The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Nigel Huddleston)
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Dowd.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this debate, and on raising the important issue of inclusion for disabled people in all aspects of sport and in officiating in particular. She is always a great champion of her constituents and it is a pleasure to respond to her. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his contribution and for highlighting another inspirational person, his constituent Scott.
It is clear from my hon. Friend’s comments that she shares my view that sports and physical activities at all levels are hugely important to disabled people. That is why the Government and their arm’s length bodies, Sport England and UK Sport, have worked closely with the sector and national governing bodies, including the ECB, which my hon. Friend highlighted, to ensure that inclusion in sport remains a priority at all levels from grassroots through to pathways to elite sport and governance.
At the outset, I would like to say that the Government are absolutely committed and recognise the great importance of sport and physical activity for disabled people who take part, including officiating and referring. The opportunity to have a parliamentary debate on what steps the Government are taking to support disability officiating in sport is a positive message in itself to send, highlighting the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion at all levels of sport. I warmly welcome the efforts of campaigns to increase diversity and inclusion, such as sports officiating from a powered wheelchair—SOPW—founded by my hon. Friend’s constituent, the truly inspirational individual Mr John McIntear, a Royal Navy veteran and a cricket umpire who uses a powered wheelchair. I would like to put on record my admiration for his work and encourage other governing bodies in sport to engage with his campaign, as my hon. Friend requested.
The Government’s strategy, “Sporting Future”, is aligned with Mr McIntear’s ambition for more inclusion in sport. It stresses the importance of helping under-represented groups and isolated communities, including disabled people, to take part as active participants, spectators and in the workforce. In addition, Sport England has recently launched its new 10-year strategy, “Uniting the Movement”. This strategy reinforces its commitment to increasing participation in sport and physical activity for those from under-represented groups, including disabled people.
I am aware that even before the effects of the pandemic, disabled people and people with a long-term health condition were twice as likely to be physically inactive as those without a disability or health condition. There are deep-rooted inequalities in participation levels in sport and physical activity. We know there are people who feel excluded from being active and participating in sport, because the right options and opportunities simply are not there. That does not only apply to taking part in playing, it also extends to the sporting workforce and officials. That only strengthens the resolve of the Government and national governing bodies to redouble efforts to ensure we keep the focus on increasing opportunities for disabled people.
We have been working with Sport England, UK Sport and sports organisations such as Activity Alliance to ensure that guidance is in place. That will help disabled people to get back to playing, volunteering and participating in the sports they love as safely as possible.
Sport has so much to offer. Everyone should be able to take part. In turn, sport has so much to gain from welcoming everyone in the community, including disabled people. Diversity of experience can only be an asset.
With the opening up of sporting activities over the next few months, projects such as sports officiating from a powered wheelchair will help to focus attention and resources on disabled individuals to have the opportunity to officiate in any sport they choose to participate in. As my hon. Friend the Member for Telford said, the UK has led the way in supporting, for example, Paralympic sports and disability participation at a grassroots level through Sport England with initiatives such as the “We Are Undefeatable” campaign; and partnerships between Sport England and Disability Rights UK, Aspire, Sense and international mixed ability sport.
However, many who wish to officiate are hindered by lack of access due to their level of mobility. Although programmes that focus on disabled coaches, volunteers and leaders are available, Sport England has also identified a gap around disabled officials and referees and is actively reviewing how to address this going forward. I would be happy to continue the dialogue with my hon. Friend on this area.