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World Cup 2018: FCO Preparations

Volume 642: debated on Thursday 14 June 2018

Foreign Affairs Committee

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I remind the House of the procedure, which is still relatively new. The procedure is that the hon. Gentleman, as Chair of the Select Committee, may speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call on Members to put questions on its subject and call on Mr Tugendhat to respond to them in turn.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am very pleased that we are following on from a matter so close to Scottish hearts we are now going to take on another one that is very close to Scottish hearts, which is, of course, England and the World cup.

This is a timely statement, because today, in only two hours, Russia is playing Saudi Arabia. I wish both sides the best of luck because, frankly, it would be hard to choose between them, although not as much luck as I wish the England team when we come up against Tunisia on Monday.

Before the tournament began, the Foreign Affairs Committee wanted to ensure that the Foreign Office was providing adequate support to the 10,000 UK nationals who are expected to travel to Russia. As a Committee, we are concerned about the history of violence by Russian hooligans, the current tensions between the United Kingdom and Russia, and particularly the expulsion of Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials working on the preparations for the games. That was why we launched this inquiry into the FCO’s preparations for the World cup.

We wanted to explore the impact that the UK’s reduced diplomatic presence has had on preparations for the tournament, and what the Foreign Office has done to keep fans informed of the risks and how to stay safe. We heard evidence of the hard work that has been taking place across Government and other bodies to prepare for the World cup. We would like to recognise the work of all those involved in the preparations, especially the officials who have remained in Russia, their colleagues who were expelled and those who had to leave.

The Committee concluded that Russia raises serious concerns as a World cup host. Russian hooligan groups have a history of violence at matches, as we saw at the European championships in France in 2016, when dozens of England fans were injured by co-ordinated groups of Russian supporters—many of them encouraged by members of the Russian Duma. Despite a Government crackdown on these groups, Russian authorities cannot control the hooligans who operate at the margins. Some minority groups face even greater risks. We refer particularly to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups—people in Russia who have suffered persecution and violence, often at the hand of the state. In the words of the Foreign Office, the state takes

“little action to combat homophobia.”

Today, it is worth noting that the well-known campaigner, Peter Tatchell, appears to have been detained in Russia while campaigning for LGBT rights.

We received evidence of vile threats made towards LGBT football fans, warning them not to come to the World cup. Racist abuse is also common around football matches in Russia, and the FCO has warned travellers about the risks of racially-motivated attacks. Hooligan groups often have links to far-right politics. Although the United Kingdom recognises the risk to minorities, we are concerned that the FCO’s approach in this area has been overly complacent. The Foreign Office Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), offered us only vague reassurances about the Russian state’s commitment to protecting minority fans.

There is also a risk of attacks targeted against UK nationals generally. After the Salisbury incident, the Foreign Office warned travellers that heightened political tensions could lead to anti-British sentiments. It is also worth noting that, although of course the focus is on England, fans from across the United Kingdom will be going to support teams from across the world, so we are very conscious that these fans may be from any one of the nations. For these reasons, we remain concerned about the safety of all UK fans travelling to Russia.

Given the risks, we believe that it was wrong for the Russian Government to expel the officials leading on the preparations for the World cup. We are concerned that this will have hindered preparations and could put the safety of UK fans at risk. The safety of fans in the World cup is Russia’s responsibility, and the advantage that it has as a police state is, of course, that it has many policemen. Russia could choose—and can act—to protect all. The Foreign Office and other witnesses told us that they had received adequate reassurances on Russia’s ability and commitment to do that. However, it is the Committee’s view that these reassurances are undermined by Russia’s decision to expel officials before the World cup, and the general volatility of Russian-UK relations. Only recently, a message went out from a politician who is a supporter of President Putin, saying that violence is intrinsic to the Russian game. It should not be; it has no place in football. The reassurances are also undermined by many other politicians who have supported violence against the LGBT community and ethnic minorities.

There are plans for rigorous security measures and extra consular support in places where the England team will play on match days, particularly within stadiums and official fan zones. The Russian security forces are likely to take a paramilitary approach, using overwhelming numbers to prevent disorder. However, we are concerned for the safety of UK fans between match days, and for those who are not following England and who therefore may be at other stadiums.

We are also concerned for the planning of later games. I am sure that the House shares my confidence that England will progress from the group stage to the knock-outs and all the way to the final, but it was not clear to the Committee exactly what preparations had taken place for England matches beyond the group stage.

