A House of Lords report on a national plan for sport, health and wellbeing in England has been published this morning.
Former Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and West Ham United owner Baroness Karren Brady have put their names to the 144-page report which seeks to redefine what sport and recreation are.
The document consists of significant recommendations for the future of participation sport at grass-roots level in England. The headline fact is that the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) should be relieved of their responsibility for sport policy and a new national plan.
It will instead fall into the remit of the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) to reframe sport and exercise as a key aspect of British life. A new junior ministerial position will also be instituted to refocus the public impression of sport and focus on directing reform.
The position will be known as the Minister for Sport, Health and Wellbeing and will work under the Health Secretary Sajid Javid on strategy and delivery.
The report found that inactivity rates have risen from 25.6% to 27.5% since 2016.
Other key recommendations include:
Addressing a fundamental disconnect across the board at grass-roots level particularly amongst deprived communities and ethnic minorities.
PE should become a core national curriculum subject in schools to begin instituting what the report calls ‘physical literacy’ from an early age.
A Duty of Care requirement that prioritises the establishment of an independent sporting regulator.
Mandatory reporting of abusive behaviour to tackle abuse of children and young athletes. Financial sanctions on organisations that fail to sufficiently execute their duty of care to athletes and children are an option.
What does the national plan mean?
The committee doubts the DCMS’s suitability to institute such an ambitious plan for sport, stating in a press release: “(DCMS) lacks the clout within Government to deliver the cross-departmental coordination that the new national plan requires.”
When asked about to outline the reasons for the shift in responsibility to the DHSC, Committee Chair Lord Philip Willis underlined that a healthier is in the NHS’s interest, to prevent another Covid-style overwhelming of its services.
“This report (recommends that) physical fitness is a fundamental part of the future of the health of the nation.” – Lord Willis
In a lecture at Oxford University this week, Professor Sarah Gilbert, one of the minds behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine, said: “The truth is the next one (virus) could be worse. It could be more contagious, more lethal, or both.”
The recommendations aim at preventing medical issues at the source through more streamlined execution and delivery at a grass-roots level.
This will mean further down the line the NHS has fewer unhealthy people to deal with should another viral outbreak threaten the country.
Former CEO of the NHS in England, Baron Simon Stevens corroborated this claim in the House on Tuesday, saying that unless the need for increased medical intervention is cut out early on, the NHS is fundamentally unsustainable.
Why is the DCMS being stripped of their responsibility?
In the report, Andy Reed OBE, Co-founder and Director of the Sports Think Tank said: “(DCMS is) a very small department in a big government.”
Lord Willis went on to say that even doubling the funding to the DCMS would not resolve the problem. As well as hoping to diminish the workload of frontline NHS staff by making the nation healthier, the report aims to do the same for the DCMS.
It is thought that digitisation will dominate the DCMS agenda for decades, so freeing up resources by moving responsibility to DHSC would allow them to focus more strongly on the issues presented by an ever more connected world.
The DHSC’s privileged position as one of the most important offices of the state with direct access to the Prime Minister (if he’s still around to read and implement the report, that is) means that sport and wellbeing can move higher up on the national agenda, with resources and the clout to match.
Despite the immense success of London 2012’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, participation has flatlined. Although facilities built for the Games are in near-constant use, momentum appears to have petered out in the public.
25% of the population will this week do no activity at all, and in poorer parts of the country, that number rises to one in three people.
The committee will have been conscious to avoid a situation similar to that seen in the aftermath of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where enormous investment and legacy have fallen by the wayside.
Lord Willis defends the DMCS, saying that they are doing their very best, but find themselves unable to expand. He noted that recent Secretary of State appointee Nadine Dorries MP is yet to make a speech on sport. This side of our nation’s culture is expected to get on with things as they are as such organisations are already in place.
Is the plan too ambitious? Are we too far gone?
The cross-departmental ambitions that the report recommends are admirable, and the timeline is moving fast. By February 2022, the current Health and Care Bill will be in the House of Lords in committee stage, wherein plenty of amendments can be put forward.
The Office for Health Promotion will be a part of these amendments, an idea to which Prime Minister Boris Johnson put his name to six months ago, according to Lord Willis.
Lord Willis clarified that the rejig will not cost a great amount of money, admitting that asking the government to invest billions of pounds in sport in a post-pandemic economy is a laughably unrealistic proposition.
However pragmatic and well-thought out this report is, it remains to be seen whether there will be any appetite in the relevant departments for change at all.
That is the biggest hurdle for the report to clear – whether the DHSC and DCMS will partake in this reform, whilst they are still tied up with the fight against Covid and the emerging Omicron variant.
The DCMS has plenty to deal with too, and a reshuffle may fall on deaf ears.
If another pandemic comes along, however, the government and NHS will want a fit and healthy nation to be able to withstand the barrage. Whether the national plan for sport in England recommended by this committee can deliver it is another matter.
Stay tuned to the Sports Gazette for more ongoing coverage of this story and its implications.
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