a lot of detail about how we must promote girls’ sport in schools and the community.

I saw at first hand the impact of England’s triumph on my own daughter, who is eight. Together we attended her first live football match during the tournament, just down the road from where we live in Brentford. We went to see Spain play Denmark. By the final, when England were playing Germany, she was giving her own expert commentary on the game and providing live demos of various tricks in our living room. She was super excited when we had the chance to watch the Lionesses beat the USA at Wembley last month.

Like parents and PE teachers across the country, I believe girls like my daughter deserve every chance and should be given every possible opportunity to follow that passion, be it for football or any other sport. This is a legacy that the Lionesses themselves have thrown their full energy into achieving. Following their success in the summer, they wrote to both the Conservative party leadership candidates, calling on them to take action to ensure every young girl in the nation is able to play football at school. They called for all girls to have access to two hours of PE lessons every week. The current Prime Minister responded at the time by saying he would love to see all schools provide two hours a week.

It sounds like a simple ask, but as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) has already mentioned, just 63% of schools in England offer equal access to football during PE lessons. That means that more than one in three girls are excluded from the beautiful game. When we look at secondary education in particular, the numbers get even worse, with less than half of schools empowering girls to play football as part of the curriculum. At secondary schools, teaching gets increasingly gendered, whereas in primary schools, children are taught in mixed groups.

According to the Youth Sport Trust, a staggering 42,000 hours of PE have been lost over the last decade as the curriculum has been more and more squeezed, with a relentless focus on tests and ensuring boxes are ticked for Ofsted inspections. Girls in particular have been impacted. The trust found that by the age of seven, girls were already a whole year behind on physical literacy—that is the development of movement and sports skills.

With such a patchy offering of girls’ football in schools, it is no surprise that many of our current generation of women footballers have spoken of struggling to access the sport, relying on extracurricular clubs and far-flung opportunities to rise to the top of their game. That is not to talk down the importance of extracurricular clubs and activities. The Liberal Democrats would love to see a much stronger offer from the Government in that area, including vouchers to help all children access extracurricular opportunities—both as part of the post-pandemic catch-up package, and longer term, outside the covid recovery.

A number of organisations are doing a sterling job in supporting the women’s game. Of course, that includes the Football Association. It runs grassroots initiatives in schools, such as the Disney-inspired Shooting Stars programme, and in the community, such as the Squad Girls’ Football programme, which is designed to keep secondary school-aged girls engaged with football where PE lessons may fall short. That is supported by Sport England. The FA’s community-based Weetabix Wildcats programme for girls is offered through Hampton Rangers Junior Football Club in my constituency on a Saturday morning. I was also pleased to support the FA’s #LetGirlsPlay initiative earlier this year, by going to play football with girls at both Twickenham School and Trafalgar Junior School in my constituency. I urge all Members to take up the opportunity next year. It was great fun—even if people made total fools of themselves, as I am sure I did—but it was also a real boost to the schools and to the pupils there.

McDonald’s Fun Football programme brought England legends Sir Geoff Hurst and Karen Carney into Parliament last week. I learnt that it runs waves of footballing activity across the country, with over 500 children in my constituency benefiting from the programme at Orleans Park School. They also enabled two year seven pupils from Teddington School to have the training session of a lifetime with footballing hero Beth Mead in September. There is no doubt that those extracurricular clubs and corporate responsibility initiatives play a vital role in nurturing children’s passions, but it is equally important that they do not become a substitute for access to sport in school for free as part of the curriculum. Otherwise, we risk football—and indeed many other sports—becoming elitist and open to only those who can afford to pay.

I am grateful to the parliamentary engagement team for all its work in securing feedback and stories from parents, young people and teachers for this debate. One teacher, James, said:

“My daughter is involved in netball and cricket outside of school. This has given her great fitness and confidence and is hugely beneficial to her overall wellbeing. For her to actively participate in this way costs hundreds of pounds per year but she simply would not have had any opportunity to play team sport regularly otherwise.”

We cannot let that cost be a barrier.

The hon. Lady will be aware that for many decades, many of Scotland and England’s national players for the women’s teams have had to do other day jobs, while their male counterparts have been paid frankly outrageous fortunes to play professionally. Does she agree that we need greater coverage in the media, and greater sponsorship and support for the women’s game, so that our female players can enjoy some of the riches that the male players enjoy?

I could not agree more. As the hon. Lady says, there needs to be parity in terms of salaries, sponsorship and so on. That does not mean that the women’s game wants to ape the men’s game. I went to an event in this place celebrating women’s football, and the clear message given by those who are involved in the women’s sport was that women’s football has its own special culture. Frankly, I think it is far healthier and far nicer than the men’s sport. I would never have taken my young daughter to a men’s football match, just because of the sort of culture and atmosphere there.

I do not think that male footballers need to be paid as much as they are paid, but I do think that women footballers should be paid more. If I am not mistaken, Lewes Football Club is the one football club in the country that pays men and women equally.

