Human Rights: Sportswashing - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords am 2:41 pm ar 21 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Scriven:

Moved by Lord Scriven

That this House takes note of countries that use sporting events to “sportswash” their human rights record, and the role of sporting bodies in aiding this practice.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, I am delighted to open this debate on a very important yet often overlooked issue: sportswashing. We all know the positive power that sport has in bringing people together, the pride and enthusiasm, self-development, building resilience, fostering team spirit and promoting the best of what it is to be human. But beyond all this is a practice that operates in the shadows—sportswashing.

In framing this debate, I wish to be clear about what my focus on sportswashing is. It is a political decision by some Governments to use sports events, teams or individuals to divert attention from their controversial actions, human rights abuses or political agendas. Essentially, it is a form of reputation laundering through the world of sport.

How is this practice employed? One of the most common tactics is for countries with tarnished images to build for then host major sporting events. These events attract global attention, providing an opportunity for Governments to present positive imaging while diverting attention away from issues such as political repression, corruption or human rights abuses. Government bodies also invest heavily in high-profile sports clubs to enhance the investor’s global image; we see that with Saudi Arabia and Newcastle United, and also with McLaren and the Bahrain sovereign fund. It is a real concern for some in football and F1 that foreign states could be investing in and using UK-based sporting teams to sportswash their human rights record at home. Another strategy involves signing athletes to promote a positive image; we all remember seeing David Beckham at the Qatar World Cup.

There is nothing new about this; we can trace sportswashing back, although the term came about in 2015. One only has to look at fascist Italy’s 1934 World Cup and the Nazis’ 1936 Olympic Games to see sportswashing in practice. Recently, we have seen sportswashing Olympics held in China and Russia; Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, hosting F1 races; and Qatar holding the recent World Cup.

It has gained much more prominence recently. The dilution of news outlets has made it harder to get one unified and consistent message out to large worldwide audiences but major international sporting events still grab attention and get global focus in a way that few other platforms can. States run by autocrats or royal dynasties, which have poor human rights records or lack respect for normal democratic values, are the ones that have proved themselves the best practitioners. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain have become famous for it.

For example, Saudi Arabia’s total investment since 2021 in trying to improve its image via sport is around £4.9 billion, which is almost the equivalent of the GDP of Barbados. The Bahraini authorities have reportedly signed a new deal with F1, running through to 2036, which costs £41 million each year to stage F1 races there. Most, if not all, of this money is handed over to sporting ruling bodies, such as FIFA and F1, which are private bodies and rely on these massive sums, and make the individuals who run them very wealthy.

Some say it is important to allow these countries to host such sporting events as it brings about change. The last time we heard that was from Gary Neville, who was paid to be a TV pundit at the Qatar World Cup. Did sustainable and real change from the FIFA World Cup come to LGBT+ people in Qatar? No, the money was paid over to FIFA and sportswashing happened. There was no improvement in human rights for the LGBT community there. It is clear that sustainable change does not happen when sporting events are held in states such as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. In fact, things get worse when controlling sporting bodies, autocrats and ruling royal families refuse to accept that human rights abuses even happen, some linked to the sporting events themselves. I am sure that many noble Lords will remember FIFA banning the OneLove armband in Qatar.

Others argue that sport is sport and politics should not be brought into sport. Many agree, but let us be clear why sport and politics are colliding. It is not because of those who are pointing out that sportswashing exists. It is because political decisions are being made by autocrats and ruling royal families to invest in sport events to turn the spotlight away from their record on human rights and democratic abuses. The investment in sportswashing is a political act, so those who say “No politics in sport” should support calls to deal with this political practice of sportswashing through tighter rules and regulations for sporting bodies, teams and clubs.

I turn to one in-depth example of sportswashing: F1 racing in Bahrain, an issue that I have seen close up since 2018. I declare an interest as the vice-chair of the APPG on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf. I got involved when the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, which I thank for its helpful briefings for today’s debate, brought to my attention the case of Najah Yusuf, who in 2017 was arrested, sexually assaulted, tortured and falsely sentenced to three years in prison after she made a stand on social media against sportswashing and the 2017 Bahrain F1 race. The interesting fact about Najah’s case is that, in the court ruling, the court referenced the F1 race and her activism against it on social media as one of the reasons for her sentence—a direct link between F1 racing in Bahrain and the sentencing of an individual standing up for human rights and against sportswashing. Due to international pressure, she was released early. I have since met Najah. She told me of the soul-destroying, continuing abuses that she and her family have received from the Bahraini authorities for standing up to F1 sportswashing in her country. This includes, but is not restricted to, her losing her civil service job and the police continually harassing her family.

Last year four individuals were arrested, threatened, verbally abused and forced to sign a plea restricting their right to protest in future after they held a protest near the Bahrain International Circuit during the F1 race. This was despite F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali’s assurances that

“individuals should be allowed to protest against and criticise our event without intimidation or reprisals”.

When asked about the arrests, F1 reiterated a false statement by the Bahraini Government denying their occurrence. It still failed to acknowledge that these arrests took place and to correct the record on F1’s website, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary after the Bahraini authorities were forced to concede that these events had indeed taken place.

These four Bahraini citizens were subject to further reprisal and harassment this year, ahead of the F1 race. Two of the protesters, Hajer Mansoor and Muneer Mushaima, had their family houses raided. The other two, Najah Yusuf and Ali Muhana, received police summonses. Hajer Mansoor’s son has been arrested without a warrant. This 20 year-old young man, Sayed Hashim AlWadaei, was arrested after a house raid last month and has subsequently been tortured and interrogated while blindfolded, without the presence of his lawyer, on allegations of participating in unauthorised protest. It is clear that his arrest was strategically timed to coincide with the F1 testing, and that his detention was extended in the lead-up to the race for political reasons—namely, to silence all protest surrounding the Bahrain Grand Prix.

I have made repeated requests over the last few years to engage with Mr Domenicali, the CEO of F1, to discuss potential human rights issues linked to his races, and the lack of due diligence carried out by F1 on where they race. In the last month I have personally reached out to him on two occasions to ask him to intervene, due to the nature and timing of Mr AlWadaei’s arrest, as it appears to be linked and timed to deter F1 protests in Bahrain. Unfortunately, a familiar pattern has emerged: Mr Domenicali has not even acknowledged my letters and emails, and has refused any discussion or engagement with me or any other organisation with expertise in human rights abuses in Bahrain when these abuses, and a potential link between these events and F1, have been brought to his attention.

Mr Domenicali’s arrogance, lack of professionalism and non-engagement left me with no alternative but to seek this debate, and to seek further regulation of the practices of F1 and other such sporting bodies based here in the UK. His leadership of F1 is damaging the reputation of his sport, as he refuses to engage with the issues around F1 and human rights. He thinks he can just receive the reported £574 million from the Bahrain authorities up to 2036 that makes him and his organisation richer, while having nothing to do with the real issues that his sport is helping to cloak in Bahrain.

