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Football: Racism

Volume 800: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2019


My Lords, I would like to repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place on the subject of racism in football. The Answer was as follows:

“Thank you, Mr Speaker. Like Members of the House, I was appalled by the disgusting racist abuse encountered by the England football team in Bulgaria last night. Whether they are a player, a manager or a supporter, no participant in sport should have to tolerate discrimination of any kind. I would like to pay tribute to the leadership shown by Gareth Southgate and his coaching team, as well as to our players for how they conducted themselves in appalling circumstances. I have spoken to the Football Association to express my support.

We have made progress in this country to combat discrimination in our domestic game and make our stadia more welcoming places to be. The Government are supporting a number of anti-racism initiatives, including the Premier League’s “No Room for Racism” campaign and the “Show Racism the Red Card” and “Kick It Out” campaigns, all of which have achieved a great deal in this area. In February this year, my department held a summit on discrimination with a range of bodies acting within football but we cannot be complacent and must remain a leading voice on this issue internationally. International competitions should bring cultures and countries together and, while it was a step in the right direction to see the protocol engaged last night, it is clear that much more needs to be done to stamp racism out of the game”.

My Lords, I am grateful for that response. What contrasting images, on two successive days, between typhoon-struck Japan on the rugby field and these disgraceful exhibitions of racism on the football field in Sofia. Of course, the vocabulary available to us for condemning this must be used properly and powerfully. I wonder whether it is not the outbreak of something that lurks beneath the surface and is therefore much more widely worrying than simply what happens on the football field. That gives a sense of urgency to our need to respond. I note that the Bulgarian Prime Minister has spoken out and that, subsequently, the president of the Bulgarian Football Union has resigned. Clearly, within Bulgaria there is feeling about this too. Perhaps we should try to keep our diplomatic channels open and our arms outreached to embrace the positive side of Bulgarian society, as well as being critical of the damning and damnable incidents that we have all been witness to.

I thank the noble Lord for his reflections. Like him, we welcome the positive action that was taken so promptly by the Bulgarian Government last night and note the resignation of the president of the Bulgarian FA. The noble Lord is right that there are wider forces at work here. We have worked for a long time to try to stamp out racism in all parts of our society, but particularly in football, and we continue to be vigilant.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for the sentiments she expressed. It took concerted action by both the football authorities and the Government to clean up the game here to the extent that we have. What steps are being taken to get the Governments of all the UEFA countries to take action together to make sure racism is not tolerated, so that there is consistency of action across the piece?

I thank the noble Lord. In response, I repeat the spirit of the comments made by my honourable friend in the other place. He is open to meetings and to supporting every effort in this area. We are clear that the football authorities need to be in the lead in solving this but, as the noble Lord noted, Governments can be useful in supporting them. My honourable friend the Minister is committed to doing that.

My Lords, it is 19 years since I took legislation through this House to tackle racism and hooliganism in our stadia. Will the Minister now look again at the legislation and consider making racist chanting and other racist behaviour in stadia a more severe and aggravated offence? Will she also press ministerial colleagues to ensure that international standards on this subject are raised and brought in line with those in this country? We have led the way in tackling these issues.

That was before my time, but I commend the noble Lord for the work he led in this area. I am happy to take away his suggestions and consider them. The Government have been active in trying to work with the football authorities; we met them in February this year. Actions were published in July, and we are keen to see how those translate into practice.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the only route out of this discrimination is through education and information? We have made great progress in this country; I welcome developments in Bulgaria. On education, does the Minister agree that we should support head teachers and teachers whether they are working in Bulgaria or Birmingham?

The noble Lord is right that education is an important part of this, and it is included in some of the proposals the football authorities published in July, as well as improving reporting systems, better training and support for referees and stewards and improved use of CCTV. It is not one single thing that will address this but a combination.

My Lords, watching the television footage of the Bulgaria match, it was obvious that one could identify the faces of many of the culprits. What action is going to be taken against those individuals? If my noble friend does not know, perhaps she could make inquiries. Are we going to see the same people turn up at football matches elsewhere? It was quite obvious that they were not there for the football.

I do not have a specific answer to my noble friend’s question, but I will inquire and write to her.

My Lords, we have to be careful that we do not become too complacent. Those of us who continue to love football, who go to matches even when they are terrible, know that this is still an issue in this country. We have none the less the richest league in the world—the Premier League—and it could and should be doing far more, influencing what is going on internationally but also working not just through Premier League clubs but throughout the Football League, with grass-roots clubs that are struggling to survive and do not have the money for education and training programmes and so on. Is it not about time that the Government made it clear to groups such as the Premier League that they have a responsibility and cannot let us down by pushing it off?

The Government have made it very clear how strongly they feel about these issues. We believe that the football authorities should be in the lead in delivering on this, but there was a renewed commitment this morning from the Minister to make sure that that happens as quickly and effectively as possible.

My Lords, it is very clear that what we saw in that match yesterday is just part of a much wider issue around the rise of far-right fascism in eastern European countries. Are the Government paying attention to that, and to the context in which this particular phenomenon in football fits in?

I think the Government and noble Lords are aware of the rise of far-right extremism. Sadly, that has certainly come through in statistics in our own country. We are working extremely hard to counter it.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that this is not just about football or one country? We are seeing a growth of extremist views and ideologies across our societies that harm us all. What is required is not simply to condemn them but to see a renaissance of international leadership on behalf of the values and standards we have long held dear and for which those who went before us fought and died. If she agrees, from whence does she think such international leadership might spring?

My view is that one should always start with oneself; we can all play a part in that leadership. I hear the concern of both the noble and gallant Lord and the right reverend Prelate about what is happening more broadly in our society. I absolutely acknowledge that, but would temper it with the importance of celebrating some of the extraordinary work going on at a local level to bridge those divides, both between faith communities and across other divides. We need to keep some balance in this narrative.

My Lords, to return to the point made by my noble friend Lord Addington, it is generally recognised that UEFA has been pretty spineless in dealing with incidents of this kind. Might I respectfully suggest that the Minister approach her colleague the Minister for Sport and seek a direct audience with UEFA senior officials to encourage them to take exactly the kind of approach to incidents of this kind which public opinion in this country undoubtedly deserves?

My understanding is that my honourable friend the Minister is writing or has written to UEFA and is open to a meeting if that is what is requested.