Jeff Smith – 2023 Speech on Sport in Schools and Communities

The speech made by Jeff Smith, the Labour MP for Manchester Withington, in the House of Commons on 10 January 2023.

Happy new year to everybody. It is the first time I have spoken in the House this year. It is a pleasure to be here on behalf of the Opposition. I agreed with much of what the Minister said. Sport and physical activity are essential elements of a modern, healthy, successful society, and keeping active is vital for personal physical health and mental health and for the social development and wellbeing of young people. We know that physically active children are happier and have higher levels of academic achievement than their less physically active peers.

Sport and exercise bring people together and have the power to build healthier, happier and more connected communities. Sport is not just about the benefit to individuals; it can be harnessed to tackle many of the important challenges we face as a society, whether it be loneliness, health inequalities or high rates of mental ill health. Getting people fit saves the NHS money and reduces pressure on public services. Sport can extend and save people’s lives. It is not just about taking part in sport; it is about sharing the joy of it. Watching sporting events together brings the nation together.

Today’s debate comes as we look back on a fantastic year for British sport. As we have heard, whether it was Wimbledon, the Commonwealth games, the rugby league world cup or the football World cup, we came together in support of our national sports stars. The Lionesses’ stunning success at the women’s Euros was a special highlight. We have given them our admiration and they give us inspiration. Our top athletes can be fantastic role models for our young people and ambassadors for their sports. With the right Government intervention and support, major events can help us build a lasting legacy and get more people involved in sport.

Today’s debate also comes two days after the Public Accounts Committee published its report, “Grassroots participation in sport and physical activity”. It found that the Government

“lacks a compelling vision for integrating physical activity into everyday life”.

The report confirms what the National Audit Office report told us last year. We were promised a golden age of British sport after the 2012 London Olympics, but the Government have squandered that legacy. Adult participation in sport fell in the first three years following the 2012 games. Ministers abandoned plans to track the legacy of the 2012 games in 2016, so we cannot make any judgments about any legacy delivered from the £8.8 billion that was spent on the games.

Labour urged the Government not to repeat the same mistakes with the Birmingham Commonwealth games, but again, according to the Public Accounts Committee, the Government

“has no mechanisms in place to monitor the long-term participation legacy from the Commonwealth Games.”

We cannot afford to keep making the same mistakes, so we look forward with eagerness to the publication of the Government’s new sports strategy, but I have to ask where it is. We were told last summer that it would be published in the summer, alongside all the other Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport papers that were promised and delayed last summer, including the media Bill, the gambling White Paper and the White Paper on football governance. If we want to protect the clubs that sustain our communities, we need to get on with the recommendations of the fan-led review of football.

Kim Leadbeater

The shadow Minister is making some excellent points. He is right that time is pressing. We need action now. We will all have fantastic community sports clubs in our constituencies that are struggling because of the cost of living and energy bills. Grassroots sports clubs are at the heart of our communities. Does he agree that the Government must commit to provide them with the funding and support that they desperately need at this time?

Jeff Smith

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend anticipates my remarks. We need to support those grassroots sports clubs through the cost of living crisis and get on with ensuring that the bigger professional football clubs have a framework that protects them and the communities that they support and thrive in.

Jonathan Gullis

Carol Shanahan, the co-owner of Port Vale football club, regularly raises with me how the funding model in a football pyramid works. If we moved to a model where 70% of the combined Premier League and English Football League TV rights went to the Premier League and 30% went to the rest, that would have a massively positive impact and enable grassroots clubs to see longer term investment. Does the shadow Minister agree that the Government should urge the EFL and the Premier League to do that?

Jeff Smith

I certainly agree that we need a better way of distributing finance down the pyramid. In her report, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) left it for the FA and the EFL to come up with a formula. That is the right thing to do at the moment, but they are taking their time. They need to come up with a formula that does what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) says and get money down the pyramid.

We are told that the sport strategy is delayed because of ministerial changes. I very much like the Minister; I hope he maintains his job despite the current ministerial merry-go-round in the Tory party. But if that is the problem, given the chaos in Government, I wonder if we will see the sport strategy before the next election. Once again, Tory party chaos gets in the way of Government action.

We need action. Currently, over a quarter of adults are classed as inactive, along with almost a third of children and young people. There are stark divides in the level of physical activity between different demographics and communities. The covid pandemic has not helped. There are now 1.3 million more inactive adults than before the pandemic. Worryingly, the people who are less active are those living in deprived areas, women, young people, over-75s, disabled people, those with long-term health conditions, and people from black, Asian, and other minority ethnic backgrounds. In many of those groups, activity levels have fallen more sharply since the pandemic. Those disparities start early. Some 35% of children in the least affluent families do fewer than 30 minutes of activity a day, compared with 22% of children from the most affluent families.

How do we tackle this issue? We need schools and community sports clubs to be able to step up and narrow the gaps, but in the last 10 years, state secondary schools in England have lost over 36,000 hours of PE from the curriculum. The national curriculum states that every young person is entitled to experience high-quality PE, but over the last decade school accountability has been increasingly focused on core academic subjects. PE is often neglected in favour of other subjects.

