Rugby Tour (South Africa)

– in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 13th February 1983.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Neubert.]

10 pm

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton West

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity, and to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for coming back from the winter Olympics especially for this important debate. It is absolutely right that he should have been there, as he is a great sporting ambassador. We disagree on one or two matters, perhaps including the subject of this debate, but I have great admiration for him, which I know is shared throughout the international sporting world.

I bring this matter to the attention of the House today to highlight what I believe is continuing Government pressure on the Rugby Football Union. That pressure has been most apparent in the past few months both from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and, to a lesser extent, from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Pressure has been brought to bear to try to persuade the Rugby Football Union not to undertake its proposed tour of South Africa. It has, of course, a perfectly legitimate right to go there, as has any sports team that wishes.

South Africa has not been excluded from the International Rugby Board as it has been excluded from the relevant boards for some other sports—for political rather than sporting reasons, I hasten to add. No ban is imposed on sportsmen entering the country — a great change from 1968 and 1970 when the South African Government prevented Basil D'Oliveira from entering the country. Because this is a well-loved and well-played sport, especially among white South Africans, the moves that have been made towards full integration have been highlighted and should be emphasised today.

This debate will be a focus of great attention for sportsmen and sports-lovers both in this country and in South Africa, and especially for the non-white population and sportsmen of South Africa, who I believe have suffered most as a result of the boycott imposed by the Gleneagles agreement. It is ironic that occasionally—more often than not, I believe — when sanctions are imposed to try to benefit certain sections of the population, it is they who are most harmed. It is a great tragedy that millions of white and non-white South Africans cannot enjoy international participation or see international stars. If the tour goes ahead, I believe that it will bring immense benefit to them and to others who will follow the tour with great interest.

At Environment Question Time last week, I asked my hon. Friend to desist from further political pressure. He quite reasonably put the question back to me, asking what I defined as pressure. Perhaps I may begin to answer that now. The pressure that he has applied to the Rugby Football Union in the past few months is very similar to that which he applied, perhaps unwittingly, to MCC members last July, although I do not intend to go over that old ground again. It is the pressure that he has put on individual committee members to try to persuade them that the tour should not take place. There is also the pressure that he has put on his fellow Ministers, asking them in effect to join him in boycotting certain internationals. It was sad that a Welsh Minister felt that it was not fitting for him to go to an international, because a bunch of schoolboys came over here to play. That rubbed off on the Leader of the Opposition, who found himself in a certain dilemma.

There was also perhaps a veiled threat, in the answer to the questions on Wednesday, that some financial pressure might be put upon the Rugby Football Union. The Minister may have implied that the Sports Council, which discourages the giving of finance to sports that participate in games with South Africa, might apply that to the RFU. Those are the pressures that I have in mind. There is another form of pressure in the suggestion that the Rugby Football Union, by going to South Africa, might be behaving somewhat irresponsibly in relation to other sports. The Minister would have to admit that those forms of pressure have been applied. I understand that he is obliged to put some pressure on the RFU because of the Gleneagles agreement, but the use of those pressures warrants a debate and the asking of some questions.

The real question is whether that is pressure, blackmail, or both. I believe that it is legitimate under the Gleneagles agreement to offer discouragement. Is it fair, though, to put excessive pressure upon individuals who are just making use of their legitimate right to ask themselves whether they should make a tour or not?

My hon. Friend's slavish adherence to the Gleneagles agreement, and his zealous enthusiasm to make sure that the agreement is applied, go beyond the aims of those who signed it in the first place. We must never forget that it is merely a discouraging document. Those are the words in the agreement. It was never legally sanctioned. It was not debated in the House at the time. Indeed, it has only been discussed here very rarely, and probably only in Adjournment debates and during Question Time. The agreement advises that Governments should try to discourage their various sporting bodies from making sporting contacts with countries such as South Africa where selection is based on race, colour or ethnic origin".

If teams were still selected on that basis in South Africa, the agreement would have some credibility and could, perhaps, justifiably command some support. Since that situation does not now exist, the agreement is to my mind a deception and, frankly, a fraud.

