Human Rights: Sportswashing - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:14 pm on 21 March 2024.

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Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) 4:14, 21 March 2024

My Lords, I too have greatly enjoyed this excellent debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for securing it and setting it out in the way that he did. It has taken in a great sweep of history: the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and the 1980 Games in Moscow featured prominently, of course, but the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, took us back to Mount Olympus and even greater historical roots.

It was a debate where there was genuine disagreement on points of principle, set out eloquently in the opening speech by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and the powerful contributions from my noble friends Lord Moynihan and Lord Hayward, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and I thank them for that. We have seen competing ideas playing out in this arena in a great reflection of the very best value of sporting events, and it was good to have that reflection. It is important to touch on the vital issue of human rights, which are of course of the utmost importance. We must ensure that the Government and our sporting bodies work together as one on this.

Beyond the game played on a pitch, field or track, sport is a way for people of all nations to display pride in their country and to show off the very best of their nation on the world stage. That is something that the nations of the UK do, just as countries around the world do. We are blessed with an abundance of sporting assets in this country, such as the Premier League, our rugby and cricket teams, and a large number of internationally renowned sports men and women, including our wonderful Olympic and Paralympic athletes who are due to compete on the global stage once again in Paris this summer, and I am sure noble Lords will want to join me in wishing them the best as they do so.

The UK has a proud record of hosting major sporting events. Since the London 2012 Olympics, which my noble friend Lord Moynihan, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and others were instrumental in, we have hosted some of the biggest sporting events in the world, included the Tour de France in 2014, the Rugby World Cup in 2015, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022, the Rugby League World Cup in 2021 and the UEFA Women’s Euros in 2022. We are set to continue our stellar hosting reputation with the Women’s Rugby World Cup next year, not to mention the UK and Ireland securing the men’s UEFA European Championships 2028. Every year we host a number of the world’s biggest annual sporting events, including Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix at Silverstone—which I was delighted to see will remain the home of the British Grand Prix for at least another 10 years thanks to the signing of a 10-year deal to host it all the way through to 2034.

As noble Lords reflected in their contributions, major sporting events are not just for the fans and the people who love watching live sports; they have a much wider impact, one that is felt around this country and around the globe. They help to bring pride and touch the lives of many people in meaningful ways. They inspire people to get active and to push themselves. It is not just our teams, our leagues and our professional athletes that make their mark globally; major sporting events can be used as a way to catalyse investment in facilities to ensure that anyone who wants to take part in sport is able to do so. We have seen that with the Government’s direct investment of over £325 million in improving grass-roots facilities across the UK, as well as the Lionesses Futures Fund, which provides £30 million for 30 state-of-the-art facilities to increase access for women and girls, as well as to celebrate the successes of the Lionesses.

Major sporting events are an excellent way to demonstrate to the world the best that this country has to offer: our infrastructure, our expertise, our culture, and of course our people. Sport shows the very best of humanity and is important in bringing countries together, particularly in difficult circumstances or in times of conflict or uncertainty. It allows us to build bonds with other nations through friendly competition and by sharing a common human experience. The effects of such great sporting moments ripple beyond our athletes and those who are directly involved in putting on these events by allowing millions of people across the globe to share and learn about each other’s cultures and values.

We continue to engage on an international level and directly with other nations about the importance of those values, but we recognise that, crucially, sport is autonomous. Participation in international sporting events is a matter for relevant international sports federations and the national representatives to them. The UK’s sports bodies operate independently of government and, indeed, enshrine that political freedom in their rules and regulations. It is not for the Government to direct or mandate with whom our sports bodies must or must not engage.

On human rights, however, the UK believes that strong democratic institutions and accountable Governments who uphold human rights and the rule of law are key, fundamental building blocks for secure and prosperous societies. Protecting a stable and open international order that safeguards human rights is the cornerstone of UK foreign policy. Globally, our work on human rights is tailored and responsive to the context of individual countries, but, through sustained engagement, often in collaboration and partnership with others, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office works to exert influence over the long term to achieve impact.

In his opening speech, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked me a number of questions, which I will address now. He asked, first, whether the Government have a working definition of “sportswashing”. The short answer is that we do not. The UK believes that strong, democratic institutions and accountable Governments who uphold human rights and the rule of law are fundamental building blocks for secure and prosperous societies, as I said, and has that tailored approach, responsive to each country’s context. We do not seek to define a disparate group of actors and their aims, and we do not consider the question of human rights to be a sports-specific issue, in the same way that it is not a culture-specific issue. We look at it, in and of itself, through many lenses, including sport.

The noble Lord asked particularly about Bahrain, a country with which the UK provides technical assistance for ongoing reform, supporting progress in a number of human rights areas, including alternative sentencing, juvenile justice laws and the development of oversight bodies. The progress that we have seen from that work was reflected in the recent decision to remove Bahrain as a human rights priority country by the Foreign Office. We believe that engagement and support for Bahraini-led reform has delivered, and will continue to deliver, more than disengaging would.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, understandably raised the case of Sayed Hashim, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. The Foreign Office is aware of Sayed Hashim’s detention and we encourage the Government of Bahrain to meet all of their human rights commitments. We also encourage those with specific concerns to raise them directly with the appropriate Bahraini oversight body. I know that the noble Lord campaigns diligently on this and other cases in relation to Bahrain.

The noble Lord also asked about the new independent football regulator. I look forward to the debates we will have on that Bill when it comes to your Lordships’ House—it is a Bill of two Houses—but we have had a very useful anticipation of some of the issues that we will rightly look at when it is here for your Lordships’ scrutiny. On whether the new independent regulator would seek to prevent takeovers or look at questions of ownership on the basis of foreign policy or human rights concerns, or the roles of foreign Governments, the tests for the new regulator have been designed to reduce the risk of unsuitable custodians of teams, without deterring investment.

We do not believe that the new independent regulator should get involved in issues of foreign policy; that is rightly a matter for the Government, accountable to Parliament as they are. In fact, the new independent regulator will have a statutory duty to have regard to the Government’s foreign and trade policy objectives, so that it can follow the things that Parliament has scrutinised and the Government have set out.

We do not think it would be appropriate for a football regulator to make unilateral assessments of human rights concerns. If an owner or officer is sanctioned in accordance with the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations, which the Government brought forward and were approved in 2020, they would most likely be prohibited from being a club owner or director. The regulator’s primary focus is the financial sustainability of clubs and the industry, in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, alluded to. Clubs have many ownership types, including state ownership or owners who may be connected to foreign Governments—but I look forward to debating this more in our consideration of the Bill.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked about His Majesty’s ambassador to Bahrain and the grand prix there—a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, also followed up. The ambassador and his colleagues—and, indeed, colleagues at the Foreign Office here in London—regularly engage with Bahrain on human rights issues. That includes attending sporting events such as the grand prix; His Majesty’s ambassadors around the world attend a number of sporting events hosted in countries. The events are an opportunity for them to have conversations and raise issues, as they do.

We are proud that Formula 1 is headquartered in London, with its technical operations based in Kent. We are proud that seven of the 10 Formula 1 teams are based in the UK. Currently, over 6,000 people are employed directly through the sport in the UK, with over 4,500 suppliers. Formula 1 itself has made it clear that human rights are mentioned in the contracts it signs and that any adverse human rights issues arising from its events will not be tolerated—that includes media, freedom of speech and peaceful and lawful protest at events. But, whatever the sport, we are clear that we expect all our businesses to comply with all applicable laws to identify and prevent human rights risks and to behave in line with the guiding principles on business and human rights, including in their management of supply chains here and overseas.