Question for Short Debate
My Lords, it is no secret as to why I have brought this issue forward. We have had a long run of great sporting success. For someone who would sooner cheer for Scotland, unfortunately this has been mainly by English teams. We have all seen our national women’s sides enjoying a tremendous run of success in team games that were originally thought to be male dominated.
The Euros were an odd one—for me, a hardened rugby union player, football suddenly became enjoyable to watch. This was not only because there was a successful team to relate to, but also for the sheer joy the players seemed to have in competing and in that success. Who would have thought that a song, brought out in 1969 by Neil Diamond, would be belted out with such great gusto and with which everybody would join in? “Sweet Caroline” has become an anthem for British sport. It happened because a group of female players enjoyed and enlivened their success. It engaged the vast majority of us in a way we did not expect.
This success has been backed up—though this is a little bitter-sweet—by the England rugby union team, which had 30 consecutive victories at international level. I do not know how many records that broke, but it was magnificent. If we cannot celebrate this degree of success with better grace and embrace it a little more than we have done so far, we are going to be in trouble.
The whole structure of sport encourages people to take part and enjoy it. I am asking the Government what we are doing to get the best social, health and emotional health benefits from it. How are we going to do this?
What did we do to allow that success to be seen? First, we made sure that it was all on free-to-air television. If either of those tournaments had been tucked away in even the most brightly lit corner of a streaming service, the vast majority of the population would not have seen them. This had to be something that the BBC and ITV particularly took on and said, “Here it is.”
It is also about the warm-up to it, not just the events. Women’s football has been available for a long time, mainly on the BBC—we have seen it. If you did not see it, it does not really matter, and that applies to any form of public entertainment or engagement that goes on. For the first time, rugby union having the women’s competition in stand-alone tournaments when you can watch it has been massively beneficial to getting people engaged in it.
Why does this matter? If you are getting the women and girls to think that sporting activity is normal, you can encourage more of them to take part in it. It is not a totally closed book because they are out there now, but most of the clichés and stereotypes which have stood against female participation are thus addressed. You are going through and making sure that people can get out and get involved. How do you access this and encourage people to do it? You start at school, I hope by having a smorgasbord of opportunities to try. You encourage children to get out there and enjoy the sports that are going on. However, the thing about school is that you leave it. Generally speaking, people drop out of sport post 16, 18 or 21, when they leave this controlled environment where to an extent it is made easier for you or you are encouraged—indeed, forced—to take part in sport.
What do we do to break that down? You encourage children to try sports, hopefully ones that are culturally available to them. For instance, if you are talking about codes of rugby, I suggest that St Helens rugby league might be your first port of call—this might be the first opportunity to celebrate that other bunch of Lionesses who got into the semi-final of that particular tournament. You have to make sure that it is culturally available for your background and the groups that you are going out to, and then you must encourage people to go from the club at the school to the small amateur clubs—the big, professional, international, shiny stuff does not really matter that much as regards the benefit to society if you do not get people taking part in these games on a voluntary amateur basis.
In this country, government is very lucky that we have a tradition of sports clubs which founded themselves, fund themselves and look after themselves. Sport does a lot. Government helps but primarily, sport helps itself. That is why they are there and why, for instance, local government finds itself assisting football clubs with their grounds, not providing all of them as they do in most of Europe. The Government should be encouraging that. One of the easy ways of doing this is to make sure that there is an effective link between school and club activity. You get better coaching and the idea that you can carry on afterwards. I hope that this will be encouraged.
For women and girls, this might mean expanding the traditional bill of fare. We have just spoken about two sports which are not encapsulated in the traditional diet of netball and hockey, although they should both be represented. Indeed, both those sports have had their degree of success but possibly, if we televise them more we might do them a bit of a favour. However, maybe that is taking the debate a bit too far down one avenue.
How are we going to encourage this, making sure that that offer to take on these things in later life is done? We have to do more on that. School sport partnerships took a step in that direction—I do not know whether they were all-encompassing and fully working that through, because in most cases they got stopped when they had only just started to get going. Can the Minister give us an idea of what they are going to do?
