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Licensing (Sunday Hours) Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and to be printed.

Boxing Bill [H.L.]

9.45 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. First, I should outline the purpose of the Bill, which is to prohibit professional boxing. It has nothing to do with boys' clubs or stopping amateur bouts. It is concerned simply with professional boxing and perhaps the debate could limit itself to the impact of professional boxing on our national life.

I speak with the full support of the British Medical Association. I suggest to your Lordships that the opinion of that authoritative body should be given some weight and consideration when making a judgment on the Bill.

The Bill has a long history. It was introduced by Lady Summerskill way back in 1962. I introduced the Bill in 1981 and again in 1991. I introduced it in 1991 because at that time most of us felt sensitive about that issue due

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to the very serious injuries that were caused to Mike Watson, who is now in a wheelchair and who will never really recover from the injuries caused to him on the night of his last fight.

Since then, of course, Bradley Stone, a young boxer who hoped, by going into the ring in London, to be able to pay off his mortgage and get married, has died in the ring in London.

And then some of us no doubt saw the last exhibition of national note—the fight between Nigel Benn and Gerald McLellan. It was the experience of watching that fight which induced me again to introduce this Bill. I remember quite clearly watching the fight because Nigel Benn emerged into the ring with a great deal of excitement and hype and across his dressing gown were the words "The Black Destroyer". Therefore, there was no doubt as to what was his purpose in the ring. By the same token, his opponent, Gerald McLellan, who as a hobby raises bull terriers in the United States, had said:

    "I get a buzz from knocking people unconscious".

That spectacle takes place in a ring. There is great excitement.

I received a letter this morning from a 16 year-old girl who is writing an essay on this subject at her school. I do not know who she is but she lives somewhere in Maidenhead. She quotes also Gerald McLellan:

    "'When I am in the ring with another fighter', he said recently, 'I look across the ring and see this guy I have so much hate for. I have so much desire to knock this guy unconscious'".

Is that the kind of spectacle which we, in a civilised society, with some standards of human decency, should encourage or even permit? I am not a natural "banner". I am a bit of a libertarian. But there are certain activities which we introduce in our society which are stamped as being civilised. Boxing is not one of them.

Cases of damage to boxers are well documented in the literature of the British Medical Association. It is not only that people are killed in the ring, it is also the delayed effect on hundreds of boxers who subsequently suffer from dementia—the punch-drunk syndrome. The example of that which is known to most noble Lords is, of course, the sad and pathetic case of Muhammad Ali. He was a brilliant athlete in his day, but here he is today going about without much knowledge of what he is saying or doing. Muhammad Ali is one case which is well known. However, there are many cases of young boxers who are similarly afflicted. We must not only count the people who have been killed in the ring; we must also count those who have suffered long-term damage.

Very few boxers make money out of the business, although the initial incentive is that they hope to do so. That is particularly true now of young blacks, whereas it used to be more true of young working class boys.

In previous debates it has been pointed out to me that other sports are dangerous and people ask why we do not ban them. Of course other sports are dangerous, but boxing is the only sport in which people are committed to doing damage to other people. That is the purpose: knocking them unconscious. That is the buzz.

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Of course, people are damaged by playing rugby football or other sports. But that is not the purpose of the sport; it is incidental to it. Other people have told me that boxing teaches discipline. But do we need that kind of thing to teach discipline? Is the only way that we can teach discipline to introduce youngsters into the ring to try to knock each other unconscious? People also say that it is a good thing that the boys' clubs practise boxing and that they do not do very much harm, indeed, they do some social good. I would concede that point. But the Bill is not about boys' clubs. I am not sure that it is the only way in which one keeps boys off the streets of the East End of London or Glasgow. There are other sports and other activities which could be encouraged and which are much more socially desirable than boxing.

If one considers, for example, the Nigel Benn versus Gerald McLellan fight, it will be realised that all such contests are created in an atmosphere of excitement and hype. What we are doing is glamorising violence in a world where violence is one of the greatest dangers to our society and to decency in that society. Let us forget about boxing being a noble art. The man who wins is the man who knocks the other fellow unconscious. That is the purpose of the sport.

