HC Deb 22 February 1985 vol 73 cc1392-400

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr,. Archie Hamilton.]

2.32 pm
Mr. Colin Moynihan (Lewisham, East)

The Times in a notable leader last year commented: Boxing has a long history often invested with glamour. It is seen as a trial of courage and strength, a producer of heroes, a ritualisation of the combats by which mankind has developed. It has enabled a few exceptional individuals to escape from poverty and racial discrimination and rise to wealth and fame. It is held to have practical value in developing character and skill in self-defence. It is enjoyed by many spectators and it earns a lot of money for some businessmen. It continued that banning boxing would be an unwarranted interference with individual liberty. It is perfectly legal to damage oneself with alcohol, nicotine and other permitted drugs. It is even legal to commit suicide. Boxing is voluntary for those who receive the damage as well as for those who inflict it. The brain does not distinguish between the impact of an amateur or a professional glove, a football, a fist or shoulder in a rugby scrum, or the ground as a jockey falls from a horse. Hang-gliding, pot-holing, rock-climbing and other dangerous pursuits are not sports that I pursue and I share the concern at the enormous cost in money and human life when such high-risk sports go wrong and rescue operations have to be mounted. Nevertheless, I strongly respect the right of the individual to choose his own destiny.

To those people who would ban boxing on the grounds that it is dangerous, I put the facts. Yes, it is one of many dangerous sports. It is a tragedy that there have been 10 deaths in professional boxing in this country since 1945, of which six were British, one due to aspirin sensitivity. Yet over 480 people died in sport between the years of 1969 and 1981 alone. What of mountaineering, horse riding, football and rugby, where in each case the figures for deaths are higher? What of smoking and drinking? Would those who seek to ban boxing logically extend their argument and ban them? Stringent medical safeguards, popular support and willingness to discuss the moral and ethical issues concerned with professional boxing are essential to the success of the sport. The price for boxing's future will rightly be eternal vigilance in all these areas.

When we look at sport today, and particularly boxing, we see strong arguments why the 1980s should go down in the annals of professional boxing as a glorious decade for the sport. Yet the likelihood grows, year by year, that this decade may mark the end of professional boxing. It is deeply to be regretted that I come before the House concerned that the future of the sport is threatened—threatened primarily not from the medical lobby, from pressure groups or from lack of public interest but from within the sport itself.

I should state from the outset that I retain an unpaid interest in boxing. Along with my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) and for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), I was honoured to represent Oxford university in the varsity match. An unexpected com/box swap with Charlie Magri at the helm of the Oxford VIII brought me into contact with Terry Lawless for whom I have the highest respect, and, I might add, into physical contact with Paddy McGuire in the ring, sparring against the former British bantamweight champion, down the Becket in the Old Kent road. Soon thereafter I joined the Boxing Board, along with other stewards whose sole service is to have the privilege of serving the active sportsmen, in our case the boxers, and the licence holders who support them.

Having declared my interest I should like to substantiate my view that professional boxing should be at its zenith. To begin with, we have record levels of boxers who are licensed by the board. Hon. Members should consider the facts. For example, 1974, 1975 and 1976 saw 242, 356 and 395 licensed boxers participating in 150 tournaments. Over the past three years the figures have stood at 538, 576 and 551, with over 242 tournaments last year alone.

Recently, the British Boxing Board of Control for the first time since its inception in 1929 was accepted as a full member of the World Boxing Association. Now our fighters can challenge for WBC and WBA titles.

Only last year, television policy limited coverage to two live and two delayed contests in a year. Today, after a carefully monitored 12-month pilot scheme to ensure the prevention of studio boxing, licensed promoters can have 20 shows televised in total on the national network. That is a reflection, not only of the increasing popularity of the sport and of the high viewing figures, but of the substantial public support that exists, as those attending promotions will know. The advent of increased television coverage, although it has meant administrative problems, will, we hope, mean that more people connected with the sport will try their hand at promoting, and may themselves develop into major forces to challenge any recent tendencies towards monopoly, thereby becoming capable of staging world title fights, and enabling boxers from the regions to have the chance of boxing before their home crowds and audiences. It should be healthy to have two major promoters. It should not develop into an internal battle at the expense of the sport.

To match this growth in activity, unrivalled medical controls and safeguards are implemented by the board. Boxing in Britain leads the world in assessing, maintaining and developing standards of medical control. It was we, the British, who introduced the universal boxing passport two years ago, now carried by all boxers under the aegis of the World Boxing Council, and containing specific medical and boxing records. It is we who have sought to improve the state of boxers' fitness and the degree of medical control.

