Many thanks for allowing me to participate in this debate, Mr Speaker. I do so as a keen sportsman and a true believer in sport as an essential element in building stronger communities, improving public health outcomes and teaching our young people the value of team ethics and fair play. In my younger days, I played rugby for London Welsh at junior level and for my college at university. Clearly, the motivation for doing so was partly that I was doing my constitutional and patriotic duty as a Welshman, but of course it was also based on my love of sport as a crucial feature of Welsh culture and identity. In my constituency, every weekend I see rugby’s power to bring our communities together across generations. Of course rugby is just one example of the power of sport as a unifying force for good.
It is against that backdrop that I must express my deepest regret at the failure of the coalition Government to build on the Olympic legacy. The 2012 Olympics created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the fitness levels of this country’s children and young people, but that opportunity was squandered by the coalition Government when they decided to scrap Labour’s school sport partnerships. Those partnerships played a crucial role in enabling primary school children to do competitive sport, and the decision to scrap them has led directly to the proportion of pupils doing two hours of sport a week collapsing from 90% under Labour to 50% under the last Government. Cuts to local authority budgets have also hit leisure centres and playing fields hard. In Wales, the £1.5 billion cut to the block grant has had a deeply damaging effect. In my constituency, the Cymmer community pool is threatened with closure, much to the despair of the local community, who are fighting hard to find a way to keep their pool, which plays a crucial role in community life and public health, open.
This Government must do better than their previous incarnation. The last five years saw a lack of strategy, piecemeal initiatives and announcements, and an absence of joined-up thinking. The coalition Government’s sports strategy can best be described as a litany of failure, with some of the lowlights including: scrapping Labour’s target for school children to do at least two hours of physical education and sport in school each week; undermining Labour’s successful school sport partnership, which was helping more children to do sport; watering down regulations on school playing fields; failing to carry out an audit of sports and recreation facilities available to local communities across the country; and failing to capitalise on the spirit and enthusiasm of the volunteer games makers.
The concerns that I am expressing are not narrow party political points. On the contrary, they are felt by a wide range of stakeholders, including the Olympic gold medallist Darren Campbell, who said back in 2013:
“I have grave concerns that cutting the funding to the School Sport Partnership network will have a hugely negative impact on the sporting opportunities that are available to our young people.”
Chris Dunne, headteacher of Langdon Park School in Tower Hamlets, London, described the Government’s decision as an
“enormously destructive act, verging on vandalism.”
He said that it was a tragedy that sporting opportunities had been cut back dramatically after the games.
The seductive vision was that the £9.3 billion invested in the games would not only hasten the regeneration of a neglected corner of east London and unlock a host of other benefits, but act as a corrective in Whitehall to the attitude of politicians towards sport. No longer would sport be left at the back of the policy queue when it came to funding discussions. Instead, it would be incorporated into policies on fighting obesity, tackling crime, boosting educational achievement and bringing communities together. If we fast forward to 2015, we see that a properly integrated, properly funded, cross-departmental plan for sport and wellbeing remains as frustratingly elusive as ever.
Meanwhile, childhood obesity rates continue to rise, PE in schools continues to decline, provision of facilities remains frustratingly patchy, and participation figures suggest a widening gap between the sporting haves and have nots.