Certain people have pointed out to me that if we ban boxing we will drive it underground. However, that has not happened in Scandinavia, where the sport has been banned. No one can believe that boxing would survive as an underground sport. We banned cockfighting in this country. Why did we do so? Why did we ban bare knuckle fighting? We did so because we felt that such things were offensive in our society.

The British people have shown a great sensitivity as regards the welfare of animals. We have seen that in recent cases involving the export of animals abroad. We have in the past banned cockfighting. I cannot understand the people who become all alarmed and excited about damage to animals and who are not equally and deeply concerned about damage to other human beings in a public spectacle. I would suggest to those of us who really want to see a better and more decent society that we should seriously consider why this so-called sport should not be banned. I leave it at that at this stage.

During the previous debate on this subject there was a most moving contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Soper, who looked at this matter—as inevitably he would—as a Christian. I try to do the same myself. I consider that our lives are a treasure given to us by God and we have no right to destroy this intricate mechanism or do damage to our bodies if we live in trust. I suggest to those noble Lords who profess the Christian faith that this is a most unchristian activity of setting one human being against another intent on doing him physical damage. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Taylor of Gryfe.)

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9.56 p.m.

The Viscount of Oxfuird rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out ("now") and at the end insert ("this day six months").

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury is unable to be with us this evening but I draw comfort from his interest in the subject. Probably most noble Lords know that he spoke in the previous debate on this matter on 4th December 1991 when the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, introduced exactly the same Bill as is before your Lordships. On that occasion the Bill was rejected. It is only just over four years since your Lordships have had the chance to address the subject. We must ask what has changed to make it essential that we have to invest parliamentary time on the same subject again, and in such a short timescale.

I would remind your Lordships that last evening the Commons were presented with a similar Motion on a 10-minute Bill and that was defeated on a ratio of 2:1, or 120 votes to 60. That does not mean to say that we cannot have our own opinion.

My experience of boxing goes back to my school days. I have no hesitation in admitting that in those days I was feared when I went into the ring. However, I drew strength from being taught properly and from winning a couple of bouts at the end of the day. It was part of the character forming training in a school that prided itself on the number of old boys who ended up as members of the country's national rugby side, the All Blacks.

Today the sport suffers from the voice of the "banners" but it serves a function. It helps young men to learn discipline, responsibility and competitive skills, particularly, I understand, within the National Association of Boys Clubs. Even though the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, would rather we did not discuss this, and even though the proposal is to ban professional boxing, boxing as a sport has to be considered.

I believe that if the promotion of this sport were to be made illegal, as defined in this Bill, there would be a most dangerous result. The management of the sport would fall into the hands of the unqualified. It would be driven underground, and therefore be deprived of the valuable regulation that is required to avoid many of the obvious pitfalls inherent in what is a potentially dangerous pastime, as in the case of other confrontational sports such as kick-boxing. I understand that kick-boxing was banned in Ontario. It has now moved to Quebec, where it continues. Even sports such as karate and other closely allied Japanese personal confrontational sports are all, in essence, included in this Bill.

In considering the merits or otherwise of this sport of boxing we are not dealing with a recent phenomenon but a sport—some would say even an art form—that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, even to 688 BC.

Since the 18th century boxing has been made very much more acceptable in the eyes of many by the use of padded gloves, the invention of which is generally credited to Jack Broughton, who was for many years champion boxer of England. There is even a thought

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abroad today that gloves are not the answer and that bare knuckle fighting has the benefit of the protection of pain. That is a thought we shall dwell on another time.

The most popular 18th century teacher of the art was John Jackson, sometimes known as Gentleman John Jackson. Among his pupils was Lord Byron, who when chided for keeping company with a pugilist insisted that Jackson's manners were:

    "infinitely superior to those of the fellows of the college whom I meet at high table".

It was around 1866 when John Chambers and the 8th Marquess of Queensbury drew up a code to cover all boxing contests in the United Kingdom. Those rules remain substantially the governing rules of boxing today.

If we were debating this evening the possibility of new codes of practice to tighten up the existing regulations concerning improved referee responsibility or tighter medical controls on the sport, I for one would be prepared to give the proposals a sympathetic hearing. So, I believe, would the British Boxing Board of Control, whose work has been unstinting not only in protecting the sport but also in going beyond even overseas control bodies in ensuring that the boxer is fit to undertake the task he faces and that there are no problems before he goes into the ring and as soon as the fight is over. Such protection is available right through the fight, and is an example to every institutional body of this type.