I return to one of the things which government should probably do more of, which is to celebrate better team sports generally. We are in an odd position here, in that we have handed out honours and awards like toffees for people who have had modest successes. It was great back in those heady days when England won the Ashes for the first time, but they should have beaten Australia before that. Everybody got a gong—or whatever the correct term is in cricket; others will correct me later—at the end of it, even if they sat on the bench. Then England win the Rugby World Cup. Great: everybody gets a gong. The England women’s team were amateurs in 2014. The definition of amateurs is that you pay to play, you are not paid; you give up time and effort and you put money in. When they won the World Cup—and they are much more consistent about getting to finals, and so on, than the men—two of them got medals. Has the person who devised that for a team game never actually watched a team game, let alone participated in one? Do not goalkeepers and defenders count in football, or the people who do the hard work to win the ball in rugby, or is it only the glamour boys? I speak as someone who was definitely in the grunt brigade.
This is what the Government could easily do. If it upsets some weird table of achievement or the giving out of awards, give one medal to the entire team and give people a copy of it. That is a way out. The example I give of where that has been done is the equestrian teams for eventing. There used to be one medal; now they give them each one, but it still counts as one medal. That is something that the Government could do easily.
I know the Government had a lot on their plate this summer, but they did not have an official reception for the Lionesses: come on. There was enough of the Government left to celebrate that better. Why did that not happen? You could probably do it now and nobody would lose any Brownie points for having a party late, as opposed to not having it.
As the clock beats me, I thank everybody for taking part and hope that the Government will be able to answer my questions and the other thoughtful ones that I know are coming.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington, both on obtaining the debate and on his erudite and detailed analysis of the circumstances of women’s team sports over recent years. I intend, as is natural for me—as with the noble Lord—to concentrate on rugby union and leave football to the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and others.
I start with the observation that, tomorrow evening, my rugby club, the Kings Cross Steelers, will be celebrating on the Terrace their victory in the worldwide gay tournament, the Bingham Cup. In itself, that victory is not relevant; what is relevant is that we will have three members of the England women’s rugby team present: Shaunagh Brown, Ellie Kildunne and Sadia Kebaya. We are honoured, because their success in recent weeks has caught the attention of the nation. I say to Sarah Hunter, our captain, on behalf of the whole team, not only have you caught our attention but you have gained our respect. We all know how difficult it is to accept defeat—and such a close defeat, at that—but you have gained our complete respect.
Why? When I told my members that we were going to have three members of the England women’s team present, the reaction was a communal, “Wow, that’s great!”. For the first time ever, because of television coverage and the like, the rugby union team has attracted our attention in the same way that the football team has done. Why has it attracted our attention? Let us be honest, with the level of professionalism that we now have—which is rising and can go on rising—the skill levels in team sports have risen. Therefore, nobody dismisses them now and says that it does not matter, or that they are just out there playing rugby union, football, cricket, rugby league or whatever; there is a skill level now available which everybody can and should appreciate.
Along with a number of other Members of both this House and the other place, I had the pleasure of pressing the Government for funding for the women’s Rugby World Cup in 2025. I was pleased that the Government granted that assistance. In Auckland, a week ago, the stadium was full to 40,000—its maximum capacity. The RFU has set a target of filling Twickenham, with a capacity of well over 80,000, for the final in 2025. It is a great target and it should be achieved. It reflects the growing interest in women’s sport that is being displayed across the nations.
As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, although we can admire the achievement and the increased professionalisation and skills, we must recognise that it is not a total success story. I served on a committee with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and others. We looked at the statistics in relation to activity levels. Among women, those levels are on average 10% below male activity levels, and markedly lower among certain socioeconomic groups and ethnic communities. Those are the people who need to be attracted by the performance of women in team sports to generate an interest on a day-to-day basis at a lower level in sport generally, because role models are not the only solution to achieving participation.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on securing this debate, and share his pleasure in the recent successes. But I want to emphasise that we should always bear in mind that national success of this kind is built on the grass-roots activities that underpin them and which are so important and so common throughout the country every weekend. That is very important.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said, my particular interest is in football. I make no apologies for that, though as a good northerner, I should say that women in rugby league, while not in this Saturday’s final, deserve some credit for giving that game a much higher profile. They need recognition for what they have achieved over the last few weeks, especially given that they are not even fully professional.
Football has seen remarkable changes recently in the public perception of the women’s game. It is remarkable that attendances at women’s football matches have gone through the roof—over 50,000 on some occasions. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, is right that free-to-view television has been an important factor. However, this weekend, a large number of people will pay to watch women’s football on television. That is partly because there is no FA Premier League, but nevertheless it is a significant breakthrough. Another breakthrough is the number of women commentators, not just on women’s football but on all football. We have made some successes there.