I welcome the Minister who will answer the debate today, the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew); I welcome him to his place and to his new role. He is from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and I very much welcome some of the positive noises that have come from both the Secretary of State and her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), on this issue.

I understand that the Department is committed to investing some £230 million to build or improve up to 8,000 sports pitches across the UK. That is clearly a step in the right direction. However, it is also yet another example of how utterly disjointed the Government’s policies are when it comes to our children and young people, because at the same time that DCMS is building community pitches, schools across our country are haemorrhaging playing fields and other sports facilities due to shrinking budgets. Liberal Democrat analysis has uncovered that 100 school sports fields have been sold off in the last seven years, impacting more than 75,000 pupils. That not only puts the Lionesses’ legacy at risk but potentially bars tens of thousands of children from a full range of outdoor sports.

While we are on the subject of sports fields, it is with great regret that I tell the House that Udney Park playing fields in Teddington, which is in my constituency, was sold off in 2015 by Imperial College to a hedge fund company that sought to make a quick buck on that precious community site. Having been prevented by planning inspectors from concreting over the fields and building on them, the facility has since gone to rack and ruin, with community groups fighting tooth and nail for it to be maintained for community sporting use.

I salute my constituent Jonathan Dunn, who has led the charge to bring Udney Park playing fields back into community use, and I hope that, now the ground has been sold on to another investor, that it will be revitalised quickly and then opened up to the many grassroots sports clubs in my constituency that are clamouring for playing field space across the Borough of Richmond and simply cannot get enough of it. If the Minister is able to offer any assistance in that regard, I would be absolutely delighted.

Participating in sport is a fantastic way to take care of young people’s physical health, to boost their mental wellbeing and to teach children important skills, such as teamwork and communication. More than 150 children and young people sent in their views for this debate, as part of the Pupil Parliament programme, and they wrote overwhelmingly about the positive impact that sport has had on their lives. They said it made them more confident and more fulfilled, and gave them a sense of community.

At the same time, when those children were asked what had been holding them back, the same few words cropped up and again, including phrases such as “men’s sport” and “women’s sport”, which is the idea that netball and gymnastics are female and football, rugby and cricket are male. In light of the Lionesses’ victory, those ideas and phrases may seem like outdated tropes, but they are far from being a thing of the past when our children and young people still feel held back and over a third of girls do not have the opportunity to play football at school.

Women’s football has a longer history than people might think. Church documents reportedly refer to women playing football in my local authority area in South Lanarkshire back in 1628. Does the hon. Member agree that women’s contributions to football over the centuries should be recognised more frequently, to inspire girls and young women to take up the sport today?

Yes; indeed I could not agree more. We need to celebrate and give a profile to that history as part of the process of inspiring the next generation, in the same way that often happens with the men’s game, to be honest.

I am very grateful that the public engagement team have facilitated pupils’ interaction with this debate and of course I also thank all the students from the Bishop of Hereford’s Bluecoat School, Eardisley CE Primary School and Knighton Church in Wales Primary School for participating in the process and feeding back to this debate. One parent, Diana, described the “misogyny” she had witnessed at her daughter’s mixed-gender primary school football club. She said:

“I approached the school and asked if they could run a group for girls who were leaving the after-school club, one after another. The school offered her netball. It was at that point she lost all interest in sport.”

So I will echo the very simple ask of one of the pupils who responded to my survey. She said:

“Let girls participate in all sports at school. I want to do the same sports as the boys—if we do dance, so should they. And if they get…rugby, so should we.”

As MP for Twickenham, I am so proud of our strong sports heritage and the thriving network of grassroots sports clubs, run almost exclusively by dedicated volunteers. At the elite level, Twickenham is of course the home to English rugby, and we will play host to the Rugby World Cup. The gendered title of “Women’s World Cup” was dropped last year, so the Rugby World Cup is coming to England in 2025. I hope that England’s women’s team will come to defend their world cup title. We all wish the Red Roses, England’s women’s team, who have reached the final this weekend against hosts New Zealand, the very best of luck.

In Twickenham, we also have the Harlequins, a premiership rugby club, whose home the Stoop is just across the road from the Rugby Football Union. They have a phenomenally successful women’s team. Bushy Park was home to the very first parkrun, and we also lay claim to the oldest hockey club in the world, in Teddington, which has a number of girls’ and women’s teams.

I spoke earlier this week to an inspirational woman in my constituency, Natalie Raja, who founded Bushy Park girls’ cricket club 10 years ago, when her daughters and other girls were struggling to find anywhere to play cricket. From the handful of girls she gathered together in 2012, she now has 120 girls and women from age 5 upwards, and a cabinet full of trophies. Sadly—this shocked me—as recently as last season, when she was negotiating access to pitches for her teams, she was still receiving emails saying, “We need to get the boys’ fixtures sorted first, then we can organise the girls.”

