Boxing Clubs and Social Mobility

– in the House of Commons at 6:57 pm on 27 February 2023.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jacob Young.)

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North 8:59, 27 February 2023

May I begin by declaring an interest as the proud joint chair of the all-party parliamentary group on boxing? I believe that amateur boxing is a force for social good in this country. The point and purpose of this debate is to highlight not only the fabulous work that is going on in amateur boxing clubs throughout the country, but the real social value that those clubs add.

Given the historic events that we have just been talking about, it is somewhat appropriate that my journey in boxing began—even though I was not yet born—on the cold night of 1 March 1948 at the King’s hall in Belfast, where my great-uncle Gerald “Paddy” Slavin became the heavyweight champion of Ireland. He held the title for a number of years and was No. 8 in Europe. That inspired my late dad, Barry: boxing was his main preoccupation, interest and passion, apart from his family and his children. It is for him that I stand here today.

Let me put the issue into a national context. It is right to acknowledge the great work of England Boxing, which has helped me to prepare for the debate. For those who do not know, it is the national governing body for amateur boxing in England—one of the only sporting governing bodies whose sole focus is separate from the sport’s professional and unlicensed elements. England Boxing has a new strategy in place that goes up to 2027. It has gone through rapid change, but with the support of Sport England and others, it now has an opportunity to grow and build in both competitive and community delivery. It has a membership of more than 1,000 clubs and 25,000 competitive boxers, coaches and officials, with about 150,000 recreational boxers using the clubs each week.

Alongside success in delivering medals at international championships, the sport has a significant record of delivering community programmes and activities in inner cities and local communities. Boxing promotes social mobility and inclusion, positive mental health and wellbeing, and economic growth, all of which are key objectives as the country emerges from the pandemic and tackles the cost of living crisis. The Government are developing their new strategy for the sport, which we expect later this year from the excellent Minister.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. He has a very active local boxing club, and so do we in Newtownards. The boxing club in my constituency has been helping young people to train effectively and learn to channel their energy in an appropriate and helpful manner. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that clubs need to be funded to survive, in these days when their financial outgoings are far outstripping their income? With the health benefits that they provide, they deserve investment.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that point, which is salient to the matters that I will discuss. Funding is crucial to the work that boxing clubs do in communities throughout every single part of our United Kingdom. These are clubs run by volunteers; they need financial support to do their work. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman had more time, he would talk in detail about the work that his local club is doing to change individual lives. There are not many sporting organisations, professional or amateur, that can do what amateur boxing clubs do.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Across Northern Ireland, boxing has done other things, too. It has united the two communities —my hon. Friend Paul Girvan is an example. It is interesting that in Northern Ireland the two things at which we excel are boxing and shooting.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for those comments.

Grassroots and community boxing clubs offer so much more than a space to train. Not only do they provide pastoral and educational support to young people and adults in need, but they are a vital promoter and generator of social mobility and inclusion. They help to tackle criminal activity and antisocial behaviour and to deliver improvements in physical and mental wellbeing. Research published in 2020 by the sport industry research centre at Sheffield Hallam University demonstrates the crucial point that grassroots and community boxing clubs are well placed to support such ambitions. Compared with other sports, boxing can reach deep into diverse communities and appeal to men and women, young people and adults.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

In a previous life, I became involved in boxing—although not actually in the ring, so I thoroughly enjoyed it. In my community, I have found that becoming involved in boxing steers young people away from drugs and even alcohol, and in many cases that discipline continues into adulthood. It is fantastic to see what it can achieve.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

Evidence in every town in the country points to exactly that, which is why this is such an important issue. Boxing and social mobility might not normally feature together in a debate, but empirical evidence points to the value added and the way in which people’s lives can be changed. Every conversation that we have in this place should be about how individual policies and groups can change individual lives. It is difficult to think of anything that can change the lives of millions of people in one go, but boxing is doing it for thousands throughout the country.

