Women’s Football

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:45 pm on 26th January 2022.

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Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 5:45 pm, 26th January 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg, for the second time this week. I thank Julie Elliott for securing this debate, and everyone who has participated so eloquently and knowledgably. I wish a happy birthday to my opposite number, Jeff Smith.

The debate is particularly timely, given that we are counting down to 6 July, when England will kick off their first match in the women’s Euros against Austria at Old Trafford. As many hon. Members mentioned, women’s football has made significant progress recently. I was fortunate to be at Wembley last December for the Vitality women’s FA cup final between Chelsea and Arsenal. It was a brilliant match, and it marked the 50th anniversary of the first women’s FA cup final—interestingly, it was only the 50th, for the reasons the hon. Member for Sunderland Central outlined. It achieved, my notes say, a record crowd of 40,000 people, but that is corrected by Chris Evans, who mentioned there being a 53,000-person crowd in the past, so we still have a way to go. In addition, a record audience of 28.1 million viewers watched the BBC coverage of the 2019 FIFA women’s world cup on television and online. I praise the work done by the BBC and many of the public service broadcasters in their broadcasting.

We have seen other kinds of progress. There have been bespoke women’s sports deals, such as the Barclays’ sponsorship of the FA women’s super league, which the hon. Member for Sunderland Central mentioned. We need that sponsorship; it is really important that this money flows into the game. England’s men and women senior players are now being the paid the same match fee for representing their country, but there is still huge progress to be made in equality of players’ pay, as many hon. Members pointed out. I praise teams such as Lewes for the progress and leadership they have shown.

Despite the positive signs and progress, we cannot be complacent. Since becoming the Minister for sport, I have made it a personal priority to champion women’s sport, including women’s football, at every opportunity. That is why last year I established a working group to explore the challenges and opportunities in women’s sport. The group included Women in Football and the FA, and it discusses challenges, opportunities and how best to overcome obstacles. The work of that group has already shaped thinking in the Department considerably.

I think I can make a few people happy today by announcing that I have written to sports’ governing bodies and broadcasters outlining that the Secretary of State and I are minded to add the women’s World cup and the women’s Euros to the listed events regime. We will have a short re-consultation, which will end on 16 February. This is a huge opportunity for women’s football; it can bring those tournaments to an even larger audience. We are working on several other areas, including the refresh of sport.

Many hon. Members mentioned misogyny and the hatred spread online. I am looking closely at how the online harms Bill might tackle the persistent and utterly unacceptable misogyny that continues to blight women’s sport.

As many hon. Members have mentioned, there has been considerable growth of the sport at grassroots level. The FA published its “Gameplan for Growth” and highlighted that women’s and girls’ participation has doubled over the last few years. There are 12,000 registered teams, and there are 2.4 million women and 1 million girls under the age of 16 playing football.

Many hon. Members mentioned the importance of access to facilities, and I completely agree with them on that. That is precisely why we are investing hundreds of millions of pounds in pitches and multi-sport pitches, and why I am working with the Department for Education on how we can make further progress on schools’ access to sports.

Despite the momentum in recent years, women’s sport, including football, has been heavily impacted by the pandemic; there is the slow return of spectators, a lack of media coverage in some cases, and a loss of sponsorship deals—deals that women’s sport has historically found it difficult to attract. As several hon. Members mentioned, we saw that most recently in the near liquidation of Coventry United ladies football club.

I turn to the fan-led review. My hon. Friend Tracey Crouch—like the hon. Member for Sunderland Central, and indeed everybody here—is a passionate advocate of women’s and girls’ football. The review, which published its final recommendations in November, not only considered the issues affecting the men’s game in this country, but examined the complex future of women’s football, which has a growing number of participants and fans. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford set out, fans and advocates of women’s and girls’ football gave evidence to the review, and starkly set out the fact that the women’s game is at a crucial point. Many who gave evidence spoke passionately about the need for women’s football to be properly financed; that should include a consideration of sponsorship and many other areas.

As many hon. Members have acknowledged, the review concluded:

“Women’s football should be treated with parity and given its own dedicated review.”

I am afraid that I cannot promise to give the Government’s response today, but I can tell hon. Members that we are working on it every day; many people are working on it. I will ensure that I give a full response in the spring. There is no dragging of feet here. I thank the many people who have done work on this, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. It is because that work was so comprehensive that we want to do it justice and give it a comprehensive response. My hon. Friend mentioned the letter that she and others wrote to me. I will reply to her letter regarding the designation of women’s football matches under the Football (Offences) (Designation of Football Matches) Order 2004.

It is worth pointing out that football banning orders are a Home Office policy, although we at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport do work very closely with the Home Office on that. I can confirm, however, that the football banning order legislation covers both women’s and men’s designated matches where there is a high risk of disorder. However, there may well need to be consideration of whether the scope of the order needs to be widened. I will happily raise that with my Home Office colleagues. Members mentioned several other requests.