As I said, it is the grass roots that have built up to this success. I must mention AFC Bolton Ladies, who are self-funding but have had real difficulties post Covid. The Government must consider these small clubs in the light of what has been happening there. I make special mention of a group of women football players, the pioneering Manchester Corinthians, of Fog Lane Park, not least because they were founded by a scout from Bolton Wanderers in 1949. They made breakthroughs, and were the first women’s team to represent England at an international level and beat the Germans—just to mention that. The team even played in front of 50,000 people in Benfica—and this was when women’s football was banned. It is incredible that it was not until 1971 that women’s football was recognised as even existing. It has been an uphill struggle, and a lot of that struggle was conducted at that very low level. I hope that Manchester Corinthians get the recognition that they want for their history.
But all is not well and easy. A report by sports scientists out just yesterday highlights the lack of football kit actually designed for women, and how women therefore have more injuries of certain kinds, because there has not been that recognition. While we are celebrating success, I will celebrate in particular the success of the Lionesses: undefeated in 26 games, winning the European Championship and providing that role model. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that a reception would be very nice, but I think the Lionesses would rather have the legacy of the Government making sure that football is available for every girl and woman to play, with the kind of support necessary to make that success continue into the future.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Addington on obtaining this debate and opening it in such a thoughtful and constructive manner. In the short time allocated, I will concentrate my remarks on one specific area: the benefits of involving women in custody and those on the cusp of the criminal justice system in sport.
When I became Minister of State for Justice in the coalition Government in 2010, and later chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales between 2014 and 2017, I instinctively assumed, from my own experience, that sport would play an important part in diverting young people from the criminal justice system or helping in rehabilitation once they were within it. The advice I was initially given was that there was no evidence that participation in sport could play such a constructive role. I spent my seven years at the MoJ actively searching for such proof.
Fortunately, over those years, individuals and organisations helped change attitudes to the importance of sport in our criminal justice system, not just for boys but for girls and women too. There was the ground-breaking research by Professor Rosie Meek, of Royal Holloway, University of London, in her 2018 report for the Ministry of Justice, which reviewed sport in youth and adult prisons. In her foreword to that report, Professor Meek said:
“Evidence confirms that sport can play a huge role within our Criminal Justice System. As well as being a way to bring together disparate groups, develop communication skills and learn life lessons, it also has the advantage of being something many people are passionate about.”
I was also encouraged by James Mapstone, co-founder and chief executive of the Alliance of Sport in Criminal Justice, and was given great encouragement by a member of my Youth Justice Board, now the noble Baroness, Lady Sater. I look forward to her remarks later in this debate. Protocol prevents me referring to her as my noble friend, but perhaps I may refer to her as my partner in crime. She is now a co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sport and Physical Activity in the Criminal Justice System, along with Clive Efford MP, with James Mapstone providing the secretariat and Rosie Meek as an adviser. I am confident that we can keep up the pressure for greater recognition of sport within the CJS.
Beyond the need for change in the criminal justice system, it is also clear that much still needs to be done to provide access to facilities and the right equipment, and in the recruitment of coaches. I was interested in the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, just made about equipment. Forty years ago, as an MP, I remember being approached by a young female constituent who told me that access to sports bras was a deterrent to girls playing sport. As the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, said, a report earlier this week called for more comfortable and practical sports bras, shorts and hijabs, as well as boots and other equipment specifically designed for the needs of women and girls and their bodies. As she said, there is still work to be done at that level.
Although time has prevented me paying full tribute to the way that the skills of, and opportunities for, women in sport have exploded into the public consciousness, I do so now and hope that we will enjoy success in more sports and at all levels in the years ahead; that we will celebrate, as the Motion asks us, the success of our women’s team; and that we will put forward practical measures to underpin that success in future.
My Lords, like every other noble Lord, I express my pride in both the Lionesses and England’s women, who put in such a gutsy performance in the world championship, losing by such a small margin against New Zealand.
As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said in his excellent opening remarks, during their teenage years girls drop out of sport at three times the rate of boys, yet girls need load-bearing exercise even more than boys during those years. It is the best time to build bone density, helping to protect us from osteoporosis later in life. The push from our sports councils to get more females into exercising and keep us there is not just a social move towards some sort of sporting equality. It is important for our health and well-being, including the impact on the NHS budget.