As we have heard, funding for PE and school sport is too often made available only on a short-term basis, with decisions coming at the last minute, leaving schools unable to plan for the long term. We are losing PE teachers: there are 2,700 fewer in England now than in 2011. By ending tax breaks for private schools, the next Labour Government will recruit thousands of new teachers, create a new entitlement to ongoing teacher training and reform the narrow progress measures that deprioritise physical education in the curriculum.

Children and young people’s physical activity rates have now recovered to where they were before the pandemic, but that was not a great place. Fewer than half of children meet the chief medical officer’s guidelines to take part in an average of 60 minutes or more of sport and physical activity a day. There is a physical activity gender gap: girls start being less active than boys from the age of five.

Labour believes that the Lionesses’ victory last year should represent a turning point for women in sport, inspiring more girls to play football in particular and sport in general. According to Sport England, less than two thirds of all schools currently offer equal access to girls’ football in PE lessons. Labour will introduce an equal access guarantee for school sport, instead of the current situation where girls can be taught “comparable” sporting activities, which reinforces traditional barriers and stereotypes for girls and women. We have to let children and young people explore a range of sports from a young age.

Kim Leadbeater

It is excellent to hear Labour’s plans, but I go back to the point that we need action now. The Prime Minister said last year said that he

“would love to see all schools provide two hours of PE a week”,

that he would “tighten accountability” around the primary school PE and sport premium, and that he would ensure Ofsted looked at sport. Ultimately, unless we have healthy children, it does not matter how good they are at maths, science or anything else. That is why we have to value PE on the curriculum more than we do. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling for the Minister to ensure that the Government view PE on the curriculum as a priority?

Jeff Smith

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is an expert on these issues, and I agree with every word she said.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hard-working volunteers and community organisations that kept sporting activities happening as best they could through the pandemic and who do a fantastic job week in, week out, keeping our local sports clubs going. I also pay tribute to local authorities, which provide much of our sporting infrastructure. Without local authority sports facilities, many people would struggle to access sport, but local government has been the hardest hit part of the public sector over the last 10 years, and it shows. I remember the pain of having to close local leisure centres because of Government cuts in 2011. A high proportion of our local sport and leisure facilities are at the end of or beyond their operational life and in desperate need of renovation. Councils do not have the resources for this, and we need to give councils the ability to keep sport alive in our towns and cities.

Grassroots sport in our communities is now under more threat from the cost of living crisis. Soaring energy bills are hitting gyms, leisure centres and especially swimming pools. Operators are facing bills that are up to 200% higher this year compared with the last normal operating year, 2019, and costs are set to increase by another 240%. Even before the energy crisis took hold, Swim England warned in 2021 that nearly 2,000 pools could be lost by the end of the decade. One in four councils has potential plans to close leisure facilities, and over 40% need to make cuts to physical activity services. The District Councils’ Network says that seven in 10 councils are considering scaling back their leisure services in response to these financial pressures.

Munira Wilson

I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the strain on council finances. Councils often run swimming pools, but Hampton pool in my constituency—recently voted one of the country’s top seven heated lidos—is totally community run, by a charitable trust. It is not run by the local authority, so it does not have that level of security, and given that it has been left out of the energy bills discount scheme update that was announced yesterday, it is under a lot of financial pressure. I welcome the fact that the Minister will hold a roundtable, but it is important to recognise that not all swimming pools are run by local authorities.

Jeff Smith

The hon. Lady makes a really important point. The announcement of the new energy bills discount scheme yesterday came as a massive disappointment to the sector. There is no mention of sport and leisure facilities, no acknowledgment in the scheme that certain services such as swimming pools are particularly energy-intensive—they are not on the list of energy-intensive sectors—and no offer of bespoke support. To quote Huw Edwards, the chief executive of ukactive, the new scheme

“will fail to give thousands of pools, leisure centres, and gyms the support they need to avoid further service restrictions, closures, and job losses.”

Ukactive says that 40% of council areas are at risk of losing their leisure centres or seeing a reduced service before the end of March this year, so the support that has been offered past that point will come too late for many.

I have to ask the Minister, what are the Government going to do to save these vital community assets? I look forward to the roundtable and hearing what he develops from that, but are they content to see pools and leisure centres close up and down the country? How does he plan to boost physical activity rates and sporting participation when the Government’s lack of support will lead to closures and price rises? It is not just councils that are feeling the pinch. Over a quarter of adults across the UK think they will need to cut back on their own sport and physical activity because of rising costs, so will the sports strategy, whenever we see it, contain plans to save our leisure facilities?

A decade on from the 2012 Olympics, despite the success of our brilliant athletes and the best efforts of our community volunteers, physical activity is flatlining, school sport is declining and facilities are under threat. The Government have failed to make the best of sport as a vital element to prevent ill health and boost the economy. Those failures will cost us all more in the long run, piling pressure on public services. The Government should use this debate as an opportunity to set out what they will do differently to promote PE in schools, address the inequalities in opportunity and participation, ensure we have the pools, gyms and leisure centres we need and to build a proper legacy for the money we have spent and the brilliance of the sporting heroes who inspire us. It is time for the Government to raise their game.