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Professional Wrestling: Event Licensing and Guidance

Volume 733: debated on Wednesday 7 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of professional wrestling event licensing and guidance.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts. The all-party parliamentary group on wrestling is without a doubt one of the most joyous and exciting in this institution. I am proud to be an active vice-chair, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher)—our co-chairs—and to our group secretary, Danny Stone. They have brought serious and appropriate discussion of wrestling into this place, where too often in the past it was mocked.

Among our number we have fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, All Elite Wrestling, Impact, New Japan Pro-Wrestling and, most importantly, British promotions such as the all-women show EVE, PROGRESS, Revolution Pro Wrestling, NORTH, TNT and Renaissance, as well as start-ups such as the all-new women’s promotion, Galzilla, which literally hatched from an egg on the stage at the amazing Wrestival festival in London this year. Those wrestling promotions span the country, as do wrestling schools. In my constituency of Warrington North, we have our own wrestling academy, the Warrington Wrestling Academy, and I look forward to many Warringtonians making their way to the major leagues in years to come.

Fans often remark that, in the UK, one could go to a wrestling event nearly every night of the week, if one wanted to do so, and pack out the weekends with entertainment. Shows run in schools, gyms, entertainment venues and even fields. Of course, to run events safely and to a standard, there is a licensing requirement—or at least there should be.

In April 2021, the APPG released what constitutes the first ever thorough, systemic parliamentary analysis of wrestling. One of its key themes is the categorisation of wrestling as either theatre or sport. That might appear a simple matter, but wrestling involves serious athleticism alongside dramatic performance. There are competitions, albeit predetermined ones. Both Sport England and Arts Council England have funded wrestling, but neither particularly wants the responsibility of being a home for English wrestlers or wrestling.

Our APPG took the view—a novel one, I think—that for wrestling schools, the designation should be sporting, whereas promotions should be classed as theatrical. As the report made clear, defining promotions as theatrical entertainment opens up conversations about licensing, representation, governance, and improved policies and procedures. On the matter of policies and procedures, we were pleased to work recently with Loughborough University, with support from the PlayFight wrestling school, on the first ever parliamentary conference on wrestling, and we are developing a guide to better practice, which we hope will be informed by those in the industry, to help others across the British wrestling world.

We were told during the all-party group’s inquiry that the lack of a definition, whether as sport or art, created a minefield when it came to insurance and licensing. We have concerns that for promotions, the licensing system may still be somewhat of a minefield, particularly when people are navigating different licensing schemes. We know for certain that there are issues in this wholly unregulated industry. Concerns were raised with us about poor or, in some cases, illegal practices, ranging from tax malpractice and fraud to dangerous health and safety arrangements and sexual harassment. We were repeatedly warned about a lack of adequate medical supplies and supervision. The inquiry received one submission that drew on a wider understanding of promotions in the north of England and suggested that expertise to identify and treat injuries was “only intermittently present” at shows.

I am particularly grateful to Professor Claire Warden at Loughborough for her insights. She highlighted how the approaches of local councils can differ remarkably in just a few miles, even if the language used in licensing forms is similar. In Leicester, for instance, wrestling is considered “regulated entertainment”—in itself interesting, given the wholly unregulated nature of wrestling in actuality—alongside the performance of a play, exhibition or music, or an indoor sporting event. Boxing is the only sport mentioned on the list.

In Nottingham, wrestling is licensed under the “regulated entertainment” classification, but with a caveat that, although no licence is required for Greco-Roman or freestyle, combined fighting sports are licensable as boxing or wrestling entertainment, rather than an indoor sporting event. Similarly, Derby City Council, which has a whole section on boxing, wrestling and fighting sports, seems to compare wrestling to mixed martial arts rather than theatre.

Manchester thinks about numbers, acknowledging that a licence is not required for a play, dance, film, indoor sporting event or, indeed, boxing or wrestling, defined as a

“contest, exhibition or display of Greco-Roman wrestling or freestyle wrestling between 8am and 11pm,”

where attendance is 1,000 or fewer. By including the sense that wrestling might be a “display” rather than a contest, it opens up potential for confusion about whether professional wrestling is included. Surely all Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling is a contest, as that is what actively defines them as different from professional wrestling.

There are difficulties, too, in other areas. I appreciate that this is a devolved matter, but we are told it can be difficult to run shows in Edinburgh, for example, because wrestling is classed as sport for licensing purposes, and therefore performances in theatres and other venues can apparently be very difficult.

