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Oral - The Welsh Assembly Government’s Response To The Culture, Welsh Language And Sport Committee On Football In Wales: A Review

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Alun Pugh, Minister For Culture, Welsh Language And Sport
For rugby fans, 10 seconds can seem like a significant amount of time. However, football fans have been waiting for half a century to see our national team take its place on the final stage of a major international tournament. That was one of the contexts to the committee’s review of football, and I wish to thank everyone involved in the production of this important report.

Football has a huge profile in Wales. It is an immensely popular spectator and professional game, as well as being one of the top participation sports. It is played by many different ages and groups. There has been a most welcome and sharp rise in girls’ football. There is no doubt that football plays a significant role in assisting the Welsh Assembly Government to meet the key aims and objectives within the sport and physical activity strategy, ‘Climbing Higher’. The Welsh Assembly Government policy objectives are twofold and are very simple: as well as increasing rates of participation, we want Wales to achieve greater sporting success internationally.

Many Members were disappointed that the Football Association of Wales chose not to give evidence. I share that disappointment. It would have added some very important contributions to the review, particularly as the final report includes so many recommendations that are the primary concern of the FAW. It would also have provided a golden opportunity to inform the Culture, Welsh Language and Sport Committee of the work that it is already carrying out in a wide range of areas benefiting football in Wales.

In terms of youth development, excellent progress has been made by the Welsh Football Trust over the last few years. We now have over 38,000 registered boys playing football in Wales and nearly 4,000 girls. The girls’ figure represents an increase of 42 per cent on last year, and girls’ football is regarded as one of the fastest growing team games in Wales. In terms of disability football, 14 clubs and 18 new teams have been developed for disabled players since 2005, and there are dedicated disability officers working across Wales. Last year, the FAW Trust delivered over 2,700 training opportunities for coaches and volunteers. These are impressive statistics and further evidence that football is helping to deliver in terms of meeting the Welsh Assembly Government’s agenda.

I want to make it perfectly clear that the Assembly Government has no wish to take over the running of football in Wales; that is the role and responsibility of the governing body. I am proud that this Government has hacked away at the quango state, but sports governing bodies are not quangos. However, as Minister, I have a responsibility to protect public money. We are currently investing about £1 million each year of taxpayers’ money to support football at grass-roots level, and I want to continue doing so. I do not believe that it will be in the best interests of the game and the thousands of children and adults who play, rather than watch the game, to withdraw funding. Participation helps to breed success and there are many football fans in Wales who desperately want our national team to qualify for an international tournament as we have experienced too many disappointments over the last 50 years. It would be unreasonable to expect a nation the size of Wales—and with our resources—to qualify for every World Cup and European tournament. However, we ought to be able to manage the occasional qualification every decade or so.

Since the committee’s report was published, I have had a very constructive meeting with senior representatives from the FAW, who have agreed to publish a strategic policy document which will highlight its existing work and provide direction for the future development of the game in Wales. This is a positive response by the FAW to one of the key recommendations of the report. I welcome it and have asked my officials and the sports council to engage with the FAW in order to provide support and work very much as a team. I would also like to point out that, in principle, the Assembly Government is content to switch funding routes to support grass-roots football via the governing body. However, we feel that, at this stage, that would be premature in advance of the FAW developing and publishing its strategy. I would like the progress to be reviewed before further considering making these changes.
I would like to say a few words on the Football Association of Wales and the Welsh language. The association’s previous policy was disappointing, but I am pleased to say that the policy has changed. I have asked the Welsh Language Board to work with the association on the development of a new policy. It is good to see the Welsh language in international match programmes.
It is also worth noting that the FAW has submitted an application to London 2012 to register its new international-status football pitches, currently being laid at the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel, as a potential training camp venue for the 2012 games.

Finally, the recommendations contained within the committee report cover many different areas, most of which are the responsibility of the FAW. In agreeing the need to prepare a strategy, the FAW will no doubt consult its key stakeholders to clarify roles and responsibilities in helping to take the game forward. I expect it to take fully into consideration the recommendations made by the committee, so as to avoid compromising the future public funding of football.