HC Deb 10 May 1994 vol 243 cc293-300

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

12.33 am
Mr. Jim Callaghan (Heywood and Middleton)

As a young sports teacher, many years ago, I had serious doubts about the merits of boxing. As a result of those doubts I refused to organise boxing activities in the school. I have never regretted that decision.

I well remember, too, the answer given to me by the son of a former world champion when I asked him whether he would follow in the footsteps of his father and go into boxing. He replied, "Have you seen my father recently?" I had to admit that I had. That boy took up football and became a good soccer player.

Only when my attention was drawn to the present plight of Muhammad Ali was I totally converted with regard to the terrible hazards and tragedies connected with professional boxing. Muhammad Ali was known as "The Greatest"; in my view he is the greatest advertisement for the necessity to investigate the safety of boxing. One look at his condition is enough to register the insidious effect of a life spent absorbing blows to the head. His legs are leaden and his hands tremble. It is said that he has Parkinson's syndrome and that his condition is not due to boxing. However, I have video tapes of his later fights, which would suggest otherwise and that he took one punch too many. A former boxing fan said of him:

I stood talking to Ali, embarrassed by his inarticulateness and deeply ashamed, as it was not his own superb body that had done this terrible thing. I had done it, too, as part of the crowd urging him on, applauding the blood. I have not watched a boxing match since. Subsequently, because of the impact that that left on me, on 25 September 1991 I asked the then Minister for Sport for his views and the intentions of his Department regarding professional boxing, given the then medical condition of a professional boxer, Mike Watson, following a contest between him and Chris Eubank. The Minister replied on 30 October 1991 and I shall paraphrase his answer. He said that the Government did not control boxing or any other sport in the country and, in the case cited, the responsibility lay with the British Boxing Board of Control. He went on to say that injuries occur in many sports where physical exertion is excessive, that what is paramount is that the risk is controllable and containable and that the medical safeguards in British boxing are among the most rigorous in the world.

He therefore did not believe that there was sufficient evidence to justify the initiation of an inquiry into the future of amateur or professional boxing. Nevertheless, he said that he took a serious view of what had happened and that he had asked the BBBC to provide him with a full account of the events and its conclusions about what action, if any, it regarded as necessary, including the need for a BBBC inquiry.

The Minister said that he would study what the board had to say very carefully and would encourage it to listen to practical suggestions from other experts as to how safety standards may be improved. He said that I might have known that, on 16 October, he chaired a meeting with the BBBC and a number of eminent medical specialists to discuss safety in boxing.

On 23 June 1993, I asked the Secretary of State for National Heritage if he had received a copy of the British Medical Association's report into the risks associated with boxing and if he intended to set up an independent inquiry into those risks. He replied that his Department had obtained a copy of the report on its publication, but did not believe that the risks associated with boxing were sufficient to justify an inquiry. I have also asked the Prime Minister, at Prime Minister's Question Time, if he and his Government intended to ban boxing. The Prime Minister replied that they had no intention to ban boxing.

Last year and earlier this year, I tried to obtain a debate on the subject, but without any success. Tonight, I have been successful. I mention that because it may be thought that I called for the debate because of the recent death of another boxer. That is not so, as I have been trying for some time.

There have been several deaths in boxing over the years. They include those of Steve Watt, Johnny Owen and the Nigerian Young Ali. The most recent death in boxing in Britain occurred when Bradley Stone, aged 23, died after being stopped in the 10th round. It was Bradley Stone's second stoppage in the space of only 53 days. Where are the controls? In the past month, Michael Bentt has collapsed after losing his World Boxing Organisation crown. The grim toll of death and injury in boxing make it unworthy of being called a sport.

The British Medical Association has revealed that, since 1984, eight boxers have died and six have survived only after surgery, three with long-term brain damage, and that since 1945, 361 deaths have been recorded worldwide. As a result, professional boxing has been banned in Sweden, Ireland and Norway. The BMA wants it banned in this country and because of its medical research into boxing injuries, it has become a leading authority on the hazards of boxing. In 1982, a resolution was passed at the annual representatives meeting, which stated: That in view of the proven ocular and brain damage resulting from professional boxing, the Association should campaign for its abolition. In response to the resolution, the board of science and education of the BMA set up a working party to review the evidence on brain and eye damage as a result of boxing injuries and to publish a report of its findings. In the final report published in 1984, it was concluded that damage occurred to the eye and the brain in both amateur and professional boxers. The report attracted strong opposition to a total ban from a number of sources, including the British Boxing Board of Control, the Amateur Boxing Association and the National Association of Boys' Clubs.