I do not need to remind my hon. Friend of the various international commissions and individuals who have gone to South Africa and found great progress there towards full integration. In 1980, Mr. Dickie Jeeps of the Sports Council came back with a favourable report, although I must be careful to say that the report drew no conclusions.

The most dangerous threat facing sport under the agreement is the shift by the Government towards using an agreement made on sporting grounds to one that is now unashamedly used for political purposes. I believe that my hon. Friend will confirm—as, to his credit, he often has — that great progress towards integration has been made. The question that he must answer is whether he now believes that the Government should restrict their activities to the sporting field or whether—in the words of Sir Anthony Tuke, past president of the MCC—the goal posts have been moved. There is little doubt that we are now talking about a political document. My hon. Friends who signed my early-day motion would agree with me.

There is now a demand that the political situation in South Africa must change dramatically before sporting contact can take place. That is not what the Gleneagles agreement says. It says that sporting contact should be discouraged and does not mention political circumstances. It is dangerous for my hon. Friend the Minister to move in that direction. If we begin to apply political considerations about where we play our sport, should we not also consider countries behind the iron curtain, in South America and so on? I must confess to being somewhat appalled during Question Time last Wednesday by my hon. Friend's quotation of the South African Council on Sport. It has often said that no normal sport can be played in an abnormal society.

I do not have time to question whether the definition of an abnormal society applies to South Africa—perhaps there is some justification for that — and whether it might be extended to India, Hungary and South America. My hon. Friend has just been to Yugoslavia. Is that a normal society? Although it is treading on dangerous ground to say so, one might even say that Northern Ireland is not entirely normal. My hon. Friend must be careful as the SACOS orgainsation is not representative of the non-white population. It is based purely on a small number of Indians and Cape coloureds who are using a political weapon and have no interest in sport. My hon. Friend will know of the various allegations that have been made about the intimidation processes used by SACOS. They were mentioned in the Sports Council report under Mr. Dickie Jeeps.

I was also disappointed that my hon. Friend did not see fit to see Mr. Abe Williams, the coloured manager of the recent South African schoolboys' side which visited Wales. He should have taken that opportunity to speak to him and possibly to met the team. That visit was a breakthrough, albeit a small one, and it is a pity that he denied himself the opportunity to see them. I cannot help asking myself why, in June 1982, he received a deputation from the anti-apartheid movement which was led by an hon. Member but in the same month refused to see Mr. Joe Pamensky, the president of the South African Cricket Union. Such questions must be asked. I urge my hon. Friend, as I have urged him before, to go out to South Africa, whereupon he will be able to speak with much greater authority and will earn the respect of British people and the House.

One of the arguments that is bound to crop up—it has in the past few days—is that if the Rugby Football Union goes ahead with the tour, other countries will boycott the Commonwealth or Olympic games. Those of us who do not like blackmail—most right hon. and hon. Members do not — find such arguments somewhat fallacious. I remember being told in 1980 by a Whip who is not here at the moment that I should back off from my support for the British Lions going to South Africa, because the tour might prejudice the Lancaster House agreement. Perhaps it is a pity that it did not. I remember being told in 1982, when the rebel British cricket team went out and various right hon. and hon. Members tried to support its right to go that that might affect the Commonwealth games. There was no such effect.

I believe that we over-emphasise the blackmail threat made by some countries. It has no part in the House and it has no part in sport. If we must play our sport and games looking over our shoulders all the time for a blackmail threat, the game is not worth playing. The sports bodies are now showing a great deal of sense. It is good that the Test and County Cricket Board told the Pakistan cricket authorities only two weeks ago that, if it refused to accept Graham Dilley on the tour, the England side would not go.

The sports authorities are now showing the Government and politicians that they want to get on with the game and that they are heartily sick of political interference. The rejection by the Commonwealth Games Council for England of the new code and the constant support of the Central Council for Physical Recreation and the Sports Council against retaliatory action means that many sportsmen are standing up and telling the Government, "Please get off our backs and let us get on with the game."

