Mims Davies: “I’m fitter at 40 something than I was at 30. You can come to exercise at any age”
“Sport is everything,” according to Mims Davies. The new DCMS minister talks to Sebastian Whale about the power of sport to change lives and tackle discrimination
There must be something in the water at DCMS. Picking up from her popular predecessor, Mims Davies possesses an unwavering enthusiasm for her brief. She appears to still be in shock at being appointed the minister for sport and civil society. “Can’t believe it’s me,” she says with a grin from ear to ear.
The Eastleigh MP, who joined parliament in 2015, also dabbles in sports herself. A keen runner, she has completed two marathons and is due to add to her many half marathons in Brighton later in the week. How is training going? “Not very good,” she replies, laughing. “But the Eastleigh 10km in March is looking a little easier.”
Ministerial life means she doesn’t get to put on her running shoes as often as she’d like. “When I first came here and I was a backbencher, I had two runs a week guaranteed in my diary. I made sure I got out into the parks twice a week. It’s a little bit harder when you’re at the ministerial level. And it’s easy as a woman actually to put it back. I need to learn to be a bit more selfish and put that time in for me.”
It’s not really a surprise that a former chair of the APPG for Running likes to get out on the roads. For Davies the pastime offers freedom, a sense of tranquillity, and the chance to say you took part in the same sporting event as Mo Farah. After giving birth to her first child, it also offered more accessibility than other sports such as netball, which she played competitively. “You don’t have to be good at running, you just have to keep going one foot after the other. I am terrible at things like Zumba, I can’t concentrate, and I go in the wrong directions.”
With Jeremy Wright away on an overseas trip, we are ushered into his office for our interview. There are a few ornaments dotted here and there pointing to the work of the department. A trumpet sits on a shelf behind a desk, the cushions are inscribed with DCMS text, and a Pinewood studios seat is positioned next to the door. Pieces of contemporary art make up most of the decorations on the walls.
Davies left the Wales Office for DCMS in November after Tracey Crouch resigned over the delay to reducing the maximum stakes on FOBTs. She made her first major policy speech in mid-February, where she outlined three pillars to her approach; participation, international opportunity and integrity around sport.
“Sport is everything,” Davies declares. “You don’t have to be the person at the front. I’ve very often been the person at the back and in a race that can be the most entertaining and fun and collegiate area to be in. Believe me, I’ve been there a lot. Sport can give you that downtime, it can give you that stress relief. It’s good for your mental health, the endorphins that you get.”
With that positive effect of sport undeniable, does Davies see a correlation between a lack of access to sports facilities and the rise in childhood obesity and the number of children accessing mental health services?
“That’s a difficult question. It’s one we need to find the answer to,” she replies. “So, I don’t think most people would leave their kids up precincts for three hours in the evening not knowing who they’re talking to or what they’re doing. But, at the same time, we’ve got to let our kids go out and play.”
She adds: “I find it with my kids. ‘Have a great time, don’t get muddy’. ‘No, no, it’s fine, get muddy. I’ve got Persil’. But you automatically do the cotton wooling. We’ve got to let our youngsters have that sense of adventure…
“I’m fitter at 40 something than I was at 30. Still not very fit compared to what I was at 35, but we’ll get there. The point is you can come to exercise at any age. Our young people need a chance to find what they enjoy, give them the chances and opportunities and they’ll flourish.”
With several outstanding issues on sports governance – including historical allegations of child sexual abuse in football – Davies is keen to pick up the baton on safeguarding, which she argues will improve participation. “They are all interlinked. Our governing bodies have a responsibility to step up to that,” she says.
And she has pledged strong action on rooting out racism and discrimination from sport, with a meeting with football leaders in the offing. “Racism feels like it had been creeping into our society as a whole. You’ve seen it even in politics where being tolerant of intolerance was starting to look like an okay thing,” she tells me.
She praises Joe Root, the England cricket captain, who recently called out a West Indies player for an alleged homophobic slur. “We don’t want to see discrimination in any part of our society, whether it’s in politics or whether it’s in elite sport. Now, my job is to make sure in elite sport, it is stamped out, that there is no creeping insidious cloak where apparently in the heat of the moment it’s okay. So, it was absolutely right that if you see it you call it out, you don’t tolerate it, you stop it,” she argues.