As I said, this is a pattern of the senior leadership in F1, based here in London. Since 2018 I have brought attention to individual and systematic cases of human rights abuses linked to F1 races in the Gulf. F1 has never acknowledged the link—even in the case of Najah. When the court specifically linked her sentence to the criticism of the F1 race in Bahrain, F1 said that no link existed. I was granted a meeting with F1’s senior leaders back in 2018, but they have allowed no further direct contact and I have seen fellow parliamentarians ignored when they have raised potential issues around F1 racing and human rights abuses. On one occasion there was an outright refusal to meet me over F1’s human rights policy. Thank goodness for drivers such as Sir Lewis Hamilton, who has had the courage to say that human rights issues are around and that he is not convinced that F1 going to countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia helps change happen.

My recent contact, via a letter to Mr Domenicali on 14 February and a reminder on 11 March, was an attempt to collaboratively explore with him his comments that F1 is “a force for good” in these countries and can bring about a slow and quiet change. I asked him to show me the evidence, the due diligence done, the results from these investigations and the expert human rights organisations that F1 meets. Again, I did not get an acknowledgment of these letters. It is as though he fears the evidence coming before the public. What is the F1 leadership hiding? What do the evidence and due diligence show, if indeed they are being done at all?

What was even more galling was to see the British ambassador to Bahrain, Mr Long—while I was seeking reassurance on due diligence around human rights issues— posting on social media, helping to promote the Bahrain Grand Prix and endorsing Mr Domenicali’s approach, without acknowledging the issues of human rights abuses potentially linked to F1 races there.

I have four questions for the Minister. First, what is the Government’s view of sportswashing, does his department have a working definition of it and does it plan to adopt the policy of the Government on the issue? Secondly, will the Government make representations regarding the arrest of the 20 year-old Bahraini, Sayed Hashim AlWadaei, during F1 testing this year, and will they try to make a determination about the links of his arrest to F1?

Thirdly, will the new Bill on football regulation that is in front of Parliament include rules and obligations around foreign state ownership of clubs and teams here in the UK, as the Government have just agreed to do around press ownership? If so, will these rules and regulations be extended to UK foreign-supporting companies and bodies, such as Formula 1, to ensure that they carry out proper due diligence, including engaging on issues related to human rights violations?

Fourthly, despite repeated concerns raised directly with the UK Government and the ambassador in Bahrain about the use of sportswashing and abuses linked to F1, including by many Members of Parliament and rights groups, why has the UK ambassador to Bahrain chosen actively to facilitate a race that has links to human rights abuses? What steps will the Government take to ensure that British diplomats take seriously concerns raised about human rights violations and are seen not to potentially aid sportswashing?

I look forward to listening to the contributions of other noble Lords, and I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Moynihan Lord Moynihan Ceidwadwyr 2:56, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for leading this debate, which provides a valuable opportunity to consider the link between the role of international sport and human rights. In doing so, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I emphasise that I draw in particular on my time as chair of the British Olympic Association at the time of the London 2012 Olympic Games. I also believe it is important to review the recent World Cup in Qatar.

Far from sportswashing human rights records, the hosting of major sporting events in countries where concern rightly exists about human rights actually does the opposite. It brings with it a spotlight into the darker recesses of the country, which generates action and change, in a way that, when the sporting spotlight is turned off, international attention and calls for change diminish. This debate effectively bears testimony to the fact that sport provides a platform to highlight, not hide, human rights abuses, as we have just heard through Najah’s story. I have long taken an active stance on issues concerning human rights. All Governments need to act decisively on human rights abuses, wherever they exist, by making the strongest representations to the country concerned. However, the question raised by today’s debate is about not condemnation of human rights violations but whether the cancellation or boycott of an international sporting event is the best way to promote change in the country concerned.

For example, was a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing 2022, for both able-bodied athletes in the Winter Olympic Games and disabled athletes in the Winter Paralympic Games, reasonable, proportionate and effective as the right way to change the course of Chinese domestic policy on human rights? If we are to ask sportsmen and sportswomen to walk away from their careers and close off the chance to compete on the ultimate stage for which they have made a lifetime of sacrifices then the athletes will rightly ask whether the Government are taking action on a much wider front. Calls for a boycott would be very different if trade, cultural exchanges and diplomatic relations were curtailed, rather than seeing growth in trade, the promotion of cultural exchanges and the strengthening of diplomatic relations, as was the case in Beijing.

I remember, as an athlete, being called on to boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow. The team was being turned into a single political pawn to assuage the conscience of the Government of the day, who opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. No other action was proposed. I appreciate that it is not an easy question; indeed, it was made more difficult when, during the same month as the calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games on the grounds that the Government were sportswashing their human rights record, with criticisms of the international governing bodies aiding this practice, Governments around the world overwhelmingly elected China—as a champion of human rights—to the UN Human Rights Council, achieving 139 votes out of a possible 193.

Looking beyond the athletes to sports boycotts in the past, we find that they have a patchy record of effectiveness at best. Boycotts have been used to express opposition to patterns of gross human rights violations and to communicate the repugnance of the international community as a whole, or at least a large part of it, at the policies and practices of a particular nation or nations. All have been ineffective tools in this regard, with the one notable exception of South Africa. With the benefit of hindsight, few would deny the significant contributions, certainly at the moral and symbolic level, that the boycott made to the overthrow of the apartheid regime, but it was part of a much wider package of measures taken by the international community on the trade and diplomatic fronts.

There was a very personal sense of outrage at the heart of the apartheid debate—namely, abhorrence over racial discrimination anywhere and at any time. The success of the sporting boycott was due to the fact that the international community was in broad agreement over taking a wide and comprehensive range of punitive political measures against the South African Government, of which sport was actually tangential but important.

It is my view that, for actions of this kind to be effective in tackling what the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has defined as sportswashing, they must have the broad support of the international community and be the product not of posturing or reprisal but of an astute and practical moral calculus, including a wide-ranging package of trade, travel and diplomatic measures to lead to action that will best advance the cause of human rights and the well-being of those whose rights are violated. Because surely all of us agree that politics and sport, regrettably, are intricately interwoven.

To address human rights issues in relation to international sporting events in isolation from the broader diplomatic framework would, I contend, serve no useful or realistic purposes. I absolutely respect the strength of feeling on human rights in this Chamber and count myself as part of that coalition. It is almost 50 years to the day that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I went to the Philippines as young MPs to write a critical report on the Philippine Government’s human rights abuses, but the reality is that life has changed in those 50 years.