What that means in actuality is confusion and potentially dangerous situations. There are examples of licensing schemes causing problems. In Derby, one venue had a licence for live music and sports events, but the council required a temporary licence for wrestling, which was seen as separate from sport. The council refused the licence to the venue, owing to fears about congestion—notably, not about safety or the suitability of the athletes or venue.

Another interesting story emerged in 2011, when the Royal Albert Hall, a venue famous for holding wrestling shows since the beginning of professional wrestling, faced local opposition to its request to add boxing and wrestling to the list of permitted activities. The complaints seemed entirely focused on

“problems with antisocial behaviour, public safety, noise and disturbance, and degradation of the surrounding area.”

Again, safety was not mentioned, but there was the sense, as there is so often, that wrestling appeals to people less socially acceptable to residents than, say, Proms-goers.

A similar opinion seems to be held by residents around Headingley in Leeds, despite the fact that it is a sporting venue. In that case, the council’s licensing committee unanimously refused the application, saying that the event was

“very different in nature and duration to rugby matches held regularly at the venue.”

Wrestling Resurgence, a midlands-based promoter, sent us the various procedures it puts in place when obtaining a licence from Nottingham City Council—specifically, that a medic must be present—but argued that

“some form of ‘fit and proper persons’ test should be in place for prospective promotions, similar to ownership tests in football, or that at minimum some basic standardised requirements put in place.”

The company highlighted the disparity in licensing requirements, saying:

“In Nottingham, where we run events, it is a requirement that wrestling event organisers ensure a medical professional is present at all times during a performance. This is something that is not required in Leicester.”

We certainly think that medics are a must, but, as Wresting Resurgence says,

“A national approach to licensing would be very welcomed.”

It is quite right—it would.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and I am proud that she is the vice-chair of the APPG that I proudly co-chair. On Monday, I attended a very special conference at Loughborough University with Professor Claire Warden, focusing on concussion in professional wrestling. The point about licensing was raised time and again, as was the utmost importance of having a registered professional medic available at events. That should be part of the requirements, given the nature of the sector and performances, because concussion is likely. That is why such provisions are vital. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I could not agree more. I know that British wrestling is doing a lot of work with the Rugby Football League, for example, on concussion protocols. Unfortunately, despite the pre-determined nature of what happens in a wrestling ring, injuries and accidents are common, so medics should be there to make sure that such risks can be mitigated as far as possible.

The evidence I mentioned fed into the APPG’s inquiry and our recommendation that:

“For any sized promotion, having even limited safety measures in place should be part of the key requirements for running an event, either through requirements to use council property, the TENs licence or a governing body and in the absence of the latter, we recommend that the Home Office brings forward proposals to broaden TENs licence guidance to include health and safety and other minimum standards protocols for wrestling suppliers. We recognise that the legislation is different in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but we request that both devolved administrations assess whether their current licencing rules adequately cover wrestling promotions”.

In June 2021, we wrote to the then Minister of State at the Home Office, Lord Stephen Greenhalgh, to seek his assistance with the implementation of the recommendation in the APPG’s report, which was welcomed at the Dispatch Box by the Government. We asked about the possibility of widening the temporary events notice licence guidance to include health and safety, and other minimum standards protocols, for wrestling suppliers, and sought guidance on arrangements for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The APPG followed up on the letter, but to no avail, so I am delighted that the Minister will be able to update us today on what progress there has been and what plans might be in place.

I hope the Minister can also demonstrate a degree of updated thinking. Cam Tilley, who wrestles under the moniker Kamille Hansen—and who is a former researcher in this place—pointed out to us, through the dissertation that she has just finished on related issues, that these matters have already been discussed in this House. In the 1960s, questions were posed about the prohibition of wrestling performances by women, with the reply that there was no evidence to suggest that the issue was widespread enough to merit action and that this was ultimately a matter for local authorities to decide on as part of their licensing powers. However, London County Council had already fallen into the mode of effectively banning women’s wrestling in venues that it had licensed in the previous decades.

In 2002, during a debate on what would become the Licensing Act 2003, the other place was told:

“we know that boxing and wrestling and their audiences present a significant issue with regard to public safety. As the noble Baroness said, the relationship between wrestling and its audience is particularly engaging, and its showmanship can engage the audience very directly. But, as has been known for many decades, boxing also engages passions. From time to time, boxing bouts have aroused as much vigour in the audience as in those participating in the ring—in some cases, rather more than occurs in the ring.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 December 2002; Vol. 642, c. 391.]