In football, as well as Hampton and Richmond football club, there are so many grassroots football clubs—I could not mention them all. Two I could mention with plentiful girls’ teams are Whitton Wanderers—they are very close to where I live—and Hearts of Teddlothian. I give a special shout-out to the Parakeets and Cygnets, dedicated girls’ clubs founded by a local dad, Eamonn, when he could not find anywhere for his girls to play football because they were regularly being put off by joining boys clubs.

Thamesians women’s rugby team, who currently train at St Mary’s while Udney Park is out of action, flooded my inbox with support for this debate to talk about the impact of sport on their lives. I was particularly moved by this comment:

“I’m 25 years old and I have been playing rugby since I was 19. I am 6ft 1 and 85 kg and for the first 19 years of my life, I hated the way I looked, felt and I had no confidence and no motivation. I found rugby as a way of making some new friends and enjoying a run around while doing so. To say it changed my life is an understatement. Women’s sport is special, because it brings a group of people who face similar challenges in day-to-day life together, and provides a safe space, a place for encouragement and love, and lights a fire within people who didn’t realise they had it. Being around women who are praised for having different body types has skyrocketed my confidence. I feel empowered in my life outside of sport, knowing the things that I have accomplished and my worth.”

That is what the Lionesses want for girls and women across England: the chance to get involved in women’s football and, indeed, other sports, and to allow it to change their lives. My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I want the same: equal access to the joys and opportunities of playing sport for every child, no matter their gender, their background or where they happen to live.

In an interview on Sunday, Baroness Sue Campbell, the FA’s director for women’s football, spoke positively about the Lionesses’ meeting with the current Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, but said that the big issue is the Department for Education. I wholeheartedly support the steps DCMS has taken to support women and girls’ access to sport in the community. I look forward to hearing more from the Minister about what else he and his Department are doing to support girls and women’s participation in sport at all levels, especially the grassroots. I hope he can also tell us how he plans to work constructively across Government, especially with the Department for Education.

In particular, does the Minister agree that the sport premium is so important when it comes to supporting access to sport and tackling childhood obesity? Will he press his Education colleagues to continue funding the sport premium in schools? Will he press the Department to include PE in the Ofsted inspection framework, as the FA and the Lionesses have called for? What of the Prime Minister’s assertion that he would like to see two hours of PE for all? Will we see that come to fruition? Will the Minister impress on his colleagues the need for a moratorium on selling off school playing fields, which means funding schools properly so they do not have to do that?

I hope the Minister will agree—as we have heard from the quotes and stories I have cited—that sport is crucial for everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing, yet women are too often left behind. In particular, sport helps to boost children’s educational and academic outcomes. If we truly want to celebrate the Lionesses’ amazing victory this summer, we need to secure their legacy by working together to help deliver for England’s next generation of sportswomen.

It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I commend the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate and on her magnificent speech. There is a delicious irony in the hon. Member for Twickenham talking about football, but to her complete credit she spoke about women’s sport in the round, and she gave a good indication of what we need to be doing in sport now.

I love football—I make no apology for being a huge football fan. The offer in the UK is quite fantastic. We have the premier league—the world-leading brand—and we have many professional leagues across all four of our nations. We have millions of fans and people who are paid good money to play sport. Of course, that also brings revenue into the Treasury, so what is not to like? What a brilliant way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon—watching football live or on the television. The offer is great.

Sadly, my own playing days are now behind me. As a rather rotund 50-something-year-old, I have stopped playing, but I have two sons who play to a very good standard, and me watching them at the weekend is important. As a huge non-league fan, I am regularly found at my local clubs in Aldershot, Bracknell, Woking and Sutton. As I mentioned, it is a great way to spend the weekend with decent, real people.

Following the success of the women’s Euro 2022—what a success and what a magnificent achievement it was—I want to talk about women’s football. The progress that has been made in women’s sport over the last decade or so is remarkable. Women’s football has become the fastest-growing sport in the UK, which is brilliant. The stats speak for themselves. Nearly 70,000 people were at Old Trafford to watch England’s UEFA Euro 2022 opener against Austria. Recently, a friendly against the United States at Wembley attracted a record 78,000 fans, which is quite extraordinary. People are paying good money to watch fantastic football, and that is just a start. Funding for women’s football still lags far behind what we see in the men’s game, but the way to address that is to tackle grassroots football first and then to build up, which is what is happening at the moment.

What of the future? The latest FA survey has found that growth across the board—from match-day broadcast, commercial and prize money sources—is exponential. Clubs report year-on-year commercial revenue growth of 33% for women’s football, which is amazing. Some 77% of female leagues now have a title sponsor, up from only 11% last year, which is extraordinary growth.

According to FIFA, 29 million women and girls play football worldwide—in comparison, the men’s game probably has at least 10 times that number—and the aim is to facilitate 60 million female participants by 2026. I think we will smash that comfortably, but there is a danger here: 64% of girls quit playing sport by the time they are 16. We have work to do not just in building the girls’ game but in ensuring that girls who play football, or any sport, stay with it and keep playing into their adult lives.

