Tracey Crouch: “I feel very comfortable doing my brief. At no point have I felt out of my comfort zone”
While Westminster obsesses over the ‘minutiae’ of Brexit, Tracey Crouch is more interested in getting on with her ‘dream’ job as minister for sport. She talks to Sebastian Whale about England’s World Cup chances, safeguarding athletes and the problem with ‘pressurised’ in-play gambling
As their son enters his formative years, Tracey Crouch and her husband are vying to influence his thinking. It’s a straight fight between pushing him to be a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur or Plymouth Argyle. So, who’s going to come out on top? “Tottenham, of course,” says the Sports minister with authority, her patented grin breaking out across her face. “As they would on the field.”
Such is Crouch’s devotion to her beloved Spurs that she makes a point of posing for pictures alongside a banner featuring one of the club’s most prized assets, striker Harry Kane. It’s just one piece of sporting paraphernalia that features in her ministerial office, whose aesthetic would be the pipe dream of any sports-loving teenager.
At first, we shoot the breeze about various sporting matters. Crouch, a diehard Green Bay Packers fan who attended one of four American Football games held in London this season, is hopeful that the capital can gain a coveted NFL franchise. “There’s still a little way to go, but certainly the interest is there from the NFL. We’ve got to show them that the support is there from the UK,” she says.
Donning the walls are signed photos of victorious England Ashes cricket teams, and a framed Union Jack carrying the autographs of British Paralympic athletes. Deflated and inflated balls from at least three different sports sit on a display, as Crouch tosses a rugby ball, pretending to throw it in my direction to test my reaction skills. I flinch.
The rather unfamiliar surroundings are apt, for Crouch is not really your typical minister. Once viewed as a rebellious backbencher, she speaks in fluent normal, her vernacular void of political jargon. Last year, she became the first Conservative frontbencher to take maternity leave. And while running to be an MP proves she is not unambitious, she seems more than content in her “dream” job.
Though she modestly professes to lacking skills in the pub quiz department, Crouch’s knowledge of all things sport is self-evident. Yet that does not mean that the 42-year-old, who is a qualified football coach, doesn’t receive backlash for expressing opinions on matters sports.
“You should see some of the letters I get. Politicians are not invited to have a view on these things about sport, especially as a female sports minister. You quite often get a lot of sexist comments,” she says.
“My favourite letter which I have in my parliamentary office is, ‘women should not talk about football, they should talk about kitchens, cooking, and babies’, or something like that, ‘but not football’.
“It was anonymous, which just showed you precisely how brave it was. But I kind of do want to write back saying, ‘well, you know I am an FA qualified coach, so I think I can talk a little bit about football’.”
At Westminster, she is also unable to express her talents on the field. FA rules, which stipulate that you cannot play mixed football over the age of 16, prohibit her from playing in the parliamentary football team. “It’s to do with referees’ liability. It’s ridiculous. So, I am not allowed to play. But, to be honest with you, despite all my best intentions, I don’t really have the time anyway.” She smiles.
David Cameron appointed Crouch minister for sport after the 2015 election, five years after she entered parliament as MP for Chatham and Aylesford. Her tenure has overlapped with the emergence of numerous sporting scandals, from accusations of child sexual abuse in football, question marks over doping in cycling and sports governance issues across numerous disciplines.
“In many respects, it is a good thing that people think they can come forward with these issues. In terms of things like the historic sexual abuse allegations and issues around integrity, bullying, harassment, people are being given the voice to come forward,” she says.
It’s for this reason why safeguarding athletes is Crouch’s number one priority heading into 2018. “No one should go to work, whatever their place of work is, and feel intimidated or bullied. You have to have the right safeguards in place, and sport is no different to that.”
But many of those who have spoken out, such as England women football player Eniola Aluko, who accused former manager Mark Sampson of making racial slurs against her, used the media or the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) committee to raise their issues. Shouldn’t there be the necessary channels for whistle-blowers to come forward in the governing bodies themselves?
“And they do in part, but we want to strengthen those procedure,” replies Crouch. “Although the new governance code has whistleblowing procedures now enshrined in it, we ought to make sure they are as strong as possible.”
But as such a keen sports fan, have the various scandals made her more cynical? Crouch insists there is “much to celebrate in sport”. “What you’ve seen is some high-profile cases, but I’m not trying to underplay or downplay it because they are incredibly serious and they rightfully need all the attention that they’re getting. But sport is not in crisis. It’s just that it has some very serious issues that it needs to sort out.”