Wrestling and boxing are far from the same; I speak as someone who has now been to multiple wrestling shows, large and small. That is not to say that boxing is always violent or problematic, but the lumping together of boxing and wrestling for licensing purposes has certainly caused problems. Wrestling has no concussive intent—although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd said, of course concussive injuries occur—whereas the sole intent of boxing is to knock out the opponent. To conflate the two for licensing purposes makes very little sense.

We were told that some years ago that Tower Hamlets turned down wrestling events on advice from the local police, who had taken a decision based on boxing events. Similarly, we were told that in the past inter-promotional wars were waged between those wrestling companies that had clocked the importance of boxing-related restrictions on a licence and those that had not, with one company forcing another to forfeit a licensing opportunity.

The constant association of wrestling with boxing is deeply problematic. The concern is always that the local licensing process is so complex and likely to lead to rejection that wrestling shows are occurring around the country in unregulated venues or without licensing. We in the APPG would like to see some consistency in approaches to licensing, enhanced confidence for promoters so that they can hold a show, and certainty for all about how wrestling should be categorised by local authorities and what the requirements are or should be. I hope that the Minister can begin to set out that pathway to clarity for us today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) on obtaining this debate and on her very informative speech. I pay tribute to her and her colleagues in the all-party parliamentary group—I am delighted to see the co-chair, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), present. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), who are active members. One of the things that come out of the all-party group’s extremely comprehensive and informative report is those Members’ shared passion for wrestling.

British wrestling has a long heritage dating back several centuries in the UK. It goes as far back as travelling fairs and carnivals in the 19th century, where skilled wrestlers showcased their abilities. Over time, it has evolved into a distinctive style that emphasises technical prowess and a connection with the audience—the report makes that point strongly—which is one of the key elements of British wrestling. British wrestling contrasts with the American version that we all too often see on our screens, which prioritises flashy manoeuvres and larger-than-life characters.

Frequently, British wrestling takes place in small, intimate venues that allow fans to be in close proximity, creating an atmosphere in which the crowd’s reactions become an integral part of the show. I am old enough to recall watching wrestling on ITV on Saturday evenings. Kent Walton would open the proceedings with “Greetings, grapple fans” each week, and we saw characters such as Kendo Nagasaki, Jackie Pallo, and of course the larger-than-life characters of Max Crabtree, the promoter, and his brother, Shirley, who became better known as Big Daddy. Those times are long gone, but it is encouraging that British wrestling has seen a resurgence, with a high calibre of talents and promotions. We now have elite wrestlers such as Saraya Bevis, Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate representing the UK in international promotions such as WWE. That has allowed the UK’s scene to rival the larger promotions across the world. That is an important part of soft power, which is of great importance to my Department.

Wrestling is a thriving industry. There has been not only an increase in the number of shows booked, but a steady rise in audience numbers. I read the chapter in the report on the impact on the sport of covid-19; wrestling was obviously not alone, but its nature meant that it was hit particularly severely by the pandemic. Since then, great progress has been made, and British promotions such as Progress Wrestling, Revolution Pro Wrestling and Insane Championship Wrestling have dedicated followings and showcase some of the best talent.

The hon. Member for Warrington North went through a number of the recommendations of the APPG report, which covers a broad range of issues, and I will say a few words on each of them. A lot of the recommendations, including the one on safety standards and safeguarding, are to some extent in the gift of the wrestling industry itself. Of course, everyone deserves to work in a workplace that feels safe and secure, and I think we all agree that wrestling needs to put safety and wellbeing at the forefront of its priorities. However, there is no need for the industry to start with a blank sheet of paper. There is already a wealth of information from other sectors that can be used as a starting point.

The Minister refers to information from other sectors that can be used as a starting point, but conflating wrestling and boxing is part of the problem, as I highlighted in my speech. Does he not think that it is time that we had some simple, clear, basic guidance from the Home Office to local councils about how to license a safe wrestling event?

I think there are two separate points there about the health and safety guidance and the licensing. I fully acknowledge that there is a lack of clarity—shall we say?—in each of those that could be addressed.

Let me start with safeguarding, which is an important way of ensuring that the interests of children and young people are protected. The child protection in sport unit provides a framework of standards that organisations working with children and young people should meet. For the arts and entertainment sector—I recognise that part of the problem relates to the fact that wrestling sits somewhere between the two—the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has produced guidance. The Department for Education has been helpful in advising local authorities and individuals working with children in all types of professional or amateur performances, paid sport or paid modelling.

