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Racism in Sport

Volume 813: debated on Tuesday 13 July 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the recent racist abuse directed towards members of the England football team, what action they are taking to tackle racism in sport.

My Lords, I take this opportunity to thank the England team, not only for what they achieved during the European Cup, but the manner in which they achieved it. It was a magnificent performance, which raised the spirits of the whole nation. What followed in terms of racist abuse is wholly unacceptable. The Government have been working with the football community to address this problem. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has held talks with a number of footballers and other sports people to hear first-hand the appalling abuse suffered. The Online Safety Bill will address the racist abuse of footballers online, including anonymous abuse.

In praising quite rightly, the brilliant leadership of Gareth Southgate and the inspirational England team, will the Minister join me in calling out those who dismissed taking the knee against racism as gesture politics or those who refused to condemn fans booing the players? As the Minister says, we are all disgusted and condemn the appalling racist abuse of Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford. But people are also furious—they are demanding action now from the Government. How are the Government going to force social media companies to act now? Promises have been made before, yet we are still waiting. Why are we not seeing more prosecutions? This activity is illegal offline, so it must be illegal online. We would not stand for it on the street.

Has the Minister had discussions with government colleagues, the police, the CPS and others demanding that these racists—whatever we want to call them—are prosecuted and do not hide behind anonymity? Will the Minister agree with me that the Government urgently need to set out a series of practical steps outlining action before the next England game? Will she join me in saying that that will happen? Action, not words, is the call from the British public.

I thank the noble Lord for the focus on action, because that is exactly where the Government are looking. In response to the various points he raised, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has already met with the policing Minister to review what further steps can be taken, including any additional protection for the players that the noble Lord referred to. In terms of leadership on this issue, the Prime Minister has been absolutely clear that people should feel free to show their respect and condemn racism in whatever way they choose. In terms of next steps, I have already talked about the Online Safety Bill. We have also recently launched safety by design guidance and made a substantial investment in safetech.

While thanking the Minister for her assurances, can she tell us now exactly what the duties of the online platforms which carried the abuse will be under the new Bill? What sanctions will they face if they do not fulfil these duties?

The Bill will create a regulatory framework which applies to all platforms whatever their size in relation to illegal online abuse and, particularly for the largest platforms, to harmful but legal content. We fully expect that racism and racist abuse will be a priority category. In terms of sanctions, there are fines of up to 10% of global turnover, blocking of sites and, indeed, potentially criminal sanctions for the leadership of those businesses.

My Lords, I too thank the England team and its manager Gareth Southgate for providing so much joy for millions during the Euro football championship. Does the Minister agree with me that not only must the deluge of racist abuse towards black players be condemned and perpetrators brought to justice but it should not be fuelled in the first place by politicians, some of whom, if we are honest, in effect encouraged fans to boo the national team—a brilliant team that took a collective stand in taking the knee against the very racism that the black players were subject to after Sunday’s defeat?

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord about the appalling deluge of abuse that the players suffered. I have already, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, set out exactly what the Prime Minister has said on this matter. The other thing that is very clear is that there is a yawning gap between what social media companies say they do on their sites and what all our experiences are—including, particularly in this case, the players affected.

My Lords, these are not football supporters. They are sick. They are scum. They are cowards because they hide behind the anonymity of social media, which clearly have been incapable of putting their own house in order. I support the Government in their efforts to bring social media to their senses. We have friends in the social media world. Could our colleagues in this House, who know him so well—the Liberal Democrats, for instance—draw to the attention of Nick Clegg the difference between his previous principles and his current position? Surely he should be encouraged to take a lead and do so much more in fighting this sort of racism and bring us back to the position where we can get on with the beauty of the English game.

My noble friend is absolutely right. Social media companies follow every aspect of our lives and I think we are all surprised that they could not have anticipated better some of the events that have occurred in the last 48 hours. The Online Safety Bill will specifically address issues around anonymity.

My Lords, I welcome and endorse the tribute paid by the Minister and my noble friend Lord Coaker to Gareth Southgate and the England team. They are genuine role models in whom we can all take a great sense of pride. The Minister will recall that she answered an Oral Question from me on this subject on 23 March. She said:

“The police already have a range of legal powers to identify individuals who attempt to use anonymity to escape sanctions for online abuse.”

