Phillip Lee MP: For most offenders sport is the first step in a virtuous path to rehabilitation
Justice Minister Dr Phillip Lee writes on sport's transformational properties for both our vulnerable and offenders.
The United Kingdom is a sporting nation. Whether it is ‘Super Saturday’ at the London Olympics, the FA Cup Final, the Sport Relief Mile or our local Park Run, we watch, support and participate in sport up and down our land. Sport can, and often does, have an impact in everyone’s lives. An estimated 27 million people in the UK do at least two and half hours of physical activity a week and the NHS advises that children should undertake at least an hour of moderate exercise per day.
As a younger man, the rugby field helped me to channel my energies and taught me the valuable life lessons of team work, discipline and dedication. Later in life, I became a stalwart of the England Football Supporters’ Club and, along with thousands of others, I followed our national team around the globe. I was always struck by the fact that fans from all backgrounds, ethnicities and club loyalties were able to come together under the flag of our nation and in support of our national sport. Sport brings people together. And so, when I was asked by the Prime Minister in the Summer of 2016 to join the government as the Minister responsible for Youth Justice, I quickly came to conclusion that we could make better use of the power of sport to help turn people’s lives around.
Many of our most accomplished sportspeople come from troubled and disadvantaged backgrounds, and some have even served at the pleasure of Her Majesty. World Heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua was on remand as a young man before embracing and then dedicating himself to sport and transforming his life in the process. Olympic Gold medallist Nicola Adams has spoken of boxing’s “almost unmatched capability to engage some of the most disaffected young people and help to combat a massive range of social problems, covering crime, educational underachievement, health and fitness and community cohesion”.
I’ve had the immense privilege of getting to know John McAvoy, who was serving two life sentences when he discovered his aptitude and appetite for sport. With the help and support of an inspirational prison officer, John became a multiple world record holder at indoor rowing and since his release has become an international endurance athlete and inspirational speaker.
Not everyone can be an Olympic Gold medallist or world champion, of course, but we can all benefit from sport’s transformational properties. Perhaps counter-intuitively, contact sports can sometimes help to resolve conflict, even in the criminal justice system. Charitable and not-for-profit organisations like Fight for Peace, Street Soccer and the 3 Pillars Project have demonstrated the ability of well-structured, supervised sports programmes to affect positive change. For most offenders, sport is not an end in itself, it’s the first step in a virtuous path to rehabilitation. Physical and mental health leads to increased wellbeing which leads to personal development that in turn leads to increased opportunities and employment prospects. Currently, over 40% of children re-offend within 12 months of their release from custody, for those offenders completing sports-based programmes, however, the reoffending rate is significantly lower.
I have witnessed the power of sport and physical exercise in both my personal and professional life as a GP and MP, and while it’s not a panacea, it is a vital tool in the wellbeing of the nation, the rehabilitation of offenders, and in improving the prospects of disadvantaged young people.