As the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, rightly said, the centre of gravity in professional sport is effectively on the move. The 150 years during which the legacy of de Coubertin made its home in western Europe has shifted to the Middle East, and it will not come back to the West. If we pick out sportsmen and sportswomen to act as our champions to assuage our conscience over human rights abuses, we will have missed the central point: that the only losers in this scenario are actually the sportsmen and sportswomen concerned. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, that sports boycotts, which are the necessary corollary of avoiding the concept of sportswashing, when used in isolation from the many tools at the disposal of Governments, have failed and are never likely to succeed. I do not see our Government imposing widespread economic and political sanctions and a trade ban, for example, on China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or India, to name a few.

On the contrary, I take the view that the significant advantage of international sporting events is their high media profile. This ensured that the spotlight of international attention shone brightly on Qatar during the World Cup. This spotlight, as it ranges over countries where human rights are a concern, will, in time, assist in bringing dividends. I take the view that international sport is a force for good in itself; that engagement is preferable to isolation; that precedents show sports boycotts rarely achieve their goals; and that seeking to impact countries through avoiding sporting contact is highly unlikely to achieve positive improvements on the ground. It could become a symbolic gesture, which would isolate and punish countries, and potentially prove to be a counterproductive and retrograde step.

Ultimately, and to me this point is overlooked by those supporting ceasing sporting contact with countries of concern regarding human rights, the greatest damage will befall sportsmen and sportswomen, and, in the case of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the overwhelming number of athletes who are not motivated by money. Neither the Olympic nor the world sporting movement, nor indeed anyone, should have expected sport alone to bring countries into line with international human rights standards. Expectations of sport-led metamorphosis are simply unrealistic, and real change in a country requires consolidating the position of that country’s domestic reformers and a wider international public recognition of human rights. I do not believe that international sport should be expected to solve a problem to which the Governments of the international community have yet to find an answer.

At the same time, it would be wrong to underestimate the growing international influence of sport as the centre of gravity moves to the Middle East—here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. Just as China’s human rights record fits uneasily with the Olympic ideals, so does the idea that sport can harbour prejudice, geographical or otherwise. Sport is about humanity, and the benefits of the Olympic Games continue to contribute to, not detract from, the changes we all seek.

The same underlying principles underpin international football. The moment Qatar won the bid, it recognised and knew that the spotlight during the World Cup in Doha would be focused on its human rights record. Qatar was in need of comprehensive reforms to its labour market, and I argue that the World Cup has in part led it to adopt labour standards that are the best in the region. It invited in the International Labour Organization and invited it to stay after the World Cup—the only country in the region to do that. The fiercely independent International Labour Organization’s reports on material improvements in occupational injuries and heat stress-related disorders were really important. Qatar reacted—it had to react—to international pressure and implemented measures to prevent passport confiscation, with the full removal of exit permits expanded to all workers in 2020. Of course, more can and must be done, but I argue that it is the very spotlight of international attention on major sporting events that accelerates progress in the alleviation of human rights abuses, in the same way that the immovable date for the opening ceremony in 2012 accelerated the regeneration of the East End of London by 10 years.

I well remember that, just after the curtain came down on the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, I was sitting near here with representatives of human rights groups, whom I got to know well during the build-up to the Games in Beijing. A prominent and greatly respected senior campaigner looked at me and said, with a wry smile, that he privately wished that the Games would be hosted in Beijing every four years. For the human rights organisations, having the Games every quadrennium in Beijing would have been ideal, because the powerful Olympic torch, fuelled by the Olympic ideals, shone into the deeper recesses of China and gave strength to their important campaigns. But, sadly for him, the Games moved on to London, and the challenges to human rights records in China moved with them.

Photo of Baroness Grey-Thompson Baroness Grey-Thompson Crossbench 3:07, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I declare an interest: I am chair of Sport Wales and, with that, I sit as a board member of UK Sport. I also have a number of other declarations in the register—but I emphasise that these are my personal views.

It is always a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan—I like to call him my friend in sport. I agree with much of what he said this afternoon. We talk about sport and politics not being linked, but I note that, actually, the medal table is soft politics: “Which is the best country in the world?” When I first came to your Lordships’ House, I was frequently asked, “Is it not really difficult moving from sport to politics?” Actually, sport provides one of the best political training grounds you could wish to have.

I agreed when the noble Lord talked about boycotting. Athletes are being asked to give up a relatively short career and, unless the Government and Ministers do much more around that to offer athletes support, it does not change the conversation too much. I remember that, prior to the Rio Paralympics, which nearly did not happen, a number of Ministers had gone to the Olympics, and then a decision was taken by the Government not to send a ministerial delegation to Rio. I was asked by a number of journalists, “Won’t athletes be desperately upset that Ministers aren’t going?” With all due respect to the Members on the Front Bench, who I know care passionately about sport, I have not met a single athlete who spent many years of their life training to compete in front of a Minister. But there is a value in our role in educating athletes so that they understand the countries and jurisdictions they go into.

I have long said that many athletes should have families like mine. Way before the internet, when I was competing in Seoul, which was my first Paralympics, my father made me go to the library and take out a whole pile of books and make a conscious choice about what my participation in sport was going to be.

This debate is really important because sportswashing gives us a lens to look at the power of sport, but it is only one lens. There are lots of different types of washing. There is purplewashing, in terms of how disabled people are treated and used. Merely putting a wheelchair user in a picture of people doing sport does not mean there is inclusion in a governing body or an international federation.

There is also greenwashing. In my time in sport, I competed at five Games. At the beginning, I am not sure anybody was looking at the green credentials of the Olympics and Paralympics. By the time of Sydney, that was really important: they gathered rain from the roof of the main stadium to water local farms and vegetable patches; they had worm farms for recycling food; athletes were not allowed to take food that they were not able to eat. By the time of Athens, there was a mass recycling programme for collecting the lids of water bottles; if you got 2,500 lids, that bought a wheelchair for a local child. I still argue that that was the biggest competition at the Athens Games, because athletics beat swimming by quite some way. It is educating and moving people along as you go.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, I worked on the bid and delivery for the 2012 Games. The strapline was: “Inspire a generation”. Well, you cannot have a strapline that says: “Vaguely inspire a few”. But I am really pleased to say that gone are the days when we just dump a big Olympic park into an area and not think about the legacy or the impact it is going to have on the environment around it.

When we look at sport, we have to look at the bigger picture: what is the point of sport? Is it for sport’s sake or for changing lives? I argue that it can be both. Back in 2000, Nelson Mandela famously said:

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand”.

That is the best of sport, but, as other noble Lords have mentioned, there are also huge challenges in terms of what we do. As we push younger and younger children through the pathway as we aspire to win Olympic and Paralympic medals and World Cups, we have a duty of care to those we encourage to go through the system. I wrote the Duty of Care in Sport report back in 2017 for the Government. Many of those recommendations, based on the work of the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, are still waiting to be enacted. It is really important that we talk about these issues and do not just focus on the amazing things sport can bring.

