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Sport: Governance — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 4th December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Jones of Cheltenham Lord Jones of Cheltenham Liberal Democrat 3:30 pm, 4th December 2014

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, on securing this important debate and the noble Baroness, Lady Brady, on her maiden speech. She may remember that my team, Cheltenham Town, visited West Ham in a cup match a couple of seasons back, unsuccessfully. We are hoping to be drawn against it in the FA Cup this year, as long as we squeeze past Dover Athletic on Sunday. The kick-off is 2 pm. The noble Lord, Lord Sugar, may remember that Cheltenham Town was drawn against Tottenham Hotspur a few years ago in the FA Cup, and I invited him to the replay, expecting him to say “Thank you very much”. Actually, what he said was, “You’re out”, which I imagine is the footballing equivalent of “You’re fired”.

Some years ago, I attended the annual general meeting of what was then the CCPR, the Central Council of Physical Recreation. The guest speaker was the former Welsh rugby maestro Cliff Morgan. He had some serious messages. First, he told us that 25% of 11 year-olds were suffering from the early signs of heart disease caused by poor diet and lack of exercise. He told us of the importance of getting young people into a fitness regime early, and he told us about a young boy from a small Welsh village who just loved running. Eventually, he represented Great Britain at the Olympic Games. He did not win a medal, but the village held a celebration for him when he returned from the Games. His eyes sparkled as he told his friends and neighbours, “I broke bread with the rest of the world”. It had changed his life. That young man had joined a local athletics club run by volunteers.

We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, about the importance of volunteers. Good governance in sport is essential not just at national or international level; it is vital for the 150,000 local sports clubs across the UK. These clubs are fantastic local assets, almost entirely volunteer-run. They fulfil vital community functions, helping people to stay fit and healthy and creating social networks for young and old. They have an enormous amount to offer in governance and beyond.

I asked Cheltenham Town Football Club what I ought to say in this debate. It gave me a very long moan. I shall read part of it.

“Overall sport does not have the right balance between financial interests and the need to create fair competition on the field. Money dominates everything and supporters do not receive a good enough deal in terms of the amount that it costs to watch sport and the fact that many of the participants are at a competitive disadvantage. You could argue that the fact that attendances remain high and TV and commercial rights remain strong is an endorsement of the status quo. But we are storing up problems for the future by pricing the next generation of supporters out of, for example, Premier League football and by creating an even greater focus upon a small number of teams. A lot of good work is done by the FA at grassroots level but in terms of the higher profile game, most of the power rests within the Premier League because they have the financial clout”.

The view of the chairman of Cheltenham Town is that:

“Governing bodies in all sports should adhere to a set of constitutional principles aimed at furthering the sport for future generations, ensuring widespread participation and fair competition wherever possible, instead of just trying to make as much money as they can. Unfortunately to achieve this would take a stronger regulatory arm than is currently available to an organisation such as the FA”.

I know several sports clubs run by volunteers in Cheltenham. For example, the Cheltenham Swimming and WaterPolo Club is where Great Britain’s Olympic diving medallist Leon Taylor started his love of water. I helped Leon obtain his elite funding and then stayed up to watch TV when he won his Olympic medal. When he got back, I asked him what his best memory of those Games was, expecting him to say the medal ceremony. He replied, “Driving the buggy in the Olympic Village for Steve Redgrave, Britain’s greatest Olympian”. I had to point out to him that there is another one, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson.

I have always thought that the Government should provide more support for sports clubs to employ, perhaps part-time, former professionals to help get more young people into a sports regime. Then we may end up with fewer couch potatoes developing heart disease in their early years and save a vast amount of money for our beloved NHS.