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What Role for the Minister of Sport?

In 1964, Prime Minister Harold Wilson significantly increased the number of junior ministers in government, and among other posts created the office of Minister for Sport. Since then, a total of 14 individuals have held the post. It has generally been held at the lowest government level of Parliamentary Under-Secretary (PUSS – 11 postholders), and occasionally as Minister of State (3 postholders). It has never been in Cabinet and none of the Ministers have gone on to the Cabinet in any department. Interestingly, though, incumbents have enjoyed relatively long spells in office, with an average of 42.7 months (compared with only around two years in a range of other junior posts that were studied).

However, even with the advent of its own Minister, sport has not generally been taken seriously in Parliament. With little direct legislation on sport (apart from matters such as betting taxation or broadcasting) there has been minimum parliamentary scrutiny. There have rarely been extensive debates on sport, as distinct from half-hour adjournment debates on single issues (51 in the period studied) which few Members attend late at night.

On the rare occasions when sporting issues have taken centre-stage – such as football hooliganism or the Olympic Games – the Minister for Sport has often been sidelined. A notable example of this was in March 1980, with the debate on a proposed boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow (because of the Russian presence in Afghanistan). The Prime Minister regarded this as a foreign policy issue, as a result of which Hector Monro, the Minister for Sport at the time (1979-81), was not given the opportunity to speak.

But why have Ministers for Sport been treated in this way? To gain insight, we undertook a series of interviews with former Ministers for Sport, MPs and Cabinet Ministers, heads of national sports representative bodies, senior civil servants, and others.  An evaluation of the effectiveness of the various Ministers and their influence on sports policy was made, but only four main policy strands were identified:

  • Encouraging as many people as possible to participate in sport
  • Encouraging excellence at the elite level
  • Encouraging more sport in schools
  • Bidding for major events

Interviewees agreed that these four elements would have been as recognisable to Dennis Howell in 1964 as they would to Gerry Sutcliffe in 2008. There was also broad agreement amongst them that the Ministers for Sport have had quite a limited role to play in government sports policy. But why? The main reasons were the following:

  • Ministers for Sport have had too many other duties to perform outside of sport and have therefore not able to give sufficient time to it
  • They have been too junior within the government machine (i.e. they have always been outside Cabinet and usually at the PUSS level)
  • The office is not highly regarded by other Ministers, inside and outside of the Cabinet, nor by civil servants
  • Successive governments have not considered sport to be high on their order of priorities and the status of the office has suffered as a result
  • The particular personalities of the office-holders have been a factor in limiting their effectiveness

We then took a closer look at the Ministers’ parliamentary role to ascertain just how much effort was spent on sport. An analysis of Hansard, the parliamentary record, was undertaken for 1964-2005 to quantify the amount of text on sport and non-sport matters in terms of column inches for each Sports Minister. It was found that only 23% of their time was devoted to sport, and the remainder to other duties. These were as varied as water, sewerage, roads, local government, broadcasting, and much else, depending on their portfolios at any given time. The number of parliamentary questions were also counted, again showing that only 23% were on sport. Some Ministers were a great deal more active on sport that others. The most active were the Labour Ministers in the period 1997-2005. The least active was Eldon Griffiths (1970-74), who spent only 11% of his time on sport.

This huge burden of non-sports work clearly limited Ministers’ effectiveness in policy-making for sport. Another significant factor was that their role was on the fringes of government, and well outside the “core executive” where the most important policy decisions are taken. Many of them started their ministerial careers in departments not conducive to promotion. The most favourable were found to be the Whips’, Treasury, Defence, and Education, where the most ambitious ministers tend to first enter government.

After the election of May 2010, Hugh Robertson, the new Minister for Sport was given the additional role of Olympics Minister. This is an innovative development, since it was held formerly at Cabinet level under Labour by Tessa Jowell. However, it has not necessarily enhanced the status of the job, which is still held at PUSS level.

It will be interesting to see if Mr Robertson attains Cabinet office in due course, something that no other Minister for Sport has managed to achieve so far.


The original academic paper on which this item is based was co-authored by Dr Arthur McMaster and Professor Alan Bairner of Loughborough University and published in the journal Parliamentary Affairs in January 2012. 

Published inBritish Politics


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