The sport itself is in a unique position in comparison with others, in that 40% of clubs and members are located in the 20 most deprived parts of the country and 75% in the 50 most deprived. Amateur boxing clubs are in the heart of the least physically active communities in England. Sport England’s active life survey found that people from lower socioeconomic groups—LSEGs—were the most likely to be inactive, at 33%. I am not commenting on how people live their lives; I am simply identifying the places where amateur boxing clubs can make the biggest difference. Given that the overwhelming majority of LSEG communities are located in the most deprived areas, it is clear how vital English boxing clubs are in supporting young people, inclusion and social mobility.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank my hon. Friend—if I may call him that—for giving way, and congratulate him on securing the debate. May I take up his point about inclusion and social mobility? He may be interested to know that the famous Turpin brothers, of whom he may have heard, came from my constituency. It was Dick Turpin who broke what was then called the colour bar, and his brother Randolph who won the first world title for a black boxer. As a result of the breakthrough achieved by those brothers, Asian and black sportspeople now perform in national colours for our country.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

What a wonderful thing to say! The hon. Gentleman and I probably share this experience: my father told me all about Randolph Turpin, and we would have conversations about Don Cockell, Brian London and lots of other boxers. The hon. Gentleman has just drawn attention to the wonderful story—the ultimate tale of social mobility—of two brothers and what they achieved through their passion and determination. I suggest that everyone should read about them, because their achievements were immense.

It is due to the B2022 legacy fund that England Boxing has been able to recruit a cohort of community apprentices from LSEG communities, providing them with employment, education and the opportunity to leave a legacy of their own through the projects and events that they are actively delivering to support others in their local areas. That work is also having a lasting impact on clubs by enabling them to recruit volunteers, deliver engagement events and provide social mobility to support those in the greatest need.

We have already heard of some wonderful examples, but it is only right for me to draw attention to further examples in my constituency. The ultimate example is a man who, in my area, is called legendary—and he truly is, given what he has achieved and the impact that he has had on lives. Bury amateur boxing club was established in 1936 by a man called “Pop” Jelley. His son Mick, who has been given the freedom of the Metropolitan Borough of Bury, was handed the reins about 60 years ago. Mick Jelley has been at the centre of sporting activity in Bury for all those years, finding ways of helping people who have come to him in the most disadvantaging and challenging circumstances. Mr Jelley is a true hero, and more heroes like him need to be identified and celebrated in this place. Mick is the ultimate example of what boxing can do. In 2017, he talked about his experiences, saying:

“The satisfaction does not just come from watching the boys win. It is about helping them grow as people. I have seen lads become men, grow in confidence and find their place in the world. Some have come to me as school drop-outs and gone on to become millionaire businessmen.”

Stories such as these are reported throughout the country.

That very amateur boxing club has now merged with the Bury Defence Academy. Since that partnership commenced, the sport in my area and the boxing club have grown. The Bury Defence Academy offers seven combat sports to its 400 weekly service users, and the facility is a registered charity. The sport of boxing has grown sharply in Bury, and at least 100 more people are involved in it as a result of that partnership. It has opened up boxing to all abilities and levels among boys, girls, men and women. The BDA receives funding via violence reduction units. This is a boxing club getting Home Office funding and funding from the Ministry of Justice youth sport fund. These funds are being used to combine sport with mentoring, volunteering, training opportunities, anti-gang speeches and various other things.

Photo of Dean Russell Dean Russell Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

In Watford, we have Anthony Joshua. I have not been fortunate enough to meet him, but I know he has done an incredible level of charity work to help the community. When I visited the NRG gym recently, I talked to a person who works there in MMA—mixed martial arts—fighting. He made the point that when young people learn that they can make money from fighting, they no longer want to fight for free on the streets. That was a really important point about antisocial behaviour. I hope my hon. Friend will agree that this is not only about tackling challenges in society and helping with mental health, but about giving people a career and an opportunity to have a ladder up.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

I could not agree more. What has been proved to me in the three and a bit years my hon. Friend and I have been here is that if we are passionate advocates for our areas and if we live and breathe and want to support positive outcomes for our local communities, there are certain outlets for doing that. The boxing club that we have been talking about is achieving that, and as an MP my hon. Friend is certainly doing exactly the same thing. I congratulate him on that.

I just want to make two further comments about Mick Jelley, because this gets to the heart of what we are talking about. In a 2022 newspaper article, Mick said:

“I’ve been running a club for 60 years. There are lots of lads who came to me and said, ‘But for you, I would be in Strangeways hotel.’”

I think we know that that means a prison.

“What we do is try to keep lads on the straight and narrow and teach them right from wrong. Some of them do go wrong, but then we try to put them back on the straight path.”

