First, I should declare an interest. I do not know whether it is a pecuniary one, but it is a passionate interest. I not only play for Birstall rugby club; I am its president. I have been much honoured to be so for the past two or three years.
The purpose of today's debate is twofold. First, it is just over a year since the Government produced their strategy report "Game Plan", setting out their sport and physical activity objectives for the next 20 years. Secondly, since the rugby world cup and following the success of the England team, there has been enormous enthusiasm across the nation for sport as a whole and particularly for rugby—perhaps not so much in Scotland and Wales. The hope was that the interest generated would ensure that people joined their local rugby club.
I do not think that I have played Blaydon, but as I still participate most weekends, I look forward to doing so. I shall come to my personal experience at grass-roots level. Birstall rugby club is about as grass roots as one can get, as I shall explain.
I want to explore where we were in 2002 when "Game Plan" was written, where we are going, where we are hoping to go by 2020 and whether we are making the right moves in that direction. We could easily have another half-hour debate about elite sport, school sport and the holding of mega events, but I want to talk specifically about the grass-roots element of "Game Plan" because it is crucial to the other elements in the strategy. My right hon. Friend the Minister knows of the fantastic work with elite sport that goes on at Loughborough university. I hope that we can return to this Chamber to discuss the excellent work going on there and how we will deliver at Loughborough on the country's major sports.
Grass-roots participation is about two key things: mass participation for its own sake—I shall talk about that in relation to health, education and crime—and ensuring that we identify talent, so that those recognised as elite athletes late in their careers can surge through. My regular appearances for Birstall first team this season demonstrate that that can happen, although the fact that we have run only one team for large parts of the season may have something to do with it. I believe that, even at a late stage, there is a role for each of us. The possibility of an England call-up and a career with Leicester Tigers are long past, but we still all harbour the hope that some day we may be called up to do something.
"There are millions of people in this country who are passionate about sport—I am one of them, both as a player and as a fan. But the value of sport goes beyond personal enjoyment and fulfilment. Sport is a powerful and often under-used tool that can help Government to achieve a number of ambitious goals. We have to ensure that we are well equipped to do that."
Those are not my words. They are the words of the Prime Minister in the foreword to "Game Plan", and they encapsulate the feelings of many of us who are passionate about sport, both as players and as fans. We recognise not only that sport is good in itself, but that it can achieve a great deal more, which the Government want to achieve.
My personal experience is as a rugby player for Birstall rugby club over the past 20 years. It is an old school side, and a number of colleagues of my own age group are just about hanging in there. The next season will probably see one or two of us heading towards retirement. My wife probably wishes that I had retired 15 years ago, but come the first week in September, there is nothing more magical than the sound of the whistle and the first kick-off as we start another season. It is difficult to explain to people who do not enjoy sport how much fun and enjoyment can be found at that basic level. We play on a school playing field, we use the school changing rooms, and a local pub is our club house. We do not have any club facilities, but it is genuine grass-roots sport. That is what it is all about.
Several players were disappointed on Saturday when I scored the first try of the game. I was elated that we had scored the try, but they realised that I had secured this Adjournment debate and that I could talk the Minister through it. It was only a 15 or 20 m run-in, but by the time that I got here today, I was sure that I went past all 15 players on a jinking run from underneath our own posts. That is the glory of sport at the grass roots. We managed a fantastic 52-0 win against Oakham.
In my maiden speech, I mentioned the game that we had had against Melton the week before the 1997 general election. I was fortunate enough to play fly-half that week, and managed to score four tries. We won 97-10. It was at that point that I knew that we were on for a landslide the following Thursday. Participation at that level is not the only important factor. Unfortunately, one problem with my job is that I will not be able to attend training this evening, which is just as important as the social activity on a Saturday.
Even in this place, however, it is possible to participate in grass-roots sport. I have been lucky during the past few years; the number of sports teams in this place almost makes the experience like that at college. I have managed to play rugby; I scored a try at Twickenham. I have played in Australia a couple of times, as well as in France, Ireland and Japan. The football team has raised an enormous amount of money for charity.
I never really played cricket at school, but the team in the House let me run out a few times throughout the season; I turn out now and then for the tennis team; if anyone is interested, we have a hockey game next week against the BBC; and I will be captain of the swimming team for a charity swim against the House of Lords in march. I do not how the swimming captain was chosen—unless it was by default. Unfortunately, I am one of the worst swimmers in the House, so I count myself as a non-swimming captain, cheering from the back. I have to admit that one gets a rather nice gold medal for doing so; my four-and-half-year-old son was most impressed by it. I would hate to tell him that all six of us, whether we came first or sixth, received a gold medal, although it does look impressive.