In turn, we have to challenge the international federations. What is the International Olympic Committee doing? What is the International Paralympic Committee doing? What is FIFA doing? Over the years, they have done some work to diversify themselves. It is possibly slower than I might have hoped, but can we really expect an international federation to change the world? The International Paralympic Committee has a campaign called “WeThe15”. Some 15% of the world’s population are disabled. It was a great campaign for the time of Tokyo, but can the IPC really be expected to change the lives of disabled people in every single jurisdiction around the world? I think that is asking too much of sport on its own.

Many noble Lords have heard me say that 2012 was the most amazing Olympics and Paralympics but it did not change the world for disabled people. Just this week, there has been a report from the UN rapporteur on disability rights saying that the UK is a difficult and challenging place for disabled people to live. Most people would be surprised by that. If the UK is a difficult place, other countries are challenging as well.

The Paralympics in China in 2008 certainly did not change the lives of most disabled people in China. That was the first Paralympic Games in which China competed seriously, and it came top of the medal table. It is almost impossible to see that it will ever do anything but that, because there are something like 85 million disabled people in China.

However, what the Paralympics did for Beijing was to change the lives of some of the disabled people living there. It changed the underground—Beijing has a step-free underground system in Beijing—and tactile paving was put in the city. It started that change. Without the Paralympics, that would not have happened.

I went to Beijing in 2005 and was sitting in a meeting and somebody noticed my wedding ring. They asked me whether I was married, and I said yes. Then I mentioned that I had a child, and the room emptied. I was trying to think about what I had said that had potentially been mistranslated; then everyone from that floor of the organising committee was brought in to meet me, because I was the disabled woman who had been allowed to get married. In Beijing at the time, I was not allowed to hire a car, because disabled people were not allowed to drive—or indeed be married or have children. It is heartbreaking when you see those things. The Paralympics helped to move that on at least a little.

I am going to introduce a new phrase, which I am not sure has ever been mentioned in your Lordships’ Chamber, which is “inspiration porn”. You can safely look at it on a government computer; it has not yet thrown up anything too dodgy. It is about the way in which disabled people are treated. This is another conversation that we do not have often enough, about what we are using sport for in changing the rights of disabled people. The challenge with inspiration porn is about how it is reported in the media that every disabled person is inspirational just because they are in society. That is quite hard in sport, because there are inspirational moments. But we have to challenge ourselves in what we are doing, as much as we challenge other countries around the world.

I worked at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Qatar, where disabled people are called “people of determination”. I really struggle with that as a phrase, but actually it explains the life that a lot of disabled people have to lead in coping with their impairment. Having the chance to go there—I would not have gone there in any way other than working in the media—gave me at least some experience of what life is like there for some disabled people. We have to think about whether going to a country shines a light and can shift the dialogue in a way that, if sport was not there, would not be able to happen.

As for how we push back at the IOC and IPC, they have to look at what the Games are going to be in future. The Games are getting bigger and more expensive, with more sports being added. The Athens Olympics cost $15 billion. We demand bigger and better opening ceremonies. The opening ceremony in Beijing had 15,000 people taking part although there were only 11,000 athletes at the Games. The estimated costs of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics were $38.5 billion, of which more than £20 billion was spent on infrastructure. With regard to the responsibility of the IOC and IPC in moving forward, they can do things in a very different way. The reality is that, if the Games are going to get only more and more expensive, the only countries that will be able to or will want to host them are ones with which we have a fundamental disagreement about human rights.

A slightly brighter area to look at are the Commonwealth Games, which have done some amazing things in inclusion and spreading a really important message of bringing people together. However, the Commonwealth Games are facing a crisis at the moment of countries being unwilling to host, or struggling to host—and in the UK that is something that we will find very hard to do. Sport has to refocus and think very differently about what it wants to be. It comes back to the question of whether it is sport for sport’s sake and physical activity, or whether it is going to do more to try to change the world.

A lot of the area that I work on is around women in sport. The 2012 Games was known as the “women’s Games”—both the Olympics and the Paralympics—with British women dominating. It is incredible to see the rise of women in sport. The number of people who go to watch women’s football is unbelievable; it is something that I dreamt of for years. I have still not forgiven the team behind not giving Mary Earps her own shirt, which was a gross mistake and a missed opportunity.

There are still challenges for women’s sport. For example, the Swiss Football Association has just cut its support for women’s football from £13.5 million to £3.6 million. Women’s sport will be put in a situation where it has to make difficult decisions about where it goes and what support it gets—which, ultimately, will not develop what it is trying to do.

I was very lucky as an athlete because I was never asked to boycott a Games; I honestly do not know what I would have done. It is important, at the moment, for athletes to have that platform. In British sport we now talk about giving athletes a voice and a platform, allowing them to talk about the things that matter to them. We have a responsibility as administrations to educate and support them so that they are not cancelled for having an opinion, but are able to use the very best that sport gives them to keep changing things for the future. We need government support to do that; it cannot be done by sports and athletes on their own. Look at the number of British individuals who sit on international federations in the world of sport; we have to use those voices because, quite frankly, sport can do better. We can do better for sport, but we can use it to change the world.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 3:20, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, what a privilege it is to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thomson, and I pay tribute to her for everything she has done to open up the world of sport to disabled people. It is an inspiring story, and it is a privilege for us to sit in this House with her.

Max Freudmann was an Austrian Jew who ran in the sprints in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin—it is not so long ago; I was in being, if not actually born at the time. Having escaped the Nazis, he was the sports teacher in my grammar school in Wrexham. I still recall his sardonic evaluation of my running style: “Thomas,” he said, “You don’t run—you knit”.

Despite that handicap, I found myself decades later playing rugby football on the Reichssportfeld where the 1936 Games were held. I was playing for Berlin, and although I may not match the medals of the noble Baroness or, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, I still have the cap that was awarded to me for that privilege. The ground was dominated by a massive limestone podium, the Führerloge, from which the Führer had addressed the crowds. In the Führer’s dressing rooms behind, where the Wrexham team was changing, our captain was warming us up: “Remember what they did to Swansea. Cofio Abertawe!” Heads were banging on the wall and we were exchanging punches to acclimatise ourselves; the air was heavy with sweat. Then the referee put his head round the door and said, “The Berlin team’s short of players”. Well, I drew the short straw and soon found myself in the more relaxed atmosphere, wreathed in cigarette smoke, of the German changing room. You will be pleased to know that the Welshmen won that game, and I just about survived an attempt to knock my head off by an old friend in Wrexham colours.

In 1936, sportswashing had not been invented as a word, but that was the entire purpose of those Games. The Olympic torch relay from Mount Olympus, filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, was an innovation at them. Blonde, blue-eyed Aryans blazed their way through the nations of central Europe which they were shortly thereafter to invade and conquer. The five Olympic rings were carved in stone at Delphi, as though they were an ancient symbol of the original Hellenic games.