This early-day motion, with 102 signatures, is an expression of the belief, not just of hon. Members but of many people outside the House, that we fully acknowledge the difficulties faced by my hon. Friend the Minister and by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. However, the time has come to say stop, and to tell the Government that they should back off from further political pressure. It is understandable that they should discourage the tour under the agreement, but that motion—because of the number of people who signed it and the many who said that they would have signed it but for political reasons — is guidance, rather than a warning to the Government, that at this stage we should back off.

It is ironic that four or five years ago the Labour Minister with responsibility for sport, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), presented five conditions to the South African authorities. If he considered that those conditions were fulfilled, we would have resumed sporting relations. It has been confirmed by the opposition spokesman in Cape Town that the Labour party now believes those conditions to have been met. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will regard this as a genuine attempt to tell him that now that the conditions that were laid down by the Labour Minister have been fulfilled it is our duty as a Conservative Government to allow the tour to proceed.

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam 10:16 pm, 13th February 1983

I am bound to say at the outset that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) has said some things this evening that would have been better left unsaid, that have been grossly distorted and will delude many people outside the House. He does his caucus outside the House no good by doing so.

No one can be under any illusion about the serious issues that we are debating this evening. They affect the Commonwealth and the future of sport at international level, and they concern a topic that has dominated the parliamentary career of my hon. Friend since 1979.

We know that the Rugby Football Union will decide at the end of next month whether to play rugby in South Africa. Many commentators in many journals seem to believe that the decision has been made, and that the tour will proceed. I do not know whether the decision has been made. Therefore, it is especially opportune that my hon. Friend has sought the debate now. It affords me a welcome opportunity to set out in more detail than might otherwise have been possible the Government's view for the House, the Rugby Football Union and the public.

My hon. Friend expressed concern that the Rugby Football Union should be free to make its decision without undue pressure from the Government. Here, again, he distorted what we have done so far. Our position is clear, not least to the RFU. It has an invitation from South Africa, and its committee—no one else—will decide whether to accept it. There cannot and will not be any coercion from the Government or the Sports Council, but there will continue to be very strong advice, which I hope members of the RFU will consider closely.

That advice will come as no surprise to the RFU, the world of sport, or the House, based as it is on clear and consistent Government policy. This is fundamentally a Commonwealth policy. The Commonwealth view is that the principles underlying sport and those of apartheid are incompatible. Hence, we have the Commonwealth statement on apartheid in sport — the so-called Gleneagles agreement — which was first drawn up in 1977 and has since been reaffirmed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and by Commonwealth Heads of Government in Lusaka in 1979, in Melbourne in 1981 and in New Delhi last November. That statement calls on the Government and other Commonwealth Governments to discourage sportsmen and women from sporting contacts with South Africa. Its central passage reads: Mindful of these and other considerations, they [Commonwealth Heads] accepted it as the urgent duty of each of their Governments vigorously to combat the evil of apartheid by withholding any form of support for, and by taking every practical step to discourage, contact or competition by their nationals with sporting organisations, teams or sportsmen from South Africa or from any other country where sports are organised on the basis of race, colour or ethnic origin".

The key words are "practical steps" and "discourage". Our obligation and policy remain what they have been under successive Administrations: to do what we can to persuade, to advise, to discourage—not to prevent. On this, perhaps the most fundamental of points, there is no disagreement between my hon. Friend and the Government. There is and can be no restriction by the Government of the RFU's freedom to make its decision and to board planes at Heathrow airport if that is what it chooses.

Whatever the RFU's decision, the Government will not take any actions or sanctions that would prejudice the established autonomy of sports bodies. As the responsible Minister I am totally committed to doing what I can to maintain the independence of sports and sports organisations. The Sports Council was established in 1972, with its independence protected by royal charter. The governing bodies of sport — like the RFU — are autonomous and the Government's and Sports Council's roles are essentially supportive. Internationally, the same principle applies, and one of my aims is to resist further moves to use sport for political ends.

However, like it or not, international sport has acquired a political role. The enormous media attention which occasions such as the current Sarajevo winter games attract and the moneys involved make this inevitable. As the responsible Minister, I cannot ignore the worldwide importance of sport to our nation.

Nor can sport ignore its public and political importance. Sportsmen and women seek and enjoy the benefits of fame. They cannot ignore its responsibilities. They cannot wish away the possible wider consequences, for themselves and for others, of their decisions and actions in pursuit of their chosen sport. The Government have a role here with the Sports Council in watching and dealing with these wider or strategic issues. So, in a case of this kind, the Government and the Sports Council are quite properly putting their views to the RFU.

With the RFU's power to decide comes, inevitably, the responsibility to consider carefully the wider implications of this possible tour for rugby, for sport, for Britain and for the Commonwealth.

For the Government, then, sporting relations with South Africa are primarily a Commonwealth issue. Membership of any international grouping brings benefits, responsibilities and obligations. We are proud members of the Commonwealth. We respect and meet our obligations, as we expect others so to do. For the Commonwealth, the Gleneagles agreement represents an important commitment and we respect and support that general view.

The basis of that commitment is that the Commonwealth is multiracial, especially in sport. Some sports—cricket and rugby in particular—have developed in parallel with the Commonwealth itself. They have been essentially Commonwealth sports. The Commonwealth statement sets out the Commonwealth's opposition to, and concern about, the effect of apartheid on the playing and organisation of sport in South Africa.

For many sportsmen the exclusion of South African sportsmen from international competition is clearly a source of regret—the more so in our country because of the close ties which had developed over many decades. However, reality must be faced. The Government are committed to the Commonwealth and to the Commonwealth statement. Sport, too, has by and large taken a similar view; in fact, it led the way. The International Olympic Committee has excluded South Africa from membership since 1970, as has the International Cricket Conference. Other major international federations such as FIFA, the world governing body of football, and the IAAF, for athletics, have taken similar action, most before 1977.

Sport and Governments are in broad agreement about South Africa. The various unofficial cricket tours in recent years prove nothing, except the lure of cash to professional sportsmen. They are obviously a minority, but I doubt whether the RFU would wish to take much account of that example.

My hon. Friend has talked about changes in South Africa, but sporting opportunities on and off the pitch are, I am told, still very different if one is black rather than white. Apartheid offends the ethic of sport, which embraces freedom and fairness and social contact. Apartheid means that people of different colours do different jobs, live in different areas, go to different schools. That physical and social separation of races makes the kind of integrated sport we know impractical, if not impossible.

In a recent incident which attracted much publicity, the West Indian test cricketer Colin Croft was ejected from the whites-only portion of a South African train. I imagine that no one was more horrified at this affair than those involved in South African sport who may directly or indirectly conceal such everyday truths during any foreign sports teams visit. For every Colin Croft there are thousands of aspiring coloured sportsmen and women in South Africa who are not afforded honorary white status.

Over the years there has undoubtedly been some change and progress, which I applaud. The South African Government have passed amending legislation, allowing some exemption to sport from wider apartheid laws. White and non-white players are seen on the same rugby pitch, and, but less frequently, in the same team.

All the indications are that the improvement is sporadic and an element of confusion emerges from time to time—as, for example, occurred in the autumn of last year, when many people believed that the international rugby media congress was designed to open the door a little more, but were dumbfounded when the Minister for National Education stated that sport in schools would still not be part of those integration proposals. It is not for me to pass judgment on the internal laws of nations, Jut that was disappointing to those who look for development. The general perception is that one step forward is often met by one step back.

We all have differing views of the modest progress in the integration of sport in South Africa. It is generally accepted that the boycott by international governing bodies of sport has brought this about. Some would argue that a relaxation in the boycott would lead to further progress. We could debate the issue at length, but I have to say to the House that this is not the Commonwealth view.

My hon. Friend is a leading luminary—if I am up to date—and has been for some time, of an organisation which calls itself Freedom in Sport. But it seems to me and to many other people that it is obsessed and concerned only with reopening sporting links with South Africa. I do not understand why that general and impressive title is required for what is essentially a narrow objective. The organisation currently has a campaign—of which my hon. Friend's speech was no doubt a part—to deflect what it perceives as a threat by the Government to interfere with the RFU's freedom.

It seems to me that the Rugby Football Union can look after itself very effectively, because most of its committees are experienced and have been trained in the art over many years. But I wonder whether my hon. Friend has examples of this Government restricting the freedom of sportsmen—like, perhaps, the legal and other restrictions placed on sportsmen in South Africa. I wonder whether my hon. Friend and his organisation concern themselves with the freedom in sport of black and coloured people in South Africa—or indeed elsewhere, to look at some of the countries and regimes that he enumerated during his speech. I have to say that I think Freedom in Sport seems disinterested in genuine freedom in sport.

I have spoken about our policy and the Commonwealth's policy, so let me tell the House what action we have taken. The Government's responsibility is to offer advice and to make representations in positive terms. The Prime Minister and I have made it clear to the House that our efforts to discourage this tour of South Africa are consistent. Indeed, our record over the years confirms that the RFU should not expect otherwise.

My regular dialogue with successive RFU presidents and officials has been courteous and constructive. The RFU listens to, and I hope understands, our point of view. My hon. Friend can rest assured that between now and 30 March my officials and I will continue to press on the RFU the strength of the Government's conviction that the proposed tour would be a grave mistake. I can only suggest to my hon. Friend that the comments of the RFU president on television recently confirmed that he was having a constructive dialogue with me. The pressure on that particular gentleman is something that he would not fully understand, having been a very distinguished prop forward.

No one at the RFU should be in any doubt about the seriousness of the vote to be taken next month. A decision to make an England tour will echo and reverberate around the international corridors of sport. The interests and discussion will be intense. An immediate threat will be a number of international events in this and future years, including the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and various cricket tours.

I should have thought that the RFU had most to lose by undertaking such a tour. Rugby Union has developed primarily as a Commonwealth sport, especially among the old Commonwealth. Therefore, rugby people can point to the importance of South Africa within an already restricted international fixture list. However, the game has now taken off elsewhere. It is played in more than 100 countries, some of which, notably Romania, are emerging into the top flight, as our Welsh colleagues would no doubt testify.

Only in the latest edition of the RFU's official magazine I saw a reference to the growth of rugby in Barbados. The Rugby Post is the official RFU magazine, and Gareth Davies, the former Welsh captain, is quoted as saying: Rugby is still a new game in Barbados but it's well supported all the same. The locals are keen and feel that a visit from a club like Cardiff will do wonders". That quotation is ample testimony to how the game may well expand and develop throughout our Commonwealth, and it could be put at risk over the next few months.

Continuing contact with South Africa could prejudice the RFU's and perhaps British involvement in the spread of the sport. Club and international tours to many of the emergent countries could well be jeopardised. Already a tour to Zimbabwe by London Scottish has been postponed indefinitely, pending the RFU's decision on touring South Africa.

The RFU must make the judgment about the potential cost to its sport of touring South Africa. It is free to go or not to go, but it is my duty to ensure that the RFU recognises the possible consequences for it and for other sports and sports people.

The freedom of individual sportsmen and women to visit South Africa is not at risk, neither is the freedom of individual South Africans to use their passports to come here to play at Wimbledon, in the county cricket championships, in the Open Golf, and so on. We do not recognise the "black list" produced in the name of the United Nations.

My hon. Friend has expressed a false concern about freedom in sport. The freedoms at risk are not here in this country but in South Africa. The Government's view of the possible tour is based upon a wider concern than that of my hon. Friend, whose close links with South Africa are not concealed.

This must be an unsettling period for English Rugby, but I should remind the House that last year the Welsh Rugby Union decided not to tour South Africa. Now special efforts are being made to encourage a tour to take place. I hope that those concerned will not bow to pressure within the RFU. I hope that they will decide not to go, in the wider and future interests of theirs and other sports in the Commonwealth.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.