Football is the most popular team sport in the UK, with millions of people playing regularly. It is a “gender-affected activity”, in the words of the Equality Act, meaning that mixed-sex play would not be fair for females because males are stronger and faster, even when they are the same size. From the age of 12, boys and girls play separately to give females fair and safe play. Even in primary schools, it is common to have girls’ teams and boys’ teams. A 10 year-old girl will tell you that boys will not pass to girls and that she prefers playing with other girls because boys are too rough. The effects of male puberty are clear: more muscle, bigger heart and lung capacity, denser bones, stiffer tendons and the rest.
In the school playground or in the park, you will see boys, not girls, having an impromptu football game. The result is that for every female playing football in the UK, there are nine males. That is almost a whole team. If football is to become a girls’ game too, it is obvious that girls and young women need their own teams. They also need role models. After the success of the England women, girls can see they can be female and sporty, and that can be life-changing.
Here is the problem. Since 2015 the Football Association has had a policy that males may play in women’s teams if they lower their testosterone or, in some cases, even if they do not. Lowering testosterone will slow them down a little but does not reverse male puberty and it certainly does not remove male performance advantage in sport. An average male runs 10% faster than an average female. In a dash to the ball, he needs to be only half a metre in front every time and she will never get a touch. Up to the age of 18, even that requirement is absent. The FA’s current policy says that under-18s may play in the team of “their reassigned/ affirmed gender”, so although talented girls can be forced to drop out of boys’ teams after the age of 11, boys who say they are “girls inside” get to join a girls’ team.
This year the England Universities women’s football squad has a trans-identifying male player, a 30-something six-foot-tall post-pubertal male who now identifies as a woman, in goal, where size advantage really counts. If you had to play them, would you not want a trans-identifying male player in your women’s team too, in order to level the playing field a little?
Last autumn the UK’s Sports Council Equality Group published new guidance on transgender inclusion in sport. It said that the inclusion of trans-identifying males in female sport could not be balanced with fairness, and in many cases safety, for females. This summer English and Welsh rugby reinstated female-only teams, though Scottish Rugby has yet to follow, but football is not there yet.
Women’s football was huge in the early 20th century but was outlawed by the FA in 1921 and remained so for 50 years. Now, once again, women’s football has a chance. Let us hope the FA will not hand it to the boys this time.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and also the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, for today’s debate. I would like to draw noble Lords’ attention to my entry in the register of interests; I have many connections in sport.
There is indeed a lot to celebrate. Ten years ago, the London Olympics and Paralympics became known as the “women’s games” because of the success of British athletes. This summer I have loved the Euros, the rugby union and rugby league; it has been incredible. Women’s sport is on the rise, but we are not there yet. It still feels like we are at the beginning of a journey. We have to be careful about the next steps we take and what we might consider giving away, and we must not be complacent about the future.
The organisation Women in Sport has said that the successes are built on shaky foundations, with “stubborn inequalities”, stereotypes and practical barriers, which may be different at each stage of life, disrupting many women’s and girls’ experiences of sport. Over the years many misogynistic men have told me that women do not play sport because apparently, “they” do not like it. Turning it around, “they” are hopefully starting to realise that we do like playing sport and we are good at it, but there is still so much more we have to do.
I was part of a conversation recently in which someone tried to tell me that you know women’s sport has made it when top coaches—they meant men—decide they want to coach women. Let me be clear that I am not against men coaching women; three out of four of my coaches were men. I know incredible men in sport. But the inference that we are only good at sport when men decide we are, is just a little bit irritating. There is not enough time to go into that particular debate.
We have to keep looking and checking. Where are the women coaches, administrators and volunteers, and what opportunities are we going give women athletes? What platform do we give them? Sport matters and women must be part of the discussion about the future. In the US, Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination. I have long believed that we need that in the UK, perhaps now more than ever, in order not just to keep investing in success but to make sure that we have the right opportunities.
Also in the US, the NCAA rules have recently changed, benefiting some women, who have been able to sell their name, image and likeness for great financial reward. It is probably seen at the moment as a non-traditional form of endorsement. It does give some power to women, but not all women can do this or want to.
Women are catching up in sport. Women have been allowed to compete in the Olympic marathon only since 1984, and in the pole vault, since 2000. There are plenty more other sports I could mention. We have an opportunity now not just to celebrate success but to turn the tide of inactivity. So, what do we need to do? We have to stop sexualising the uniforms women are required to wear, or at least give them a choice. We need to listen to what women want in sport and to tackle the inequalities in sponsorship and media coverage, and at the grassroots.