A further resolution was passed at the 1987 meeting. It stated: In view of the continuing serious ill effects on the health of boxers, this meeting requests the BMA to pursue the Government with renewed vigour until there is a ban on boxing and, until such time as this is achieved, believes that the TV coverage should include a statement of the damage which may result from boxing. Since then, the BMA and individual members have continued to promulgate the evidence of harm caused by boxing. In 1992, the BMA set up a boxing steering group to review evidence on boxing published since 1984 and to make use of recent advances in methods of early detection of brain damage from head injuries. It again called for a total ban on all boxing.

In June 1993, the BMA produced a book called "The Boxing Debate", which I recommend anyone to read. It reviewed the existing evidence relating to boxing. The book analyses the mechanisms by which injury occurs to the brain and the eye in boxing. It states that, during the course of a boxing match, the contestants receive a variable number of blows to the upper torso, arms and head, and that the blows land with widely different degrees of force. The heaviest blows may be as much as half a tonne, which is like being hit by a 12 lb padded wooden mallet travelling at 20 mph.

In the case of such a blow hitting the head, the greatest amount of force of the blow is transmitted directly to the skull and its contents—the brain. Although training, skill and experience may enable the boxer to reduce the force —known as riding the punch—and may reduce the damage to the brain, cumulatively the punches can damage the brain and eyes. The structure within the skull also contributes to brain damage. The inner surface of the skull of a young adult male is not smooth; it has sharp projections. It is the tearing of the thin superficial veins and the surface damage to the brain as it collides with the skull and its sharp inward projections which give rise to acute subdural haematoma, which is responsible for the serious cerebral compression and death that occasionally follows a boxing match.

The report says that there are two main ways in which boxing may lead to structural damage to the brain. The first type of damage occurs as an acute episode in which one or more severe blows during a single fight lead to a loss of consciousness and occasionally to death. Death in the ring or in the days or weeks following the contest is usually attributable to acute haemorrhage. The second kind of damage tends to develop over a much longer period and is cumulative. It is associated with chronic neurological disorders, which are often seen in boxers.

Damage to the eye and brain occurs in both amateur and professional boxers, although it is doubtful whether participants or others involved in the sport fully appreciate the risks, especially the danger of delayed, cumulative brain damage. Neurological examination, using all the techniques available, may lead to the recognition of progressive brain damage and a recommendation that a boxer should retire from boxing, thus avoiding further damage. However, damage can be detected only after it has occurred; by then, it may be too late.

The approach to professional boxing is somewhat different from that to amateur boxing. The big business aspects of professional boxing are obviously tempting to a young man and the prospect of financial gain may cause him to ignore the risk to his health. While the dangers in amateur boxing are known, in 1987, the secretary of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, stated his belief that boxing should be removed from the Olympic games within the next 20 years. The BMA is on record as having said that it is grateful for the co-operation that it received from many experts and associations, particularly the Amateur Boxing Association. However, it said that it was disappointed at the lack of co-operation received from the BBBC and regretted the refusal of the BBBC to provide information, or even send representatives to its working party. That is to be regretted.

Hence, the BMA has said that there is no evidence to suggest that boxing is any safer now than when it began to campaign many years ago, and has called again for the banning of boxing. I agree with the BMA and support its call. However, I have no doubt that the Minister will once again refuse that call.

We have reached an impasse, with the BMA on one side of the argument, the BBBC on the other side and the Minister in the middle. To make progress, I shall make several suggestions to the Minister.

If he will not ban boxing or conduct an inquiry into the dangers associated with the sport, will he ask all officials in all sports to take a leaf out of the actions taken by the Rugby Football Union? For some time, the Rugby Football Union has asked all affiliated clubs and schools to complete forms each year to help to collect data relating to RFU injuries and to send them to the RFU sports injuries administrator. It is an essential exercise which provides data on which to monitor and maintain acceptable safety standards. Information is required solely on those players who, through an injury that occurred in practice or a match, were incapacitated to the degree that their injury prevented them from playing for a minimum period of 21 days.

As a result, the RFU has built up a series of statistics for successive seasons and is now in a position to compare trends. For example, in the first year of its injuries working party, it was found that there was a high incidence of neck injury which caused much concern. The changes in the interpretation of the laws for under 19-year-old players, which were altered for the 1983–84 season, made a great difference. When the changes were studied by the international board, major alterations were made in the laws of the game and the incidence of neck injury fell significantly. The RFU is now looking elsewhere to reduce injury in its game.

