Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:19 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Smith of Leigh Lord Smith of Leigh Labour 8:19 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, I had intended to speak on welfare or health but on Saturday evening, travelling back north on the M1, I underwent a conversion and decided to speak on culture, specifically sport. I was able to exchange my views on welfare with the Minister during a recent visit to our universal credit pathfinder and my sentiments on health have been adequately expressed by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and others.

The power of sport in our society was clearly demonstrated on the very day of the gracious Speech when the media chose not to be dominated by the Government’s legislative programme but by the retirement of a football manager. Mind you, he was the most famous or, in some people’s eyes, the most infamous football manager at the most famous football club in the world.

As many in your Lordships’ House are aware, I am leader of Wigan council and can give another example of the power of sport. When Wigan got through to the FA Cup Final, we were working with the club on a campaign entitled “Believe in Wigan”. That slogan rang true on Saturday evening when Wigan achieved its historic win in its first ever cup final. I want to place on record my appreciation of the work of the chairman of Wigan Athletic, Dave Whelan, and his fellow directors, and of the manager, Roberto Martinez, and the players for a wonderful victory. We believed and we came through. My only regret was that there were no local elections in Wigan this year as I am sure that, if there had been, we would have won even more convincingly than we normally do.

Sport makes a huge contribution to this country which goes far beyond the obvious benefits of the health and well-being of those participating in it. It has a major economic impact. Recent research in Greater Manchester shows that football alone contributes about £333 million to the Greater Manchester economy. Over four years, that is equivalent to the impact of London 2012 on the country, so we can see the effect it has on GVA. The Manchester brand is recognised throughout the world, largely due to Manchester United. The FA Cup Final has an audience of more than 600 million worldwide. Wigan’s appearance in the FA Cup meant that it had access to that audience and we want to try to exploit that.

Sport can also have a big influence on disaffected young people in our society by attracting members of this difficult group to engage with education, health activities and anti-crime initiatives. All professional clubs, certainly the three in my borough—Wigan Athletic and the two Rugby League clubs: Wigan Warriors and Leigh Centurions—all have extensive community programmes which enable young people to get involved in sport. That works very well in deprived parts of the borough.

I commend the work that is done by the voluntary sports sector which provides not just facilities for young people but also creates community capacity. In many of the most difficult parts of Wigan, probably the only community activity that is going on is the local sporting club. These clubs engage with the community and provide facilities. It is heart-warming to see what they do. They work largely with the council but also on their own. We set up a Wigan sports council and it was terrifically successful at gaining funding to improve facilities. We are now trying to work with those communities and the clubs. As austerity means that there will be a very different form of public provision—whether that is right or wrong, we need to accept that not as much provision will be done by public authorities such as local authorities—we need to make sure that people and communities are strong enough to make their own contributions. We will try to use our sporting clubs to get people more healthy and engaged in that, and to tell people that they can do things for themselves and demonstrate it through their sporting clubs.

Although I am sure it was pleasing for the Government to see the increase in participation in sport following 2012, and some 750,000 more people were engaged in sport, we cannot afford to be too complacent, particularly as one of the key target groups, young people between 16 and 25, was actually unchanged. We need not only to sustain the level of increase but—if we are going to match the best-performing countries in Europe—to grow the level of participation in sport.

If we are going to do that, we obviously need to make sure that there are facilities available, and at a reasonable cost and with easy access for those who need to use them. These will be provided by a variety of partners. We need to make sure that the private sector is working in local areas with the voluntary sector, with schools, colleges and, in some cases, universities, and of course with local authorities, to make sure that the facilities are available and can be accessed by young people in particular. In our case, we are looking to see how we can subsidise access by public transport. Clearly you cannot have facilities all over the place, but if you have good facilities you need to ensure that young people can access them, particularly in the evenings.

In many local authorities, including my own, we have to review the provision of facilities and, sadly, some will inevitably close. However, I want the Government to realise that there is a different way of viewing sport. By investing in sport, and in young and old people becoming more active through sport, we can save lots of money in the provision of health, education and other major services because people will become more engaged.

Finally, I remind those noble Lords who are not aware of it that the next big sporting event in Britain will start in 165 days. It is the Rugby League World Cup. In addition to the programme of matches between the 16 countries that are participating in the games there will be a cultural, social and educational programme so that visitors can engage with people beyond the die-hard rugby league fans such as myself. The Government have given great support to the initiative of the Rugby League World Cup and I thank them for that, and obviously I hope that they will maintain their support during the competition. In the previous World Cup, in Australia, we failed to do well in the competition but we managed to win the wheelchair rugby league games. I hope that this year we can do one better and win the real competition.