I am proud to be the MP for Bracknell, in east Berkshire, and the local offer there for all sports is really amazing. We have grassroots money and a council—Bracknell Forest Council—that supports male and female football. Why wouldn’t it? Football improves teamwork, camaraderie, decision making, discipline and mental and physical wellbeing.

In my view, the benefits of sport for everyone are beyond doubt. We need to encourage girls to stay in sport for the reasons I have discussed—for teamwork and mental health—and to bring young girls together. That is perhaps something young boys find a bit easier, because the structure of the game is that boys play football and girls might not. But why can boys and girls not play football equally, in the same numbers and with the same opportunities available to them?

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that men and boys are our allies in this challenge of equality? Men like him and the Minister, who speak up for women’s sport, are crucial in that. Does he also agree that the FA has historically imposed some challenging rules on boys and girls, and young men and women, playing together for fun? Breaking down some of those barriers and having people playing together across the gender spectrum is really important.

The hon. Lady makes an interesting couple of points. Women, of course, do not need men in order to play football, but it is incumbent on men to encourage the female game and to get people playing, and on dads like me, who do not have daughters, to get girls playing as well.

The hon. Lady mentioned grassroots football. It is so important that we nip the stigma attached to female football in the bud. It is complete nonsense. Female football is really exciting to watch on TV. The Euros were really exciting. Like the hon. Member for Twickenham, I watched them and I was overcome—it was just the most brilliant occasion. I have watched and played men’s football all my life, but women’s football is the growth sport now. It is where it is at; it is where things are going, and we have to embrace and support it.

In Bracknell, PlaySport delivers a weekly girls-only football programme for girls aged five to 11. It does that in partnership with our local football club, Bracknell Town football club, which comprises men’s, youths’, ladies’ and junior female teams. Who could forget that wonderful evening on Monday, when Bracknell Town hosted Ipswich in the first round of the FA cup? It was a brilliant night. We almost got there. It was 0-0 in the 65th minute—perhaps there would be a replay at Portman Road—but Ipswich came through to win 3-0. However, the important point was that there were women in the crowd; there were girls who I know play football in Bracknell supporting their local team. It was just brilliant. What’s not to like?

In July 2022, 25 players, including eight at international level, took part in a women’s walking football competition at Bracknell leisure centre. Interestingly, plans are being developed for the leisure centre to be rebuilt in 2028 with a football stadium and a new sports centre that will embrace both the female and the male game. How fantastic would it be to have Bracknell men’s and women’s teams in the football league? There is a lot to look forward to.

Women’s football is on an unprecedented rise. It is the growth sport in the UK—let us get behind it. Funding has increased tenfold for the female game over the past decade, but we need to spend more on it. Grassroots football turns into adult football, which turns into professional football, so it is worth investing in it. The national team’s success right now is a fantastic opportunity to embrace the game more widely, so let us build on and reinforce that success. I am very proud that Bracknell itself is poised to take on the grassroots women’s game.

The first thing we need to do is make sure that local clubs and schools across the UK embrace girls’ sport, particularly football. Opportunities for men and women, boys and girls, have to be completely equal across the board. We need more adult volunteers, and we need more parents to embrace the girls’ game—why wouldn’t they? It is a great way to spend a weekend. We need enhanced Government and FA funding to support the girls’ and the women’s game. I find myself—quite strangely—congratulating the BBC: what it is doing now on TV across the UK to promote the female game is brilliant, and I commend it on that. It is great that we can now switch on the TV and watch either men’s or women’s football.

My final point is that equality in sport is really important. We have heard some horror stories about where there has not been equality and where there has still been a stigma about the female game. It should not be there. The female game should be as natural as the men’s game. Let’s get stuck in, Minister.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I wholeheartedly thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this debate. I am sorry that it was somewhat delayed, but it is fabulous to have the opportunity to wholeheartedly congratulate the Lionesses on a truly remarkable result at the Euros. I hope that she and they know that all football fans in Scotland really were behind them. I am delighted to see what they have done for not just their generation of footballers but the next generation. That goes beyond just England; it goes across all these islands. We hope that the investment that has come into clubs will be emulated and replicated in Scotland. We have many fantastic players in Scotland who play in the English leagues, as the hon. Lady and other Members know.

Members may be interested to know that football was invented in Scotland. It belongs to no specific group; it belongs to us all. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) highlighted, it goes back a long way—potentially to the 1600s, although I have the historical facts only back to the 1800s, when women played in corsets, hats and heeled boots. Thankfully, our attire on the football pitch has come some way since that time.

As the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) said, it is crucial that we talk about inclusion and equality. When we talk about participation and inclusion for minority groups—particularly black and minority ethnic groups, who have been historically excluded and have faced barriers, as Sport England identified in a 2020 report, and members of the LGBTQ community and queer women—we have to look at the challenges they face and ensure that we include everyone. I declare an interest as a big lesbian and someone who has been kicking a ball around for as long as I can remember. I see the current debate around the rights and inclusion of trans women and non-binary folk as particularly distressing. We must stand firm with them and their right to be included in all aspects of society, including sport and, of course, the beautiful game of football.