Despite assurances given by the German Olympic committee that German Jews would be able to train and be available for selection to the German team, the Nazis, shortly before the Games, simply removed German citizenship from all Jews. Since being a national of the competing country was necessary under Olympic rules, they were thereby banned from competing.

The Americans were highly dubious about competing at all, because they feared that black people would be disqualified. In the event, as your Lordships know, Jesse Owens, with his four gold medals, severely damaged the concept of the master race.

Prior to the games, the Guardian newspaper summed it up:

“This year at Berlin for the first time, we are to see” athletes

“confessedly exploited not for the peace of the world, not even for the pride of one nation, but as an advertisement for a political party. The conduct of the Games and their setting are to be a demonstration of the excellence of” the Nazis.

Despite these doubts and reservations, Hitler succeeded in his aim. In an editorial at the close of the Games, a New York paper praised the success and stability of the Nazi regime. Worse than that, and to my regret as president of the Lloyd George Society, David Lloyd George, in the following month of September, visited Berchtesgaden and met Hitler. On his return to Britain, he wrote an article in the Daily Express in which he said:

“I have now seen the famous German leader and also something of the great change he has effected. Whatever one may think of his methods—and they are certainly not those of a parliamentary country—there can be no doubt that he has achieved a marvellous transformation in the spirit of the people, in their attitude towards each other, and in their social and economic outlook”.

The Games gave credibility to Hitler, and I wonder whether, later in 1938, they may have supported the appeasers and, in particular, caused Neville Chamberlain to trust Hitler’s assurances that there would be “peace in our time”. Equally, did they strengthen the isolationists in the United States of America, which stayed out of the war until 1942?

The problem is that sportswashing works. The host country comes out of it looking cleaner and brighter. Worryingly, the choice of sporting venues for the football World Cup, the Olympics or other worldwide competitions rests in the hands of committees made up of people who have sporting, not political, interests and qualifications—and history has shown that money changes hands.

Of course, this choice does not rest solely in the hands of those from liberal democracies. Big money comes from principalities and autocratic powers. How to combat it? Well, there is one set of values that is universal: namely, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 70th anniversary of which we recently celebrated. All the 193 members of the United Nations are signed up to it.

The International Olympic Committee is to be commended for its adoption in May 2022 of the human rights strategic framework, which references the Universal Declaration. Further, it now interrogates preferred hosts —as they are called—who hope to stage the Olympics, on how they will seek to identify adverse human rights impacts throughout the lifecycle of the Games. We have yet to see how successful the strategy is, but it is a template for all worldwide sporting competitions to follow.

In the past, I was vaguely against sporting boycotts, and the slogan “Keep politics out of sport” was attractive to me. Fifty years ago, which appears to be a significant date, on my way to watch South Africa play at Twickenham, I was confronted by a well-known Liberal—a friend of the noble Lord, Lord Hain—waving a banner objecting to apartheid. After quite an argument, he asked me whether I had any spare tickets so that he could watch the match.

We must never again have the Olympic Games, or any other world competition, motivated to enhance an ideology or a particular political party or to wash away human rights abuses. In today’s world, we should not hesitate to refuse to participate in any such competition—that is the only weapon we have. I heard the argument very firmly put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and there is a great deal in it—but in what other way can the Games be policed if the International Olympic Committee fails to control the way in which they are held?

Does it matter where the United Kingdom is in the medal table, or whether Wales was whitewashed in the Six Nations and got the wooden spoon? Of course it does—it matters to us all—but athletes are rarely political ideologues themselves; it is for the sporting authorities to act. I have no doubt that Max Freudmann was running for himself primarily, and less for his country or indeed his race; he simply wished, as every athlete does, to test himself against the best in the world—and, in Jesse Owens, he found the best.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 3:31, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for securing this important debate. I am honoured to take part alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, who gave a very important speech. I share her great concern about women’s sport, including how far we have to go towards equality and the understanding that we can go backwards as well as forwards, which is sometimes forgotten. I also credit the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for acknowledging having changed his mind; in your Lordships’ House, it is always good to see people’s thinking developing and going forward.

I will go a long way back to a couple of the origins of sporting activity thousands of years ago. One was the ancient Olympics held in honour of Zeus, who, for the ancient Greeks, was the despotic, sexually abusive king of the gods on Mount Olympus. There was the Mesoamerican ball game. Sometimes, positively, it seems to have been used as alternative to war: Topiltzin, the Toltec king, played against three rivals, with the winner getting to rule over the losers. But later in its history, it became associated with human sacrifice and usually decapitation—blood-soaked sport indeed.

I looked up the origins of the term “sportswashing” as we currently use it. It seems to have begun in 2015, when Azerbaijan used the European Games to divert international attention away from human rights in that country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, did, we have to draw a parallel between greenwashing and sportswashing. They both make associations with health, democracy, equality and even environmental action—all positives that are churned up together and supposed to put out something good. But, so often, what we are talking about is a very thin coat over some very nasty things underneath.

It is worth looking at where in the UK the term was first widely used: I think it was probably in 2018, regarding Abu Dhabi, the Manchester City football team and the case of Matthew Hedges, a PhD student who was convicted of spying in the UAE. Eventually, after a great deal of suffering, he was later pardoned.

What we saw was lots of Manchester City supporters coming out to defend the UAE and its record on human rights because they wanted to defend their football team. That is a very interesting example of the way in which sport can be used as a lever and a tool, and Amnesty International was particularly effective in highlighting that at the time.

Closer to the current day, a moment when sportswashing became untenable was when UEFA decided to move the 2022 Champions League final from St Petersburg, President Putin’s hometown. That was after the illegal invasion of Ukraine by the Russian regime, but there had already been extensive sportswashing by what was obviously an authoritarian and internationally aggressive regime. That was at its peak during the 2018 World Cup. The president of FIFA declared at the Kremlin that the world was now “in love” with President Putin—what does that image look like now? Even at the time, it was not hard to see how disturbing that was. Rio Ferdinand and Peter Schmeichel were also at that meeting.