Before any boxer is considered for a licence he must have the official medical examination form completed. This form must be completed every year when his licence is due for renewal. In addition, every boxer is examined before every contest in which he takes part, and again after each contest.

A minimum of two medical officers must attend every tournament. Incidentally, many of them are members of the British Medical Association. The medical arguments outlined in the BMA report published last year do not, I believe, stand up to examination. The moral question is, of course, worthy of consideration and debate, and I put it on record that I am as fully aware as anyone of the hazards of the sport, and, certainly as far as professional boxing is concerned, so are the participants.

Professional boxing is undertaken through consent. Banning it would drive it underground without adequate medical supervision, as in unlicensed shows. The continuation of the sport under those circumstances, devoid of stringent medical safeguards, would be unacceptable to me.

As Eric Armit, a respected boxing statistician, said: When our sport is attacked we all close ranks. All that I ask is that we must never close our minds to the fact that boxing is about boxers and we should always be looking for ways to increase their safety. The real danger to the future of the sport—my prime intention today is to draw this to the attention of the House — derives from the threat to boxing from within its ranks. Let us consider the board's role. The board has accepted many of the challenges of today's world. Since its inception in 1929 some outstanding stewards have helped to promote the interests of the sport. The board is not financially interested and has been totally independent. It could be said that the board comprised moneyed Corinthians. In the past the board has been able to devote a great deal of time to boxing. Not only do the board's members seek to influence through rules and regulations, but they offer arbitration services for disputes among licence holders.

The tempo of life today is different. The Corinthians of the past were not burdened with instant media coverage or by huge financial deals. Perhaps the Corinthians have gone. Perhaps the board is sticking too hard and fast to a non-financially interested status. Perhaps it should consider restricting its involvement in the sport to administration. Perhaps it should look for statutory backing through a charter responsible to the Minister. Perhaps it should withdraw from arbitration between licence holders.

In the old days licence holders would go to the stewards with a range of problems. They were the best benevolent oligarchies ever known. I still like to think that the board is benevolent, but the concept of oligarchy is now as outmoded as the Corinthian ideal.

Some would argue that the board performs best in assessing where the sport is going, developing policies for television and protecting the six-rounders. These are valid questions and the board should never cease to address them.

What about the promoters? I remind those involved in unnecessary litigation over technical actions, which can only damage the sport, that the only finance generated by the board comes from the licence holders. Traditionally, that has rightly been kept at a low level. Unlike football and other sports, boxing does not enjoy direct handouts. The board does not promote the sport, own venues, have fixture lists or act as impresarios. Yet today we are using money from many Peters to defend against a few Pauls.

There comes a time when the figures involved in litigation are greater than the resources available to the board. When the board shrinks from doing what it believes to be right because of monetary restraints, the sport will be under serious threat. When the board looks for the easy way out because the course that it believes to be right cannot be pursued due to the cost of litigation, it will be time for the board to go.

Before Conteh, in the 1970s, I cannot recall the last time that the board was taken to court. Perhaps the last time involved Sullivan in the 1940s. Apart from the first action with Conteh the board has lost no further cases. The cost of defending the litigation currently pending on two High Court actions could far outstretch the board's present reserves of about £100,000.

I for one do not believe that I could stand in the House, or anywhere else, and defend the future of professional boxing, despite my deep commitment to the sport, without the medical control and supervision that is exercised by the board and is respected worldwide. The safety of the boxers is paramount and their interests must be served first. The main fight is between rival factions, which has resulted in litigation, with the non-financially interested board in the middle. Of course people should be entitled to ply their trade within the law and any constraint on their freedom is lawful only if it is reasonable.

The board believes that such constraints as it imposes are reasonable and fair. Indeed, the board's regulations are open to change at annual general meetings and embrace all licence holders. It is there that the opportunity to change the rules exists. I accept that all licence holders are professional business men, but let us consider the analogy of planning control. One cannot build on a piece of land irrespective of anyone else. The law is there to protect the public at large from the whims of the individual. Similarly, once a man takes out a licence and accepts the British Boxing Board of Control's regulations he cannot expect to promote when and where he wants, irrespective of clashes of dates or the future interests of the sport. The general body of rules and regulations protect all the promoters and licence holders and, above all, secure the future of the sport.

We must recognise that the future of British boxing is at stake. The board has a duty to respond to a world of boxing far removed from that which faced its Corinthian predecessors. It is doing just that. There is an onus on promoters to put on the very best shows to encourage the paying public to continue their support. Above all, there is an overriding duty to promote the interests of the boxers who are the sport's greatest asset.

I have tried to restrict my comments to under the usual 15 minutes to allow the hon. Member—although on this occasion it would be fair to say my hon. Friend—for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) to contribute to the debate. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is agreeable to that.