Modern football was invented in Scotland, and women have long fought for their place, despite significant discrimination. As the hon. Member for Twickenham rightly said, contemporary women’s football is an opportunity to do things differently. There are prejudices and bigotry in the men’s game that we need to kick out, and the women’s game is an opportunity to set a different standard.

I grew up playing football in Livingston. I probably peaked at about 11, but I saw boys I played alongside going on into real, structured environments. If it was not for the fact that my primary 7 teacher, Mrs Shaw, who deserves an honourable mention, gave an equal opportunity to the boys and the girls in our school, I might not have continued on to play for the University of Stirling team, which included some former members of the Scotland international team, so we were in good company. That was the first structured setting that I experienced—if going for a pint after training and then doing a hill race can be considered structure.

I care passionately about equality and diversity in football and all sport. I grew up playing in teams, and I have recently joined a team called the Camp Hellcats in Glasgow. I also have the honour of playing in the women’s parliamentary team here at Westminster, which the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) founded with me and other Members from across the House. We have a regular kickabout, and we play games. There are members of that team here today.

I want to talk a little about the Hellcats, because there could not be a better example of what participation is and what it means than that incredible group of straight, LGBTQ+ and non-binary women. I asked Amanda, the person who got me involved in the team, what it meant to her and what the history was. She said:

“We formed in the pandemic and we just had enough of not being able to do anything together. Some of us used to play with other 5s but they were mixed and a lot of the time the guys just hogged the ball and showed off which was frustrating.”

Is that not a familiar tale?

In the part of the pandemic when organised sport was allowed, Camp Hellcats went off to Goals, on the south side of Glasgow—just a bunch of pals plonked into a WhatsApp group. Amanda said:

“The funniest memory I have of those early games is that we had to keep 2 metres away from each other, and there were staff in high Viz vests…patrolling the pitches to make sure nobody was getting too close…From that first game, friends of friends were added to the chat and it has just grown and grown since then into 2 games on a Monday, training on a Wednesday, competitions on weekends”.

Camp Hellcats now has support from Goal Click and EE, which just goes to show what it has achieved in the short time since it was founded. Amanda said that it has given her an opportunity to fall back in love with sport. She played national level hockey as a teenager and then stopped because there was nowhere to go with it. To be in her 30s now, finding so much joy in running around for an hour on a Monday night with her pals, is a great feeling. She said:

“It’s a very positive environment to be in and it’s totally changed my lifestyle as a result. I’ve never been healthier, physically or mentally too—and especially in lockdown that was huge! And to watch the group grow”

and see the passion is “incredible”. She continued:

“There’s also something great about taking up 2 pitches…every week and walking off after to a car park of dudes waiting to go on. Taking up that space feels important.”

I do not think that there could be a greater example of what it really means.

Megan, the captain of the team, spoke to me of her own experience. I have to say that my experience of her is the incredible ability that she has for encouragement, motivation and tactical strategy on the pitch. She said:

“I played for a boys team, got bullied out of it and lost all confidence. I didn’t kick a ball again until Camp Hellcats. It’s my personal mission that no player will ever be made to feel that way…I’m not sure how to put it, but ultimately we came together as a group of people who never had a place in football growing up, for the most part. Being captain of this team has enabled me to gain so much confidence and nothing makes me happier than seeing the team succeed. With everything I do for myself and the team, I remind myself how proud teenage me would feel.”

There is not a better way to reflect what the debate is about, and what football is about. For a lot of folk growing up like myself in the ’80s, ’90s and even the 2000s, sport was a sanctuary when society was rife was homophobia. To play among women and to see so much great inclusiveness across the women’s game is truly remarkable, because we have led the way on inclusion, and it is great to see the men finally catching up.

I pay tribute to Aussie football player Josh Cavallo and the Scottish footballer Zander Murray, who have both come out recently and who will no doubt pave the way for others, but that makes the hosting of the World cup by Qatar this year all the more offensive and, I have to say, disgusting. Qatar treats LGBTQ people as illegal and as criminals, and it is simply not safe for us to go there. It is high time that we, as a family of nations, and Government Members stand up and refuse to support such nations in hosting international sporting events. If we allow them to do that, and they want to invite the world, the world should be welcome to go, but the truth is that it is not.

LGBTQ women in top-level football are many in number. Many young women will look up to players such as Scotland’s Rachel Corsie, the US’s Megan Rapinoe and England’s Demi Stokes. I pay tribute, as I did at the beginning, to England’s women—the great Lionesses—after what they achieved at the Euros this year. It is fair to say that decades of listening to the England men’s team telling folk that they were going to “bring football home” had become a bit tedious, so it was quite a treat to see the England women do what the men had serially failed to do for many decades.