Further back, in Argentina the military junta seized power two years before the 1978 World Cup. When the Argentinian team won the cup, it was seen as a real political boost for the junta that helped to keep it in power.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar was truly bloodstained and a mark of shame on the so-called beautiful game. In 2010, when Qatar won the right to stage the World Cup, it had only one of the eight stadiums needed. Human Rights Watch reported that to build the rest, and the hotels and roads, more than 2 million migrants were forced to work in sweltering heat and extremely abusive labour conditions. They were abused in the interests of sport—and money, of course, which I will return to. It was reported that at least 6,500 migrant workers died during those 10 years of construction. We are not really that far from the Mesoamerican ball games, are we? This is a country where migrant workers and other residents, should they be LGBTIQA+, face severe repression of their basic human rights, as do many other people. This is despite the fact that in 2016 FIFA signed up to the UN principles on business and human rights, requiring it to

“avoid infringing on the human rights of others”.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, spoke extensively about the situation in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. I will not go back over the entire ground that he covered, but it is worth looking at the total list because there has been an explosion of sportswashing by Saudi Arabia. It has spent at least $6.3 billion on sportswashing since 2021—that is 300 sponsorship deals. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and the state-owned oil company—we come back to the link between the environment and sport—have invested in sports such as boxing, racing, football, snooker, golf, ATP tennis, cricket and the America’s Cup regatta, and they are sportswashing what is an increasingly oppressive regime. The regime continues to intervene in Yemen, one of the world’s worst human rights crises, and was responsible for the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

I will also briefly revisit—as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, did—the situation of Bahrain, particularly Formula 1. The regime has regularly used the Grand Prix to enhance its image, and over the past two decades, as the noble Lord outlined, there have been numerous human rights violations directly associated with the event itself; we are coming back to bloodstains again.

I raise, as the noble Lord did specifically, the case of Sayed Hashim AlWadaei, son of Hajer Mansoor, and ask the Government what they are doing in that situation. I am aware that it is not directly in the Minister’s portfolio, but none the less, in this context, he must have expected this question. Would the Minister defend the UK ambassador to Bahrain, Alastair Long, on 2 March 2024 releasing a promotional video celebrating 20 years of F1 in Bahrain? He talked of the vision it took from His Majesty and His Royal Highness the Crown Prince and boasted of Bahrain-UK tourism ties, completely ignoring human rights abuses and actively sportswashing the regime. I remind your Lordships’ House that this is the UK ambassador to Bahrain. Does the Minister consider that acceptable?

An obvious part of this debate on sportswashing is the place of boycotts, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. I have to raise the impact of the sports boycott on apartheid South Africa. I very much agree with the noble Lord that the sports boycott was only part of the story, but it was none the less an important part. I have to cross-reference what is generally known as the anti-boycotts Bill that the Government are currently pushing through your Lordships’ House, formally the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, not currently in his place, spoke extremely powerfully at the Second Reading of that Bill. I urge noble Lords who have not read that speech to do so. He also writes in today’s Guardian about the power of sports boycotts and the power of local action when the national Government were failing to take action. As the noble Lord says in the Guardian,

“the British people’s international solidarities often exceed those of our political leaders”.

That does not, however, absolve the Government of taking action. Noble Lords and I have only covered so much; there are so many issues around the place of repressive regimes in British sport today. So I have a direct question to the Minister: what steps will the Government take to ensure that multi-billion-dollar companies based in the UK are not actively engaged in covering up human rights abuses through their sports-related activities, actively sportswashing and making regimes have a more positive appearance? My second question is: what steps will the Government take to ensure Sayed Hashim’s release?

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that sport is only a small part of this story. Finance is a big part of the ways in which repressive regimes have infiltrated our society; they have used elements of our financial sector and other elements of our society to make themselves appear respectable. Since my entry into the House, I have talked about the corruption of the London laundromat, the still partly hidden scandal of golden visas and our role as butler to the world’s kleptocrats and populists. That is a term I have borrowed from the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who gave a speech of that title in your Lordships’ House in February 2022.

It can sometimes seem that sport is small beer in comparison with that wave of corruption that we have invited into the UK—the wave covering up human rights abuses and corruption that has occurred through the City of London and through other British mechanisms. But I come back to the point that the plutocrats and autocrats are people too. They seek acceptance, gilding on tarnished reputations and fake legitimacy, and we have to acknowledge that sport is something that has a very special ability to provide that.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Ceidwadwyr 3:44, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, on moving this Motion and on the powerful way in which he covered some very important issues, specifically those relating to Bahrain. I will pick up on some matters that other people have commented on and should identify that, as I think the House knows, I am fortunate enough to be the founder chairman of the world’s first gay rugby club. It is worth remembering that, as was pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, human rights matters are issues not just in Bahrain but for the disabled, for women and for the LGBT community, in all sorts of different ways.

On the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, I checked the term “inspiration porn” on my phone and was not confronted by tractors or anything like that. Fortunately, inspiration porn is exactly as she said. However, it is well worth remembering that human rights issues do not apply only to countries in the Middle East, the Far East and to Russia; they apply to all of us, in different ways. Having been the founder chairman of the world’s first gay rugby club, I am fortunate enough to have watched the progress that all gay and lesbian teams have made in this country as they have broken down barriers over the past 30 years. We were an oddity when we were first formed in 1995; now, we are just part of the local leagues and regularly field four teams. There has been a complete change in society and attitudes towards us and our teams, and that is true on a worldwide basis. Sport can change attitudes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, referred to the growth in awareness of women’s sports. It has been quite sensational. Attendances at league matches have grown so much in a short time. Having said that, I remember having a text exchange with the noble Baroness in the middle of the Commonwealth Games, during the disabled marathon. She commented somewhat ruefully, when progress was being made in other ways, on the lack of participation in some disabled sports over the past decade. They have not grown in the way one hoped they would after the great successes of 2012 and onwards.

Several noble Lords referred to sports governing bodies. We all throw up our hands in despair at the behaviour of the vast majority of them. Some have been shown to be corrupt, while we know that others are just chasing the money in some form or another, but my noble friend Lord Moynihan made an important point: any sports boycott or action is effective only when taken as part of an overall international governmental approach. Otherwise, there is no point in asking sportsmen and sportswomen to boycott.

I remember having a conversation with my noble friend Lord Moynihan and Lord Coe about the 1980 British Olympic team being asked to boycott Moscow at the same time as the Bolshoi Ballet arrived in London. What on earth was the point of saying one thing to one group of people and a totally different thing to another? If we are going to send messages, we have to do it across the whole of society. There have been many references to F1; I am pleased that there is no F1 in Russia now, in part because of the international boycott. It no longer takes place. However, I say to F1 that, like other international bodies, it ought to listen to what is taking place.

There is a difference between the four-yearly Olympics and annual events such as Grands Prix. You can sign a contract for a Grand Prix over four, six or eight years and say, “If you don’t make progress, we’re going to cancel the contract immediately through force majeure. Alternatively, the contract won’t be renewed when it ends”. In the case of the Olympics, it is somewhat different, but the Olympics is awarded many years in advance so the International Olympic Committee should be willing to say, “We’ll award it but we want to see progress at the start of the contract, not at the point when the games take place”. That is absolutely the pinnacle of the event but much can be done beforehand.

There has been reference to sportswashing in events right through from the Berlin Olympics in 1936. It is tragic that the person who designed the first Olympic village, which was in Berlin in 1936, committed suicide two days after the closure of the games because it had been identified that one of his grandparents was Jewish and he would rather commit suicide than face anything thereafter.