What a philosophy for an organisation to have! It operates seven days a week, 365 days a year.

The chair of the Bury Defence Academy is a man called Ifti Ahmed, another wonderful human being. He says:

“A lot of lads come here. It is a kind of refuge for them. This is a diversion that keeps them from a life of crime. We have got to think at the earliest possible stage, how do we give these guys a better life, better opportunities and something positive to aspire to? A lot of the lads have no money in their pocket and they struggle with employment, so they get involved in drugs and gangs. If you nurture them, help them and get them fulfilling their potential through something like combat sport, it’s protecting them from everything else out there.”

That is what this is all about. If we fund these organisations and these people who are doing it for nothing at the moment, just think what we could do with a philosophy and a record of delivery such as that.

There are many other clubs throughout the country, and I have to mention one in particular. I was born and bred in Huddersfield, and my father was born about 10 minutes away from the Rawthorpe amateur boxing club there. It has developed critical hubs in the local community by providing knife crime prevention workshops, mother and toddler classes and boxercise sessions for OAPs, alongside the traditional boxing outlets that it offers. There is also the Vulcan amateur boxing club in Hull, which became a food bank to feed those of its members in greatest need during lockdown, thanks to funding from the Maverick Stars Trust. For many young people, the boxing club is a sanctuary from the problems they face elsewhere. It is a hub of support that instils life lessons of discipline, respect and teamwork.

I make no apologies for repeating these things, as this work is so important. Some 63% of amateur boxing clubs in England are actively delivering community projects to try to use the sport as a hook to grow social mobility. West Kingsdown amateur boxing club in Kent has, for the past year, been delivering sessions in partnership with Parkinson’s UK to help elderly people in the area to be more active, to slow the progression of the disease, thanks to funding from Sport England. If the NHS were delivering that, we would be overjoyed and singing its praises. This is a boxing club.

Photo of Dean Russell Dean Russell Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

During lockdown a friend of mine, Nonito Donaire, a professional boxer known as “The Flash” who has won titles at many different weights, recorded a video for me to send to Filipino nurses, doctors and staff at Watford General Hospital to thank them for their work. That shows the power of boxing and the power of sport to cross borders to thank people who do not live where they were brought up.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

I completely agree.

The target audience of these projects are often underrepresented in society: women and girls—69% of projects; lower socioeconomic groups and crime prevention —67%; and disability and inclusion—41%. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will mention, England Boxing is incredibly grateful for the funding it receives from Sport England. Through the £0.5 million provided by the tackling inequalities fund and the together fund, England Boxing has supported clubs to deliver such projects over the past two years. Ethnically diverse communities make up 22% of England Boxing’s members. I celebrate and thank Sport England for that funding, but I would like to highlight what work could be done if there were the opportunity of more funding.

England Boxing and clubs throughout the country are waiting to have their potential released so that they can do the work they want to do in the community.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Funding is important. I have a very successful gym in my constituency that the Turpins essentially got started. Ed Cleary, who runs the gym, works across the community. We have two terrific young girls, aged 12 and 13, who did phenomenally well at the Europeans—Jaya Kalsi and Serena Mali. Another boxer, Lewis Williams, won heavyweight gold at the Commonwealth games. The important thing is that the gym is run by volunteers as a not-for-profit. They do fantastic work across the community, but they need support from the likes of Sport England, and I hope they get it.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

I sincerely hope they do. We are in a world in which it is not reasonable to demand unlimited resources for anything, but we are always looking for projects that have a record of delivery. One of the elixirs of politics is partnership between public sector funding and voluntary or community organisations, because the state sometimes does not have that anchor in the community. Boxing clubs can deliver that.

I reiterate the hon. Gentleman’s excellent point. With more than 95% of all clubs being run by just two or three dedicated volunteers with the time, skill and knowledge required to capitalise on the unique and trusted position of these clubs to support disadvantaged people who are often missed, there is rarely time for these volunteer coaches to set up and deliver a new project after opening the club for, on average, three evenings a week and then sacrificing weekends and holidays to transport and coach boxers at competitions and events. They also maintain the gym, order new equipment and deal with club administration, usually on their own and free of charge, throughout the year.

