It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I must first congratulate Christina Rees on having secured this debate, and on the interesting speech she has made today, making the case for including squash as a future Olympic sport with great passion and conviction, and indeed a bit of humour and humility. I was relieved to hear her say that she would happily be my coach, rather than my competitor, at squash; it has been many years since I played squash, but perhaps that should be my new year’s resolution. I look forward to taking her up on that offer at some point.
One of the great joys of Westminster Hall debates is that they often allow us to find out a little bit more about the background of some of our colleagues, and it has been fascinating to hear about the hon. Lady’s background and to do some reading about her over the past few days. I am now aware of her great interest in squash and of the very valuable contribution that she has personally made to the sport, both as a top-class player and as a coach. I am also astounded that she excelled in other sports, including judo and marathon running.
As the hon. Lady is a previous recipient of Sport Wales’s female coach of the year award, I know how committed she is to sport in general and to squash in particular, and she deserves great praise for those efforts. As she said, squash is an exciting and dynamic sport that has a long and proud heritage in this country, having its origins, of course, in Harrow School. The national performance centre in Manchester is helping to build our world-class strength, with British women leading the way; there are currently three British women in the world’s top 20, which I am sure is also part of her legacy. Previous British world champions—such as Laura Massaro, Nick Matthew and others who she referred to—are indeed great role models, and of course the future inclusion of squash in the Olympics would be an excellent showcasing opportunity to help the sport to grow further.
However, it is right that the decision to add any new sport to the Olympic programme is a matter for the International Olympic Committee to consider. The hon. Lady outlined the process very well. It would not be appropriate for me or the British Government, or indeed any national Government, to become involved in that process, or to lobby for any particular sport to be included. But please do not interpret, or misinterpret, that comment as a lack of enthusiasm or interest. It is a statement of fact because, according to the Olympic charter, every national Olympic committee must be free from Government interference. Hence, it would not be appropriate or helpful for me to comment further on the inclusion process. As I say, please do not interpret that as a lack of enthusiasm; should squash be included in the Olympics, I would embrace that decision and be very happy indeed.
Of course, it is open to the relevant national governing body of a sport to make a case for its inclusion, as indeed it has, along with the appropriate world governing body. I understand that squash may be under consideration for Olympic games beyond Paris 2024, so we might see it in Los Angeles. Therefore, the appropriate bodies to lobby would be the British Olympic Association or the World Squash Federation. However, I know that they are in discussions about squash, as the hon. Lady outlined, and have been for many years. Many sports quite rightly aspire to being included in the Olympic programme; there is a strong incentive for them to be included. We are now just six months away from the rescheduled Tokyo games, which I am sure will be a wonderful spectacle for athletes and fans alike as we emerge from the pandemic.
Although competition in Tokyo will undoubtedly be extremely strong, I know that our athletes are ready to give it their all and make our country proud, so I can well understand why globally renowned sports such as squash would wish to be included in this wonderful festival of sport, reaching a global audience of billions and inspiring audiences at home and abroad.
Squash has embraced innovation in recent years, as the hon. Lady outlined in detail, to make it a more televisual sport and also to put it in the lead in terms of gender parity, along with many other racket sports, such as tennis. I am very proud to say that my daughter is a great and avid fan of squash as well.
I know that the forthcoming Commonwealth games in Birmingham in 2022 will provide a fantastic opportunity to showcase squash on the global stage for millions of people, because, of course, squash is included in the Commonwealth games and the Commonwealth games being held in the UK again in 2022 gives us a wonderful chance to promote the sport domestically, while showcasing once again the UK’s ability to host major international sporting events.
Increased participation is vital to the lifeblood of any sport, helping to feed the elite level and to build healthy grassroots. That is why the Government’s strategy, “Sporting Future”, puts increased participation at the heart of the long-term direction of sport in this country. The cross-departmental strategy focuses on using sport to improve and measure the physical and mental wellbeing of people, as well as individual, social, community and economic development. Although UK Sport does not currently fund squash, it supports the sport domestically and in the field of international relations—for example, in bidding for major events such as the world championships.
The home nations’ governing bodies continue to invest substantially in squash at a grassroots level to encourage participation and foster talent. Since the hon. Lady and I were first elected on the same day in 2015, Sport England has invested more than £8 million directly in English squash. I understand that other sporting bodies have as well. That significant funding contributes to a wider financial package that totals about £49 million, in which squash is cited as one of the benefiting activities.
The pandemic presents great challenges for sporting organisations at an elite and grassroots level, but with our vaccination programme ramping up, I am confident that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that sport will be able to return again very soon. There is certainly a strong case to be made for such an innovative and exciting sport as squash, as the hon. Lady outlined incredibly well in her speech. It could grace the world’s biggest sporting stages. As always, a great chance for Britain to win medals is welcome news for any Sports Minister. I am sure that my predecessor, my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch, to whom the hon. Lady sent her best wishes, which I repeat, would agree.
Of course, there are right and proper procedures that must be followed to secure a global platform for squash at the Olympics, as we outlined. I encourage the hon. Lady to continue to lobby and highlight that case, as she has done so well today. Squash certainly has a strong case to make to the IOC should it so choose. More widely, I reassure her that the sport remains healthy in this country. I expect that health to continue to improve and to deliver not only world-class performance internationally, but more opportunities in this country to enjoy playing the wonderful sport.
Question put and agreed to.