The success of the Lionesses, and the resource and money that have been put into the women’s game by folk such as Sue Campbell and Dawn Airey, who have championed the women’s game from grassroots to club level up and to national team level, including media coverage, are incredibly important. Of course, Scotland’s women and girls benefit from that. We certainly hope that the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Professional Football League will be watching carefully and looking to emulate that success and to work with those in England and across the world.

Our clubs in Scotland are developing, and it is great to see the men’s clubs bring on women’s teams, but we all know in Scotland of the success of Glasgow City, which was championed by Laura Montgomery. Many Scotland players have come through that team, which was never attached to a men’s team. It can be done, and that team is proof that it can be done. People may be interested to know that we have come a long way since the first recorded international women’s football match, which was played in Edinburgh on 9 May 1881 in Easter Road stadium. A team representing Scotland allegedly beat a team representing England 3-0, according to the history books.

There is so much more that I could say, but the fundamental point is that this debate is incredibly important. Cross-parliamentary support for women’s and girls’ football must be at the forefront of our minds following the success of England, to ensure that all the home nations can emulate that success and that we can all stand on the global stage and be proud of our women and girls in sport and football.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I have the immense pleasure of responding to the debate on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this debate, and on her excellent contribution. It is a shame that this debate was postponed, because I am sure that many more hon. Members would have loved to have contributed to pay their respect and tributes to the England women’s football team.

Like other Members, I love football and sport; Parliament is at its best when we all come together to celebrate the success of our national teams. I am making a bit of a habit of coming to Westminster Hall and agreeing with Members from all sides during a debate. This year, we all cheered as the fantastic Lionesses captivated the nation and won the 2022 UEFA European women’s football championship. The women’s Euros win was England’s first major women’s tournament victory ever, and the country’s first major competition win since 1966. Although, like the Minister, I am a proud Welsh MP, and it may usually be a sticking point to cheer on an England side, I am happy to put our historic sporting rivalry aside for this special occasion.

I take the opportunity to put on the record my well wishes for Rob Page and the Wales men’s World cup squad. The line-up is being announced tonight in my neighbouring constituency, Rhondda. All of us back home are excited to sing “Yma o Hyd” over the next few weeks. But today’s focus, quite rightly, is on the important progress to be made to ensure that women’s sport more widely receives equal parity with men’s participation.

The Euros final was watched by more than 17 million people, and the Lionesses have truly become an inspiration to many girls and young women across the UK. Labour believes that must represent a turning point in women’s football and sport. A record-breaking 87,000 people attended the final, with nearly 575,000 in attendance across the entire championships, and 84% of those who attended said the tournament improved their perception of women’s football. As a result, 416,000 new opportunities were created in England across schools, clubs and communities to engage women and girls in grassroots football. That is all to be celebrated, but we need to build a lasting legacy, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Twickenham.

Major sporting event success can be a powerful driver of grassroots sporting participation. Unfortunately, this Government have a poor record of building on our sports stars’ success. A decade on from the 2012 Olympics, we have seen facilities forgotten and physical activity has flatlined. The Government have failed to address the wider societal inequalities that make certain groups less likely to get active, and well-meaning initiatives, such as This Girl Can, have not met their participation targets, with insufficient strategic Government focus.

As the National Audit Office confirmed this year:

“Grassroots participation in sport did not receive the post-London Olympics and Paralympics boost hoped for at the time.”

The Government must learn from their previous failures and capitalise on the momentum that the Lionesses have created to ensure that more girls and young women are inspired to play sport. We need to address sporting disparities. It is widely reported, as we have heard from other Members, that women are less active than men. The physical activity gender gap starts very young, with girls being less active than boys from the age of five. Girls and women are also less likely to enjoy sports and physical activity. Beyond providing opportunity, then, we need to do better at boosting confidence and making sport safe, inclusive and enjoyable.

As we have heard, unequal access to sports in schools is holding us back. Currently, instead of being taught to play football, girls are instead taught comparable sports, such as netball or hockey. According to Sport England, only 63% of all schools currently offer equal access to girls’ football in PE lessons. In 2022, that is outdated and outrageous. We call on the Government to seize the opportunity created by the women’s Euros and introduce an equal access guarantee into the curriculum to create equal access to sports for all girls. That would ensure that girls are given the opportunity to try football at school. Will the Minister adopt that policy?

We know that despite growing prominence in recent years, rights, conditions and pay for women footballers are not yet anywhere near where they need to be. That is why the Labour party strongly supports the fan-led review’s recommendation of a dedicated review of the women’s game, and we welcome that finally being put into motion. The review and the process must remain fully independent and challenge the existing structures where needed. We need to ensure that the women’s game flourishes sustainably, that footballers are rewarded fairly, and that girls are supported to get into the sport.

Will the Minister please update us on what progress has been made so far and set out a timeline for when he expects the review to report? Given the Government’s flip-flopping and delay on their commitment to implementing the central recommendation of the fan-led review of the men’s game—the recommendation that there be an independent regulator—how can we have any confidence that they will act on the recommendations of the review of the women’s game? What assurances can the Minister give us on that?