In the light of that, could not the Minister ask all other sporting bodies to do the same, and so provide their governing bodies with accurate statistics which could be forwarded to the Minister's Department, thus enabling him to obtain accurate information and statistics which may help to lessen the hazards in all sports, including boxing? Will the Minister bring both sides together and chair a joint meeting with the BBBC, the ABA and the BMA to discuss ways forward and the collection of information and statistics over a period? That would be a move in the right direction and would break the impasse.

In the meantime, as a matter of urgency, could not the Minister suggest that measures be taken to make boxing safer by changing the rules so that points are awarded only for hitting the torso and eliminate blows to the head? There are such rules relating to hitting below the belt.

I also suggest that, as the damage suffered by boxers can be reduced dramatically if they are given enough oxygen and taken immediately to an appropriate hospital, specially qualified doctors skilled in the art of resuscitation should be at the ringside. While resuscitation should take place at the ringside and an ambulance should be on call, it is a sad fact that only 40 of Britain's 760 hospitals have neurosurgical units. The implication of this deficiency is all too obvious. Had such facilities been available to Michael Watson, the result might have been different. Again, boxers should be required to stay within range of the medical facilities for at least an hour after their bout.

As injuries can happen in a gym, regulations and resources are required to tackle those areas, too. Weigh-ins take place 24 hours before a fight and many boxers dehydrate to lose the last few pounds, which has a debilitating effect on the brain. The weigh-in should take place much earlier. Referees are also under instruction to stop a fight when one man is unable to defend himself. Such action often comes too late and the instruction should be strengthened. Reforms in boxing are certainly needed before further calamities occur.

As one famous boxer said recently, Boxing damages your brain. Don't let anybody tell you different! I await the Minister's reply.

12.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Callaghan) on his good fortune in securing the debate at this late hour. I shall begin by giving him an assurance that I shall certainly study carefully the helpful points he made in a thoughtful speech. In particular, I will draw the attention of the BBBC to what he has said and I will gladly have a look at the system which the RFU has put into practice. I thank him for his helpful speech on a subject on which it is difficult to say something new.

While the Government share his concern about the safety of boxers, we do not believe that the sport should be banned. First, I would like to say that British boxing suffered a tragic loss two weeks ago with the death of the super-bantamweight Bradley Stone, following his British title contest. I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in offering sincere condolences to his family.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I do not yet have the full information on this incident, and I am therefore unable to comment substantively on the case. However, the general secretary of the BBBC has advised me that all the medical requirements appear to have been in place for the contest. The board is conducting an inquiry into the incident and has agreed to forward a report io me as soon as it becomes available.

Boxing is an established and properly regulated sport in this country at both amateur and professional level, and it has a wide following among the general public. It stretches back over hundreds of years and is now a major part of our country's sporting heritage. Some hon. Members may recall a most stimulating debate on boxing in another place on 4 December 1991 when the noble Lord Taylor of Gryfe called for a ban on professional boxing.

The Government's view on boxing remains as it was then. We believe strongly that in a free society, which this country thankfully enjoys, individuals should have the freedom to participate in a sport of their choice, so long as it is within the law and they are fully aware of the risks involved. What is paramount is that the element of risk attached to boxing is controllable and that the proper medical safeguards are in place. BBBC medical safeguards are among the most rigorous in the world and are constantly under review.

Hon. Members with any knowledge of boxing will be aware that, following meetings in late 1991 between my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) —then the Minister for sport—the BBBC and a number of medical specialists, the BBBC not only strengthened its medical safeguards but converted them into firm regulations. I am well aware of the British Medical Association's report "The Boxing Debate" published in June 1993 reinforcing its call for a ban on boxing, and I met representatives from the BBBC in January to discuss its response to the BMA's report.

I know that the BBBC is already reviewing its research on methods of continual assessment of brain functions to detect possible chronic deterioration that may occur during a boxer's career. It is also considering the extension of a pilot scheme currently operating in Wales which is aimed at minimising acute brain injury by the compulsory attendance of an anaesthetist with the necessary equipment at the ringside. In addition, it has issued a special checklist of ocular pathology to improve an eye test for boxers.

Nevertheless, where safety is concerned, there is never any room for complacency. I am pleased to tell the House that the BBBC will shortly hold a meeting, at which—

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Perhaps I can help the Minister and the House by saying that the meeting to which the Minister refers is to take place on the 24th of this month. I have helped to arrange the meeting. My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith), who as the House knows is an eminent neurologist, and two other brain surgeons—Dr. Sutcliffe, who was the surgeon in the case of the boxer who was referred, and Peter Hamlyn—have accepted invitations to meet the medical officer of the British Boxing Board of Control and his team. They are determined to see whether there are ways in which they can make the sport safer.