This is all taking place in buildings that I think we would all agree have substandard facilities, with club volunteers and members alike simply making do as best they can to maintain their gym. In many areas, they simply cannot find an appropriate place to have a gym in the first place. Some 66% of clubs have written rental or hire agreements in place, with fewer than half having five years or more left on the agreement, meaning that nearly 700 amateur boxing clubs have either no security or tenure or less than five years before they potentially find themselves without a home. This is about sustainability. Sport England, England Boxing and club officers throughout the country are looking to work proactively with government, local councils and local mayoralties to find ways and solutions to make sure that clubs have a sustainable future.

I would welcome a comment from the Minister on one other serious issue. We have seen an explosion in white-collar boxing, but England Boxing and the Government do not yet have the authority or legislation in place that other nations have to prevent event organisers from operating outside the rules and guidelines set by the national governing bodies of amateur boxing. Does the Department plan to tackle the issue of white-collar unlicensed boxing, given that there is no accountability to the EB, the national governing body or any specific legislation?

The other points I raise are about funding and facilities. I have a tendency to want to say when we have good people answering questions and I know that this Minister is a good man. I know that he will support such projects in his area and throughout the country. If there is a way to have a meeting to develop a relationship between the Government and EB, I know that he will be open to that and to finding ways to support the great work that is being done.

Community boxing clubs should be front and centre of the Government’s new sports strategy and levelling-up agenda. They are a vital social mobility generator and play a unique role in supporting mobility, inclusion and regeneration in constituencies throughout the country. Along with EB and many others, I am calling on the Government to fully harness the power of grassroots and community boxing clubs in their new sports strategy.

When we look at amateur sport throughout this country, be it sport for younger people or for older people, we see that the position of boxing clubs is unique. I have seen and worked with some of the greatest amateur clubs and people involved in football, cricket and all sorts of other sports, but the work being done by these clubs is overlooked and ignored. It is a wonderful thing to be able to stand here to celebrate every amateur boxing club in the country, everybody who gives their time and everyone who is working to improve the lives of just one person or 10 or 20. I pay tribute to every person and the work of England Boxing in trying to keep everyone safe while all this good work is happening.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Equalities) 9:22, 27 February 2023

I am pleased to respond to this debate and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend James Daly for securing it. Given his family’s heritage in boxing and the experience of boxing that Paul Girvan has, I am anxious to get my response to this debate right. The contributions made by Members from across the Chamber this evening show the importance that the House places on support for grassroots sport and, in particular, boxing clubs. Members have rightly mentioned the many volunteers and coaches who give up a tremendous amount of time. Many of our sporting facilities would simply not exist if it were not for people giving of their time and sometimes their own money in support of the work they do. I was interested to hear about the experiences of Mr Jelley. I was also pleased recently to visit a boxing club in Bradford to see for myself the tremendous work that was going on there, particularly with people who perhaps felt that they were overlooked in terms of their opportunities. I hope to talk more about that shortly.

All Members will agree that these clubs provide people, wherever they may be in the country, with fantastic opportunities to lead healthy lives, unlock their potential and make new friends in life. The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone, no matter what their background is, has the opportunity to participate in sport. To make that possible, Sport England has, since 2019, invested more than £12 million into boxing, including £2.3 million-worth of support to boxing clubs during the covid pandemic. Like all sports, boxing has the unique ability to unite communities and connect people to those who otherwise would never have crossed their paths. The examples that we heard from colleagues from Northern Ireland particularly articulated that well.

Big fight nights, such as December’s Tyson Fury v. Derek Chisora or last October’s Savannah Marshall v. Claressa Shields, create exciting moments of sporting theatre. But beyond the drama at the elite level, sport has the ability to unlock potential by giving young people essential leadership and resilience skills. Throughout the debate, we have talked about the important contribution that sport makes to social mobility. Social mobility, just one of many areas in my portfolio, is one on which I am particularly keen, because unlocking people’s potential early on in life is a great thing for us to be able to do, and makes sure that we get the very best out of young people for their lives ahead.

Research commissioned by Sport England shows that for every £1 invested in community sport there is a return of £4 of wider social and economic value. That is why, as a Government, we are committed to ensuring that everyone across the country has access to high-quality provision. Last year’s active lives survey shows that, between mid-November 2020 and mid-November 2021, just over six in 10 adults—28 million—achieved 150 minutes or more of activity a week, with those from lower socio-economic groups and deprived areas more likely to be less active. We know that opportunities to participate in sport are not equal across the country, which is why we are working with Sport England to provide direct support to the organisations and communities in the areas that need it the most. Over the past 12 months, 19.2% of Sport England’s local level investment has been for projects in index of multiple deprivation 1 areas.

