Nigel Huddleston – 2021 Speech on British Wrestling

The speech made by Nigel Huddleston, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the House of Commons on 22 April 2021.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) on securing this debate and for raising both the issues and opportunities of wrestling. He and his colleague, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), the co-chairs of the all-party group on wrestling, have done a fantastic job of raising the profile of wrestling in this place and outside. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his comments as well. Perhaps, Mr Deputy Speaker, with your leave, we could make an exception and allow a physical demonstration in the Chamber today between the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. I think that could be quite an entertaining end to the day, but perhaps we have to wait for another day for that. However, now that we know your personal interest, Mr Deputy Speaker, maybe we can find some way to do so.

Professional wrestling brings incredible joy, as my hon. Friend said, to people right across the country. It has a proud and rich history in this country. If we ask anybody who grew up in the UK between the 1960s and 1980s, as a few of us did, what they think of when somebody mentions wrestling, they will probably talk about Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks and watching “World of Sport” on ITV—those fantastic Saturday afternoons watching wrestling. “World of Sport” finished in the 1980s and the WWF, now WWE, took over. We saw an Americanisation of wrestling for quite a long period, but despite the American dominance, British wrestlers did manage to infiltrate the very top echelons of wrestling, including Davey Boy Smith, better known as The British Bulldog. He was there, as my hon. Friend mentioned, at Wembley Stadium in 1992 when 80,000 people attended the SummerSlam.

In the last few years, British wrestling has seen a resurgence, with high-calibre talent and impressive promotions. This has allowed the UK scene to rival the larger promotions across the world. Not only has there been an increase in the number of shows booked, but over the last few years we have seen a steady rise in attendances, with many shows now selling to record numbers. We have seen British promotions such as PROGRESS, Insane Championship Wrestling and Revolution Pro Wrestling hosting major shows attracting international audiences and adding to our international tourism offer. Recently, there has also been the creation of the UK’s own specific WWE brand in NXT UK.

Across the country, training facilities have also become more important for the British pro wrestling scene. They are being run by some of the biggest names in the industry. This includes the creation of the first WWE performance centre outside the United States, in London, in 2019. We have seen some of this British-trained talent cross the Atlantic and become successful in major established promotions, such as WWE and All Elite Wrestling. Drew McIntyre became the first ever British WWE world champion in 2020, and Scottish-born Kay Lee Ray is currently the NXT UK women’s champion.

With the current pandemic impacting on the sport and entertainment industries so severely over the last year, I really do appreciate the efforts of the APPG on wrestling to ensure that the last few years of hard work raising the profile of UK pro wrestling does not go to waste. I particularly applaud my hon. Friend because, as he said, without a governing body, the sector faces some challenges. I warmly welcome the work of the APPG and its recent inquiry into the future of professional wrestling in Britain, which we heard about this afternoon. The inquiry’s report makes many recommendations across a broad range of issues relating to the sector. I am not in a position to answer every single one of his questions at the moment, but I will carefully consider the report and happily engage with him and the APPG as we consider it more thoroughly.

My hon. Friend covered a very wide range of areas, including health and safety standards, safeguarding, the promotion of wrestling and addressing the gender pay gap, which are all important issues. A lot of these areas are in the gift of the wrestling industry itself to address, and I urge those in the sector, as he did, to consider the APPG’s report very carefully and what actions the sector can take, including coming together more clearly.

I agree with the need for wrestling to place safety and wellbeing at the forefront of its priorities. There is no need for the industry to start with a blank sheet of paper here; as the report sets out, there is a wealth of information from other sectors that can be used as a starting point. That includes safeguarding standards in sport and in the arts. In sport, the Child Protection in Sport Unit provides a clear framework of standards that organisations working with children and young people should meet, along with supporting resources. In the arts and entertainment sector the NSPCC has produced guidance, including advice on creating clear safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures. The Department for Education has provided advice for local authorities and individuals working with children in all types of professional or amateur performances, paid sport and paid modelling. All those resources are available for wrestling right now, and I urge those in the industry to make use of them.

The report also addresses how wrestling should be categorised. We have spoken about that on several occasions; it is a challenge. The report recommends that training should be considered a sport and the performance element an entertainment. Personally I can see the logic in that distinction, but that is a matter for Sport England. I understand that there is engagement with Sport England, and I suggest that that continues.

Mark Fletcher

My hon. Friend is doing a brilliant job. I asked whether he would write to Sport England in support of our recommendation; would he be willing to do so?

Nigel Huddleston

I thank my hon. Friend. I will definitely write to Sport England and ask it to seriously consider it. He will understand that, because the matter is at the discretion of Sport England, if I were to get involved and strongly suggest that it should decide one way or the other it might be considered inappropriate, but what I will do is consider the application very seriously and get back to him. Look, personally I understand it, but this is not for me to decide, and I need to respect the appropriate decision-making bodies.

As the report made out, this is a complex area; it is not clear, but it is a perfectly valid point to raise. The report highlighted the fact that support from the two most relevant Government arm’s length bodies, Sport England and Arts Council England, has been provided to many projects in the past, where the projects have met the relevant funding criteria. Where that is clearly sport or clearly entertainment, that has been straightforward. Where that is not the case, there are obviously challenges, but the door is open for discussions about what support can be provided to wrestling, and I would urge the industry, as well as the APPG—but it is the industry that would benefit here—to be very clear about the exact nature of the support they are looking for and therefore pursue that help. It is for wrestling itself to make the case for support and how it fits with those organisations’ strategic aims, just as it is for any other organisation looking for publicly funded support. We all want to see wrestling prosper, but the industry needs to be clear about what it wants to achieve.

The report and this afternoon’s debate have highlighted the effect that the current pandemic has had on the industry. I appreciate that the sector has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. We have been working with sectors throughout the economy to make it possible for entertainment such as pro wrestling to restart in a safe manner, and rightly our focus remains on public safety. With falling infection rates and the vaccination of more than 33 million people, we have cause for optimism. As my hon. Friend knows, in February the Prime Minister set out a road map out of the current lockdown for England. We also announced the events research programme, an integral part of the road map, which will help to explore how larger events across the cultural and entertainment sectors can reopen safely. Currently, participants have been able to resume training.

Again, I would like to thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. As I have promised, we will happily continue with the conversations, and I will endeavour to give him answers to the many other questions he raised today. I would like to reiterate my thanks to the APPG for wrestling for its work on looking at the future of wrestling in this country. We will carefully consider the report and what factors are relevant to the Government and, potentially, to Departments other than the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and I urge the wrestling community itself to look at the recommendations that it should take forward. We all want to see a successful wrestling industry, both for participants and for the many fans right across the country. I hope that the report will help it to grow and continue to prosper.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)

What a wonderful way to finish the parliamentary week, debating British wrestling. Well done! I would also like to thank all the technicians and the backroom people in broadcasting who have allowed those Members participating remotely to be able to do so. We are incredibly grateful for everything that you have done.