Human Rights: Sportswashing - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:52 pm on 21 March 2024.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 3:52, 21 March 2024

My Lords, there are certain debates where you prepare something—at least mentally, in my case—then you have a look at the speaking list and think, “It probably will have all been said”. I looked at this list and said, “Yep, it will have been”. I was right. I started thinking about what I was going to say about the history of sportswashing. Berlin 1936 is the big one. Then I thought, what about the Cold War? Then I saw Lord Moynihan’s name on the list. He is a man who confronted a token gesture and went along with Lord Coe to that environment and said, “I’m going to compete”.

Before I say anything else, I say this: asking an athlete not to go to the Olympics when they have the chance is like asking a politician to turn down a safe seat. It is that important. It fundamentally matters. It justifies your life until that point. If somebody does not realise that and pontificates in the background that this is an easy choice, ignore that person on this subject because they have no concept of what they are talking about. I ask noble Lords to remember that, please.

The other thing is that organisers probably have much more opportunity to intervene in this process. Before the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, got up, I had nice things to say about the idea of sponsors and the ongoing relationship with F1. He said it better than I would have but the fact of the matter is that there is nothing like F1 for being a huge conglomeration of money and razzmatazz. Let us face it: there might even be a few competitors who quite like that and might want to keep it.

The organisers not being prepared to stand up and ask for changes to be made, or to say that there is a price to pay for having this huge benefit, is an act of rampant cowardice. They should really be doing something about it. Much of it is British based, so surely we should be saying, “If you’re going to oppress your population, please do not do it on our watch”. I would have thought that that is the very least we could do, and indeed sensible. But what have they done? They have annoyed my noble friend, and we have had a debate, on the record, and a response is coming.

Pretending that something is not there does not work. I hope that we, and others like us in the rest of the world, will point this out. Saying that it is not there and that nothing is happening is absurd—how much more “feeding the machine” can you get? We should take back the message—and I hope the Government will say it—that we do not expect reality and logic to be defied. You have asked the world to your country and we can see what is going on. We are all looking at you and we all know what is happening. Please can we remember the power that we have, and the power of our press in putting out reports. If you ask us into your house, we will comment on the colour of the furniture. We must do that and we must seize that opportunity. The Government must make sure that those who do that are encouraged to do it.

When it comes to the other facets of sport, my noble friend in sport—to nick an expression coined, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan—the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said that certain Games will occasionally push things over the edge to other places, such as disability rights. The 2012 village was reckoned to be the best designed for disability. That was because part of the process of preparing for the Games—I had a small part in this—was to make sure that the village was the best prepared ever. We got in early; we got the structure in; we talked about it; we engaged in it properly. The process of talking about such things early on comes back to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, was making: if you get in there, you actually have a chance of influencing. You cannot ever just say thank you, and think that it is done and move on; you have to engage constantly.

One of the other things—the elephant in the room, which is now trumpeting—is the Gulf states, the sovereign wealth fund and football. Guess what? We now have a Bill where this relationship is going to be discussed. I know the Government are doing their level best not to have this discussed, but it will be, because I am going to move amendments on it. We are going to have to look at how that relationship works. What is a fit and proper person? What is that relationship? If there are going to be barriers in place, where are they going to come in? How does that affect things?

Many football fans probably go into their own little darkened room and say, “My team must survive”. But they have also said that their team is going to be in a competitive league structure, which means that, in some alternative universe, Manchester United could be outside the league structure in six years, because you have relegation as well as promotion. If we have that, we surely should be looking at how the structure is maintained and at the people coming in.

If you are coming in from outside, maybe you should not be allowed to walk away. Maybe you should leave some of your wealth behind—there is a revelation. When football cannot organise its own house and calls government in, we will have a look at the whole structure again. If it is not the furniture this time, it is definitely the colour of the curtains. We are in there and we are taking part in this. I would hope that this House and the whole of Parliament will have a look at what is coming here.

Sport is too big a subject to be pushed off to the side; it affects too many lives. For the amateur sportsman who lives for his hour and a half on a Saturday or Sunday, it is an important part of their life and social structure. They are connected by some sort of invisible magic to the elite—I am not quite sure how it works, but it is certainly there. That is something we will have to talk about better in the next few years than we have before.

I hope that this Government will have a look at their own soft power strategy when it comes to sport. I hope that this Government will be supportive of the Commonwealth Games. We had a wonderful Commonwealth Games in Birmingham—done on the cheap, but it was done. It would appear that the Gulf states, America and China are not terribly interested in hosting the Commonwealth Games, but it is still a very old, multigame structure. Can we please have a look at that? When we had our last discussion on that, I remember finding myself in little confrontations with people from Birmingham, mainly on the Labour Benches, who asked: “How can we possibly milk it to save Birmingham?” I pointed out that you could not save Birmingham’s finances by milking the Commonwealth Games and that the Bill would not allow you to do it, but we still had a jolly good row.

Can we take these things seriously and look at them for the benefit they bring—the things they will give all of us? If we do not, we will end up with these horrible bitty examples. People say that it is sport and not politics, but clearly the two cannot be separated that easily. People say, “It’s nothing to do with me”, because it is only sport or politics or money, but they are all connected.

We have a series of opportunities coming up where we can start to square these circles. The first will be the football regulation Bill, where we will look at sovereign wealth funds and their relationship to football, and fit and proper persons. I hope we can start to have a slightly more nuanced, and indeed adult, discussion of these problems, because sports, sportswashing and the presentation of sport matters to society at a quite fundamental level. If we pretend that it does not, or are individually not interested, we are ignoring our reality. Sport is an integral part of our society, and we should treat it as such. I hope that that is one message we can take from this debate.