We recognise that we need to maintain progress in this area. This year, as my hon. Friend alluded to, we will be publishing a new sport strategy that will set out how we will continue to support people, no matter who they are or where they are from, to enjoy the benefits of participating in sport. For me personally, dealing with issues around community inclusion, bringing communities together and providing access to sport for women and girls will feature heavily in that sport strategy. It will also concentrate on addressing current disparities in participation, supporting children and young people and ensuring that everyone has the facilities that they need to be active. Helping to ensure that those from hard-to-reach communities get opportunities to play sport is something that matters to me personally, and I look forward to working with Members across the House to make progress in this area. I see grassroots sport as being key to achieving many of those ambitions.

Sport, and in particular sports such as boxing, can also play an important role in tackling youth violence, and can have a transformative impact in prevention and early intervention work with children at risk of offending behaviour. During the summer, I spent a few weeks as the prisons Minister. On a visit to a young offenders’ institute, I spoke to two individuals who, sadly, did not have the opportunities to which we are alluding. I saw that their lives now will be spent primarily in the criminal justice system. These were two particularly articulate young people and it struck me that, had they been given an alternative path to go down, they might be contributing to our society, saving our public purse a great deal of money.

Last November, the Ministry of Justice announced a £5 million sport fund to deliver “Sport for Crime Prevention” programmes. This funding will deliver grants to around 200 local projects, which deliver targeted support for children considered to be at-risk of entering the justice system due to identified need or additional vulnerabilities. The projects funded through the programme will build on some of the fantastic programmes that are already being run by community boxing clubs across the country, and I thank them for that. Schemes include the Clink to Club programme, which provides transitional support and guidance on the benefits of boxing and mental wellbeing for inmates at Brixton and Bronzefield prisons before they are reintegrated in their local communities and club.

A number of Members have also approached me about the impact of energy bills on clubs, and my hon. Friend was right to mention some of the facilities in which they operate. I recognise that this is a challenging area for those clubs. That is why we are working very closely with the sector to support it through the current challenges, with boxing clubs eligible for support under the energy bill relief scheme and its successor programme.

My hon. Friend referred to white-collar boxing. The safety, wellbeing and welfare of everyone taking part in sport is always absolutely paramount. Although there are always risks associated with participating in contact sport, it is important that robust measures are in place to reduce the risk of major injuries and health issues. We urge all boxing event organisers to work with the sport’s governing bodies to ensure that robust competition standards are in place to protect the safety of those who are taking part. I understand the issues that my hon. Friend was talking about. He asked for a meeting to discuss them further, and I am more than happy to oblige him in that request.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

I thank the Minister for his comments. May I draw his attention to the Trin Centre in Cleethorpes, whose boxing academy is overseen by Andy Cox and an excellent team of volunteers? To return to the issue of sustainable funding for these organisations, could the Minister give an assurance that he will do all he can to ensure that it is much easier to get continuity of funding once an initial grant has been established? These organisations spend so much time having to complete forms and it is a complicated process. If he could do anything to streamline that process, that would be very welcome.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Equalities)

Before I was elected to this House, I worked in the charity sector, so I know how complex many of those forms are and how long it takes to fill them out. That is an area I am keen to look at. I have regular meetings with bodies such as Sport England, so I will be sure to arrange to discuss that at my next meeting with them.

Sport has real power to change lives, as evidenced particularly well by colleagues across the House this evening, not just through the benefits it can have on an individual’s health, but through the role that local clubs can play in fostering relationships and breaking down barriers in communities. That is why this Government are committed to ensuring that everybody has the opportunity to benefit from playing sport and physical activity. We will continue to work to address the disparities in opportunity, both through Sport England funding and through our upcoming sport strategy, recognising the important role that sport plays in many of our communities.

Finally, I recognise the huge contribution that many of these clubs provide in the community activity to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North alluded. During the pandemic, many sporting clubs up and down the country really stood up and helped the communities in which they are based. They make a huge contribution and are more than just sporting facilities and sporting clubs; they are intrinsically at the heart of the communities in which they serve. For that I thank them, and I also thank all hon. Members for their time in this important debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.