Women in Sport says that
“4 in 10 girls feel women’s sport is still viewed as of lower value than men’s sport and that girls are not expected to be good at sport”.
More than one-third of parents of girls, 37%, think that girls are not encouraged to do sport and physical activity as much as boys are. You have to see it to believe it, and this summer we have seen the success of women’s sport in spades. It has been incredible, and there is a lot to celebrate. Now, we have to do more to widen the opportunities and ensure we have future success.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on securing this short debate and on his excellent speech. Many national women’s teams in the United Kingdom have cause to celebrate a fine year. To name a few, gold medals have been won at the Commonwealth Games by the England women’s hockey team and by the GB women’s rowing crews at the European championships. In rugby union, the Red Roses were unlucky to lose narrowly against the All Blacks. English women were also runners-up in the cricket world cup. Above all, of course, we celebrate the magnificent victory of the Lionesses. That was great for women’s sport. It brought in a large audience, has raised the sport’s profile and has attracted many new players.
It is important that we celebrate, and that government now build on the enthusiasm generated to promote support for girls and women equally with boys and men. Champions attract newcomers. From the mass of young participants come future champions. With them, we will have future successes. It must and can be a virtuous circle. Government must nurture young sportswomen.
It is good for society if we all exercise and participate, with greater or less success, in sports. Teams are valuable for the less-gifted participants. Many children love sport, if encouraged and given the chance. Many just want to be in a team, even the third or fourth team—and that applies, as I know, to boys and girls alike. Team sports promote loyalty and friendship; to be a “team player” is a compliment we give people in life. Society wins from more involvement in sport.
However, too many girls do not play sport in their teenage years. The reasons are complex, but puberty and changing body shapes cause difficulties. There is embarrassment in changing rooms, so, wherever possible, there must single-sex changing facilities. They should not have to share facilities with boys or, later, with men. Nor should they be deterred by faster and stronger trans women in direct competition. It is simply not fair for a taller, well-built natal male with artificially lowered testosterone levels to play contact sports with girls or women. It is not just unfair; it carries increased risk of serious injury. It is not a level playing field. Inclusivity must not mean being unfair to females, who, after all, are half our population. Being kind to trans women does not justify invading the dignity of the female sex or putting them at a physical disadvantage; sensitivity to female needs and fairness to females must come first.
Sport for women should result in happy and confident persons. If we drive proper sport for females forward, we shall have more champions to cheer. So let us celebrate, build on the success we have had and drive women’s team sports to still greater heights. Let the Government now show that they believe that women and girls are the equal of men.
I too congratulate my friend the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on securing this excellent debate and thank him for highlighting and celebrating women’s team sports. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his kind words, for raising a very important issue, for all the work he has done in promoting sport and physical activity at the YJB and for his continued support with the APPG.
As others have mentioned, there has been huge progress in the last few years in bringing women’s sport to national attention, most notably through the fantastic achievement of the Lionesses in winning the Euros earlier this year. We have also seen, in recent days and weeks, the GB tennis team make the semi-final of the Billie Jean King Cup for the first time in 41 years, and the England women’s team make it all the way to the final of the Rugby World Cup. A wide variety of women’s team sports are clearly on the rise and getting more exposure in the media—and what fantastic role models they are.
We must maintain this focus on women’s sport and build upon the progress and success we have seen. It is vital that we continue to strive for greater equality and opportunity in sport. We have an amazing opportunity to help inspire the next generation of sportswomen by teaching girls in schools the right skills and strategies from an early age. We know that more work remains to be done on this agenda as, according to a Women in Sport report published earlier this year, girls are not only “less physically active generally” than boys but are
“also far less likely to take part in team sports”.
While 55% of girls play team sports, the figure is 71% for boys. Schools have an important role to play along the journey in achieving national successes. We know that many schools are delivering excellent sporting facilities, but I am afraid that this is not true of all schools, be it down to a lack of workforce, facilities or equipment.
We all know the knock-on effects of what better physical health can have on mental health and helping our children with their learning in school. The Association of Physical Education states:
“The difference that high quality Physical Education, School Sport & Physical Activity make to the lives of young people is quite remarkable.”
That includes improved behaviour and attitudes and building confidence, social skills, personal development and much more.
