Like all Members of this House and the country, I was appalled by the disgusting racist abuse encountered by the England football team and its support staff in Bulgaria last night. Whether you are a player, a manager, a supporter or a member of the staff no participant in sport should have to tolerate discrimination of any kind. May I also start by paying tribute to the leadership shown by Gareth Southgate and his coaching team as well as all the players for how they conducted themselves in appalling circumstances during and after the match? I have also spoken this morning to the chief executive of the Football Association to express my support for Gareth Southgate and his team and all the support staff of the FA on the way they conducted themselves.
We have made progress in this country to combat discrimination in our domestic game and make our stadiums more welcoming places to be. The Government are supporting a number of anti-racism initiatives, including the Premier League’s “No room for racism,” “Show racism the red card” and “Kick it out” campaigns, all of which have achieved a great deal in this area, and in February my predecessor in this role held a summit on discrimination with a range of bodies acting within football, but it is clear that we cannot be complacent, and we must remain a leading voice on this issue internationally.
International competitions such as this one should bring cultures and countries together. It was a step in the right direction to see the UEFA protocol engage last night—for the first time, I understand—but it is clear that much more needs to be done to stamp out racism in the game. I am also encouraged by the reaction of the Bulgarian Prime Minister, who has spoken out and called for changes at the Bulgarian Football Association.
UEFA must now get its response right, and leave no doubt that the consequences of failing to tackle this issue will be severe. I am writing today to the UEFA president, urging him to conclude UEFA’s investigations swiftly and to ensure that all football authorities and fans are clear that the consequences of failing to tackle this issue will be severe. The England team has my full support and I expect tough action from UEFA in response to this.
Just before I call the shadow Minister, as I have a sense that this matter will unite the House, I would like to thank the Minister for what he has said and to say from the Chair what I think will be the feeling of colleagues—namely, that Gareth Southgate has again shown what a magnificent ambassador for England and, indeed, the UK he is, and also how magnificently the team behaved in circumstances of intense provocation and vile behaviour by so-called fans. The team conducted themselves with extraordinary dignity. One of my own children was watching the match and came in to say how shocked and upset he was. The Minister’s reaction is one that I have a sense will be shared right across the House and by millions of people across the country. Colleagues voices will now be heard.
Thank you so much for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I would like to echo everything that you have just said. Last night, we saw the most horrific racist abuse aimed at England players in their match against Bulgaria, which caused the match to be halted on two occasions. Photos and clips followed of fans performing Nazi salutes, and the racist chanting continued. It is utterly deplorable. I had a conversation with the FA’s chief executive last night during the match, in which I reiterated our support for the England players. The entire country will be proud of the England team last night, and Gareth Southgate has shown true leadership in defence of his players. This abuse must be stamped out. No one should have to arrive at work to be subjected to any form of discrimination, so why are our players still being subjected to this? In future, if players decide to walk off the pitch in protest, they must have the full support of this House, our press and the football bodies.
We ourselves, however, are not exempt from this problem. It would be irresponsible for us to condemn the behaviour of fans around the world without addressing the fact that many players have indeed suffered racist abuse online, from the stands and in their day-to-day lives at the hands of a small section of our own fans. I know that the Government have committed to writing to UEFA, which I really welcome, but will the Minister outline what further steps they are taking to address the scourge of racism in sport? UEFA has a duty to act here. The world is watching. A fine is not enough, so I am asking our Government to ensure that we are backing up the FA to seek the harshest possible punishments. Stadium bans are a must, and forfeiting matches and expulsion from tournaments must not be ruled out. Enough is enough. The time to act is now.
I echo every single word that the hon. Lady has just uttered. I know that she is incredibly passionate about football, and other sports as well. I sense that this is a bit of a pivotal moment. We have experienced these issues for far too long, but I think there is a collective desire to see action taken. I fully support the way the FA swiftly launched its complaint, the way UEFA is undertaking its investigation and the way the players handled themselves on the pitch. They let the football do the talking in the second half, but this situation clearly cannot go on, and UEFA should rule nothing out in terms of sanctions.
