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Historical Discrimination in Boxing

Volume 715: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2022

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

I will call Gerald Jones to move the motion and then I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered historical discrimination in boxing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. Keen observers of proceedings in this House will be forgiven for thinking that this is not the first time I have led a debate on historical discrimination in boxing. For those who might not be glued to proceedings in this place, I will recap.

Cuthbert Taylor is a local sporting legend in my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. An amateur and then a professional boxer, he had over 500 bouts in a career lasting almost 20 years between 1928 and 1947, many in his native Merthyr Tydfil and across south Wales, but also across the United Kingdom and Europe. He was knocked out only once in his entire career. Justifiably, Cuthbert Taylor was once described as “the best in Europe”.

In 1927 he won the flyweight championship title. He defended the title in 1928, when he also became British amateur flyweight champion. That same year, he represented Great Britain at the Amsterdam summer Olympics, reaching the quarter-final stage in the flyweight category. He was the first black boxer to represent Britain at the Olympics. Although well known by some in his hometown of Merthyr Tydfil, and despite a very successful and exciting career, Cuthbert Taylor never got the same recognition on a national or international stage as other boxers. That was because of one simple thing: the colour of his skin.

Cuthbert Taylor was born in 1909 in Georgetown, Merthyr Tydfil, to parents of different ethnic backgrounds. His father, also named Cuthbert and formerly a notable amateur boxer in Liverpool, was of Caribbean descent. His mother, Margaret, was white Welsh. Cuthbert Taylor was judged at the time to be

“not white enough to be British”

by the British Boxing Board of Control, and he was prevented from ever challenging for a British title or a world title professionally by the body’s colour bar rule.

I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman before about this. There is a modern-day example, which I feel quite concerned about. I have written to the Secretary of State and I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman about Rhys McClenaghan in my constituency. He is a superb gymnast who is up against discrimination; it is similar to what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. He has been made aware that he is unable to compete in the Commonwealth games for Northern Ireland because he has previously represented Ireland, as is his right under the Belfast agreement. Cuthbert Taylor deserves an apology, but does the hon. Member agree that Rhys McClenaghan needs immediate action as well?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is important that all forms of discrimination, particularly in sport, are not allowed to go unchallenged. I wish him well with his campaign.

The colour bar rule was in place between 1911 and 1948. It stated that fighters had to have two white parents to compete for professional titles. Due simply to the fact that his parents were of different ethnic backgrounds, Cuthbert Taylor would never have the professional recognition and success that his remarkable talent deserved. That was all because of a rule that left a stain on the history of one of our country’s most popular and traditional sports—one that has otherwise been known for bringing together people from many different backgrounds and communities.

The colour bar rule serves as an uncomfortable reminder of a very different time. Although we cannot go back and give Cuthbert Taylor the professional titles and success that his career deserved, we can ensure that he has true and just recognition for his talent and abilities, and that his name is not forgotten in boxing history merely because of the colour of his skin.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I want to mention Len Johnson, the famous Manchester boxer, who held a British Empire middleweight title. He was known for his exceptional boxing skills, and he also campaigned for racial equality and against the shameful colour bar, which applied in some pubs in Manchester. Will my hon. Friend and the Minister join me in recognising Len Johnson’s contribution to British boxing, sports, and his campaign for racial equality and dignity for everyone?

It is important that we recognise how bad the colour bar rule was, even though it was many years ago. Even at that time, it should not have caused discrimination to people in sport and across our communities. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

It is a sad fact, but there is no doubt that had Cuthbert Taylor had two white parents, instead of one, he would have gone on to challenge for British and world boxing titles, and he may well have been successful. His is by no means an isolated case in British boxing, as we have heard, let alone in other sports. Many black or mixed-race British fighters in that period were held back by the racism of the colour bar rule.

Cuthbert Taylor’s family still live in Merthyr Tydfil, and for many years they have been campaigning for an apology from the British Boxing Board of Control for the injustices of the colour bar rule. After previous debates, some have argued that such apologies are merely gimmicks—pointless, empty gestures—but I could not disagree more. Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Shamefully, however, the British Boxing Board of Control has refused to engage on this issue with the family, with me as the local MP, and with the Minister. After debates and questions in this House, countless stories in the press and personal correspondence from families of the victims of the colour bar rule and MPs, I had hoped that the British Boxing Board of Control would do the right thing and offer a long-overdue apology. Its intransigence only compounds the historical wrong of the colour bar rule and its effect on the families of its victims.