I want to touch on one element of sport that has not been referred to this afternoon. The sponsors, such as Coca-Cola, Bridgestone and Visa, have an enormous amount to answer for. If they did not sponsor the events, they would not take place where they were. In conclusion, I really think that everybody should look at sponsorship. I quote the Coca-Cola website:

Coca Cola has been associated with the Olympic Games since 1928”.

Take note: that is before Berlin, yet it is mentioned with pride. It also says that it gives the

“opportunity to … celebrate with sports fans in … countries” around the world. What do the Uighurs in China, the lesbian and gay communities in Bahrain, and other oppressed minorities think of that? It is not just about sports organisations or Governments; the sponsors also have a lot of questions to answer.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 3:52, 21 Mawrth 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.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 4:02, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, is to be heartily congratulated this afternoon on bringing forward this topic for debate. I am not sure what hotline he has to the heart of government, but his foresight in choosing this issue for this week—the week in which the Government plucked up the courage to publish their football regulation Bill—is to be admired. Like me, he sees the opportunity with the football regulation Bill to make a stand on sportswashing—the noble Lord, Lord Addington, has advertised the point well—and to try to set a high bar, not just nationally but internationally.

This afternoon’s debate has been fascinating, with a broad range of views, from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, through to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, with his nuanced take on how best to tackle sportswashing and achieve change and improvements in human rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, largely echoed his take on how we make more inclusive international events such as the Olympics and the Paralympics. I personally found her take on politics in sport not just realistic but insightful and fascinating. I was particularly drawn to, and enjoyed, the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward; they were not just thoughtful and illuminating but very revealing too. I had not included any points in my comments about sponsorship, as noble Lords will hear, but that was a well-made argument, and one that we should reflect more on when we look at some of the issues associated with sportswashing in the future.

As pretty much all noble Lord have said, sportswashing is nothing new. As long as there have been international competitions between competing nations, an element of sportswashing has always been present. The fascist states of Italy and Germany made ruthless use of sporting events, notably football and the Olympics, to project themselves to the wider world. Of course, the 1936 Berlin Olympics was the most obvious and probably the largest example. I particularly enjoyed the fulsome and witty explanation of all of that from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. In more recent decades, the practice has become more subtle—but arguably not that much more subtle.

What do we mean by the term “sportswashing”? The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, gave his definition and academics have tried to define the idea. Jonathan Grix perhaps nailed it when he wrote that it had become

“a short-hand way of criticising (usually) non-democratic regimes or large corporations for using investment in world-renowned athletes, sports clubs, and sports events to detract from illiberal, non-democratic, and/or exploitative practices in their home countries or businesses”.

As the House of Lord’s Library note says, the term has been applied to hosting large events such as the Olympics and Paralympics or the World Cup, setting up new facilities, sports infrastructure and domestic competitions, investment in teams and leagues internationally, usually through sovereign wealth funds, the sponsorship of teams or tournaments by state-associated bodies such as tourism departments and national airlines and, of course and in particular, engaging well-known international sportspeople in ambassadorial roles for new leagues and bodies.

Many commentators have observed that states getting involved in support, direct sponsorship and other forms of sports-related alignment provides endless opportunities for soft power and reputational enhancement. The opportunities for promoting a positive image of the states themselves and increasing their status and credibility are limitless. From Berlin in 1936 to Beijing in 2008, via the FIFA World Cup in Russia in 2018, the pattern is the same.

In recent years, more attention has, as we have heard, focused on the Gulf states. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, made a good job of displaying exactly how Bahrain is operated, but also Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. The expansion of Formula 1 is an interesting case study in this regard. The Bahrain grand prix has been running for two decades and has been joined on the calendar by races in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

A BBC estimate suggests that Saudi Arabia has invested some £5 billion in sport since 2021. As well as F1, there have been major investments in events such as boxing, the LIV golf series, the ATP tennis championships and the America’s Cup regatta. In recent times, we have seen the takeover of Newcastle United, and the state’s interest in football seems more to be more widespread, with reports that the country is seeking the rights to the 2034 FIFA World Cup and, interestingly, the 2035 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In the case of the latter, it is worth noting that the growth of the women’s game in Saudi Arabia is both very recent and limited by international comparison.

Of course, elite sport can contribute to economic growth. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman argued in September last year:

“If sportswashing increases my GDP by 1% then I will continue doing sportswashing”.

It could not be more blatant than that. The Sports Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al Saud, explained to the BBC that accusations of sportswashing were “shallow”. On human rights, he said:

“Any country has room for improvement, no one’s perfect”.

He added that

“these events help us reform to a better future for everyone”.

There is little doubt that the Saudi states sees being a player across many different sports, in particular football, as a form of soft power. We in this Chamber often talk about the notion of soft power and the influence that UK institutions can wield through the BBC, the British Council and our aid budget, but these are by comparison benign interventions designed to promote liberal and democratic values. They are not designed primarily to advance solely economic interests or to provide cover for human rights abuses or unregulated workplace practices such as those reported widely during the construction of football stadia for the Qatar World Cup. In that context, yesterday’s report in the Guardian about emerging evidence of similar construction-related deaths in Saudi is very worrying indeed and I think should be reflected in action from FIFA as football’s governing body.

What should be the approach of government to states that use the power of sport to impact upon reputation, international standing, trade and much more? First, we should encourage greater transparency. For example, FIFA should be more open in its dealings with any nation seeking to host a future World Cup. This means that there can be no allegations of corruption surrounding the awarding process, and the adoption of a zero-tolerance approach towards human rights abuse claims. The bidding process should not be used to excuse poor human rights records. For example, if Saudi Arabia is to play host, the Saudi Sports Minister should be held to his words about events being a driver towards genuine and verifiable reform on human rights and much else.

Secondly, we must make it plain internationally that sport—and, in particular, football in this instance—is sport for all. Labour has long believed in sport for all. Our vision is of sports being not just of interest at elite levels but inclusive and participative, so that we can all play our part, and play a role—this, after all, was the motif for the London Olympics of 2012. As we have seen, for many countries, from Afghanistan to the Gulf states, this is an issue. So we should be using our version of soft power to influence Governments who seek to use their wealth to promote strategic investments in sport for less altruistic purposes.

A Labour Government would seek to use their influence to promote human rights and tackle abuses such as those experienced by construction workers in Qatar. Equally, we would wish that influence to stop the abuse of LGBT+ fans and the discrimination that women suffer. In football, we take the view that FIFA should put its house in order. Ahead of the 2034 World Cup, the next 10 years should be used constructively to tackle the issues that emerged during the Qatar event. FIFA should show some leadership and work with its partners to bring change.