We cannot ignore the fact that the cost of living crisis and the impact of soaring energy bills on sports and leisure facilities presents a major challenge. How does the Minister plan to increase women’s and girls’ participation in sport when closures, reduced timetables and price increases are probable, particularly from April 2023, when there is no guarantee of financial support for the sector?

We need the Government to acknowledge the power of sport to build healthier, happier, more connected communities, to save the NHS money, and to reduce pressure on public services. Labour will continue to cheer on our inspiring female athletes from all sports—they are the best of Britain—while fighting to secure a long-term legacy from our sporting achievements for future generations of girls and women.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this important debate. Let me say at the outset that I have made this issue a huge priority for me in this role. I am passionate about making sure that all sports are inclusive. I echo some of her points about the forthcoming World cup and share many of her concerns. This morning I met the Qatari ambassador. I sought assurances that the “Everyone is welcome” message is meant, and that fans will find that when they get to Qatar. I also raised the frankly unacceptable comments that Khalid Salman made yesterday; I made my views very clear indeed.

I put on the record my thanks to the Minister for doing that, and for raising his concerns, which many of us share, about the treatment of LGBT fans at the World cup. I appreciate that this Government did not have anything to do with the corruption that led to Qatar being chosen to hold the World cup, but I hope that all parliamentarians will consider how we will lobby such Governments and make sure that they do not get to hold international sporting competitions, and hold a place on the world stage, when they treat people from LGBT communities in such a way.

I think that the hon. Lady will know that this issue will continue to be high on my agenda. The Government are fully committed to supporting women’s sport at every opportunity, and to pushing for greater participation, employment and commercial opportunities in women’s sport, and for greater visibility both in the media and, as was mentioned, in this House. Let me start by wishing the Red Roses the very best of luck for the rugby union world cup final this weekend.

I am delighted to take on the role of Minister for sport at such an exciting time, and I look forward to making real progress on issues that I feel very passionately about, such as equality and diversity. Overall, I can see that there has been clear progress in a number of areas, but it is also clear that we have a long way to go. I am determined to strive for greater equality and opportunity for girls and women.

I join the hon. Member for Twickenham in celebrating the wonderful success that we witnessed in women’s sport this summer, when our very own Lionesses beat the German team at Wembley to lift the UEFA European championship trophy, teaching the men a thing or two. That inspirational tournament was staged in July in venues across England, from Rotherham and Wigan down to Southampton and Brighton.

So many records were broken during the tournament, but I will just mention two outstanding examples. The final at Wembley was attended by a crowd of over 87,000 people. That was a record for a women’s international game in Europe, and it broke new ground for a women’s or men’s Euro final tournament game. The tournament also became the most watched women’s Euros ever, with a global cumulative live viewership of 365 million across TV, out-of-home viewing and streaming. That massive number is more than double the number of people who watched the last UEFA women’s championship, staged in the Netherlands in 2017.

My local pub, the Red Lion, was transformed; usually, everyone is watching Leeds United, but they watched the championship, and I cannot tell you how excited they were and how they cheered. It was fantastic to witness. The tournament was a truly groundbreaking moment for sport. It has super-charged interest in the women’s game, bringing it to the forefront of people’s mind. We are looking forward to that momentum being maintained and built on, with the FIFA women’s World cup in Australia and New Zealand next year.

When I went to Wembley to see the Lionesses beat the USA, I sat next to Baroness Sue Campbell, and my arm was bruised afterwards because she was clutching on to it with so much excitement. When I meet her in December, I will know to sit on the opposite side of the table. She is clearly a passionate advocate of the sport.

To commemorate the team’s incredible achievement, we are working with the Football Foundation and the FA to name sites after the players in the towns and cities that shaped their careers. That is in addition to investing £230 million between 2021 and 2025 to improve grassroots sports facilities across the UK and help more women and girls to access high-quality facilities. I am looking forward to going to Stenhousemuir multisport facility tomorrow to see the work going on there and to support the Billie Jean King women’s tennis tournament in Glasgow.

We know this is not a one-off. Major sporting events unite the nation, instil pride in our communities and give us all something to feel good about, in a way that few other things can achieve. They also provide fantastic opportunities to create lasting legacies. We continue to see the impact of the women’s Euros. It has increased interest in the club side of the women’s game. Clubs in the women’s super league, which kicked off in September, are still reporting huge surges in demand for tickets. The new broadcast deal with Sky will see women’s football reach more people than ever.

The women’s super league attendance record has been smashed, as we have already heard, after 48,000 watched the north London derby between Arsenal and Twickenham—sorry, Tottenham, I am getting Twickenham on the brain—on Saturday 24 September. That would have been frankly unimaginable just a few years ago. We saw something similar in Birmingham for the Commonwealth games in the summer. There were some important firsts, including more medal events for women than men—a first in major multisport event history—and 173,000 spectators attended the T20 women’s cricket at Edgbaston, a record for women’s cricket.

