HC Deb 11 May 2004 vol 421 cc145-7
5. Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

What his Department's policy is on sporting links with Zimbabwe, with particular reference to cricket. [171833]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw)

As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I met officials from the England and Wales Cricket Board last week to discuss the proposed tour. Our view is clear: we would prefer the tour to be postponed until the situation in Zimbabwe improves, but the decision to tour is one for the cricketing authorities to take. The Government have no power to instruct people not to leave this country to play sport abroad. We do not have state-run cricket in this country, nor should we. We have great sympathy for the position in which the England and Wales Cricket Board finds itself, having been presented by the International Cricket Council with a choice between touring and facing extremely serious financial penalties.

Mr. Pike

I recognise the position that my right hon. Friend has set out, but he will acknowledge that the Labour party never pussyfooted around taking sporting sanctions against South Africa. That played a vital part in ending apartheid. Will he say to the cricket people that the tour should not take place, and say it loudly and clearly, because I believe that that is what the overwhelming majority in the House believes we should be saying?

Mr. Straw

I accept the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend entirely, but there is a fundamental difference, which is that while we backed sanctions against sporting links with South Africa—I have to say that they were, as I recall, rather resisted by Conservative Members—we did so as part of an international consensus, under the Gleneagles agreement. What, sadly, has become all too clear is that there is no such consensus, even within the ICC—indeed, far from it. It is that which places the England and Wales Cricket Board in this very difficult and untenable position.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the argument over the England cricket tour of Zimbabwe in the autumn is not so much between politics and sport as between morality and money? I accept that the Government do not have the power to ban the tour, but if, as he says, and I use his word, he would "prefer" that the tour did not take place or was postponed, why will he not give a clearer indication to the ECB, which could allow the England team not to tour without incurring financial penalty?

Will the Foreign Secretary therefore use this opportunity to state clearly and unequivocally—I choose these words carefully—that owing to the horrifying and deteriorating human rights situation in Mugabe's Zimbabwe, the Government not only do not support the tour, but that, if they had the necessary powers, they would instruct the ECB not to proceed with it?

Mr. Straw

There is no disagreement of principle between both sides, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to have it both ways. We do not have a power in law to ban people from leaving this country or playing sport. I rather fancy that if we tried that in any other circumstances he would be the first to complain. Indeed, his leader would certainly complain.

I have reread a recent speech by the Leader of the Opposition called, appropriately, "The British Dream", in which he says:

We have a State that does too much, that interferes too much". That would be the objection. The problem is this: if there had been a form of words that would have satisfied not just the England and Wales Cricket Board, which does not want to tour, but critically, the rules of the International Cricket Council, we would have offered that form of words. However, it has become increasingly clear that such forms of words do not exist, and I am not going to pretend to the House, the country and the ICC that we have statutory powers to ban people from going abroad when we do not.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab)

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but does he not feel that the lives of cricketers would be put at risk if they were to tour Zimbabwe and that, on those grounds alone, we ought to be able to send out a clear message, "You are not to tour because of that risk."? Also, the danger is that cricket will be the loser and Mugabe the winner.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend raises an important point about security, which we also discussed separately with the England and Wales Cricket Board. If there is a security problem which we judge would affect the personal security of English and Welsh cricketers if they go there, we will make that clear. As we told the England and Wales Cricket Board, however, we need to make that assessment much nearer the time.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that although there is a consensus in the House that the Mugabe regime is hideous and evil, some of us do not believe that sport should be used as a political weapon? The choice of whom one plays sports with is a moral issue, and the Government should keep out of that. The most pathetic position of all is for the Government to express a desire for the tour not to take place, and to do nothing to implement that desire, financially or otherwise.

Mr. Straw

Despite the last sentence, I take that as an objection to the position taken by the right hon. Gentleman's own Front Bench.

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