With all the successes of national women’s sports and the increased demand in recent years, perhaps we should consider modifying and adapting the curriculum so that we can build on the success. We must always listen to the voices of girls; they are not a homogenous group—they have different attitudes towards sports, and we must recognise this to help inspire more girls to get active. It should, of course, not come at the expense of individual sports and other activities, which is why we need to provide a broad and balanced offer.
Sport and physical activity should be a must-have, not a nice-to-have. One way to embed more focus on sport and physical activity, including encouraging more girls to play sport and giving them more opportunity to play team sports, would be to classify PE as a core subject. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that this would give PE a higher priority and focus in schools?
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, in his comments about clubs, and the pathway between schools and clubs. Sport does not stop at the school gate. We must ensure that we support and strengthen the relationship between schools and local clubs so that we can help more girls on their journey to becoming elite sportswomen. I have no doubt that on the back of the successes that we have seen across a wide variety of women’s sports on the national stage in recent years, there will be an increased demand from more girls to play more sports in schools. We have an opportunity here to unleash the full potential of women in sport in this country, and we must seize it.
First, of course, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Addington on securing this important debate.
I would like to tell noble Lords a story about my first serious engagement with women in sport. As the newly elected MP for Solihull, I was invited to see a women’s rugby match at a local constituency club called Camp Hill. Warmly wrapped up, I stood on the try line nearest the bar, ready to cheer the Camp Hill Chargers on, not really expecting to find women’s rugby a very serious endeavour. How wrong I was. I can tell noble Lords that it was not handbags. Indeed, to prevent a try being scored, a Charger threw herself on top of the ball so no opposition player could get to it, winded herself, took off her scrum cap, had a little sick, put the cap back on and ran back on to the pitch. I began to appreciate that women’s sport is, to women, an incredibly serious matter.
That game was in 2005, a time when women’s sport was grossly undervalued, both in the attention it received in the media and the financial support that it was given. But these days, the popularity of women’s sport is huge, and is growing at different rates right across the board. Only days ago, the Red Roses reached the final of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand—who, as we know, won, playing on home turf. Britain’s Rugby Union chief executive, Bill Sweeney, agreed that the nail-biting finish
“was probably more entertaining than the men’s game”.
But success attracts investment, and this rugby final attracted the largest crowds ever for the women’s game.
Is the real win the benefits it brings to those who take part? Many minority groups have been mentioned by noble Lords this afternoon for inclusion. My noble friend Lord McNally mentioned sports participation and the criminal justice Bill. It is about inclusion of all kinds. Several noble Lords have also taken the opportunity to raise the trans issue, an important issue on which we should perhaps have a further debate on another day.
My noble friend Lord Addington queried the value of what the Government are doing to celebrate the success of these fantastic teams. Why did the Lionesses not get invited to a formal reception at No. 10? While I appreciate that there have been one or two other small things on the Government’s plate of late, it is a simple thing to recognise our women’s success. It does not cost a lot. It creates good publicity. It improves public morale, which we could certainly do with at the moment, and shows that, even though we can mess up the economy in six days, we are good at something. That should be recognised and celebrated.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on bringing this debate to us today. He has a habit of enriching the Chamber with his knowledge of sport, particularly rugby, and I congratulate him on all that he does to promote that.
It is right that we celebrate the achievements of our national women’s sporting legends, but we need to do much more than that—we should celebrate those who have led the way in opening up sport generally so that women, so long excluded, can feel welcome and able to play competitive sports on equal terms with their male counterparts. We have, as all speakers acknowledge, much to celebrate and even more to look forward to, but it is worth just reminding ourselves of the journey women in sport have been on. I will tell a story which, I hope, illustrates the point.
In 2000, when I was a Minister in the Home Office, I was travelling home late in a ministerial car and had a new and rather sparky temporary driver. As you do, we fell into a conversation about football, and within a few minutes my driver explained that she played for one of the top women’s clubs and had played for Doncaster Belles, Arsenal Ladies and Croydon Women in recent seasons. She also told me she was England’s centre forward. I remarked, “There’s clearly something wrong here, I should be driving you”. Imagine the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, being driven home by Harry Kane—well, that is how it felt.
We then embarked on a conversation in which it was explained to me just how hard it was for women footballers to perform at the highest level. To train and get time off for games they had to plead with their employers, who were often wholly unsympathetic and opposed to helping the women’s game. Senior women footballers of that era were truly pioneers to whom the current generation of England and Women’s Super League players are grateful. Many were just paid “boot money”.