I have also spent a large part of the past three or four years chairing East Midlands Sport, as we have moved towards the establishment of a regional sports board. I pay tribute to the Minister for his work in ensuring that that has progressed. As the rest of the Government programme moves towards regionalism, it is vital that sport matches that progress. I enjoyed those years, and I hope to serve sport in that way again.
Sport is still a passion to me, which others throughout the House share. Last week, for instance, the gym was absolutely packed. The post-Christmas bulge ensured that it was one of the busiest periods that the gym had seen, and our regular MPs' five-a-side game had double the usual number of participants—between 15 and 20 players last week. Unfortunately, only nine played this week, and we were down to three-a-side at one stage. The level of commitment demonstrated by some of our colleagues needs to be wound up somewhat. They need to follow through on the commitment that they show straight after Christmas.
The current situation in sport is not all bleak. Britain is fair to middling in the European leagues of participation rates. Some 36 per cent. of people undertake 30 minutes' activity five times a week, but that is nowhere near the best in the world. In Finland, for example, they attain levels of between 75 and 80 per cent. In Australia, the figure is 57 per cent. We clearly have a long way to go to achieve such figures. Other European countries such as Ireland, Spain and Italy fall below our participation rates, but that should give us no comfort.
If we are to increase participation rates, we must do a wide range of things. All one has to do is consider what they did in Finland and Australia. They made a concerted effort over a long period, and decided that they felt strongly and passionately about the issue. I am pleased that "Game Plan" does that too. It recognises that there is no short-term fix, but it also recognises that we as a Government and as a nation need to do something about the issue, for the sake not just of sport but of other aspects such as health and fitness, education, crime and social inclusion.
The strategy report and the Health Committee have considered the major health issue of obesity. If we do not tackle the problem, the country will be sitting on a time bomb. We estimate that obesity causes 57,000 premature deaths and costs the Treasury about £2.5 billion each year. Most people would be horrified at the obesity levels and the graph that shows their increase. I am not sure what my wife was trying to tell me, but she bought me a set of scales as my main Christmas present. The scales measure not only my weight but my body-fat index.
It was bad timing, but at least I knew that just after Christmas I was not far off clinical obesity, which directed my efforts. I have managed to lose a little weight and body fat since. That demonstrates how we can be blasé about obesity. Our lifestyles in this place and across the country make it difficult for us to understand, as parents or as individuals, how to balance work, life, play and diet.
Even if we did not want to play sport for its own sake, health and obesity would be major reasons to increase participation. The two go hand in hand. It is impossible to drive up participation in sport if people do not enjoy it. A key factor behind the drop-off rates from sport—people participate at school, then there is a decline as the years pass—is that people feel that they need to want to do sport and not that they should do sport. The Finnish targeted their approach on groups in which participation in sport was declining most rapidly. They therefore managed to increase participation among older people. We should target resources at those groups least likely to participate and most likely to benefit, such as the lower socio-economic groups, women, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and those who are older. Each group needs to be targeted differently.
Two or three years ago, the Nike report revealed the incidence of women dropping out of sport post-school. The school-club link was not apparent. There is still no link with lifelong sport—into the veteran age group—for women leaving school. I was horrified to find that I officially played for the veterans at the age of 35. I had always thought that veteran age was a long way off. We need to target each of the groups that I mentioned. The Finnish looked at why there were barriers to participation and targeted messages at such groups. In addition, they produced an annual report on participation. Will the Government consider that?
The Finns also did a lot of long-term research. Many sports bodies are starting to do research, as anecdotal evidence has been a problem. All of us who are excited by or interested in sport think that participating in it is good for education and health, but we do not have the hard facts and research to back up our beliefs. It is good that organisations such as sports coach UK are working on research programmes, and that Sport England is conducting research as part of a more strategic approach. The Finns have also tried to make use of their natural assets. Unlike Finland, we would clearly struggle to engender a lot of cross-country skiing, but we have many natural assets that we can use.
Sport does not have to be played in teams. People believe a lot of myths and make many excuses why they do not participate in physical activity and sport. They always find reasons not to practise. One such reason comes from a misunderstanding of what is required. Doing 30 minutes' physical activity five times a week does not have to involve playing rugby or going to the gym. There are other ways. Vigorous walking and cycling can make a difference to people's lifestyle and health. The Finns devoted many of their resources to the lowest level—to councils and clubs. They reduced bureaucracy as much as possible and let people get on with the job. Sports clubs up and down the country are good at attracting people and holding on to them, because they want people.
I do not want to try to match my hon. Friend's sporting finesse, but does he agree that there is room for semi-professional clubs? We know the many ways in which professional clubs work in the community. Furthermore, the Government have done an awful lot for what we used to call amateur clubs—although I do not think that we use that term any more. Semi-professional clubs are forgotten when it comes to tax concessions, as they do not always fit the agenda as closely as they might. However, such local clubs can do an awful lot to advance grass-roots sports. I wonder whether the Minister agrees that that is an important layer on which we should concentrate?
I agree that several football clubs and youth teams make an enormous contribution—that happens throughout my constituency. We see the first team football results in the local newspaper on Saturday and tend to forget the number of youngsters who are participating because of the support that they receive. I have some concerns about amounts of money paid to players at different levels of the game. I know that when rugby went professional, money started being paid to players at my level—unfortunately, not at my club, where we still pay our £5 a week subscription to get our shirts washed and to buy food for the opposition. It seemed a little silly that money coming into the game was being wasted on paying players who had been happy to turn up for their club week in, week out. We need to get the balance right; I agree that clubs make a valuable contribution to the local community.
I want to talk about coaching and the role of sports clubs. The way to drive up participation generally is to do so first at school. We need to get that right. All the work that has been done by my right hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend Kate Hoey in setting up school sports co-ordinators and specialist sports colleges has made an enormous difference, but we still need to do more.
As we build up the number of participants in schools, we need to ensure that the school link is so strong that people move almost seamlessly from one club to another without a drop-off rate. To achieve that, we must get two elements right: the human capital and the physical structures. There needs to be much greater use of school facilities. In my area, we use our college's facilities, which are fine. Our rugby pitch is a piece of grass, the changing rooms are of a reasonable standard and we are able to make do. However, coaching and the individuals involved are the most important aspects to get right. I must praise the Minister for the work that he has done on the coaching taskforce and for his ability to get money out of the Treasury to achieve much of it.
If we get one thing right it should be the link between coach and individual. We must ensure that the coach is fit for purpose. We do not need a Clive Woodward at Birstall rugby club. Clive is perfect for what he does, but at our level we need somebody who can teach us, even in our later years. I have learned to drop-kick in the past two or three years, as I have been forced to play at fly-half a few times. I do not quite have the Jonny Wilkinson ability to do so under pressure; it takes me about five minutes to line the blooming thing up. However, it is possible even in one's late 30s to learn such skills, although I wish that I had done so earlier. The coach must be fit for purpose across the spectrum. Having the right coach at the right place at the right time is crucial.
I have to admit that the past decade has been the best for sports funding. Amounts have come from the lottery, the Government and the New Opportunities Fund—and from the Exchequer through the doubling of funding. I congratulate the Government in particular because we have won battles and they have climbed down on the issue of community and amateur sports clubs. It seems a long time ago since I introduced my ten-minute Bill on that subject. We hit a brick wall at the time, but eventually we won our battle with the Treasury—although not necessarily with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Once the civil servants came round, the wall quickly tumbled down and there was a great deal of enthusiasm. There is now much enthusiasm in the Treasury, which recognises the enormous benefit of those clubs. At the grass roots, a few thousand pounds or a few hundred pounds make a big difference.
I would particularly like to say a big thank you for the conclusion of the big rate relief battle, which has gone on ever since I became involved in sports and politics. Even though we thought at one stage that victory was unlikely, we won the battle this year when the Government finally conceded. I know that they like doing that at the last hour; it adds to the sense of purpose and build-up. Rates can be enormous, so relief will make a great difference to many clubs' finances, allowing them to spend money on coaching and attracting more people, rather than on the fabric of buildings. The Government have done an enormous amount on that, and they need praising.
We have much to do to get participation rates up from 36 to 80 per cent. I would like to hear how the Minister thinks that we will do so, what progress we have made in the first year, and whether he believes that the structure is in place to allow that to build year on year.
The other important thing about local clubs is volunteering. The whole structure would collapse tomorrow if the 1.5 million volunteers in the 150,000 sports clubs disappeared overnight. However, volunteers and volunteering in sport never seem to match what we know as the voluntary sector—and I have been guilty of that attitude as much as others. There have been similar difficulties with, for example, the Home Office volunteers programme; sport does not seem to have been recognised. Somehow, those volunteers are thought to be different from others in the voluntary sector. I used to work as a project officer, but I must admit that, even though I was a volunteer in a sports club, it never crossed my mind that it was part of the same sector. The spheres need to work much more closely to ensure that sports clubs benefit from elsewhere.
There is a great deal to do: we have to get the suppliers' side right and increase the demand for participation. That will benefit health, education, crime and social inclusion. We must target the groups that are least likely to participate. We really have a chance to turn things around. I hope that we have been able to use the success of the rugby world cup as a genesis for that, because we will not have such an opportunity again.
I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Reed on the work that he has done and continues to do in his constituency, and on the role that he played in the East Midlands Sports Council. His name for participation in sport went before him, and he should be commended.
