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My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to celebrate the achievements of women and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shields, for her part in this. Today, I shall talk about sportswomen in the UK who, through their determination, skill and personality have blazed a trail of success and equality, nationally and internationally, and have empowered girls and women in doing so. Sport used to be a much more male-dominated activity. This has improved due to women themselves, to the encouragement of Governments and organisations set up to encourage women to do sport, and to specific initiatives. I shall discuss some of these today. Even some sports which were once dominated totally by men have become female orientated, such as rugby and boxing. We are not totally successful in providing examples of good practice but the drive is there.
Before I go on I want, like the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, to pay tribute to my friend and cricketing comrade Lady Heyhoe Flint. I had the honour of welcoming her into your Lordships’ House after her maiden speech. We were on opposite sides, both in cricket and politically. We got on, we had jokes and we respected each other. Rachel was an example of providing global inspiration through her sports and also through her enterprising leadership in boardrooms. Her record was quite extraordinary: an England international in both cricket and hockey and honorary life member of the MCC, that male bastion. As captain of England between 1966 and 1976, she never lost a match. She had a magnificent test batting average.
She was not only a great sportswoman but a great charity fundraiser: president of the Lady Taverners, of which I am a member, and which raises funds to enable young disabled people to play sport. She was, remarkably, a director of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club and a board member of the England and Wales Cricket Board, one of the first two women to be so. In the House of Lords as a Conservative Peer, she was influential in regulating ticketing, among other things. She was very funny, a great after-dinner speaker and not always, I am glad to say, terribly well behaved. Rachel was a phenomenon whose legacy is not only her influence on girls in sport but in encouraging women to continue their careers working with sporting institutions. She would be sad to know that a recent report by Women in Sport shows that the FA, the RFU and the England and Wales Cricket Board are at risk of losing government support because they do not employ enough women in senior positions.
This is not just about statistics or meeting targets, it is about understanding that women contribute positively to boards in all fields—in industry, business, charities, sport and so on. I think that it is essential to have women on boards, as has been proved by research. More than 7.2 million women now play sport and do regular physical activity. The campaign by Sport England called This Girl Can has enabled the gender gap, which once stood at more than 2 million, to narrow to 1.55 million. Yet there is more work to do. When asked, 13 million women said they would like to participate more in sport, yet just over 6 million of them are not currently active. The organisation Women in Sport champions the right of women and girls to participate in sport from the field of play to the boardroom.
The Women’s Sports Trust focuses on using the power of sport to accelerate gender equality and stimulate social change. The Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation works with the Government, sports bodies and the sports industry to increase the involvement of Muslim women in sport, highlighting role models and increasing participation.
Many organisations encourage women in sport. The England Cricket Board’s Chance to Shine is a hugely successful initiative to encourage children in inner-city schools to play cricket in a quick and interesting way. Since 2005, around 1.5 million girls in state schools have taken up cricket. Women’s cricket has blossomed since England played their first test match in 1934, where they beat Australia 2-0. We are now ranked second in the world. The success of the England women’s team has often been the envy of the men. This year, we hold the World Cup, where we will have such splendid teams as India and Australia.
The 2016 Olympic Games saw Team GB’s best ever performance, with 67 medals. Women won more medals in total than men in the case of 29 countries. There were outstanding performances by women in many areas. In hockey, British women won the first ever gold, were unbeaten in all their games and beat the favourites, Holland, in the final. Did anyone see that marvellous game? It was splendid. I do not have time to go on to talk about athletics, rowing, sailing, equestrian events, gymnastics, boxing and other sports where women thrived. In the Paralympics, Team GB won 147 medals, 85 for women, including a remarkable 40 golds.
Magnificent sporting achievements in Britain and elsewhere have an impact globally on women. They are tokens of courage and persistence—of “I can do it”—for women all over the world. To overcome gender inequality, women need confidence, self-esteem and high goals. I think that success in sport, in physical activity, can help boost that confidence and self-esteem and develop ambition. Many girls and women will be proud of those women achievers and proud of their own achievements. Women’s sport has developed and will continue to develop, helping girls and women to achieve the best they can in all aspects of life. I hope that this Government will continue to back sport for women and girls and back gender equality in senior positions to create a new generation of women who aspire and succeed.