She adds: “I don’t think it’s having a long-term detrimental impact. But I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything wrong with a negative story, if it means that procedures can be strengthened to make sure it doesn’t happen again in the future.”
The next calendar year will bring with it a plethora of high-profile sporting events. None more so than the 2018 football World Cup, which will be hosted by Russia in the summer. Speaking as a supporter, Crouch is typically sanguine about England’s prospects. But, like fans up and down the country, she has expectations that need to be met.
“England have got a really good chance, actually. We’ve got a good group… Serious questions will need to be answered if we don’t get out of that group!”
It is off the pitch however where most of the action has been. Russia is banned from next year’s Winter Olympics over its state-sponsored doping programme. The country also continues to face an investigation into the circumstances of its bid to host the World Cup, and has accusations hanging over it related to interference in foreign elections.
If Russia is found to have interfered with the EU referendum and the most recent general elections, would there be a case for England to boycott the event? “That would be a matter for the English FA to decide on. Football fans would feel really quite disappointed by that, particularly as we have qualified – the only home nation to do so,” Crouch says.
“I do however think that sport has an important role to play when it comes to the wider geopolitics. We should think about the soft power that sport plays. We talk about soft power of sport in trying to help developing countries and what benefits it can bring, particularly in terms of equality. So, I do think that in the future we could use sport as a bit more of something to have a discussion around these issues.”
With the Commonwealth Games in April, it’s set to be a busy year for Crouch. In the summer, she was given the added responsibility for civil society, with a government strategy currently in the works. She is also the minister for gambling. In January 2018, a 12-week consultation on reducing the maximum stakes in Fixed Odds Betting Terminals will close. “It’s £100 at the moment. Whatever the outcome is, we can guarantee that there will be a reduction in stake,” she says.
Also out for consultation is the use of gambling adverts during sports events. Advertising groups have agreed to strengthen messages around responsible gambling, and to fund a related campaign. While Crouch says there is a “balance to be struck”, she signals that action could be taken against in-game betting promotions.
“There are certain types of advertising that need to be dealt with. The in-play betting, the ‘bet now’ type stuff, which is a real pressurised, ‘oh my god I have to bet now’, that’s being really quite seriously looked at.”
Is she suggesting they could be outlawed? “It’s all self-regulatory anyway. So, there are aspects of it that the industry needs to look at. But people are getting to the end of their tolerance levels.”
The general set up at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is in stark contrast, you assume, to the vibe at HM Treasury and HMRC, who share the Whitehall building. DCMS is resplendent in post-it notes; mini meeting booths akin to airport smoking areas and a feel more like a tech start up than a government department.
All three departments however are wrestling with the implications of Brexit. For Crouch, sporting bodies are voicing concerns about access to players, work visas ahead of tournaments and issues surrounding intellectual property rights. “[Brexit] might not be as prominent as say farming or other parts of Whitehall. But it’s definitely there.”
Crouch has never declared how she voted at the referendum (she was on maternity leave). She thinks that while it is an “important matter”, the public are not interested in the “minutiae of Brexit”. It seems that Crouch too feels the same way.
Her transition from backbencher to minister was one some feared would not be a comfortable fit, given her willingness to speak out against her party. But it’s one she has taken in her stride. “It was surprisingly easy, actually, in part because for the first year or so of being a minister we were in the run up to the referendum, and there wasn’t much in terms of controversial legislation. There’s nothing that I felt particularly uncomfortable about voting for. Then I was on maternity leave. If you throw yourself into your brief, and you become very passionate about your brief, it just makes it so much easier,” she says.
Does she keep her head down while all else around her seems to catch fire? “Yeah!” she says, laughing.
“The nicest thing that was said about me when I was appointed was that it was a round peg in a round hole. I feel very comfortable doing my brief. There have been huge challenges in doing it in the last two and a half years, with some big issues that have broken. But at no point have I ever really felt out of my comfort zone,” she says.
“Everything that I’m passionate about I have within my portfolio. I love sport, I am passionately interested in civil society. I’ve been a volunteer, I’ve somehow been involved in charities for most of my life, even before politics or during my time as an MP.
“I have gambling in my brief – I’m not a massive gambler! But I feel really strongly about the issues around gambling and the harm that it can bring to people, and particularly vulnerable people.
“So, trying to make sure that we have a good balance between a vibrant sector and socially responsible gambling is enormously important to me.”
Her smile broadens: “Being a minister comes with many frustrations, but ultimately I think I’ve got the best job in government.”