Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:24 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Billingham Baroness Billingham Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 6:24 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, last year at this time we waited with great anticipation the start of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games. There was so much promise and the Games exceeded the nation’s wildest dreams. They were a triumph. Now, some 8 months after the Games, the gracious Speech has absolutely no mention of sport and how the pledge to create a new generation of sports men and women is to be achieved. It is a huge lost opportunity for the Government to build on past achievements and echo the nation’s call for a better sporting Britain. It demands fairer sport for everyone, irrespective of ability and of every background. And I mean everyone, not just the favoured few of the 6% who attend independent schools but the 94% of our children who are in state schools.

The discrepancy between state and independent schools in sport is absolutely disgraceful. No wonder the majority of medal winners at the Olympics were privately educated people. In all fairness, the two most distinguished Olympians on the coalition Benches in this House have been outstanding critics of the Government’s failure to put grassroots sport into primary schools. If the noble Lords, Lord Coe and Lord Moynihan, cannot persuade the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, to change course, it is clear that proper change will not happen, although he has been forced into minor U-turns as a result of national pressure.

So, what prospect is there of the promised sporting legacy? I have looked back over the past two years to see whether there are any glimpses of hope but, sadly, there are none. It has been a story of destruction and failure to build on the improvements built by the previous Government. We were genuinely making ground, as opposed to this Government which are losing ground. The facts are stark. The number of people aged 16 and over active in sport has gone down for the first time since we won the bid in 2005, if we can remember that time. Michael Gove has singlehandedly wrecked state school sport, demolishing school sport partnerships which proved so successful in bringing qualified staff into schools as well as acting as a bridge between schools and clubs and community. The Government removed the crucial protection of ring-fenced funding for physical education in state schools, only partially reinstating it following a huge public outcry. Michael Gove also removed the minimum two hours target for sport and physical education in state schools.

A new formula for school sport was announced. Competitive sport was to be the panacea. Where on earth have these people been? For some it might be good and acceptable but for others it is the ultimate turnoff: 45% of girls surveyed by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation said that sport was too competitive for them and that they preferred individual disciplines, which perhaps I may say provided vigorous exercise such as dance, gymnastics and much else.

Even the ability to play sport has been reduced. Formerly, the minimum requirement for playing-field space was set according to the number of pupils in the school. Now the requirement is for schools to provide “adequate sport space”, whatever that might be deemed to mean. Not only are the Government reneging on the pledge to create a new sporting nation, they are ignoring, as others have said today, all the health benefits that sport can provide, especially at the grassroots level. Good practice when learnt young can carry on throughout life and, as has already been said, obesity continues unchallenged in our schools. More savage cuts to sport came through the decision to end swimming for the under-16s and for the over-60s. At the same time, the Government cut crucial funding to national sporting bodies such as Sport England and UK Sport, which have had a 33% and 28% reduction respectively. These are the very people who enable grass roots and community sport to take place.

National governing bodies have also been hit. Their budget has been cut by 15%. These are the bodies responsible for introducing their sport to the widest possible audience, including cricket, rugby, gymnastics—in fact there are 46 bodies doing sterling work. However, this is clearly not appreciated by the Government.

This dismal catalogue of the Government’s failure—which will be felt for generations to come—is not the end of the story. Where are their positive ideas, the innovations that will produce better use of existing facilities, equal opportunities and willing and competent volunteers who want to help sport in so many ways? The Olympics and Paralympics showed the nation the stunning contribution made by volunteers. This is not new. Generations of parents and volunteers have been running our clubs, coaching, painting the changing rooms and a host of other activities. Without them our clubs would cease to exist. What we saw last year was a new layer of volunteers wanting to be involved, perhaps for the first time.

What incentives and new areas have the Government created? Simply none. I have spoken before in this Chamber about Tennis for Free, a charity which uses fully qualified volunteers as coaches on public courts in our parks, which exist in virtually every town and village. No charges are made for those who take part and it is incredibly successful. Youngsters who may never be able to join a club flourish in this scheme. The model is hugely successful. What happens in tennis could easily be replicated in a host of other sports. Public parks should be the centre of people’s sport and, with minimal government support, this could and should happen.

Most of our sports clubs are members clubs run by volunteers. However, despite the crucial part they play they have been badly let down by planning regulations. If clubs are to flourish they must be able to improve, for instance, floodlights, club facilities and playing surfaces. They are frequently thwarted by the objections of neighbours—we call them nimbys—and their applications, despite being recommended by planning officers, are often turned down. Minor changes to planning guidance would prevent this happening and should be a part of the Government’s plans for the future.

There is still far too little dual use for schools and colleges to open up their facilities, and yet this, too, does not appear in the Government’s programme. These are just a few of the measures that the Government could adopt to help us fulfil the legacy as promised, but all we have from them is negative and reactionary thoughts.

In conclusion, I remind noble Lords that there was, of course, one honourable mention of sport on the day of the Queen’s Speech: the announcement of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. He, I am sure, would understand and agree with all the charges that I have made against the Government today, but then he is not one of them, he is one of us.