You might have missed it, but this week the Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, published a strategy for sport on behalf of the Government. That’s right - up to now they hadn’t got one. But unlike many of her predecessors before last May, Tracey is a sharp cookie and thought it might be a good idea to have one.
As it’s Christmas and the season of goodwill etc, Labour welcomed much of what the Government said. It’s a step in the right direction and better late than never. Also, many of the ideas the Government are proposing have been stolen from Labour’s excellent Shadow Sports Minister, Clive Efford, so it would be churlish not to welcome them now.
But a strategy was certainly much needed given how the Tories’ record on sport since 2010 has been little short of dismal. Tracey Crouch was typically kind and generous when she described sport participation rates under this Government as having been “stalling” or “stagnating”. The truth is things have been going backwards.
The Government’s own “Taking Part” figures show that across the board we have seen a drop in the percentage of children taking part in sporting activities in and out of school since 2010. This is the case for both primary and secondary school children.
The number of people in lower socioeconomic groups playing sport has decreased and the number of inactive people doing no exercise at all has increased. Almost six out of 10 adults are now playing no sport at all in a typical week.
Much of this is a consequence of the well documented, short-sighted decisions the Government made back in the early days of the last Parliament. They cut grassroots sport, watered down regulations on school playing fields, scrapped Labour’s target for school children to do at least two hours of PE and sport in school each week, and they removed funding for the successful School Sports Partnerships.
So getting the right strategy in place is vitally important. People who engage in regular sport and physical activity have a lower risk of dementia, cardiovascular heart disease and diabetes. And alongside the economic and health benefits, it has been shown that sport can be used to tackle youth crime, reduce reoffending, increase educational attainment, improve social cohesion and reduce the number of those not in employment, education or training.
The previous Labour government had decent record. Back in 2002 it was estimated that just one in four school children were taking part in two hours of PE and sport each week. Under Labour’s School Sports Partnerships, this situation improved dramatically. By 2010, over 90 per cent of school children were doing two hours or more of sport and 55 per cent of pupils were participating in three hours of PE and sport.
Within 10 years under Labour, the vast majority of school age children were taking part in substantial amounts of high quality sport and PE.
So it is good news that it now seems the Government is finally grasping the importance of early intervention and Labour welcomes the decision in the new strategy to focus on getting younger children active, with investment starting at the age of five. We also welcome the move to make public funding for sporting bodies more conditional on good governance and for there to be more co-ordination across Whitehall departments.
But Ministers do need to go further in a number of key areas. Labour said at the last election that we should ensure that every child participates in a minimum of two hours of organised sport every week at school. This is clearly the right thing to do and the Government should get on and adopt it.
The Government will also need to do more to ensure that people at the grassroots level are empowered so that they can use their local expertise to get the best value for money. Only this will bring about a real breakthrough in participation.
Labour welcomed the fact that the Premier League has said it will increase the amount it gives to grassroots football each year to more than £100m. But this is still a drop in the ocean when you think that the Premier League is on course to bring a staggering £8 billion from TV rights. The Government must ensure that the Premier League delivers on its original promise to invest five per cent of its television rights into the grassroots.
But perhaps the area of biggest concern is the impact that massive cuts to local government will have. The central grant from the Department for Communities and Local Government is set to fall by 56% by 2019/20. In the same way that this will have a potentially devastating impact on access to arts and culture locally, the Government’s continued large-scale cuts to local council budgets will hit the very facilities and local resources needed to implement the Government’s sports strategy.
In the last Parliament, there was no strategy for sport to speak of. That once in a generation opportunity to inspire people to become more active and play sport following the success of the Olympics in 2012 was squandered. So it is good news the Government has finally produced a strategy.
But Ministers must also will the means of delivering this strategy. With the scale of cuts from local government likely to hit grassroots sport, I fear the Government may be setting itself up to fail. And that would be a real shame for sport in this country.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport