The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given the House of Commons on Tuesday 9 November.
“I will start by being very clear about something on which I know the whole House will agree: there is no place for racism in sport. Indeed, there is no place for racism anywhere in society. It must be confronted, it must be eradicated and it should never be written off as just ‘banter’.
The Government are extremely concerned by the reports of racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. Quite simply, the situation faced by Azeem Rafiq was unacceptable. It should never have been allowed to happen in the first place and it should have been dealt with properly during the initial investigation. We have made it clear to the England and Wales Cricket Board that this requires a full, transparent investigation, both of the incidents involving Azeem Rafiq and of the wider cultural issues at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. The ECB is now investigating the matter fully. It took action against the Yorkshire club on Friday, stripping it of the right to host international matches, and has suspended a player.
There have been a number of resignations from the Yorkshire board—quite rightly—including that of its chairman. Lord Patel of Bradford has taken over as chairman and has set out the approach that he will be taking to tackle the issue at Yorkshire. Crucially, he has started by apologising to Azeem Rafiq, but we know that that will not undo the pain that Azeem feels. More action is needed and we have called on Lord Patel and the ECB to investigate fully, to eradicate racism where it exists and to tackle the culture that can support it. In addition, the ECB is now undertaking a regulatory process. It must take strong action where it is necessary and that action must be transparent and swift, for the benefit of cricket.
The ECB has also launched the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket to look at wider issues that go beyond Yorkshire. It is chaired by Cindy Butts, a highly respected anti-racism campaigner. She is a board member of the Kick It Out campaign in football and is also, as you know, Mr Speaker, a lay member of your Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. I have great confidence in her independence and her phenomenal track record in this area. This terrible case—the awful case of the abuse that Azeem Rafiq should never have suffered but did suffer—shows how much more needs to be done to stamp out racism in the game, and I urge anyone who has experienced discrimination in cricket to approach Cindy Butts’s commission and report what they have experienced. I understand that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has requested information about this incident. That is quite right, and I encourage the EHRC in its work.
Sport should be for everyone and it should not take cases such as this to bring that to life. The Government applaud Azeem Rafiq’s courage in speaking out and encourage anyone who has been similarly affected to do the same. This must be a watershed moment for cricket. The Government will closely scrutinise the actions taken by the ECB—the Minister for Sport met the board last week to discuss this topic—and by Yorkshire County Cricket Club in response to these damning allegations. The investigations to which I have referred must be thorough, transparent and public. That is necessary to restore the public’s faith in cricket in Yorkshire and beyond. Parliament is watching, the Government are watching and the country is watching. We expect real action and the Government stand ready to step in and act if those involved do not put their own house in order.”
My Lords, I welcome the appointment and early actions of the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford. He surely has shown more leadership in a few short days than we have seen from the entire Yorkshire County Cricket Club over many years.
I would also like to place on the record our sympathy and respect for Azeem Rafiq: sympathy, because nobody should suffer the racist abuse in the workplace that he has suffered; respect, because he blew the whistle and has set in motion a process which we hope will ensure that any form of abuse within cricket at any level can be swiftly identified, properly challenged and appropriately punished. While it is of course for individual sporting bodies to consider and respond to these kinds of incidents, can the Minister confirm whether the Government have plans to review the procedures in place across different sports and, in the light of events at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, governance arrangements, to ensure that they are fit for purpose? Finally, what support are the department considering or planning to offer the noble Lord, Lord Patel, in the difficult task that he has taken on?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support for the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, whom I spoke to this morning. Understandably he is rather busy, focusing his attention on the matter at hand, but I reassured him that there is huge support across your Lordships’ House for him and the important job he has in addressing this appalling situation at Yorkshire County Cricket Club.
We are very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Patel, began by apologising to Azeem Rafiq for the appalling behaviour and the unacceptable way in which his case was dealt with. The Government will closely scrutinise the actions that the Yorkshire County Cricket Club and the ECB take in response to these very concerning allegations. We want that investigation to be thorough and transparent but also swift, to ensure that the public’s faith in cricket can be restored—in Yorkshire and beyond. If not, the Government will not hesitate to step in and act.
My Lords, I welcome the actions of the noble Lord, Lord Patel, but can my noble friend the Minister look at all sports? It is not just cricket: it is football—it is every sport. If you are a person of colour, the pain that you suffer, as those sitting here of colour will know, stays with you for life. It is important that we start looking at these clubs. They make huge amounts of money. They need to look at their codes of practice and what they are doing, and the leadership must come from the top. It would be useful for us all to know how they will report what they are doing in their clubs across the country to improve the situation and ensure that local communities are better represented within their own movements.
