The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Nigel Huddleston)
I thank the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for tabling this important topic for debate this evening. She spoke eloquently, knowledgeably and passionately about this very important topic, and I agreed with her on the vast majority of the issues she raised.
The great power of sport is that it has an amazing ability to bring people together and to unite for common goals. Sport should be an inclusive sector to work in, with opportunities for everyone. It should be enjoyable to watch, with everyone feeling welcome and included. Everyone should be able to take part in the sport or physical activity of their choosing—from football to rugby to wrestling, and beyond.
We have seen great progress, as the hon. Lady acknowledged, with women’s sport in recent years, with levels of media coverage and sponsorship higher than they have ever been, but of course there is much more to do. Misogyny has no place in our society. Any form of discrimination is abhorrent, and we must do all we can to tackle it. We have heard examples this evening of women facing disproportionate challenges in the sector. The examples the hon. Lady gave and others remain, sadly, all too frequent, and they happen across many aspects of the sporting sector.
In broadcasting, women’s sport still lags behind men’s in coverage. It is often only the biggest events—the Olympics, the Paralympics, Wimbledon and so on—where women’s sport gets equal screen time and debate. However, the issue goes deeper than broadcasters’ decisions. Sporting federations and event organisers support a great many more top-level men’s events than women’s. As the hon. Lady mentioned, covid has had a disproportionate impact on women’s competitions compared with men’s events, with many women’s top-level leagues and events cancelled. The inherent economic imbalance between men’s and women’s sport is leaving women’s sport having to fight harder to recover from coronavirus. That cannot be right.
Women have been historically under-represented as presenters or commentators, something that is starting to change with the concerted effort of broadcasters and some fantastic role models in this arena. This should be recognised and praised, and we are now more likely to see female presenters, pundits and commentators for both men’s and women’s sport on TV and radio. However, this itself has been a catalyst for online abuse, with female presenters being trolled and receiving misogynistic abuse from so-called fans who obviously believe women have no right to talk about sport, as the hon. Lady mentioned.
As I have said before about women in politics, if we want more women in sport, we need to start treating the ones we already have a lot better. This is something we do take very seriously as a Government. We are working on the plans set out in the Government’s online harms White Paper to introduce world-leading legislation to make companies more responsible for the users safety online. There are of course provisions in the Equality Act 2010 to protect people against discrimination, whether in the workplace, as consumers or as members of private clubs or associations. However, I repeat that there should be no place in sport for discrimination of any kind. Whether it is done consciously or unconsciously, we need to address discrimination and have open and challenging conversations about these issues.
Are there challenges? Yes. Should we do everything we can to tackle them? Of course. We can take heart from the great progress we have seen in women’s sport over recent years, and I want to say a few words about that now. The year 2019 was a fantastic one for women’s sport. To choose just two, the FIFA women’s world cup in France and the netball world cup in Liverpool were fantastic events that shone a spotlight on brilliant women sport stars. On top of that, the UK hosted the women’s Ashes and a thrilling Solheim cup.
We will be hosting some more great events in the coming years, including the Rugby League world cup in 2021, which will for the first time see a combined men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournament. In 2022, the UK is due to host the UEFA women’s Euro football championships and, of course, the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth games, where there will be more women’s medal events than men’s. This will be the first time in history that a major multi-sport event will feature more women’s than men’s medal events, and we can have it right on our shores, which we should all be very proud of.
We are seeing the popularity of women’s sport continue to grow, with record audiences tuning in or turning up to watch international and domestic women’s events. On the commercial investment side, we have seen record sponsorship deals struck, including Barclays’ sponsorship of the women’s super league and Boots’ sponsorship of women’s national football teams. There are also many examples of individual clubs promoting equality between their men’s and women’s teams. Just last month I was delighted to visit Lewes Football Club in East Sussex. As many hon. Members will know, it was the first professional or semi-professional football club to have equal playing budgets for its men’s and women’s team, which is something I applaud.
All of that is helping to inspire more women and girls to become active. The latest data from Sport England’s Active Life survey in April showed that before covid-19 there were more than 210,000 active women compared with the previous year. We want to continue to encourage more women and girls to get active and build on the momentum generated by initiatives such as Sport England’s “This Girl Can” campaign, which launched its latest TV advert just this week. The latest phase of the campaign recognises that, for many people, the pandemic has added to the physical, financial and time barriers to getting active. The campaign uses real-life stories to celebrate the inventive ways in which many women have stayed active during the pandemic and helped to inspire many others.
I am pleased to say that more women are working in the sector than ever before. Sport England’s annual survey of diversity in sport governance, published in September last year, showed that women now make up an average of 40% of board members across Sport England and UK Sport-funded bodies. There is still progress to be made, but that is quite a remarkable achievement, and the Government continue to work with sports and sport bodies to ensure that opportunities to progress are open to all.
We want to raise the profile of, and encourage more commercial investment in, women’s sport. Sponsorship and media coverage go hand in hand. As the hon. Member for Pontypridd mentioned, if women’s sport does not have the media coverage, sponsors often do not see it as commercially attractive. It is fantastic to see elite women’s sport getting better coverage, but our key aim is to use that exposure to encourage more women and girls to get active. As we set out in the Government’s sport strategy “Sporting Future”, sport and physical activity should be accessible to all, and we mean all.
However, there is still a gap in participation levels between men and women. We know that there is still more work to be done to break down the barriers that prevent women and girls from getting active. Over the summer I met with sport governing bodies and the CEO of the fantastic charity Women In Sport, which the hon. Lady mentioned, to explore further the new challenges that covid-19 has posed to women in sport and to discuss what more can be done. I am happy to say that there was a real, shared commitment among sports to protect investment in women’s sport and promote its growth. I also wrote to the major sports governing bodies and asked what they were doing to encourage women’s sport. They came back with very positive responses. I look forward to seeing those positive responses and words turn into action, as I am sure the whole House does.
I recognise the impact that covid-19 has had on sport, but women’s sport has been hit particularly hard. I want to take this opportunity to assure hon. Members that I am personally committed to helping women’s sport come out of the current crisis stronger than ever, and I am working closely with the sector to ensure that that happens.