2.46 pm
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) and the Minister for their generosity in allowing me to have my tuppence worth—more likely my five minutes' worth—on this important subject. I commend the hon. Gentleman not only on his choice of subject but on the way that he has spoken, which was very commendable. It is probably the only subject on which we agree. We both broke sweat in the ring for the dark blues at Oxford, which qualifies us more than most hon. Members to speak about this subject.

There is no doubt that boxing is under threat, and the House knows that. It is under threat from the British Medical Association which, at its Manchester delegate conference, agreed to campaign actively to ban the sport —even though only a minority of members took part in the conference. It is campaigning, and we must take the threat seriously.

Everyone knows that boxing can be dangerous, and I do not exclude the hon. Gentleman from that comment. It must have affected him because otherwise he would be not on the Conservative Benches but on the Opposition Benches. However, boxing has a good record in this country. There have been 10 deaths since 1945–10 too many — with two deaths during the past 15 years. Putting that statistic in the context of other sports, the number of deaths in boxing pales into insignificance—if one can use that expression about death. That applies also to serious injuries, and I am sure that the Minister agrees with that.

Unless we are to be a nation that wraps itself in cotton wool, we must accept that a person entering competitive sport will get hurt at some stage. Tragically, some people will be killed. We must ensure that boxing remains in being while forever trying to ensure that the safeguards are maintained.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that a special mention should be made of the chief medical officer of the BBBC, Dr. Adrian Whiteson, and his staff. They have done a tremendous job to ensure that boxing is as safe as possible. Not a great deal of publicity has been given to their work. The number of boxers forced to retire by the board has received little publicity, and the same applies to boxers who have decided to quit. Colin Jones, with 33 bouts, will probably retire permanently, as will Charlie Magri with 33 bouts. Compare that with boxers like Ted "Kid" Lewis with 280 fights in less than five years, yet who lived to the ripe old age of 74. That would not be permitted today. Therefore, I support the hon. Gentleman and the BBBC.

I wish briefly to mention an area that is worrying us all. The subject, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewisham, East is vital to the good name of boxing. I refer to the allegations that a cartel is operating in boxing, as exposed by The Sunday Times last month. If Jarvis Astaire, Mickey Duff, Mike Barrett and Terry Lawless are guilty of those allegations, they must go to the BBBC and give it the fullest co-operation. Instead, one gathers, they are hiding behind their lawyers' apron strings. The board must not be inhibited by such tactics. We expect the board to be positive and firm in ensuring that boxing's good name is maintained.

In my submission, parliamentary privilege was established to assist people such as those members of the board who wish to get to the facts but who are inhibited from doing so by lawyers. I am sure that many hon. Members would be prepared to speak up for the BBBC in this matter. However, there is no substitute for the board, as the governing body of boxing, taking upon itself this role and doing it without help even from well-meaning hon. Members and others.

The Minister, who is sympathetic to boxing, cannot sit back overlong and allow this matter to drag on. As the custodian of British sport in the House, he must, if necessary, trigger off the mechanism of the Office of Fair Trading if he believes that a restraint on trade is in operation. I hope that he will reply to that point. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham, East on initiating the debate and on the way in which he did so.

2.52 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) in welcoming this debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) on the matter of professional boxing, which has been a source of much disquiet outside the House.

This is a subject on which both hon. Members are well qualified to speak. Both have personal experience of the sport, and it will bring a feeling of warmth and a glow to your heart, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to realise that they were both dark blues, obviously at varying weights. My hon. Friend is a competitor and steward of the British Boxing Board of Control, and he has wider experience as a member both of the Sports Council and the 1984 British Olympic team.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde has played a consistent part in these matters in the House for a number of years, and I am grateful for his contribution. He will understand that there are many points in the debate to which I cannot respond in view of the litigation which is occurring elsewhere.

Professional boxing has established a proud tradition in this country in the last 60 years or so, largely through the commendable efforts of the sport's governing body, the BBBC, the format of which has been followed in other countries.

The BBBC was first formed in 1918. As part of my preparation for the debate, I read the excellent BBBC jubilee document which was published in 1979 and was fascinated to read about how the board began. History is all-important in this, as in other spheres. An article by Gilbert Odd, the former editor of Boxing News, began: Answering a correspondent in its issue dated September 9th 1911, 'Boxing' stated, 'A licence is not required for a boxing hall, but you should apply for police protection.— Clearly, the sport felt that it should be well-regulated. I am happy to note that my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton), is doing duty on the Government Front Bench this afternoon. One of his forebears, a great uncle, Lord Hamilton of Dalzell, was one of the founding members of the BBBC.