Mr. Sproat

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I am glad to pay tribute to the valuable contribution that he has made not only to that meeting but to other aspects of boxing. As he said, the meeting will be attended by senior members of the BBBC's medical panel, including leading neurologists and neurosurgeons. He mentioned Mr. John Sutcliffe and Mr. Peter Hamlyn. Other independent experts and outsiders will also attend. I am glad that the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) is in his place.

I understand that the meeting will not only look at ways in which the unfortunate incident involving Bradley Stone might have been avoided but will examine what further medical and safety measures can practicably be introduced to protect the health of boxers. Some of the issues that they will consider include ways of monitoring the weight of boxers for at least one week prior to a contest and observation periods after contests.

However, there is absolutely no case for singling out boxing for a ban. To ban boxing would drive the sport underground, and remove boxers from the very safeguards which now protect them. Furthermore, even if boxing were banned in this country, boxers could still compete overseas where the medical safeguards may not be so stringent.

Let me first deal with the question of fatalities. Figures provided by coroners to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys show that, from 1986 to 1992, there have been three deaths in England and Wales from boxing. Tragically, Mr. Stone has added to those statistics. In the same period, however, there have been 77 deaths in motor sports, 69 deaths in air sports, 54 deaths in mountaineering, 40 deaths in ball games and 28 deaths in horse riding.

I am also pleased to say that the statistics for injuries sustained from boxing show that some views expressed recently following the death of Mr. Stone are grossly exaggerated. For example, the Sports Council conducted an analysis into sports accidents based on the general household surveys of 1987, 1988 and 1989. A standardised "risk factor" for each sport was calculated by representing the number of sports accidents as a factor of the number of occasions in which individuals participated in each sport. Sports were then placed in one of four categories, ranging from high to negligible risk. Hon. Members may be interested and may be surprised to know that boxing was placed in the negligible risk category along with golf and snooker.

The Government have no hesitation, however, in accepting that, sadly, there are instances in which long-term medical problems can be attributable to boxing. But boxing is not unique in this respect. The simple fact is that there is a risk attached to any physically challenging activity, and to remove the risk would, for the most part, remove the challenge itself. Only last week, we sadly witnessed the tragic death of the jockey, Steve Wood, at Lingfield. The previous weekend, we were cruelly and vividly reminded of the risks involved in another challenging sport following the tragic deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger on the Imola track in San Marino.

Nevertheless, as I have said, no one can afford to be complacent about the issue of boxing safety. The Government believe strongly that the utmost attention must be paid to safety not just in boxing but in all sports where risk is a factor.

Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

May I explain to the Minister that the argument that he is making on risk is not quite correct? Boxing is not associated with a risk of brain damage. It is associated with a certainty of brain damage. It might be true that there is no certainty of death and that the risk of death is small, but there is an absolute certainty of brain damage. Every time a boxer is hit, the brain is damaged. That is cumulative. What is worrying is that the cumulative effects are now thought to be progressive.

Mr. Sproat

That is one view. Of course, it is not a view that is universally held.



Mr. Sproat

I have only a few minutes left.

I believe that both the BBBC, which is the governing body for professional boxing, and the Amateur Boxing Association, which controls amateur boxing in Britain, are acutely aware of their respective responsibilities in protecting the health of boxers. They recognise that, like any physical contact sport, boxing has an element of risk attached to it. What is paramount is that the element of risk should be controllable and containable.

Medical safeguards are already in place to protect the health and safety of boxers before, during and after contests and to monitor boxers for long-term medical problems. These include full medical examinations, with a detailed list of conditions that would preclude a boxer from holding a licence; CT scans; specialists' examinations; and automatic 28–day suspension for boxers losing inside the scheduled distance, with further medical examinations before they may re-enter the ring.

These standards underline the importance that the boxing authorities attach to medical issues. None the less, it is vital that the standards, however stringent, be kept under constant review, as there is always room for further improvement. As I said earlier, I shall remain in close contact with the BBBC, and I look forward to receiving a report following that body's deliberations on 24 May.

Some hon. Members, in the past, have claimed that boxing is repugnant and morally wrong, in that the sport deliberately encourages individuals to inflict injury on each other. This is a matter of judgment. However, I should like to make a couple of points very clear. Boxers in this country compete within the strictest of medical safeguards and regulations imposed by reputable governing bodies, and they do so under their own free will and within a sporting code that emphasises skill rather than aggression.

In conclusion, I hope that I have made it clear that, while the Government are not complacent about safety issues in boxing, we believe that it would be a gross infringement of civil liberties to prevent individuals from participating in a properly constituted sport of their choice. I hope that I have also shown that there is clear evidence that the boxing authorities in this country are determined to continue to make the sport as safe as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at One o'clock.