Sadly, that is not the case. The Bill we are debating tonight, as drafted, proposes an outright ban on boxing for profit. As I have said, that would have the effect of driving underground into an unregulated regime an activity which rightly requires a certain level of regulation. But it also requires a high level of exposure.

I have been advised that there has already been one case of a senior boxer, who fears the advent of this very Bill or similar legislation, who has been involved in such an unlicensed fight. If that continues, then we face real problems.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, spoke of Norway, Sweden and Iceland, where professional boxing has been banned. I do not know whether he is aware that the distance from Sweden to Denmark is a little over half-an-hour by ferry. All the boxer has to do is to go by boat to Denmark where he can be licensed; and with perhaps a little more money in his pocket he can come to this country. Therefore the question of this issue going underground has nothing to do with the situation in that country. In fact, our friends from Scandinavia may possibly be rather more law-abiding than we are, and for a very good reason. Their ethnic and cultural structure is more consistent than ours. Instead of going underground, those who wish to pursue a professional boxing career can simply get on a ferry.

I well remember when I lived in Sweden that Ingemar Johanssen was the country's hero at the time he fought for the world heavyweight championship. We are considering the future of an ancient sport which has shown itself ready and willing to adapt to sensible regulation over the years. Adaptation and not banning is the answer. I beg to move.

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Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out ("now") and at the end insert ("this day six months").—(The Viscount of Oxfuird.)

10.7 p.m.

Lord Addington: My Lords, in speaking to this Bill there are two matters that I have to make clear. First, I do not speak on behalf of my party. As I believe we are about to find out, it is a subject which will split all parties in your Lordships' House. I have an interest too, although non-pecuniary, as I am vice-president of the Lonsdale Club.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, stated that he was interested in professional boxing. Amateur boxing would not be able to survive for the simple reason that the Bill, as drafted, refers to no boxing matches for profit. Amateur boxing clubs survive on funds generated from their displays and tournaments. The noble Lord shakes his head, but let me assure him that that is correct.

The Bill totally fails to take into account the fact that many other full contact, striking martial arts take place in this country. If this measure has to be all encompassing, it should take those into account. I refer to kick-boxing or Thai boxing. The Bill would have to define—it does not do so—exactly what one means by boxing. As we all know, the way one gets round something that has an illegal name is to give it another name. The Thai equivalent in English—kick-boxing—would quite easily get around this Bill. There is also full contact tae kwon do and karate. Those sports are infinitely more dangerous because one is allowed to kick at the head.

One has to take into account that martial arts are the greatest growth area in sport in Britain. That is a fact. There is a great diversity of activity. When people go into a martial arts contest, they seek to achieve physical dominance. Most of those sports are regulated by a points system. The stoppage can be regarded as a way of terminating the contest when someone is unfit to continue.

The noble Lord made a good and well-crafted speech on the moral ground that one is seeking to destroy someone. Possibly the stoppage may be regarded as a safety valve. It depends how one looks at such matters.

No matter what is said on the issue, boxing is a martial art, if one defines such sports as karate as being a martial art. Such sports do not make contact all the time but limit contact until the higher levels of the sport. Moreover, how long will it be before we stop any game in which you drive at somebody or run at them, as happens in Rugby Union or Rugby League, to try to knock them out of the way? That is allowed in both those rugby football codes. I know because I have played those games. On occasions, you run at someone to knock him out of the way and another person will run at you to try to knock you flat. That is the sport.

On the grounds on which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has brought forward this Bill, those two sports of Rugby Union and Rugby League would have to be

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stopped. So would American gridiron football as well. In those sports, players run at each other to knock them out of the way and achieve physical dominance. There is a line of logic that derives from the amendment. I hope that the noble Lord can see that. I cannot put it more clearly.