My officials have been working on all the press releases that my hon. Friend sends out, of which there are many—in fact, I had an army of civil servants going through them. One was titled: "Rate Relief for Sports Clubs Secured Thanks to Reed". It read:
That was solely down to him apparently, and I congratulate him on that. However, to be serious, it was a battle to get that rate relief, and as he said, that battle had been raging for 30 years. It came to a conclusion because of this Government and he acknowledged our investment in grass-roots sport. To a large extent, we convinced the Treasury through the development of the CASC—the Community Amateur Sports Club. The CASC gave us a vehicle that was watertight in taxation terms as far as the Treasury was concerned, so it was prepared to introduce mandatory rate relief, which was a good exercise.
One aspect, however, has been disappointing. I ask hon. Members from both sides to come on board to ensure that we get the scheme out to sports clubs. One of the weaknesses of the governing bodies has been their inability to communicate with their clubs. By
As my hon. Friend said, it is one year on from "Game Plan", which is a 20-year plan. We are laying the foundations and going through a modernisation of the sporting infrastructure. He epitomised what sport was all about when he talked about scoring a try on Saturday for his local rugby union club. I do a bit of running, as he probably knows, and I must admit to running the half-marathon in under two hours last year. I did the great north run, in which 47,000 people participated. To do that with them was a fantastic feeling in itself, and I did the run in 1 hour 58 minutes and 25 seconds. All I wanted to do was to get under two hours—and I did. It is a great feeling when such personal ambitions are achieved.
It is right that we are now paying attention to participation. The record of investment in sport has been unfortunate. We have spent just over £1.5 billion during the period of the lottery and have increased participation by just 0.3 per cent. One has to start looking at where things have gone wrong. As my hon. Friend said, we have now started to work in schools, and we are now rolling out 400 sports colleges—one for every 400,000 people—that are linked to an average of seven secondary schools and 15 primary schools. Their sole objective is to provide two hours of quality physical activity per week for every child from the ages of five to 16. That bedrock has to be laid. The initiative is linked to 3,000 school sports co-ordinators, who are releasing teachers from other tasks, thus allowing them to teach. The co-ordinators are developing sport in and between schools and in their communities.
Club-to-school links are important. Some 70 per cent. of our young people do not continue in active sport when they leave school. In France, that figure is 20 per cent. and throughout most of the developed world it is less than 70 per cent. We have been trying to consider the issue systematically and are asking, "Where are the structural weaknesses that we have to address?" That is why we are investing £60 million through the governing bodies to examine the club structure, club-to-school links and the development of clubs in the community.
There are 40,000 soccer clubs throughout the country, but the number of rugby union clubs has fallen from just over 1,500 to about 1,480. I know that the Rugby Football Union is addressing that issue and making a welcome impact by investing £100 million over the next four years. The number of clubs has tended to decline across the major sports. We are trying, in partnership with the governing bodies, to address the issue of strengthening the club structure and club-to-school links. If we can get young people to participate in sport in their communities at a young age—whichever sport that might be—they are more likely to stay in sport when they leave school.
In the recent past, it has been pleasing to see how the governing bodies of sports are talking together and considering how to develop multi-sports clubs. We were talking about how the issue is not just about real estate, which is important, but about how the synergy of sport is brought together to operate in the community. The national coaching certificate will evolve this year thanks to the governing bodies coming together. We are investing just under £30 million over the next two to three years to bring in a coaching certificate. I should like to see around 3,000 community coaches on the ground in the next three to four years working through county partnerships, and making links with what we do in the schools and what the governing bodies are doing through their sports clubs development schemes.
This is one of the small issues, but there is a much bigger picture. On grass-roots development and participation, we are currently investing in the real estate and human capital through co-ordinators and the new community coaches. There is also the development, for the first time, of the profession of sports coach. Sports coach UK is developing that strategy.
The lack of worth given to coaching in this country was brought to my attention when I was in the north-east. One of our young national gymnastics coaches, who was previously an engineer and had retrained as a coach, told me that he had just got married. He said that he tried to get a mortgage, but was told, "I'm sorry, but that is not secure employment. Go back to being engineer, put 'engineer' on your application form and we will give you the money." That spoke volumes. As a nation, the most important part of our infrastructure is coaching. We have had to import a coach from abroad for nearly every national sport, including our national game, football, as well as swimming, rugby league and so on. I mean no disrespect to those people, but that is an indictment of the lack of investment in coaching for many years.
The investment in infrastructure, what is happening in schools through the governing bodies and the modernisation proposals will start to have an impact on the development of grass-roots sport throughout the coming years. If we link that to what is happening to talent development in further education and at universities, we shall be able to say in a few years that young people in the schools or clubs structure who have talent can seamlessly develop it to a level that will reward them, reward sport and reward the nation, as we begin to pick up more gold, silver and bronze medals and win the cup in Australia.