As I said previously, my predecessor hosted a summit with all the football authorities in England. Our Department is outlining its plans and how it will take them forward. That follows a summit on the issue earlier in the year, which involved players, coaches, fan groups, players’ representatives, a policing unit and campaign groups. There are a lot of proposals and plans that we will be working on, including stronger education measures, better reporting systems and better training and support for referees. Incidentally, I commend the referee last night for the way he handled himself and the way he supported the English players, giving them the option of step 2 of the UEFA protocol. As the hon. Lady knows, there is still more to do; it is vital that the football authorities continue to prioritise tackling this despicable abuse, and we expect them to do that.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) on securing this urgent question. I also take this opportunity to welcome the Minister on his first outing at the Dispatch Box; I can assure him that he has the best job in Government.
I agree with everyone that we should applaud the reaction of the players, the management, the FA administration and, of course, the fans, and the way that they responded to last night’s appalling and vile racist abuse. However, does the Minister also agree with the chairman’s comments in the post-match interview, where he said that we cannot necessarily take the moral high ground on this issue because, while we have made progress on tackling racism in English football, there is still so much more that we need to do at every single tier of football in England?
I start by thanking my hon. Friend for all the brilliant work she did in this Department and with this brief over many years. I know she is still very active in this sector. She is right that we need to get our own homework done before we start preaching, but the problem is of such a huge scale that when international problems such as this arise, we must speak up and we must demand action. She is 100% right that we still need to clear up the mess on our own doorstep.
I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. This is a deeply serious issue, but it would be fair to say that it is entirely likely that I had never wanted the England team to win, and to win so well, until last night. I am delighted that they did their talking on the pitch, although of course they should have the right to walk off the pitch in those circumstances if they so choose.
However, it would be wrong to portray last night’s disgusting scenes as isolated incidents. The truth is that they are not. Racist chants and abuse form part of a growing and consistent pattern through parts of the game across Europe. This must mark a seminal moment, as the Minister said, in how football authorities crack down and eradicate racism of all kinds in our sport. Does he agree that, despite the progress last night in enforcing the three-step protocol for the first time, the fines and sanctions currently imposed by UEFA are simply not fit for purpose and do not form anywhere near enough of a deterrent?
We cannot have the Serbian FA fined €80,000 for fans’ racist chanting while former Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner was fined €100,000 for displaying a betting firm’s logo. These are hate crimes and should be treated as such by UEFA. What actions will the UK Government take to ensure that UEFA is pressured into recognising that reality?
The hon. Gentleman is correct: the severity of the penalty must match the offence. Clearly, this is a matter for UEFA, but that is why I have written to their president today. We expect the penalties to be severe. It is not the first incident; we experienced it with the Montenegro game. The idea that we have bunches of people making Nazi salutes and doing monkey chants—these are sub-human behaviours—cannot be tolerated. I look to UEFA in the strongest terms to deal with this particular incident as severely as possible.
I completely support the comments from Members on both sides of the House on how UEFA should demonstrate that real sanctions will be applied against national FAs that allow this to happen in their stadiums. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s proposals to legislate on online harms is an opportunity to look at the vile racist abuse that many footballers in this country receive on social media, which is a growing problem, and that we should look again at the status of homophobic abuse in sports stadiums in this country, too? There are big concerns about the increase in homophobia, and we should look again at the Football (Offences) Act 1991 to make homophobic abuse illegal in the same way as racist abuse so that both have the same status in law.
I totally agree that any form of abuse is unacceptable. We have seen footballers like Paul Pogba, Troy Deeney and Tammy Abraham receive such abuse online through social media. We want to tackle it, and we will work closely with the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. We have been clear that social media companies need to do more, and we will hold them to account on this issue.