The Foreign Office told us that it would advise UK nationals not to attend the World cup if it could not guarantee their safety. Given the volatile state of UK-Russia relations, it is important that the Government are ready to give clear and unambiguous advice to UK nationals if the situation changes while they are there. If the security situation deteriorates, the Government must be prepared to act fast and decisively, possibly advising fans to stay in a location, to reach the embassy or, indeed, to leave the country. That is why it is so important that the Government can communicate with fans during the tournament. However, at the time of this report’s publication fewer than 9,000 people had signed up to the FCO’s travel alert scheme, even though 150,000 UK citizens travel to Russia each year. It is a worryingly low number, suggesting that many fans may not yet have taken the opportunity to sign up. I urge all those who are travelling to do so.

We asked the Foreign Office why its advice website, “Be on the Ball”, for those travelling to the World cup did not offer specific security information to LGBT or black, Asian and minority ethnic fans, given the extra risks that they face. We welcome the fact that, after our questioning, the Government agreed to add this advice and it is now on the website. However, the Government missed a trick by not having it on the “Be on the Ball” site in the first place.

Football fans should not be faced with a choice between missing a wonderful sporting occasion such as the World cup and travelling to countries with poor human rights records where there are high risks to fans. That is why, in principle, we welcome FIFA’s recent reforms to the bidding process for World cup hosts that place human rights requirements on countries that host the tournament. We want to see what impact these reforms have in practice. Yesterday, FIFA members selected the United States, Canada and Mexico as the 2026 World cup hosts under the new rules, and we welcome the possibility of encouraging fans to visit.

We have asked the Foreign Office to report back to us in September on how far the new conditions have served to ensure that host countries respect human rights and on what more needs to be done. Russia is an exceptional nation to be hosting the tournament and we recognise the difficulty that this has placed on the Foreign Office, so we look forward to hearing what lessons have been learnt. In that report, we would also like the Foreign Office to reflect on how successful its preparations were and to consider lessons for other large-scale events.

We wish all football fans and their hosts an enjoyable World cup. We hope to hear good news from the Foreign Office when it reports back to us in September with its assessment of how the tournament went. Of course, I wish the very best of luck to the England team when they play Tunisia on Monday. I look forward to welcoming them home with the trophy.

I am extremely grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for his statement. I propose—with the concurrence of colleagues—that questions from the Front Benchers should come at the end, so we will take Back Benchers first.

May I ask the distinguished Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee to reflect on the issues around future World cups? I was delighted to see that the Committee has asked the Government to produce documentation to go to FIFA and UEFA to see whether countries bidding for these major sporting events, including the World cup, are indeed suitable to host them. I also wish England all the very best in the World cup, partly—or maybe mainly—due to the fact that I have put some money on them. That is my Scottishness shining through. Will the Chair of the Select Committee reflect on whether the Government are doing enough to make the case—not just to UEFA and FIFA, but to other international bodies of major sporting events—that we should not be granting these major, worldwide events to countries that have problems with LGBT rights, black and ethnic minority rights, rights for women and so on?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Although we did not look specifically at FIFA’s awarding procedures for these games, we know that they are mired in controversy. We hope very much that this tournament and the Qatar award will be the end of a process that has left a stain on an international organisation that should have our full support.

The hon. Gentleman is of course right that FIFA does not stand alone on this. The International Olympic Committee, the FIA and many other international sporting bodies are set apart from the international order, in the sense that they do not really answer to any national Government. Indeed, when they arrive in a country, they often stipulate legal changes that have an impact on the host community. It is therefore even more important for host nations to be responsible nations and to recognise that civil rights are human rights that must apply universally.

That is why I repeat my deep concern at the report of the arrest of Peter Tatchell, a man who has campaigned for human rights and civil rights for many years. In a recent interview on Nick Robinson’s podcast, he said that his political motivation was one of love—love of his fellow man—and surely that should be reflected at international sporting occasions such as the World cup.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his statement and commend his Committee for its report. The report makes clear that the Government think that 10,000 British fans will travel to Russia for the World cup. My understanding is that some 1,300 travel bans have been issued to known football hooligans from this country, 11 of whom are from Northamptonshire. The report states on page 5 that the Russian authorities have published a list of only 450 Russian fans who are banned from attending official sports competitions. Given the relative populations of Russia and the United Kingdom, does he share my concern that the Russian authorities do not have the same grip on potential hooliganism that we do in this country?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right. As usual, in his assiduous reading of Committee reports, he has put his finger on the heart of the problem. In reality, we have very little confidence that the Russian authorities wish to either deter hooliganism or stop others from encouraging it, as we have seen politicians do. This is a matter of great concern, because as we have seen time and again, Russia’s form of justice is not one that we recognise in this country. The potential harm to fans travelling from the UK or anywhere else in the world is very real, and the willingness to deter it seems to be very low.