The APPG report states that sports coaches should be considered to be in a position of trust for the purposes of child sexual offences and recommends that wrestling coaches should be explicitly recognised as being in such positions of trust. Recent amendments made to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 mean that sports coaches are now recognised as being in a position of trust as regards those in their care and the criminal offences linked to that position. The 2022 Act states that sport includes

“any form of physical recreation which is also engaged in for purposes of competition or display”.

We believe that includes a range of activities such as wrestling.

On licensing requirements, I recognise, and the hon. Member for Warrington North has set out, that there is disparity across the country between the attitude taken by different authorities. There have been quite disturbing incidents such as the one in County Durham, when children were subject to what most people would regard as inappropriate content during something that was billed as a family show. I do not think that is widespread, but it must be carefully monitored.

Professional wrestling events are licensed through the entertainment licensing system, and local authorities, in carrying out their functions, must consider the licensing objectives. Those are, as the hon. Lady knows, the prevention of crime and disorder, public safety, the prevention of public nuisance and the protection of children from harm. It is for regulating authorities to look at events such as the one in County Durham and take them into account, alongside issues such as public safety, protecting children and preventing disorder. In my constituency, there was an application for a wrestling match and there was a lack of awareness of some of the requirements. We are happy to talk about the issue further with the Home Office, which has ultimate responsibility for licensing, and to draw its attention to the hon. Lady’s speech.

Having spoken to local councillors, I know that a number of wrestling events take place in Warrington. They find that lack of clarity troubling because many do not have the knowledge and understanding of the wrestling sector that the Minister does, so they are not sure what they are meant to be looking at when determining whether an event should be licensed. They need something that makes it clear to them; a tick-box exercise when making such determinations would be beneficial. Does the Minister agree?

Certainly. I agree that it would be helpful if we removed the confusion and lack of clarity. As I said, licensing is a Home Office responsibility but, if further work can be done to provide guidance or advice, I am happy to ask the Home Office to look at that. I am sure the hon. Lady, the hon. Member for Pontypridd and members of the APPG will be happy to pursue that with the Home Office, but I have absolutely taken note of what she has said.

Building on licensing, the APPG recommended that the industry adopt a set of health and safety standards. I was pleased to hear that the Health and Safety Executive met the APPG in February, and it was agreed that the best way forward will be for the industry to take the lead on the production of new guidance. The HSE has offered to provide support through reviewing relevant sections and providing advice on drafting matters relating to health and safety law, but it is the case that industry-led guidance is generally respected and well received by the industry since they have ownership of it. It can make a significant difference. I take particular note of the recommendation that it should include provision that a doctor should always be present for matches. That clearly makes sense, and I am sure that the HSE will be happy to talk about that further when drawing up the guidance to which I have referred.

Reference was made to the issue of concussion guidance. Such guidance has recently been published by my Department and the Sport and Recreation Alliance for a number of different sports, and I am aware that it is of great relevance to wrestling as well. The hon. Member for Warrington North referred to the Concussion in Wrestling: Building a Better Understanding conference that took place in Loughborough on Monday, where I am sure some of the expert evidence will have been very helpful. It is a matter of great concern.

The wider question of trying to prevent brain injuries and concussion in sport is one that we have debated in the main Chamber and here in Westminster Hall. The guidelines have been drawn up by an expert panel of domestic and international clinicians and academics in neurology and sports medicine, and they set out steps to improve the understanding and awareness of the prevention and treatment of concussion in grassroots sport. I hope that this will help the wrestling community to have a better understanding of concussion recognition, and will ultimately help to make wrestling a safer sport for those participating.

I refer to wrestling as a sport, although the APPG report made a good point by describing it as “sport-art”, because it has elements of sport and elements of entertainment and performance. That brings me to my final point, which is about the issue of categorisation. I am aware that the APPG report suggests that the training for wrestling should be considered a sport, while the performance element is entertainment. This is not something that the Government generally get involved in classifying; it is left to the five sporting bodies, and I know that the APPG is in conversation with Sport England. As has been pointed out, Sport England supports British Wrestling with funding, but professional wrestling is still regarded as entertainment. However, the report’s recommendations are certainly worth pursuing, so I encourage the APPG to talk further to Sport England. We would be happy to help facilitate that, if it would be helpful.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North on securing the debate and all her colleagues involved in the preparation of the extremely helpful and comprehensive report. We will consider the issues further. We all want to see a successful wrestling industry in this country, for the benefit of both its participants and the fans. Once again, I thank the hon. Lady for giving us the opportunity to debate the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.