It is a privilege of mine to be president of my hometown football club, Blaenavon Blues. Although, of course, we try to promote the best behaviour at grassroots level, an example has to be set by the highest body in the game in Europe. Will the Minister make it clear to UEFA that if it fails to act properly on last night’s awful racist abuse, it will have consequences right across the game?
The hon. Gentleman is spot on. We are making that clear and, as I said, I am writing to the president of UEFA today to say that enough is enough. We have seen too many examples of this horrific abuse. We saw it on TV, and there was CCTV in the crowd—the FA also had monitors in the crowd. It is beyond belief that this is still happening, and we will support the FA, which is unable to comment today because it has asked for an investigation to be launched. We expect the UEFA response to be robust.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment and agree wholeheartedly with all that has been said so far. Is it not important that, in the support we give to players, we send a signal not just from this place but from football authorities, national and international, that if those players choose to stay on the pitch, in the face of this awful abuse, they will have our admiration for their courage and commitment to the sport, but that if they choose to walk off the pitch, we will respect that choice, too, and there will be no negative consequences for their career, either in the short term or the long term?
The former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is absolutely right about there being complete support. There was an opportunity for the players to walk off the pitch for 10 minutes last night, just before half time—that is step 2 of the protocol—and I commend the referee again for giving them that opportunity, but they decided to stay on as there were only four or five minutes left. It absolutely should be down to the players, and we will respect their choice. The FA would respect it, and I am pleased to see that the referee would also have respected it last night.
The Minister calls it exactly right—this is an issue that unites the House. Several Members on both sides have applauded Gareth Southgate, the manager of the England men’s football team, and I hope you will allow me to read his words into the record, Mr Speaker:
“Sadly, because of their experiences in our own country, they—
are hardened to racism. I don’t know what that says about our society but that’s the reality.”
As a football supporter—I support Liverpool football club—I take my share of responsibility for the damage racism has done to our society. What will the Minister do to make sure we tackle this racism at its core in our society? What money will he put forward for truly inclusive sports education in schools so that we can make sure that we bring up the next generation to know this is wrong?
The hon. Lady is, again, right. We share a passion for Liverpool football club. I fear that I have opened myself up to some online abuse by admitting that. Commending the words and actions of Gareth Southgate is absolutely the right thing to do, and she is also spot on about stronger education measures. I know the football authorities are keen to pursue this area, and we will consult and keep in touch with them. I have met them a couple of times, and this issue has already been on the agenda during my short tenure in this post. We will monitor how the authorities implement their plans through the season, but she is absolutely right about education.
I watched my first football match in 1977, and it took until 1990 for us to see anti-racism messages coming out in our football. I know the Minister will agree that it has taken UEFA and FIFA far too long to get a grip on this issue. The fact that this is the first time the protocol has been enacted indicates that those two bodies have not taken this issue seriously enough. The Minister is going to write to UEFA, but will he consider going to meet UEFA and FIFA to express the anger of this House and the fact that we believe that enough is enough?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: enough is enough. I am sure my letter will be published shortly and he will be able to see its contents. I am happy to meet UEFA and FIFA any time to get across the mood of this House. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) on securing this urgent question. It is going loud and clear to UEFA that action needs to be taken. We have had far too many incidents of this and UEFA must get its response right. There must be no doubt in the mind of any football authority that the consequences of failing to tackle this issue will be severe.
The England football team, like most of our sports teams, is a fantastic advert for not only the best talent in this country but the diversity of our society. I welcome the Minister’s comments about the steps we have to take to protect that, but we also have to look outwith the sports field to make sure we protect the same sort of diversity in our boardrooms, management structures and politics. Will he therefore assure me that we will do the same in other areas in life as he has promised to do in sport?