I am grateful to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for his statement, and I extend my best wishes to the UK embassy team in Russia, who undoubtedly have a huge job ahead of them over the next few weeks. Having seen what they did in Ukraine for the one-off football match, I am sure that they will be putting lots into it. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of what extra resources the embassy and consular teams in Russia were given by the FCO, and can he adumbrate that if so?

The hon. Gentleman talked about the FCO not putting advice on the website for LGBT travellers until it was asked to do so. Why was it not forthcoming in doing that in the first instance, given the obvious dangers that such people may well face? Will he facilitate through his offices and resources any post-World cup briefings with the Foreign Office and perhaps the Russian embassy, our embassy teams out in Russia and organisations such as FIFA and UEFA?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his extremely well-made points. We have looked at the resourcing, and there was an increase in resourcing for the embassy in Russia. We welcome the efforts of the Foreign Secretary in doing that, but he was—one must be fair to him—restricted by the expulsions that followed the attempted murder of two people in Salisbury, which has hindered the FCO’s ability to support so many fans. However, that should not be an excuse, and it is not.

We look forward to hearing what the Foreign Office tells us afterwards and to hosting various groups—UK, Russian and international—that have been involved in this, to hear how the World cup went and how such events can be improved. As with all Select Committee proceedings, the hon. Gentleman will be enormously welcome to attend that. As he knows, his hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) is a strong advocate for those interests on the Committee.

I congratulate the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee on his statement and the report, but may I express my disappointment that the English football team have not joined Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in boycotting the World cup in Russia? May I also invite him to congratulate the Welsh women’s football team, who defeated Russia 3-0 earlier in the week? If they get a result against England later in August, they will qualify for the women’s World cup.

I find it difficult to add anything other than congratulations to the Welsh women on defeating Russia. I firmly anticipate that the English men will emulate that in their very best traditions as soon as they get the chance.

I thank Committee members and the Chair for putting an excellent and comprehensive report together. Despite the expulsions that have taken place, is he comfortable that there are sufficient consular staff to meet the needs? If not, will he have discussions with the FCO team to ensure that there are? I hope that the England team will do excellently and come back with the cup.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He raises some important questions on staffing numbers for the consular support being offered to fans. The Committee has highlighted the mobile consular sections—the mobile embassies, if you like—that will be going to England games. We have also recognised that those will not be going to all stadiums, and therefore fans from the United Kingdom supporting other teams will find it hard, or rather harder, to access assistance. We have been assured by the Foreign Office that staffing is adequate, and we look forward to seeing the report afterwards that evaluates where staffing was best placed and whether it could be improved.

May I add my very best wishes to the England team? In the format of these proceedings, I will ask some questions on this timely and excellent report.

Can I confirm that the Select Committee have been informed that Russia recently issued temporary visas for UK consular and liaison staff and UK police officers, which means that British embassy officials and UK police will be in every city in which England play? Additional staff will be based in Gdansk, Riga and Vilnius, where some British fans will be based.

Does the Chair of the Committee acknowledge the fact that there will be 24-hour assistance for fans travelling from the UK, from the British embassy in Moscow or the Foreign Office switchboard in London? Does he agree that the “Be on the Ball” website has been updated to reflect his Committee’s recommendations, and that it is a very informative source of detailed information for anyone thinking of travelling to Russia? I hope he will join me in urging colleagues to point any constituents who are thinking of travelling to Russia to that website.

Finally, I encourage all Members who are interested in this topic and have constituents who are travelling to Russia to acknowledge that since we last publicised the number of people who have signed up to Twitter travel alerts, it has increased substantially to more than 11,000 people? That is the best way to get regular updated advice. We continue to believe that about 10,000 British nationals will travel to Russia for the World cup. Will the Chair join me in repeating the recommendation that people sign up to that, and also do not forget to buy their travel insurance?

The Minister has made some extremely valid points. The fundamental point she makes is that it is not just up to the FCO. Everybody has an individual responsibility to make sure they are plugged into the systems being offered by Her Majesty’s Government, and it is essential to do that in advance. The first thing to do is to register for travel advice alerts and check the information available on the “Be on the Ball” website.