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Sports Think Tank - John Leech Interview

"A sports think tank would be a great legacy from the 2012 games, enabling future generations to benefit from long term, well researched, and evidence-based sports policy making in the UK" Seb Coe

Sports Think Tank

Sports Think Tank

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John Leech, Liberal Democrats Spokesperson

Ahead of the 2015 General Election, the Sports Think Tank took the opportunity to interview John Leech MP (Manchester Withington), the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for sport to understand a bit more about the Party's position on sports policy.

The current Coalition Government's sports policy has broadly focused on three areas: achieving a successful Olympic and Paralympic Games; creating a lasting legacy from 2012; getting more people playing sport. How successful has it been in achieving these policy aims over the last five years?

John Leech:

Well I think the success of the Olympics really speaks for itself. The policy of backing medals evidently worked. Labour's strategy of backing sports to succeed in the Olympics worked, that is undeniable. However, the policy did pose a few challenges that could be tweaked moving forwards. The sports that have received funding have come a long way, although we are beginning to see signs in sports such as basketball where the policy has been less successful.

The impact on community sport is a bit more of a mixed picture. We initially saw an increase on the level in participation, but have now seen a decrease in the number of people playing football. We would like to see an upward trend in participation. The measurements on participation should not measure the number of people taking part in competitive sport but should be more focused on encouraging people to be fit and physically active.

Question 2: Given there is no Liberal Democrats Minister at DCMS, how successful have you been in influencing the Coalition sports policy?

John Leech:

I think it goes without saying that, across government, in departments where the Liberal Democrats have not had a minister we have been less successful. However, in departments where we have had a minister, we have had a clear influence. For example, in the Department for International Development, we have ensured that 0.7 of the UK's GDP is dedicated to international aid when we had Lynne Featherstone in the department.

There have evidently been differences between the different political parties on sports policy. The Liberal Democrats have tried to promote the use of safe standing in football stadia, for example. However, our party have had a fundamental disagreement with the Conservatives on the governance of football: this was evident during the debate at our Party Conference.

Question 3: In the 2010 manifesto, The Liberal Democrats referenced a definitive two-pronged policy strategy that focused on major events and grassroots sports. Looking ahead to the 2015 Election, will your party sustain this approach?

John Leech:

At this stage, I wouldn't like to pre-judge what will be included in our party manifesto. I absolutely guarantee that one of the policies that will be in our manifesto is the provision for safe-standing at football matches.

We would also like to introduce a plan for keeping people fit and active and building participation. I am quite critical of the Active People survey, as it doesn't really matter whether you are participating in top level competitive sport or whether you are taking part in general exercise. We need to ensure that people are staying healthy, not only throughout their teens but also that people who are involved in physical activity need to keep on doing it.

There is currently evidence out there that suggests we should continue to make physical activity a priority. This is particularly evident in people aged in their forties and fifties, where there appears to be a serious drop-off in the amount of exercise people are getting.

We would also like to address the problem with young women. Lads tend to carry on playing sport for slightly longer. The age that girls' participation is dropping off is at 13 or 14 years old, compared to 16 or 17. I would like ensure that we narrow that gap.

Question 4: You introduced a wide-ranging football governance discussion at your Annual Conference. Despite being a Manchester City season ticket holder for 31 years, you have previously referred to the cynicism hanging over politicians' use of football rhetoric. What influenced your party's decision to call for government intervention now?

John Leech:

The Government has previously told football to 'get its house in order' or it will risk being legislated. The football authorities have not got their house in order so we should be legislating.

The Premier League has been a tremendous success in terms of generating cash, but we are not seeing the money trickle down the football pyramid. It has to fulfil its obligation to the football family. Our debate at Party Conference argued for funds from the Premier League to go to organisations such as Supporters Direct – I think that is absolutely justifiable.

As revenues grow exponentially, the only real beneficiaries of that are the footballers themselves. Look at where we are heading with the next big television deal; I rather suspect that it is going to be even bigger with BT Sport being a major competitor. I think it is absolutely right that through legislation we ensure that TV revenues do not just go to the top again but to organisations involved in running the game. Let me give you an example – Supporters Direct: their budget is smaller than it used to be, yet the amount of work they have to do has grown exponentially as the game has grown. I think it is absolutely right that there is proper re-distribution of the wealth in the sport to filter down the football pyramid.

As a Manchester City fan, I suppose I might be accused of having a slight vested interest in plenty of funds going into the Premier League. However, I recognise that for the health and wellbeing of the game, we must support football right down the pyramid. Because the Premier League is such a successful export around the world, we must make sure that football in general is the beneficiaries of that.

Furthermore, I am not convinced by the Labour Party's policy of issuing an obligation to offer supporters 10% of the shares in football clubs - that is all very well and good when a club is not worth very much; however, if Manchester United were put up for sale, it would be difficult for the supporters to come up with the millions of pounds to buy 10% of the club.

The idea of having a fan on the board of professional clubs is not new – Manchester City introduced a supporter on the board many years ago. We want to see a situation with supporters' trusts where they could substantially represent a voice – whether that is changing the manager, changing the colour of the home shirt or even the name and location of the football club.

It is about protecting the heritage of the football clubs to ensure that the supporters' interests are heard before the owners. Football clubs need to be held accountable for this.

Question 5: Labour has launched a public consultation on their sports policy. Are we likely to see a similar Liberal Democrat consultation on sport before May 2015?

John Leech:

I would argue that we went through that process before Labour and the Tories did. Our conference motion about the changes in football was launched back in October 2014, so it was quite frustrating when other parties were trying to suggest that they were being followed. I don't think we will be releasing any further consultations before the next General Election.