Absolutely. We should be intolerant right across society of any form of abuse. I did not want to pick out players, but I will pick out Tyrone Mings, who made his debut last night. What a brilliant young man, and what a great advert he is for football and for Aston Villa, as shown in the way he handled himself on the pitch, talking to the referee, and afterwards in his post-match interview. No young man on his debut should have had to witness that abuse, but to have handled it in the way he did, and the dignified way he handled himself after the match, means his family, his team and the whole country should be incredibly proud of Tyrone Mings.
As somebody who has watched football for more than 50 years, I have often been disgusted by the behaviour of some people who attend football matches, and last night we really did sink to a new low. We are talking about racism in football, but in some ways this was even worse than that, because this was abuse of people because of the colour of their skin. That is absolutely shameful. Do we not all have a responsibility to correct this? Liverpool football club has been mentioned. I remember Liverpool being thrown out of and banned from competitions many years ago because of the behaviour of some so-called “supporters”. Should not the same be applied in this case?
When, after the Montenegro match in April, I suggested we take UEFA to the European Court of Human Rights for a repeated failure to provide a working environment free from racism and homophobia for football players, I was told that we were going to have meetings. Now I am told we are going to have letters. What will it take to get some action? Does the Minister agree that when it comes to discrimination in football, financial transparency and ownership, football governance does not meet the needs of football fans?
I know the hon. Lady is a passionate Newcastle United supporter and has written to me on the issue of football governance, and I have replied. We are taking a close interest in how football governance is conducted and, if necessary, action would be taken.
As a West Brom fan, I must admit I was rather less keen on Tyrone Mings last May, but, as the Minister said, he was magnificent last night, with his strength of character. The Football Association chairman said that there are many at UEFA with very strong feelings about racist abuse, but, sadly, those feelings often seem to be rather quiet. Is it not time that these people not only spoke up, but took proper action to stamp out the vile abuse that we witnessed last night?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is no excuse for what happened last night. What makes it even worse is the fact that this has happened previously. As I said, this is a pivotal moment—it is a turning point. The fact that we are having this debate in the Chamber and not in Westminster Hall sends a strong signal to UEFA that we want to see action of the severest kind on these incidents.
As a Newcastle United fan, I am very aware that we are not without significant remaining problems here in the UK, but I hope that this is a watershed moment. Unfortunately, UEFA has paid lip service to this issue for decades. The Bulgarian stadium in Sofia was part closed last night due to previous infractions, but despite that the Bulgarian team manager, who was interviewed after the game, seemed oblivious to events happening around him and did not seem to understand what racism is and what constitutes racist abuse of players and/or other fans. UEFA has a clear responsibility not only to act where racism occurs, but to be proactive, as the European governing body of football, to educate the constituent football associations, clubs, officials, players and, yes, fans of clubs and nations across Europe and to act as a beacon within FIFA to stamp out racist abuse across the whole of the world. Our Government must urge UEFA to act properly—enough is enough.
The hon. Gentleman, whom I know to be a passionate Newcastle United supporter, because I recall a sign above his office door—it was welcoming to other clubs, too. [Laughter.] He is absolutely right in what he says; there is nothing I can disagree with him on about this. We need action, not talk. We have been very clear in our communication today with UEFA. The Prime Minister has spoken out today in very clear terms. It is about time this House was united on something and I sense this issue is uniting the House. Be in no doubt that this Government want to see action by UEFA.
I welcome the statement that the Minister has given to the House. It is true that we have a chequered history on this issue in our country, but where we have seen instances of this taking place the police have, in general, been robust in their actions against it. What was particularly disappointing last night was that there was little evidence of the Bulgarian police taking action against those fans who were taking part in this vile behaviour. Will the Minister therefore assure the House that in his discussions with the Bulgarian authorities he will raise the issue of what, if anything, the Bulgarian police did about this behaviour last night?
My hon. Friend is right. A UEFA investigation is under way, and it is absolutely right that that should form part of that investigation. I understand that a number of the individuals—the reports are that these people were dressed in black, and I would say they were extremists—who were at that football game were taken out of the stadium around half time, but it is absolutely right that, through the investigation, we see what lessons are to be learned in respect of the actions of the Bulgarian police.