This year’s rugby league world cup, played across venues mainly in the north of England, has been the first time that all three world cups—men’s, women’s and wheelchair—have been staged at the same time. That has helped to give visibility and a platform to those teams and players. Women and wheelchair players are also receiving prize money for the first time, as well as equal participation fees across all three tournaments. I wish all the teams every success.

As a country, we continue to reap the benefits of hosting major and mega sporting events. That is why the Government are fully committed to building on our world-leading reputation as a host. Although it is right to celebrate and reflect on the success of the Euros, we must now refocus to ensure that that success translates to the continued growth of the women’s game. That is why I am pleased that in September we launched an independent review of the future of women’s football, which is being chaired by former England and Great Britain footballer Karen Carney.

The review is looking at how to deliver bold, sustainable growth of the women’s game at elite and grassroots level. The Secretary of State and I recently met Karen to discuss progress to date. I look forward to working closely with her as the review progresses over the coming months. This is a defining period for the women’s game, and I want to ensure that the review contributes to the bold and sustainable growth of the game at elite and grassroots level.

Challenges frankly remain for women’s and girls’ participation in sport. As we have heard, Sport England data showed that the pandemic wiped out all of the gains made in women’s sport participation over the previous five years, falling back to just below 60% of women being active. The latest data, published in April this year, showed that men are still more likely to be active compared with women. The latest Sport England data for children and young people from December 2021 is more positive, showing that physical activity levels are very similar for boys and girls in education, with 45% of both defined as active. However, it is clear that more work needs to be done to continue to break down the barriers that prevent women and girls from being active, such as a fear of judgment, safety concerns and a lack of time.

We know that football is a popular choice for women and girls to get active—indeed, it is the most popular team sport for women and girls. Programmes such as Game On, Shooting Stars and Barclays Girls’ Football School Partnerships are engaging more girls in football at school—for example, more than 3,200 primary schools participate in the Shooting Stars programme. Initiatives such as Sport England’s This Girl Can continue to inspire millions of women to get active, regardless of shape, size, or ability. That campaign has helped to eliminate fear of judgment by normalising women taking part in sport and changing perceptions of what sport is. It also aims to prove that barriers such as time and money can be overcome.

The Lionesses’ fantastic performance at the 2022 women’s Euros has truly inspired the nation, and it is great to see that confirmed by the recent figures published by UEFA in its post-tournament flash report. For example, more than half of local residents and two in five spectators and tournament volunteers have been inspired to do more sport and physical activity generally, and 84% of those participating in UEFA’s women’s Euro 2022 legacy activities report that doing so has improved their confidence and self-esteem. We want to build on that momentum.

The Minister is outlining a lot of fantastic community initiatives. If he is going to come on to this topic, I hope he will forgive me, but could he address some of the questions I asked about working with the Department for Education to make sure that PE is on the agenda in the way the Lionesses have been pushing for?

The hon. Lady does not have long to wait. We want to build on the momentum that the tournament has created to ensure that every woman and every girl has the opportunity to take part in football if that is what they want to do, and—more importantly—to get active in any way that suits them personally. Our £230 million grassroots investment will be key to achieving that.

The Secretary of State was delighted to meet the Lionesses last month; they are extraordinary ambassadors for sport. We will continue to invest in grassroots sport to bring on the next generation of Lionesses. We know how valuable PE at school is: it gives pupils an opportunity to excel, be active and lead healthy lives. We are actively working with the Department for Education to understand the barriers that prevent the ambition of two to two and a half hours of PE a week being achieved. I commit to personally engaging with my colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that girls have equal access to sport. We are also reviewing the barriers that prevent girls from getting access to two hours of PE. There is more work for us to do to identify and address the different barriers to participation that exist for young people, and I absolutely commit to making that my priority.

Alongside that, the Department for Education is working on updating the school sport and activity action plan, which will set out actions to improve PE teaching in primary schools and help schools to make better use of their facilities. That will include a £30 million project to open those facilities after hours. More broadly, we need to work with other Departments, such as the Department of Health and Social Care. This is a policy area I care passionately about, and I know that if I do not do something about this issue, I will have far more debates to answer, although I will be happy to do so.

I thank Members for participating in the debate. I was told there was a delicious irony in the Member for Twickenham talking about football; I think there is a delicious irony in the fact that four of the seven Members present do not represent English constituencies, but also congratulate the Lionesses and wish them well. I am pleased to see the Scots enjoying English victory.

I thank Members for the important points they made, not least regarding the equalities issue—I wholeheartedly add my support to the comments made about Qatar hosting the World cup. I thank the Minister for his passion and commitment and urge him to keep pressing the Department for Education, particularly on the sport premium. With spending cuts coming down the tracks, that is an easy thing to go after, but it is so important, particularly for less well-off children. Given that we are running out of time, I will end there.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the 2022 UEFA European Women’s Football Championship and participation of girls and young women in sport.

Sitting adjourned.