This is an important debate and it is interesting to note exactly how the board was formed in 1929. It was born out of the old National Sporting Club, founded in 1891, and in March 1929 the BBBC's first constitution and regulations were issued. The first president of the BBBC was Lord Lonsdale, whose name lives on.

Before the BBBC came into being, managers and trainers were self-appointed with little or no qualifications, and the same applied to referees. Concern for the physical welfare of boxers was negligible and the attendance of a doctor at the ringside was very rare indeed. Since the board's inception, it has led the way in the introduction of measures to protect boxers, and has highly qualified members of the medical profession within its ranks. I endorse what has been said about its chief medical adviser. It has also played a significant role in the production of the stringent medical requirements that all professional boxers must meet before they are allowed to compete. In addition, the BBBC is recognised by many countries as a fine example of how a sport should be regulated, controlled and administered.

Just as the future development of professional boxing under the auspices of the BBBC relies on the amateur side of the sport—most professionals have had an amateur career — so the reverse is true. Professional boxing provides the incentive for amateurs. The amateur side of the sport is controlled by the Amateur Boxing Association in England, to which the Schools Amateur Boxing Association is affiliated.

There has been a marked increase in interest in amateur boxing in recent years. There are about 870 clubs with 45,000 registered members. Many of the youngsters who join boxing clubs come from deprived areas and inner cities and encounter at their clubs, sometimes for the first time, firm but fair discipline. They are encouraged to develop their physical fitness and mental awareness and they learn self-control and develop team spirit that they may have lacked before. The club gives them a positive interest and goals to aim for.

In recognition of the important role that amateur boxing has to play in the community and in encouraging youngsters to channel their energies into a demanding sport, the Sports Council assisted local clubs with £47,500 in capital grants and loans in 1983–84. In addition, the ABA received over £82,000 in current grant in that year and the schools body received about £3,500.

Between them, the BBBC and the ABA have been responsible not only for much of the development of the sport, but for producing world champions and Olympic medallists who have become household names and passed into folklore. The popularity of the sport is evidenced by the large crowds which flock to important bouts and by the press coverage that the sport receives, which is an important dimension.

Lately, some of those press reports have not been as encouraging as they might have been for the sport. There has been concern about the health dangers of boxing and reports of a cartel operating at the highest level within the sport. Those matters are primarily for the governing body — the BBBC. As one would expect, the board has responded responsibly.

The House would not expect me to comment in detail on the allegation of a cartel. I have read the newspapers and absorbed the articles. I note that the BBBC is to investigate the allegation and take whatever action is required. That open-minded approach can only be for the good of the sport, and the comments made in the debate will be widely read and absorbed.

I recognise clearly the legitimate concerns of some members of the medical profession about some of the risks associated with boxing — I discussed those concerns when I last met the BBBC formally—and the board of control also takes those concerns seriously. As I said, the board has led the way in the introduction of measures to protect boxers.

However, the risk of injury cannot be eliminated in any contest, as hon. Members have said, and it is important to recognise that those who take up boxing and many other sports do so in full knowledge of the injuries that they might sustain. Recent publicity about the health risks of boxing will have ensured that that is even more true. However, while those who take up boxing do so in that knowledge, and as a result of their interest in the sport, it is right that they should be subjected to the most rigorous medical requirements and that those should be controlled by their own governing body.

Like any sport or any other public activity, boxing will have its problems and difficulties with which it must cope. However, I am sure that, with continued responsible and clear leadership from its governing body, it will have a bright future. The ability of the sport to attract talent and spectators is not in doubt and I am sure that the BBBC will continue to live up to its long and honourable traditions. The Government see that as a right and proper role for the BBBC. It is a fundamental principle of British sport that individual sports are controlled by the governing bodies that are responsible to their own members. The state does not run sport in Britain.

Those who call for legislation to ban professional boxing should remember that legislation of the type sometimes advocated would no more mean an end to people fighting with their fists for money than prohibition meant an end to people drinking in Chicago and elsewhere in America in the 1920s and 1930s. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East said in his excellent speech, it would signal the end to the control exercised by the governing body, which has been a model, and the rigorous code that it currently enforces. We would step backwards into time to the back-street or fairground booth style of boxing, which the current rules are designed to prevent.

This has been a constructive debate. I hope that the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East and of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde will be widely absorbed outside the House. Those of us who have an interest in and direct responsibility for the orderliness of a major sport in this country want to see question marks eliminated as quickly as possible. I commend the debate to the House and for wider reading. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for initiating, and to the hon. Gentleman for participating in, a debate on such an important subject. I shall consider many of the important issues which have been raised and write to my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.