I mention the interventions by Andy Murray in calling out sexism in tennis. “Some of the strongest allies in any change can be men. Men are brought up by strong female leaders. I found that in my own party, men in our party are brilliant. Yes, there are always people who let you down. But the reality is they’ve got young daughters or grandchildren… and they want to make sure that those families are tolerant and open minded, and above all that if you’re good at something you get a chance to progress and succeed.
“Some of our change agents can be guys. Andy Murray is a great example of that because he’s got a strong female leader for a mum and he’s absolutely smashing out all the stereotypes.”
In recent weeks, Davies has challenged the media to improve coverage of women’s sports. “I don’t think it should be tokenistic. As I’ve said before, equality is visibility,” she says. “Above all, it shouldn’t be women’s sport, it’s sport. Once we get to that point then we’ve got somewhere.”
Lewes, the only football club to pay its men’s and women’s teams equally, has asked the Football Association to address the discrepancies in FA cup prize money. The total prize fund for the men’s competition is £30.25m compared to £250,000 for the women’s tournament. Does Davies believe this gap should be amended?
“The money will follow alongside the reporting and the visibility. It’s not all about the money, but it’s important if you’re elite, if you’re putting your life on hold, if you’re putting everything into a particular sport that you’re well remunerated,” she responds.
Davies remains to this day the only person from her family to go to university. She studied politics and international relations at Swansea, where she began a 13-year career in the media as a DJ on a local hospital radio. Her time in the press included a stint at the BBC, which she describes as her “holy grail”.
“I never worked a day in my life. I loved going to work,” she explains. Do these communication skills serve her well in her political career?
“I’ll know after this interview,” she quips. “It is very helpful. At the moment, communicating with people is really, really important and feeling that people can connect with politicians and they don’t all look the same, sound the same.”
After years covering elections and meeting politicians from all sides – from Grant Shapps to former Labour minister Barbara Follett – Davies decided to get involved in politics. Her parents voted Tory but had no inclinations to participate in local politics. Davies, who concluded early on she was ideologically in tune with the Conservatives, worked as a councillor in Sussex before standing in Eastleigh in 2015.
Davies, who voted for Brexit at the 2016 referendum, believes sport can provide a platform to demonstrate the UK’s influence after leaving the EU. With several high-profile events in the offing – from the cricket world cup this year to the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 – she argues sport can bolster Britain’s global stance. Another such opportunity could come through bidding for the 2030 Fifa World Cup. Does Davies support that?
“Well, the Prime Minister does and therefore I do. We’ve got to tread carefully. It’s early days. It’s a long time down the road,” she cautiously replies. “We’ve got 2022 to think about and the euros as well. But ultimately, there is so much good there. This is where Great Britain really, really shines. We should have confidence as a result.”
Given the controversy surrounding the bids for the 2018 and 2022 competitions, does she have faith in the selection process? “Fifa needs to demonstrate that everyone should have faith in their processes,” she replies. “What we’ve had to do is look and learn from what happened before. We’re going in it with our eyes wide open.”
Issues relating to gambling also fall under Davies’ brief. Current statistics on the health impacts of gambling are stark, with 430,000 adults classified as having a serious gambling problem and 75,000 children at risk of addiction.
Gambling companies in December agreed to a “whistle-to-whistle” TV advertising ban during live sport broadcasts. And this month it emerged that gambling adverts will no longer be allowed to appear on websites or in computer games that are popular with children.
Is the next step in the process to ban gambling firms from advertising on sports clothing? While the Government’s gambling review has already reported, Davies says the study is “ongoing”. “It doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped.” Ministers will continue to assess the case for taking further action, she adds.
The minister, for the time being, is ready to act elsewhere, she reveals. “There are other areas where I would like to see some things sorted out. That’s around buying scratch cards at lotteries, 16- and 17-year-olds. I would like to act there. I’d be hopeful to do that soon.”
Is she calling for the sale of scratch cards to under 18s to be outlawed? “Yes. We need to be very clear that gambling starts at 18… It’s not to stop people from having fun, but it’s also to protect those most vulnerable people. That’s where the government needs to step in.”
For whatever reason, Davies cannot believe her luck. She says she “fell into” radio, and through that career – which never felt like a job – she found an opportunity to get involved in local politics. Now she is a minister in charge of a brief she loves as the country prepares to host some of the most major sporting events in the world.
“I fell into all of this, and that’s what makes being here even better.”