Much has changed in the world of football for the better for women players, but there remains much more to do in the marketing of the game, clubs giving greater exposure to the women’s game in their stadia, pay levels in the professional leagues, the transfer market and the treatment of the game in the media, in particular. Schools football, its governance and the encouragement of the grass roots, as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, explained to us, all need work before we can get anywhere near parity with the men’s game. I remind noble Lords today that the highest transfer fee for a woman footballer is £350,000, paid back in September this year. Women, despite their incredible drawing power, as illustrated by the Euros, are still undervalued.
Women are powering ahead as winners in UK sport in football, cricket, rugby, rugby league, athletics, tennis, gymnastics, cycling, curling, rowing and a whole range of Olympic and Paralympic sports and much more. Our sports bodies and organisations are doing much good work in opening up opportunities and making sport more inclusive. For the long term, we need to do more to ensure we protect our sporting heritage with secured funding and investment in school facilities, playing fields and open spaces—much missed in the last few years. We need to challenge unconscious bias and ensure that the culture surrounding women in sport is right and appropriate by ensuring that we raise standards in the world of sports administration.
There is much to celebrate but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said, much more to do. Let us learn from our wins—and our defeats—celebrate today our women’s achievements and ensure that future generations build on that legacy.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for securing this important debate on the success of women’s sport. The timing is, as noble Lords noted, particularly apt with so much success occurring across women’s sport, not least the success of England’s Red Roses reaching the final at the women’s Rugby World Cup last weekend—and coming so tantalisingly close to winning the tournament—and the Lionesses at this summer’s Euros. I am very happy to be responding to this Question for Short Debate at such an exciting time, and I assure noble Lords that His Majesty’s Government are keen to build on this success and momentum to create a lasting legacy for women’s sport.
The Government are fully committed to supporting women’s sport at every opportunity, pushing for greater participation, employment, commercial opportunities, visibility—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Addington accentuated—and opportunities at school. It is important that we take the time to recognise and celebrate success, which is why today’s debate is so important as well as so timely.
This summer we witnessed a major success in women’s sport the Lionesses beat the German team at Wembley to lift the UEFA European championship trophy. This inspirational tournament was staged in July across England, from Rotherham and Wigan to Southampton and Brighton. As noble Lords have noted, the final at Wembley was attended by a record crowd of over 87,000 people. That was not only a new record for a women’s international game in Europe but broke new ground for a women’s or men’s Euros final tournament game. The tournament also became the most watched women’s Euros ever, with a global cumulative live viewership of 365 million people across television, out-of-home viewing and streaming. This massive figure is more than double the number that watched the last UEFA European Women’s Championship in the Netherlands in 2017.
The tournament was truly a ground-breaking moment for the sport and has dramatically boosted interest in the women’s game, bringing it to the forefront of people’s minds. The event held for the Lionesses in Trafalgar Square the day after the final was a momentous occasion and saw 7,000 fans celebrate with their heroes. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the former Prime Minister Liz Truss met the Lionesses at their training ground to congratulate them and were very proud to support the event in Trafalgar Square. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, said, it is also important that we focus on the long-term legacy by way of celebration. To commemorate their already incredible achievement, we are working with the Football Foundation and the FA to name sites after the players in towns and cities that shaped their careers. We hope that that will inspire many generations of more players.
We will also continue to invest in grass-roots sport to bring on the next generation of Lionesses. We know how valuable physical education at school is: it gives pupils an opportunity to excel, to be active and to lead healthy lives. My noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington talked about the importance for bone density and preventing diseases such as osteoporosis. That is why we are actively working with the Department for Education to understand the barriers that prevent the ambition of two hours of PE a week being achieved. We will also continue to work with the Department for Education to ensure that girls have equal access to sports.
There is more work for us to do to identify and address the different barriers to participation that exist for young people; we have heard about some of those again today. We will continue to adopt a more targeted approach as part of our new sport strategy. Alongside this, the Department for Education is working on updating the School Sport and Activity Action Plan, which will set out steps to improve PE teaching in primary schools and to help schools make better use of their sport facilities.
On facilities, my noble friend Lord Sandhurst spoke about the importance of single-sex changing facilities. The Government are committed to maintaining the safeguards that allow organisations to provide single-sex services and we do not plan to announce any changes to the law.