In this context, the welcome publication—finally—of the Government’s Football Governance Bill could be used constructively to set a high bar in football regulation that shows what can be done to tackle a myriad of regulatory issues, starting with financial fair play and fairer competition. One important objective of the moves towards football regulation was to give fans a bigger say in the governance of football and put them very much at the heart of the game. We should look to extrapolate that example elsewhere, and use that power to change attitudes nationally and internationally.

I am looking forward to the Minister’s response to this highly significant and well-timed debate. Will the Minister use his time to say a little about how His Majesty’s Government see the regulation of our nation’s number one obsession, football, as a way forward to improve not just governance but other related matters in the culture of the game? Can he also set out the Government’s approach to ensuring higher standards around human rights, LGBT+ rights and workers’ rights in the context of future World Cup bids, and international sports events more generally? Perhaps he could be tempted to reference any discussions that he and other Ministers have had with FIFA and other international sporting bodies to ensure that there are far higher standards for countries bidding to host the World Cup and other similar international events.

This has been a valuable debate, and one that, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, will probably prefigure similar debates during the passage of the football regulation Bill in the future. I have greatly enjoyed, and been fascinated by, the compelling, wide and varied contributions.

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 Mawrth 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.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

Before we get away from the video, will the Minister defend the words that the UK ambassador said in it?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

I have not seen the video, and I do not want to defend words I have not heard. I have set out how His Majesty’s ambassador and all Crown servants overseas follow the policies of His Majesty’s Government and are rightly held to account for what they say publicly—but my colleagues at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office are perhaps better placed to discuss that.

It is important that we continue to have direct conversations on human rights and other important matters. The UK continues to show global leadership in encouraging all states to uphold international rights obligations and to ensure that those who violate human rights are held to account. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, mentioned the World Cup in Qatar, where I hope he saw that my right honourable friend Stuart Andrew—the Minister for Sport and the Minister for Equality—made the point directly by wearing the OneLove rainbow armband when he attended. By doing so, he showed that we do not shy away from these conversations and gestures. Following the tournament, we continue to engage with Qatar, which has moved forward on labour rights, as noted by noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Moynihan, who pointed to the independent monitoring done by the International Labour Organization.

The benefits of inward investment are key in international sport. In the last decade, there has been an unprecedented level of interest and a flow of private capital investment into the sports sector globally, particularly from international institutional investors. Like others, I think my noble friend Lord Hayward did us a great service in this debate by touching on the importance of sponsors. The Government have consistently supported the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, which are widely regarded as the authoritative international framework to steer practical action by both Governments and businesses across the world in this important area.

The last decade has seen growth in a number of areas across sport, with significant levels of new and innovative investment, particularly in women’s sport. The Government have outlined the important role of inward investment in our sports sector through their recently published sports strategy, which works to encourage investment in our sport system in a sustainable manner. We will work across government departments and with external partners to highlight best practice and opportunities for inward investment in our domestic sport, including women’s sport.

In July, the Government hosted the inaugural investment in sport symposium, bringing people from the sector together with investors and other associated organisations to discuss the opportunities that are available. We have also launched a new women’s sport investment accelerator pilot scheme, which brings UK-based women’s sports rights holders who are seeking investment together with industry experts and investors. We believe there are further opportunities within the sector, in the form of viable investment propositions for the right investors who are committed to the long-term growth and health of the sport.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for what has been a timely debate and a chance to look ahead to the debates we will have on the independent football regulator, but also a powerful opportunity to remind us of the importance of how the Government engage with countries around the world through sport and in other ways, to the benefit of the UK, our sportsmen and sportswomen, and the millions of people across the country who enjoy sport in all its forms.

I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said. There is a powerful lesson in the example of Lloyd George, whose comments about the impression he formed at the 1936 Olympic Games are difficult to hear, not just for the noble Lord and his colleagues on the Liberal Benches but for us all. But I am glad that, as we look back on those Olympics, it is the figure of Jesse Owens, with his impressive four gold medals, that looms larger in the historical imagination, underlining the importance of seizing the opportunity of sporting events to advance important conversations on matters of human rights and politics, which, as noble Lords have rightly said, are often intertwined.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 4:30, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in what can only be described as a rich and informative debate underpinned by some values of sport—a respectful debate that brings people together regardless of differences of views and where we start. That was very important.

It was interesting that we started to go down the cul-de-sac of boycotts and bans. That was not the aim of this debate; I specifically did not use the terms in my opening remarks. The thrust of the debate I wanted, and most people got on to, was not just the role of the athletes and the events but the roles of the sporting management bodies and what happens when they do not take on those roles, and how the Government therefore deal with the issues we have spoken about today, such as human rights abuses.

I am not going to go through all noble Lords’ speeches, but the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, raised a really important issue to do with sponsorship. Interestingly, in F1, because of the lack of action by the sporting body even to engage, those of us who are concerned are looking at targeting Rolex, Heineken, DHL and Qatar Airways among other sponsors, because they have a moral duty, and the consumers of those products need to be aware of what they are contributing to.

The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said that sport cannot change the world. I think we all agree with that: sport cannot change the world, and there is a broader, more complex issue that sport has to engage with. But sports bodies can change their parts of the world and do things around human rights abuses in their contractual arrangements, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said.

I was slightly disappointed with the Minister. I am not going to give him a hard time on human rights in Bahrain. We could say we were shadow-boxing; I realise that he is not from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But some of the answers were disappointing with regards to the lack of action the Government are prepared to take when sporting bodies based in the UK are not meeting their international obligations. It does not fit together that the Government say they are not going to get involved in foreign entities owning sporting bodies in the UK when only a couple of days ago they agreed to do exactly the same with the press. I think there is an issue about why these foreign entities want to use sporting bodies in the UK. They are not investing millions of pounds in these bodies purely for the sake of sport—they understand what it brings to their countries’ reputations.

This has been a historic debate, because it is the first time that the UK Parliament has ever debated the concept of, and phrase, “sportswashing”—so we have taken part in an historic as well as an informative and rich debate. To come back to the football issue and the independent regulator, I think that we are getting to the point where amendments will be put with regard to foreign state ownership of clubs, if that is not being done for the right reason.

I will finish with the words of somebody who has been part of abuse in a country and who has tried to stand up for human rights when one of these sportswashing events was held. They said, “These events come and they go, and our country is seen in a light that the regime wants the rest of the world to see us. But our plight is ignored or dismissed by the sporting bodies as they get richer. Yet once they have gone, or sometimes once they are here, doing their sport, our freedoms don’t change and our rights can be crushed. Something isn’t working and something has to change.”

I hope that this debate has said that something has to change, and I look forward to keeping the pressure on the Government, along with other noble Lords, to make sure that bodies or clubs in this country are better regulated and that, if they do not carry out these issues and people continue having issues like this, further action will be taken.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 4.36 pm.