It is great to hear the whole House in support of the football team last night—not just Gareth Southgate, but in particular those lads who had to go about their jobs just yards from the most vile and horrific abuse that no one should have to endure on the football pitch. It was fantastic to see them getting the ball in the back of the net and showing their worth in that way. It was magnificent.
A lot of discussion has already taken place about getting our own house in order. The FA still has a long way to go towards representing England as a country and as a society. Currently, only 13% of the FA’s coaching staff are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, with the proportion in leadership roles at only 5%. How can we expect the young people of the future to see a career in football unless the FA looks more like the society it represents?
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. It was not just the players who were the victims of the abuse last night; it also affected the FA’s support staff, and cameramen who were of colour were abused and visibly shaking. It did not just affect the players. The best role models for diversity in football are those magnificent players who took to the pitch last night. It was just amazing to see how diverse the England football team looks. Hopefully, that will inspire many other men and women and girls and boys from all different backgrounds to take up our national game.
Stoke City football club is based in my constituency and has been doing some excellent work to promote diversity in the game. Does the Minister agree that we need to make sure that we support our local clubs to do much more work to ensure that the game is as diverse and inclusive as possible?
I do, and it is essential that we learn from examples of good practice. It is encouraging to hear of those examples at Stoke City, and I would be more than happy to come to Stoke and meet people at Stoke City to see what innovative action they are taking. That is very encouraging.
And very proud of Raheem Sterling I am, too.
I wish to carry on from the point made by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) about what we are doing in our communities. I am desperately worried about alt-right groups targeting sports and gym clubs on the estates in my constituency with alt-right messaging. I am working with the global Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the organisation Initiatives of Change International to produce a toolkit for communities, so that they can improve cohesion and combat such messages. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the project?
I am a Villa fan, and our recent victory over Norwich was marred by the fact that a small number of Villa fans were chanting racist abuse against the appropriately named Marvelous Nakamba. He was clearly unfazed by it, but the reaction of the fans and the club was utter condemnation. Does that show that if we work with the clubs and the fans we will eventually be able to kick racism out of football?
My hon. Friend is spot on. I remind the House that racist and homophobic chanting at football matches is a criminal offence. It is quite simple. Action can be taken, and we have provided some funding to Kick It Out to ensure that all hate crimes, whether during a game or on social media, are accurately recorded so that the necessary action, including on whether to involve the Crown Prosecution Service, is taken.
Are the Government aware of the excellent Show Racism the Red Card campaign, spearheaded by the Irish Football Association, which targets young people in an educational environment to show how football can bring people together? Will the Government fund and support other initiatives of a similar nature throughout the United Kingdom?
We are indeed aware of the excellent work that Show Racism the Red Card does. There are a number of campaign groups in this space in football, including Kick It Out and, indeed, Stonewall, which is taking action on homophobic abuse. We provide funding for these groups, and we are more than happy to look at how we can work with them to ensure that this vile behaviour is indeed given the boot.
Here stands another Scot who cheered England on to their resounding victory last night in the face of disgusting and shameful scenes. Does the Minister agree that the UEFA three-step protocol is some progress? Is it possible that we can build on that in this country to tackle the scourge of racism? In Scotland, we have a particular, deeply embedded problem with sectarianism; in his opinion, could it be applied in that context as well?
In my opinion, I see no reason why not. Last night was the first time the UEFA protocol was used in an international game, and I think it worked incredibly well. The support of the UEFA officials and the referee is needed. The players had made a collective decision just before half time to stay on the park, and the management and the officials supported them. It turned out to be the right decision, because I understand that the main protagonists—the lunatics—were ejected at half time. There may have been some pockets of verbal abuse during the second half, but the players decided to let their feet do the talking.