British boxing today is a wholly different sport. It is inclusive, and a showcase for a diverse, modern Britain. However, as long as the boxing authority refuses to acknowledge the sins of the past, this stain will remain, not just for the families but for Britain as a whole. I hope the Minister will join me in calling on the British Boxing Board of Control to engage with Cuthbert Taylor’s family and me, and right this historical wrong.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for securing a debate on this subject again. I also thank those who participated in it. We last discussed historical discrimination in boxing in October 2020, but I warmly welcome the opportunity to revisit the topic today for the reasons the hon. Gentleman outlined.

I fully appreciate the frustration the hon. Gentleman feels in his ongoing campaign for an apology for the discrimination faced by Cuthbert Taylor and other boxers, including Len Johnson—mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra)—Dick Turpin and others, all of whom were denied the opportunity to fight for a British title between 1911 and 1948 simply because of their race. I applaud the efforts of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney to commemorate Cuthbert with a plaque, which was unveiled in October 2021.

I should say at the beginning, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s request that I write again to the BBBofC for an apology, that I will be happy to do so. I am somewhat disappointed, as he is, that he has not received the response that he would have liked, so I will put in that request again. This is a very important topic.

I recognise, of course, that some of the institutions and bodies with responsibility for boxing are now different from the entities that existed at that time. However, sport needs to look back on its history, and those entities—whatever they are—need to acknowledge past events and take some responsibility for them, although we recognise that the people in charge now are not the people who were in charge then, and that the world is different. We think differently and things have moved on, but stories like Cuthbert’s should not be forgotten. They are part of our social history, and as we noted before and has been highlighted again today, the history of boxing contains fascinating tales of triumph and defeat. It also tells us much about social trends, norms and prejudices of the past. Sport is an integral part of our national life, and we should not be surprised that it often reflects the values of the time—values that are not necessarily shared today.

By modern standards, the prohibition that was in place in the early part of the last century was blatantly racist. We must not brush uncomfortable truths about past discrimination under the carpet; we owe it to those who suffered to understand what they went through, in order to learn from the past and make sure that future generations do not have to go through the same painful experiences. I want sport to be welcoming to everyone and a reflection of our diverse society.

Today, boxing is one of our most diverse sports, and some of our highest-profile sporting stars are boxers from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Boxing has made great progress across other aspects of diversity, too, with its great reach into deprived communities, inclusive boxing hubs for people with a range of health conditions, and the nurturing of female boxing talent. Women’s boxing, in particular, has gone from strength to strength since Nicola Adams won the first female Olympic boxing gold in London in 2012. The recent fight between Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano at Madison Square Garden in front of a 20,000-strong fan base has been lauded as the greatest women’s boxing fight in history. That incredible encounter lived up to all the hype and showed sport at its best.

For a long time, though, women were barred from boxing competitions. It was not until 1997—so very recently—that the British Amateur Boxing Association sanctioned its first boxing competition for women, and the BBBofC sanctioned the first domestic professional fight the following year. As we know, women’s boxing only fully entered the Olympic games in 2012, so change can be slow to happen, but women’s boxing appears to be on a clear upward trajectory, and long may that continue. We want to help the sport nurture the next superstars of the future and give everyone the opportunity to take part, no matter their background. That is why we continue to support our elite boxers through UK Sport funding. We also support community boxing clubs across the country through Sport England funding and the National Lottery Community Fund.

I welcome the Minister’s comments regarding inclusion, particularly in boxing. He and I discussed the ongoing racism scandal in cricket when I tabled an urgent question a few months ago, and I thought the Government were reasonable on the matter, but did not go far enough. Will the Minister comment on current issues, such as the lack of progress for men and women of colour in cricket, and the long-standing issues with governance in that sport? I take his points about football, and I welcome them.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his ongoing interest in this matter. I will come on to some of those points in a moment—it relates to some other sports and I do not want to test the Chair’s patience by diverging too far from the topic of the debate—but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Entities, particularly those that receive Government funding or public money in some way, shape or form, such as through Sport England, have an obligation and a duty—a requirement, in fact—to make sure that they are truly open to all, not discriminating and making efforts to be inclusive. If they are not, they will not and should not get public money. Of course, many other sports are private entities and self-organising bodies, but we still expect them to put in place parameters and governance structures through their governing bodies to do the same things—to be inclusive and open to all.