Aside from the Women’s Euros, there are a number of other recent examples of success in women’s sport. Over the last week, we have seen the England Red Roses reach the final of this year’s women’s Rugby World Cup, as well as the other Lionesses—as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, put it—reach the semi-final of the Rugby League World Cup. The Great Britain team reached the semi-finals of the Billie Jean King Cup for the first time—as my noble friend Lady Sater said—in 41 years. Great Britain’s women also won three medals at the recent Gymnastics World Championships in Liverpool. Jessica Gadirova claimed an historic floor gold medal for Great Britain on the final day and sealed Great Britain’s first ever women’s all-round World Gymnastics Championship medal with bronze in Liverpool. This year’s Commonwealth Games also highlighted the success of women’s sport with Eilish McColgan’s outstanding performance in the 10,000 metres, to give just one example. Some 173,000 spectators attended the T20 women’s cricket at Edgbaston, a record for women’s cricket.
It goes without saying that Emma Radacanu’s win at the US Open in 2021 truly inspired the nation as well. A peak audience of 9.2 million tuned into the match on Channel 4, including 48% of 16 to 34 year-olds. The UK’s honours system can provide a way of recognising stellar sporting achievement and moments of national celebration. Examples of this include the MBEs awarded to the GB women’s hockey team who won gold at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 and the damehood awarded to Dame Laura Kenny as a result of her becoming the most successful female cyclist in Olympic history following her performance at the Tokyo Games in 2020.
I take the point the noble Lord raises. Of course, the honours system is independent of government, but his point will be well heard and, I am sure, fed back to those who sit on the independent committees.
All those sportswomen, whether honoured yet or not, are inspiring the next generation to follow their dreams. We are looking forward to this momentum being maintained and built on with the rugby league World Cup final this weekend, the ICC women’s T20 World Cup in South Africa, the FIFA women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the netball World Cup in South Africa and the Solheim Cup in Spain. I am sure all noble Lords will want to send our best wishes to the mixed England team who are in the finals of the wheelchair rugby league World Cup tomorrow.
As noble Lords can see, there is much to celebrate in women’s sport, but it is not enough that we celebrate these successes; we must continue our hard work in ensuring that they continue for decades to come. We are doing this by investing £230 million between 2021 and 2025 to improve grass-roots facilities across the UK. In addition, after Emma Radacanu’s spectacular win, we put just under £22 million into tennis court facilities. We will also look to continue our world-leading reputation for hosting major and mega sporting events and bringing all those special moments, like the Lionesses’ victory, to the United Kingdom. Major events make people feel good in a way unlike others and it is right that we should all have the opportunity to witness at first hand the successes of our brilliant athletes, men and women.
With this in mind, we must continue to build our pipeline of sporting events so that we can inspire more people across the country to watch, participate in or volunteer in sport, putting emphasis on the need for events to consider their social impact and legacy at the early bidding stage, to maximise the benefits after conclusion. It is worth highlighting in that regard that we successfully won the bid to host the women’s Rugby World Cup in 2025 in May this year, and I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Hayward for securing the financial commitment from the Government for that and pass on, via him, my congratulations to the Kings Cross Steelers for their victory in the Bingham Cup. Hosting the women’s Rugby World Cup in 2025 and delivering the legacy programme will generate transformational social impacts across rugby fans and more widely, including in the towns and cities which play host, and the legacy programme will look to focus on access to rugby for women and girls across the country. The 2026 ICC women’s T20 World Cup was announced as being awarded to England and Wales in July this year, another important opportunity that will further boost the ECB’s strategy to make cricket a gender-balanced sport.
The UK has also won the bid to host the International Working Group on Women and Sport from this year until 2026, another great opportunity not only to share the fantastic work we are doing but to learn from other countries. There is no doubt that the visibility of women’s sport is continuing to grow, and this was boosted earlier this year when we added the FIFA women’s World Cup and the UEFA Women’s European Championships to the listed events regime, meaning both tournaments will remain available for free-to-air television broadcasters and to the biggest audiences.
We want to continue to build on recent successes, such as the Women’s Euros and the good work already being done to encourage more women and girls to participate in sport and physical activity. We need to look ahead and be prepared to take advantage of opportunities and find ways to overcome challenges, such as have been outlined in today’s debate. We need to keep talking about issues relating to women in sport, asking questions and pushing ourselves to do more, so that women can continue to be in the driving seat of our national sporting success and not just of the Government Car Service. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for today’s debate and to all noble Lords who participated in it.