My noble friend makes a very important point. Sport, like all areas of society, has a very important role to play in tackling discrimination where we see it. In June of this year, Sport England, UK Sport and the other sports councils published the results of a detailed independent review into tackling racism and racial equality in sport. The findings made it clear that, sadly, racism still exists in sport in the UK and that there are long-standing issues for us all to tackle. Each council is working swiftly to develop its own specific action plan to deliver on these commitments and address the recommendations, but, as she says, working with communities and individuals is a hugely important part of that.
My Lords, it is quite clear from what has happened that the capacity of those sitting in darkened rooms to talk about themselves to themselves is still very alive in sport, as in other sections of our society. When the Equality and Human Rights Commission gets involved, it shows that something has gone wrong. What are the Government going to do to tell people, even if they will not change—even though it is good to do so—that they must change because society will not tolerate them carrying on like this? Can we have an action plan?
The noble Lord makes an important point. Something clearly went catastrophically wrong with the culture at board level at Yorkshire County Cricket Club. It is good that the former chairman and two other members of the board have resigned, and that the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, has come in to drive the culture change that is needed there. It also makes the important point, as he does, about the need for diversity and representation at senior levels in sport, which we are aware of.
My Lords, I should first point out that I am a member of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Essex County Cricket Club, Middlesex County Cricket Club and MCC. With our friend, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, now installed in Yorkshire, a committee of inquiry being undertaken in the other place and an investigation being carried out by the England and Wales Cricket Board, do the Government not have some space to consider whether any specific action on their part is required to confront the appalling incidents that have come to light? At the same time, perhaps to get some sense of perspective, we should remind ourselves that cricket has its finer aspects, which hopefully will be on display again in Abu Dhabi this afternoon.
My noble friend is right: the vast majority of people who play and enjoy cricket have the right attitude. He is a well-published author on the subject as well as being a member of all the clubs he mentioned. My honourable friend the Sports Minister met the England and Wales Cricket Board at the department on Friday to seek the assurances we wanted to hear about the approach it is taking. We are following that very closely and will not hesitate to take action ourselves if we think it necessary.
My Lords, a year and two weeks ago, Imam Qari Asim, who advises the Government on Islamophobia, and myself, who advises on anti-Semitism, wrote to the ECB offering advice and requesting a meeting. In effect, we have had no response whatsoever. Does the Minister think it a good idea for cricket to take some advice, and should not Kick It Out, which has done such good work in football, be properly resourced to do similar work in cricket?
I am sure that the ECB has heard the reminder; it should reply to the noble Lord and take him up on the offer of his insights and expertise. He is also right to point to the work of Kick It Out. Cindy Butts, who the ECB has appointed to chair its Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket, has experience working with Kick It Out in football and will be known to your Lordships as a lay member of the Conduct Committee. We are very glad to see her appointment and the work that she is taking forward.
My Lords, may I make a more general point? Does my noble friend agree that one should be rather slow to criticise individuals, or to take action that can cause damage to individuals or institutions, unless one is aware of all the relevant facts? Is there not a danger that, out of a spirit of political correctness, people are saying and doing things rather prematurely?
I do not entirely agree with my noble friend. He is right to point to the need for evidence. That is why we are very keen to see the full report and are glad that it has been provided to the Select Committee in another place. However, this case, sadly, has been going on for a number of years. It has not been dealt with with the speed and thoroughness it ought to have been, and we are glad that that finally is happening.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, is absolutely right that racism goes much wider than sport. I am afraid I disagree with the noble Lord; we must call it out wherever we see it, because through silence we acquiesce and we condone. Therefore, will the Minister work with other government departments to ensure that there is a coherent approach, not only to the forms of racism we see day in and day out, but to the other forms of discrimination that debase the very society in which we live?
Yes, absolutely. I am mindful of the Question yesterday on inclusion in sport. That is at the centre of the Government’s strategy Sporting Future. It is critical when confronting the disease of racism that all of us speak out and call it out. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, which is why we want to see the report in full so that everybody can play their part in tackling this.
My Lords, the issue goes much wider than cricket bodies. Clearly, cricket is funded by big money and sponsors also have a role, not in calling out individuals, but in dealing with institutional racism of an organisation. Would the Minister like to give any advice to sponsors such as NIC Group, which has refused, like other sponsors, to take a stance against institutional racism, by sitting on the fence and not doing what those like Anchor butter did instantly in withdrawing their funds and standing up to racism?
It has been very powerful to see the response of sponsors in focusing the minds of people at Yorkshire County Cricket Club on the very concerning allegations that have been made and the way they have been dealt with. I am sure the other sponsors will have heard the noble Lord’s call for action, but I also hope they will be reassured by the work the club is now finally taking.