Amendment 292Q

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (11th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 24th November 2021.

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Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) 7:30 pm, 24th November 2021

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Coaker for congratulating me on my amendment before I have spoken to it. I think that is a bit of a rarity in your Lordships’ House, but I will take it from wherever it comes.

My Amendment 292S covers racism in football and, in particular, online offences. As the explanatory statement to the amendment says:

“This would add online offences, specifically posting racist abuse aimed at football players, to the list of relevant offences for which a football banning order can be made.”

It would add offences under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 to Schedule 1 to the Football Spectators Act 1989, which controls banning orders, where these messages are sent to a member of a football team and involve racial hatred.

In speaking to my amendment, I should enter a bit of history. Back in 2000, I was the Home Office Minister, sat where the noble Lord is this evening, and I had to introduce to this House what was effectively emergency legislation covering football-disorder related offences. The banning order regime that it brought in was aimed at dealing with violent and disorderly behaviour and racist activity at football matches. This was on the back of extremely poor behaviour by England football fans at the Euro 2000 competition. Such was the international outrage at the behaviour of our own fans, I believe that if we as a Labour Government had failed to act firmly, England would have been banned from competing in the subsequent World Cup in 2002.

The legislation was linked to a brilliant campaign led by Kick It Out, which rightly attacked the racist behaviour then prevalent on the terraces in many football clubs. The Home Office played a supporting role and worked closely with the football leagues and clubs to link the legislation and anti-racist campaigning to try to change the whole culture and atmosphere in and around football. A report, authored under my name, brought forward a whole range of proposals and measures which clubs responded to positively. This led to widespread changes in behaviour over time.

The legislation was hugely successful in driving out violence at football grounds and games. Since then, English teams competing in European competitions as national sides and club teams, and on the wider international stage, have been largely trouble-free. Banning orders work and have been instrumental in making going to watch one’s favourite team a pleasure, not a pastime in which you fear for your personal safety. They have also had an impact on the incidence and reporting of racist hate crime for football matches, not least because clubs now have a weapon in their armoury when tackling racists and racist thuggery in their communities.

Of course, back in 2000, we did not have Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Facebook in the way we do now. The legislation we framed then to deal with racist abuse and violence was not designed to cope with the digital age and online abuse, hence my amendment today, which is long overdue and which many of my colleagues across all parties and in both Houses have been urging on the Government.

Indeed, back in the summer, after England footballers suffered appalling abuse, the Prime Minister, responding to a question from Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Opposition, during PMQs on 14 July, said:

“Today we are taking practical steps to ensure that the football banning order regime is changed, so that if a person is guilty of racist online abuse of footballers, they will not be going to the match—no ifs, no buts, no exemptions and no excuses.”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/7/21; col. 362.]

On 20 October, when pressed about the online harms Bill, the Prime Minister said that the Government would ensure that the Bill

“completes its stages in the House before Christmas”,

and then corrected himself by saying that they would

“bring it forward before Christmas”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/21; col. 746.]

My honourable friend Jo Stevens has raised the issue of this online abuse directly with the new Secretary of State at DCMS, but has yet to receive a response. I make it plain that we on our side stand ready to support the online harms Bill, which should include this measure.

I hope the Minister can simply say that he will accept today’s amendment into the Bill. If the argument against it is that it is in the wrong place or Bill, I say simply that there can be no harm in putting it in this Bill now, given that the sort of abuse we are looking at here goes on week in, week out, in, around and after football games, and needs to be stopped. By adopting the measure here and now, the Government would be sending a strong message that would be well received across the sporting world and particularly in football.

Moreover, it would be achieved on the back of cross-party agreement and with a high degree of public unanimity. It would also bring to a close the wavering uncertainty that surrounds this issue and the Government’s intentions. Finally, it would go some way to repairing the damage caused by the mixed messages that emanated from the Government and Ministers in the summer, when some were quoted as saying that fans were right to boo players taking the knee as part of their campaign against racist abuse.

This amendment gives the Government and the Minister the opportunity to deliver on the Prime Minister’s own promise that there would be no ifs, buts, exemptions or excuses when bringing forward football banning orders which focus on online racist abuse of footballers. This evening is the Government’s opportunity to deliver on that promise.