I must confess that the Minister took some of the wind out of my sails: I was going to ask him if he agreed with me about the magnificent professionalism and dignity of Tyrone Mings in making his debut. He was a great player for Ipswich Town and he is a great player for Aston Villa and for England. Will the Minister agree to write to each and every one of the England players who were at the match, to tell them just how proud their country is of their behaviour?
In terms of ability and character, this young England football team enhanced their reputation last night, as did their coach Gareth Southgate. They are a credit to themselves and to the entire nation. Is the Minister aware that under the complex qualification process there is a real possibility of Scotland playing Bulgaria in a European championships play-off match? Will he write to all the home nations’ football associations, and to the devolved Administrations, to assure them that if any of the countries of the home nations hear far-right chants or their players are racially abused they will get the full support of the UK Government?
One hundred per cent. That is where it appears as if the protocol will be effective. It is absolutely right that we back the players. Ultimately, it is the players’ call if they want to walk off the pitch. If it ends up going to step 3, it is a call for the officials as to whether to abandon the game completely. It is not for politicians to over-interfere in the running of football, but on an issue such as this, which is a social problem, it is absolutely right that we, in the strongest terms, have our say and support our players who are suffering.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) for securing this urgent question. I, too, want to praise England’s players for their calm professionalism in their defiance of racism. My son adores football and he is actually an exceptional player, but in the interests of him and of many other young people, we really need to do what is best to stamp out racism in football at all ages and at all levels. What are the Government doing to give meaning to the words “zero tolerance” of racism in football and, indeed, of other sports as well?
There should be absolute zero tolerance. I am encouraged to hear that the hon. Lady’s young son is a keen footballer, and it should absolutely be the case that, when he goes to play, nobody on that pitch is subject to any form of abuse whatsoever. We are working incredibly closely with the football authorities. We are very keen to see that their revised approach to tackling this issue is followed through, which includes, as I have said, stronger education measures, reporting systems, training and support for referees and stewards, the use of CCTV to recognise offenders and the innovative use of body cameras on stewards, which would be very useful for recording such incidents.
I welcome both the Minister’s statement and the Minister to his place. I also congratulate the England men’s team on a resounding win in the face of disgusting racist abuse. Does he agree that UEFA and FIFA have been flat-footed for far too long on this issue? We had a football team in Livingston where I grew up. If a person swore in the stadium, they were chucked out, because there were so many children, young people and families present. That is the kind of atmosphere that we should be fostering and encouraging. Will he make sure that UEFA and FIFA are not allowed to put profit before prosecution or action on this issue?
Again, the hon. Lady is spot on. UEFA has to get its response right on the basis that this issue has been going on for far too long and that this is not the first incident. All football authorities must be left in no doubt that failure to tackle this issue has severe consequences.
In July, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin- Khan) held a debate in this Chamber on the subject of racism in sport. Will the Minister tell us what action his Government have taken as a result of that debate, because, as last night’s disgraceful event showed us, there is a need for more action and less talk?
I am aware that my predecessor responded to the debate secured by the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan). There has been further action and communication between our Department and the football authorities. A summit followed that debate, which was attended by the policing unit, campaign groups and all the footballing bodies. We are looking for some of the measures that I have outlined in my previous answers to be implemented. There has also been an announcement of an increase in the minimum sanctions for discriminatory behaviour to a 10-match ban. This is subsequent to the debate to which the hon. Lady refers, but there is still absolutely more to do. It is vital that the football authorities continue to prioritise tackling this despicable behaviour.