It may surprise noble Lords to know that the sport which carries the highest death toll in this country is hill-walking. Moreover, motor racing—and motorcycling, as my noble friend says in an aside—also carries risks. Many sports are inherently dangerous. I suggest that this Bill is fundamentally flawed in both its drafting and approach. We can discuss the moral arguments later. However, I suggest that the Bill itself does not address the issues raised in the noble Lord's speech. The Bill is too narrowly drawn. It is a blunt instrument and badly aimed. It aims at professional boxing but it will eliminate the way in which amateur boxing is funded.

I hope that, when noble Lords consider how they will vote on this amendment, they will take into account all the secondary issues. They should not simply consider the very good speech of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. As it is currently constructed, the Bill will stop any sport which is deemed to be boxing—or any martial art—at an amateur level because it will cut off its funding. We must consider this matter very carefully.

10.14 p.m.

Lord Brooks of Tremorfa: My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Taylor reminded us, we have debated this topic on a number of occasions. The last time I went into some detail of the history of boxing in the United Kingdom. I do not intend to do that again tonight. It is rather late and I do not feel that we should profit much from it. In any case, the noble Viscount, Lord Oxfuird, has done it for me.

However, I want to make clear at the outset that I am an administrative steward of the British Boxing Board of Control, a member of the area council of the Wales Boxing Board of Control and a patron of the Welsh Ex-Boxers' Association. I also have a number of other involvements in boxing. None of them is financial. Indeed, if there is a financial input, it comes from my pocket.

I have been fascinated by boxing ever since I was a very young boy. My uncle had a gymnasium in Cardiff in the area where I was born, which was a very much deprived area. I learnt a number of lessons as a result of being taught by my uncle how to defend myself. I learnt that it was wrong to bully. I learnt that it was wrong to suffer bullies. I also learnt humility.

I remember that, after I had been going to the gymnasium for a couple of years, I was bullied by someone in my school. He was the bane of my life until I could stand it no longer and we fought. I beat him; and I beat him because of the disciplined training I had received from the gymnasium I attended.

Let me bring that experience up to date. A couple of years ago a world champion was due to defend his title in the north of England. On arrival here it was discovered that he was medically unfit. The television

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had been booked for the show and all the seats had been sold. I was asked whether I thought that a young Cardiff boxer named Steve Robinson would be a fit opponent to fight for the title.

At that time Steve Robinson had a mixed record. My answer was that I did not believe it would be a mismatch. I did not think that Robinson would win, but I felt that he would be a worthy opponent. In the event Robinson won the World Boxing Organisation featherweight title. Steve Robinson is a black boy from a council estate in Ely, a very deprived estate which had terrible publicity a few years ago. At the time he fought for the title he was earning £80 a week stacking shelves in a supermarket. He has gone on to defend the title five times, has earned hundreds of thousands of pounds and is now settled for life.

I cannot describe Steve Robinson adequately. He is one of the most humble young men I have ever met. A great deal of affection has grown for him in Cardiff. He is a role model for the many hundreds of young people on the Ely estate. But the irony is that about the time he won that title, two young thugs—contemporaries of Steve Robinson from the estate—were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for beating to death an innocent elderly man. I am not suggesting that Steve Robinson might have turned out to be a thug if he had not been a boxer with the discipline that had been instilled into him by virtue of that. But I suggest that if those young thugs had had the discipline that Robinson received in the gymnasium, one elderly innocent man might still be alive today.

That is one of the lessons one is taught. I am afraid that I was never very good at boxing. In fact I share a distinction with the late, great, Rocky Marciano, former heavyweight champion of the world. He boxed 49 times and won all 49 contests; that is 100 per cent. I boxed four times and lost on each occasion. That is 100 per cent. also, whichever way one looks at it.

My noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe says that Sweden abolished professional boxing and yet it has not gone underground. Of course not; it has gone across the border. Young men of ability in boxing who wish to make a career in the professional game have simply gone across the border to Denmark and taken out a licence. Ingemar Johannsen can be seen at the ringside at British shows commentating for Scandinavian television. So even if the Bill were successful, it would not stop young British boys turning professional and earning money boxing. They would simply pop over to France, Belgium, Germany or wherever, take out a licence, and the fights in which they were engaged in other countries would be beamed by satellite television to this country. That is the reality of life.