We have seen some very unfortunate, high-profile incidents in certain sports recently that have let everybody down. They should not taint everybody involved in those sports. We all know that sport is a great unifier and can bring people together in a way that very few other things can. Some of the incidents are extremely worrying, but they should not taint everybody, because a lot of people work day in, day out in all sports across the country to be inclusive. Those people have been somewhat disappointed by incidents they have seen happen in their own sports, because they are working day in, day out to do the exact opposite of what they are seeing in the newspapers and on television.

We should not underestimate the incidents that have happened—unfortunately, particularly in cricket. We are keeping a close eye on it, as is the whole House. We have had multiple debates and will continue to do so, because we expect and need further change. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Stockport. I will continue with my speech, because his point is very much the theme of my next few pages.

Sport does not need to rest on its laurels. We must take steps to ensure that discrimination and inequality are identified and addressed. Like many sports, boxing continues to look at what more it can do to promote inclusion and diversity. England Boxing published the results of its equality, diversity and race review in January this year. The report made a number of recommendations around training, leadership and culture, all of which England Boxing is implementing. I am pleased to see the sport engage with the issues in that way.

We know that it is not only boxing that is facing these challenges. In June 2021, Sport England, UK Sport and the other home nations’ sports councils published the results of a detailed, independent review into tackling racism and racial inequality in sport. The review brought together data and gathered lived experiences of racial inequalities and racism in the sector. The findings make clear that racism and racial inequalities still exist within sport in the UK—it is sad that I have to say that. These are long-standing issues that have resulted in ethnically diverse communities being consistently disadvantaged.

The sports councils agreed on a set of overarching commitments that they will work on together, relating to people, representation, investment, systems and insights. Updates on progress are being provided every six months, and I am keen to ensure this momentum is sustained over the long term. In addition, last year, Sport England and UK Sport published an updated version of the code for sports governance that sets the standards all sporting organisations must meet in return for public funding. As I said, if they are not performing in that way, they should not receive public funding.

The code has proved successful in setting clear expectations around good governance and diversity since its launch in 2017. However, four years on, I called on the two sports councils to review the code with a particular focus on equality and diversity, and that is what they have delivered. The updated code places an increased focus on diversity in decision making and on ensuring that sports organisations reflect the community they serve.

The code now requires sports organisations to produce individual diversity and inclusion action plans. These have to be agreed by Sport England and/or UK Sport, published and updated annually. This process, combined with support provided by the sports councils along the way, will help sports set clear ambitions for improving diversity and inclusion throughout their organisations, and not just at the senior board level.

The Government feel strongly about diversity of representation and thought, and I hope the changes in the code will help the sport sector become even stronger in that respect. Diversity and inclusion are essential to sport. We want people to enjoy taking part in their chosen activity, and we want to attract and retain talented athletes. That cannot happen if people do not feel welcome or respected.

It should go without saying that there is no place for racism, sexism, homophobia or any other kind of discrimination in sport, and we continue to work with our sports councils, sport governing bodies and others to ensure everyone feels welcomed and can enjoy sport. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney has raised many important points today, and I thank him for his ongoing interest and passion for this subject. History cannot be changed. For Cuthbert Taylor, and many others like him, nothing can bring back the chance to fight for a British title. We must acknowledge the past and learn for the future. I have made the BBBofC aware of this debate, and I will also write another letter.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised a point about the situation we have with the Commonwealth Games and gymnastics—I am aware of the situation. The sports team at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth Games Federation are in discussions with the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique to make it aware of the sensitivities and concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We are engaged in constructive dialogue, and I continue to appeal to FIG to change its decision because, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is inconsistent with existing agreements. I hope FIG will understand that.

I want to thank both the Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who I know is directly involved in this matter. We hope that the combination of all of us together—MPs, the Secretary of State and the Minister—can make the difference. It is central to the Belfast agreement, so I cannot understand why the issue has not been addressed. I am hopeful that the endeavours of the Minister and others will make a difference. If the Minister does not mind, I would like to be kept aware of what is going on.

I absolutely commit to making sure that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are aware of the situation. We have respectfully appealed and provided the full information, background and sensitivities regarding those three athletes. We all want them to compete and to proudly represent Northern Ireland—that is what they want to do. This issue is somewhat unique to gymnastics, because no other sport seems to have taken that approach. We are respectfully asking FIG to reconsider the situation and I will keep the hon. Gentleman informed of developments.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak today and I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney for securing this debate. I will do what I can to ensure that the BBBofC hears what we have said today.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.