I thank the Minister for the work that he has done over the past 24 hours and for the work that he will do in the future in tackling the scourge of racism. What we are talking about in one example was people dressed in black shirts making the Nazi salute. These elements of racism are being pushed on social media platforms. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), he said that there was more to do. May I ask him to press the Culture Secretary and, indeed, the Prime Minister to bring forward the online harms Bill that was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech? That would mean that social media companies can start to be tackled and regulated so that they are unable to have excuses and to say, “Oh we can’t take down these pictures of people making Nazi salutes at football matches because it takes too long to process.” We need the Bill. We need it to be stronger and to ensure that this type of racism is not fuelled by the social media platforms.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. As I have said, what we saw last night—extremists dressed in black, making Nazi salutes and making monkey chants—was bordering on the subhuman and should not be tolerated. Online abuse—any form of online abuse—should not be tolerated. With regard to the online harms Bill, we will be undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny and working with industry in this Session to deliver exactly the sort of results that he wants to see. We have made it absolutely clear that social media companies need to do more, and this Government will hold them to account.
I commend the England team and their manager for their dignity last night. Sadly, racism is still too much of a feature in football, both at club and at international level. The Minister has mentioned the three-step protocol, but does he support further mandatory measures such as the forfeiture of games if racism does not stop during the game? Does he agree that we must not place players and fans in the situation where they go to enjoy the beautiful game and find it defiled by the ugliness of racism?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. The forfeiture of games and other such measures are clearly matters for the football authorities, not the Government; that is absolutely correct. None the less, we need to be absolutely clear that our very strongly held view is that no measure should be taken off the table.
I do not mind admitting that I am not a fan of football, but I am very proud of the fact that the world’s first black professional football player played for my home town in Darlington. What shocked me the most this morning on hearing about all this were the comments of the Bulgarian manager. It just seems to me that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) rightly said, we will make no progress on this while the first reaction of people in positions of leadership, responsibility and influence in the game, such as managers, is to minimise and deny what has happened.
I, too, was shocked by the Bulgarian coach’s response. It was as though none of this had happened: he had not seen it; he had not heard it; and he shrugged his shoulders. It was rather incredible. That does not help when we are trying to erase this evil from the game. I was very encouraged by the comments of the Bulgarian Prime Minister. I do not think that there was much more that we could have asked him to say or do. The fact is he may consider taking away funding from the Bulgarian FA unless its president loses his job. I am very grateful to him for his remarks.
The Minister was quite complimentary about the way that the protocol worked last night. Kick It Out has issued a statement, saying that
“UEFA must explain why players weren’t sent to the dressing room during Step Two, as is clearly stated in the rules. TV footage also clearly shows that racist abuse continued in the second half, so it is unacceptable that Step Three was not enforced. This match should have been abandoned by the officials.”
Will the Minister reach out to staff at Kick It Out and perhaps discuss his interpretation of the way that the protocol worked with theirs?
I am more than happy to speak to Kick It Out about its interpretation. Having spoken to the FA and having received its intelligence, I can say that it is the players’ call. It should be the players’ call. We must support what the players want. They are the ones who, along with the officials and the support staff, are receiving this abuse. They made the decision to stay on during step 2 for the last four or five minutes. The FA did have spotters in the crowd, and the intelligence indicated that the abuse was going on. That might not be the case, because we cannot fill a whole stadium with officers, so it was a call for the players, and I support that, but I am more than happy, as the hon. Lady suggests, to have a conversation with Kick It Out.
As a very proud “out” football player in my youth—I was fabulous in defence and more fabulous than good at stopping surges down the right wing—I recognise that the people who gave me homophobic abuse were frequently the same as those who gave out racist and misogynistic abuse as well. May I ask the Minister what steps he can take to encourage clubs right across the country to show in our games this weekend that there is no place for racism or homophobia at the international or the grassroots level anywhere in our country?
The hon. Gentleman represents the fine city of Plymouth, and I may surprise him by saying that I am going to out myself today as well—as having been probably the only Member of Parliament to have played for Plymouth Argyle Supporters Association London Branch, back in the ’90s. Not only that, but I scored two goals for PASALB in my prime, some years ago. [Laughter.] Not that long ago.
It is absolutely essential that we send a message loud and clear from this place to all football grounds and all sports grounds throughout our nation: racism will never ever to be tolerated, and we need to crack down on the perpetrators.