I am not suggesting that simply because we have modern innovations there is no merit in what my noble friend is trying to do. But the burden of the case is this. There are many thousands of young men in this country who go to boxing gymnasiums and learn the disciplines and skills of boxing. And if anybody believes that there is no skill in boxing then they should try it. I do not know of one champion at any level who was a mere slugger. One must learn the science of boxing to become a champion. There is great skill involved in it and we

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would be doing a disservice to the youth of this country, a disservice to sport, if a Bill of this nature were ever to pass either this House or another place.

10.19 p.m.

Lord Belhaven and Stenton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is what we Scots call "a bonny fighter". I am not sure whether that is apposite to the Bill but we have been here before, as has been pointed out, and I dare say we will be here again. The noble Lord's views on boxing are consistent and very well known to your Lordships. I used to agree with him, but I have changed my mind, as he knows and as I have told him. So let me say, first, where I agree with him.

I agree that professional boxing is a barbarous sport. I do not really agree with my noble friend Lord Oxfuird, because there is no real protection against the brain damage caused by professional boxing. There cannot be. It is the closest thing we have to the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome. It is a mixture of skill and savagery. That is why it is popular; and, so long as human beings remain what they are, it is likely to remain popular. That said, no one today becomes a professional boxer without being aware of the risks of long-term brain damage. It is voluntary, unlike the gladatorial games, and often very rewarding financially. It may be, and often is, that when the boxer has amassed his fortune his damaged brain does not allow him to enjoy it very much or possibly keep it for very long. If he is not aware of these risks at the start, he will probably be too stupid to be a good boxer and his brain, such as it is, will remain unimpaired.

I part company with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, because he wants the sport to be banned. We are at the stage today when far too many people want to ban activities of which they disapprove. I hasten to acquit the noble Lord of being one of those as his views have been consistent over very many years. But here we are. We have smoking, drinking, fox hunting, boxing—I could go on. There is a long list of activities which are now legal but which various pressure groups wish to make illegal. That cannot be a healthy state of affairs in a free country.

I have recently received letters which the British Medical Association has been good enough to write to me. I dare say that I am not alone among your Lordships in that. The latest was, predictably, on boxing. As I recall, the letter started with the proposition that the case against amateur boxing is not proven. It ended with the statement that the British Medical Association seeks a ban on all boxing. Why all boxing? I suppose that it would like us to end up with notices depicting a pair of boxing gloves with a red line through them in all boys' clubs and gymnasiums, in the same way as the ubiquitous no smoking notices.

I am aware that doctors have to be there to pick up the pieces when we fall ill owing to our own foolishness, but I would say to the BMA that it knows better than most of us that life is a very uncertain thing. There is a certain randomness in the way in which the British Medical Association chooses those activities of which it disapproves. I shall not say much about this, but we all know that sodomy leads to AIDS. However,

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there is no campaign against it by the British Medical Association. There also seems to be a tendency to disregard anything which may be found in favour of any activity which it happens to dislike. No facts which tend to show that smoking may in certain cases be beneficial are allowed to disrupt the seamless web of its disapproval. The fact that boxers, as we have heard, may possess a certain nobility of character and courage beyond the ordinary and that those qualities are desirable, especially in young men, is brushed aside. I sometimes think that some of these researchers start at their conclusion and then work backwards.

Free men have a right to a free choice. Smoking, boxing, fox hunting and drinking alcohol all carry risks. But people have a right to take those risks. Whether we approve or disapprove of those activities is up to us, but I do not believe that they should be banned by law.

10.24 p.m.

Lord Airedale: My Lords, if this Bill gets its Second Reading, as I hope it will, we shall certainly be in for an interesting Committee stage. My noble friend Lord Addington will see to that.

I was discussing professional boxing the other day over the lunch table with the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, and I was saying to him that I could not understand why anyone wanted to spend £100 or more on a ringside seat when if one liked that sort of thing one could see it for nothing on the box. The noble Lord said to me, "You are forgetting something. With a ringside seat you have the added thrill that you may be bespattered with blood". I must say that that is one of the things that would not appeal to me.

The fans will tell you that they do not go to watch anybody get hurt—oh no! They go to watch the skill. Why is it that most of the big fights are between big men? Do not the little men exercise just as much skill as the big men?

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