May I ask her what those sanctions are and what progress has been made in making football a specific priority in the hate crime unit looking at online discrimination against protected characteristics, as specified under the Equality Act 2010? She spoke about imposing a duty of care on social media companies with

“clear systems of user redress and strong enforcement powers from Ofcom.”—[Official Report, 23/3/21; col. 724)

I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord but half the time for this PNQ has already lapsed and we need to make more progress.

I am happy to write to the noble Lord and address any other points that he wishes to make. The Investigatory Powers Act allows police to acquire communications data such as an email address and the location of the device from which illegal anonymous abuse is sent, which can be used as evidence in court. We hope that this will act as a clear deterrent in future.

My Lords, like my grandsons and my granddaughter, I loved every England game. For me, football did come home to unify a divided nation, which stood with the profoundly thoughtful leadership of Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane and with magnificent players like Shaw, Grealish, Saka, Rashford, Sancho, Mount, and the man of many matches, Raheem Sterling.

Given their and our message that there is no place in our sports or institutions for racism and Islamophobia, with hindsight, does the Prime Minister regret his divisive and disrespectful comments? Will the Minister say what additional action the PM and the Government are taking to eradicate institutionalised structural racism and Islamophobia and its devastating impact in all aspects of our conduct and policy? They should take a leaf out of the England team’s efforts—

I can only repeat to the noble Baroness that the Government have been absolutely clear that racism is unacceptable online or offline and that we respect people’s choice to condemn racism in whichever way they feel is right.

My Lords, may I ask the Government to consider legislation to the express effect that racism in sport should be an aggravated crime, thereby allowing greater powers in sentencing?

The noble Lord will be aware that racism is already an aggravating factor in many crimes. I am happy to take his suggestion back to the department.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a director of Carlisle United Football Club, where we are all simply appalled by the racist abuse. The Times today suggests in a leader that this is not solely a British problem. Therefore, will Her Majesty’s Government raise it at the international forum to see whether we can help solve it? Domestically, when discussing this problem with the football authorities, will they include a relatively new body, Fair Game, which is composed largely of lower league clubs and will offer a different perspective?

The Government are determined to do everything within their power to stamp out the awful racism that we saw. Obviously, it is an extremely long-standing problem and one that extends across the world. We will use every opportunity to address it.

Surely the Government can see that when senior politicians, such as our Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for the Home Office, make dog-whistle comments and do not slap down racism, the Cabinet and Government themselves have a problem.

I do not accept what the noble Baroness says. I have quoted twice now what the Prime Minister has said, which has been crystal clear on this subject. The Home Secretary has also been clear that there is no place for racism in this country, and she knows very well from her own experience.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Football Association. I am delighted to hear what is going to be done about social media; it is going to have to be enforced. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, that the people displaying their hooliganism and racism are scum; they have nothing to do with England or its football team.

As chairman of the FA I sought legislation that would enable us to ban for life—one strike and they are out—anybody convicted of any of these crimes from every football ground in the United Kingdom: no excuses, no second chances. Would the Government support that?

The Government are well aware that football banning orders can have a great effect on those implicated. This is one thing we are looking at.

I proposed six weeks ago to the Secretary of State that the Football Spectators Act 1989 be amended to include online hatred. Can the Government do that in advance of the online harms Bill? A simple amendment to that Act would give far greater powers for dealing with this problem.

The noble Lord is very familiar with the approach we are taking to address online harms, which we hope will be comprehensive and effective. I will take his suggestion back to the department, but I cannot reassure him today at the Dispatch Box whether we can progress it.

My Lords, I recognise this is outwith the Minister’s brief, but does she agree that we must now include specific anti-racist teaching in the curriculum for initial teacher education and in the national curriculum, given that racism in sport reflects racism in society at large?

The noble Baroness is right; it is outwith my brief. What I will say is that the Government take incredibly seriously the racist behaviour we have seen in this case but also, sadly, in others. I agree that thinking about how children grow up and their expectations is really important.

My Lords, it is intolerable that the slightest excuse or whim, such as the missing of a penalty, can result in the raining down of racial abuse on social media against young sportsmen representing their country at the highest level. Does the Minister agree that this clearly illustrates the importance of removing anonymity for those who peddle racial and other hate speech on such platforms?

The noble Lord will be aware of some of the issues around anonymity. It is important that platforms—and this will be required in the Bill—have a functionality that does not allow anonymous users, or those using pseudonyms or multiple different names, to perpetrate their hateful abuse online.