Ever since I was a kid I played sport – every sport you could possibly imagine I did. It was a passion I took throughout school into university and then adult life. There I cultivated my love of politics and so now it’s incredible to have the opportunity to work in a job where the two meet.
I’m very proud to be only the third woman appointed as Minister for Sport. And I’m also proud to say that I’m the third mid-Kent MP in a row to be given the job. I imagine some of my newly elected colleagues in the county are currently reading up on the brief in preparation for the next reshuffle…
I want to pay tribute to both my predecessors Hugh Robertson and Helen Grant. Like all of you, I know them both well.
Helen in particular achieved a great deal of progress in Women’s Sport which this week we celebrate in all its glory. The Report she published before the Election was absolutely fantastic and sets out a constructive blueprint to tackle the challenges that women’s sport faces.
Hugh of course delivered us the London 2012 Olympics. The levels of respect he secured from the sporting fraternity throughout his tenure as minister, and indeed beyond it, are amazing and I have already taken the liberty of speaking with him at length and pilfered his knowledge and wisdom
Later today you’re going to be hearing from triathlon legend Chrissie Wellington. She is one of the hardest women I’ve ever met! I am truly in awe of Chrissie and like me she shares a deep understanding of the grassroots.
Chrissie has talked in the past about how she spent her gap year teaching swimming to kids in Massachusetts. And how, while she was there, she saw first-hand the difference that sport can make in children’s lives.
And I’ve seen that for myself, too. I’m an FA-qualified football coach, and for the past eight or nine seasons - it all blurs into one wet Sunday after a while - I’ve been managing a girls’ team in my constituency. And over that time I haven’t just seen them play. I’ve seen how the values they learn through their sport – the teamwork, the determination, the discipline, the drive – have helped them grow as people.
That’s why this is my dream job. Because it gives me the chance to help as people up and down the country to have the same opportunity to experience and enjoy sport in the same way.
How am I going to make that happen?
I could talk about it for hours, I’m sure we all could, but it basically boils down to four key points.
The first is recognising the importance of the grassroots. Like many of you I know all too well the practical challenges of working in grassroots sport. But as I said, I also know all about the huge positives. The difference it can make in peoples lives. Grassroots didn’t exist for people like me growing up. If it was there at all it was inaccessible to those on low incomes. My football girls don’t know how lucky they are. They don’t appreciate that 30 years ago I was banned from playing football in the playground. We’ve come a long way but ultimately I want everyone to have the opportunity to be involved, especially those who aren’t seen as the traditional participants
It is not just about the players. We also need coaches, officials and volunteers, all the people that modern sport needs in order to function.
Nor am I only focussed on organised, competitive sport. I know that’s not for everyone. What matters to me is getting people active. And if that means someone’s simply striving to register ten thousand steps a day on their smart phone or watch then that’s fine with me.
My own fitness routines went out the window years ago, when I gave up playing football and coached instead. And you can imagine with the job of being an MP getting into regular scheduled classes is difficult. I did Zumba on a Thursday night back in the patch for a while but then meetings take over and before I knew it I’d missed several weeks. Time poverty is a real challenge for many.
I was a bit worried that the demands of the election campaign was going to have a negative impact on my fitness. But then I discovered, thanks to an app on my phone, that I was clocking up something like seventeen kilometres a day while knocking on doors. There are people training for marathons who don’t cover that kind of distance. A member of my team worked out that over the course of the campaign he had walked 440 miles! And for those of you who don’t know Kent, my constituency is very, very hilly…I finished that election not just with a doubled majority but thighs of steel!!
It shows how sport turns up in all kinds of unexpected places. We need to support anyone who wants to get active. And that means making sure that funding goes to those who can make a real difference in participation.
The second area I want to focus on is fairness. Sport should be the ultimate meritocracy. Everyone competes on the same terms and the best player or team comes out on top. But for too many people the playing field is far from level.
Disabled fans are too often denied the right to take part in active sport, or even to access stadiums as a spectator.
There’s a huge amount of money at the top of the sporting pyramid, but precious little trickles down to the lower levels that are so important for the future.
And, even though it’s 2015, sport is still not as open and welcoming for female athletes and spectators as it is for their male counterparts.
We’ve come a long way since a teacher broke my heart by telling me I couldn’t play football because I was a girl. Today, Britain’s female sports stars are among the best in the world, regularly outperforming their male counterparts. And we’re right in the middle of Women’s Sport Week – an idea that would have been laughed out of the room not so very long ago.
But there’s still a lot more work to do, and we all need to work together in order to achieve success.
Third, I want to see a greater focus on the welfare and wellbeing of athletes.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re turning out for your pub team or for your country. If you’re involved in sport at any level, you deserve to know that the government, the sports industry and the governing bodies are looking out for your safety.
Now I know you’ve done a lot to educate young athletes about the risks of drug misuse. But there are other dangers out there, some of which are hidden.
Like thousands of other Tottenham fans I saw Fabrice Muamba fighting for his life after suffering a cardiac arrest on the pitch at White Hart Lane. Thankfully he survived, but others are not so lucky, as we saw recently with the shocking death of Keighley Cougars player, Danny Jones.
The organisation Cardiac Risk in the Young has warned that hundreds of otherwise fit and healthy young people could be at risk from an undiagnosed heart condition, just like Fabrice’s. And not all of them will have a crack medical team standing on the touchline. But that doesn’t mean it’s a hopeless cause.
After a long campaign, almost every secondary school, rural village community centre and sports facility in my constituency now has an emergency defibrillator on site and, just as importantly, has staff trained to use it. I’m still working towards getting more defibs installed for the wider community.
It’s the kind of positive step we can all take to make the world of sport a healthier, safer place for everyone who takes part. And it’s something you can expect to hear a lot more about in the months ahead.
Finally, I want to see Great Britain continue its staggering success at the highest level, whether it’s at the Olympics and Paralympics just over a year from now in Rio, or the women’s football World Cup kicking off in Canada in two days time.
And I don’t just want us winning on the field. I want Britain to carry on winning the right to host world-class sporting events. Last year we had the Giro, the Tour de France and the Commonwealth Games. In less than four months the world’s third largest sporting event, the Rugby World Cup begins. And across all sports there’s a host of European and world championships already in the diary.
It’s important that this success continues. Partly because British athletes winning in front of British spectators is a great thing in and of itself. But the impact goes deeper than that.
Let me take you back to London 2012, and the final night of action in the velodrome. Victoria Pendleton had just been edged into second place in her last-ever race; a thrilling end to a great career. And a guy called Chris Emmott tweeted about a little girl standing next to him on the train home, who turned to her dad and simply said: “Can WE go for a bike ride?”
Three years down the line I don’t know what that little girl is up to. I don’t even know if she got to go on her bike ride. But I do know that seeing for herself the incredible passion and commitment of Olympic athletes had sparked something inside her.
Little sparks like that are going off all the time. And it’s up to the people in this room – myself included – to make sure those sparks catch and that they burn bright for many years to come.
That’s what my job is all about, and I’m really looking forward to working with everyone here to help make it happen.