HC Deb 26 April 1995 vol 258 cc788-810
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

The next debate is on the future of rugby league. Before I call the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), I remind hon. Members that court proceedings are to take place on Friday which concern the subject matter of the debate to some extent. I trust that hon. Members who wish to speak will be careful not to trespass on the specific matters of the court hearing and, in particular, on whether Keighley should or should not be a member of any proposed super league, but will concentrate on the general issues. This is a short debate and I hope that I shall not have to remind hon. Members of the sub judice rule. At present, nine hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak in this hour and a half debate. The Chair will be more than pleased if they are all successful.

11.31 am
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

I express my appreciation for the fact that this morning we have the opportunity for a brief debate on some serious developments in the game of rugby league football, specifically professional rugby league football. There are two separate organisations; the amateur game, run by the British Amateur Rugby League Association—BARLA—is largely unaffected by the issues that we are talking about this morning.

I declare at the outset an interest in this debate. As is declared in the Register of Members' Interests, I have 500 shares in Wakefield Trinity rugby league football club. I am not sure what they are worth at present.

The issues are simple and straightforward. Why should a battle between two Australian media magnates result in my constituents losing something very important which we have had for 122 years—Wakefield Trinity rugby league football club? Why should a power struggle on the other side of the world mean that I should lose the team that I have supported through thick and thin since I was a small child?

It is very appropriate that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are in the Chair this morning. You have risen from humble origins in my part of the world to be a highly respected Member of the House. You have achieved a great deal politically but, most importantly to the people who matter, you once played for Featherstone Rovers. I have here your autobiography, "A Very Miner MP". The front shows a Castleford miner and a Featherstone miner together. There is a gap; perhaps a Wakefield Trinity miner should be included.

I refer to the book because it is clear from it that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, more than anyone understand the community in which rugby league is played. You more than anyone understand how the events of the past two and a half weeks have shaken some of us to our roots because your roots, like mine, have been intertwined with rugby league football from the word go.

On Sunday, I attended what may well be the last match that my team, Wakefield Trinity, will ever play. Grown men wept. That grief has turned to anger at the way in which those ruling the game of rugby league in this country—Mr. Lindsay, the chief executive, Mr. Walker, the chairman, the club chairmen and others—seem to have allowed us to be used.

As you well know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the root of the problem is that rugby league has become a pawn in a power struggle between Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch over first, television coverage of rugby league in Australia and secondly, the expansion of satellite television. When Packer won the right to show Australian rugby league on his Channel 9 station, Murdoch's News Corporation retaliated by planning a super league in direct opposition. Murdoch bought up many of Australia's and New Zealand's top rugby league players. When that strategy failed, he turned to Europe and to rugby league in this country.

After the £77 million deal between the rugby football league in Britain and Murdoch a couple of weeks ago, Packer's representatives came to Britain trying to lure our best players away. The prospect of Murdoch's money being stuffed into players' pockets to outbid Packer is clear; that is the reality of rugby league's present situation. Martin Offiah may become much richer than he is already, but the game of rugby league will be poorer as a direct result.

What could be achieved if the money being offered to some of the players was used instead to develop the game? As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) said to me this morning, it could be used for balls, shirts, boots and the other equipment that the kids in the community who want to play the game need. I hope that the likes of Ellery Hanley, who come from a social background that is pretty deprived, do not forget where they come from and what the money that they may receive could do for kids who have origins like theirs.

The implications are clear for many of us who are deeply concerned with the game of rugby league. Mergers have been agreed by club chairs of certain teams which will combine to enter, supposedly, the super league. I am aware that we cannot refer to certain issues on this point, but I shall refer to one or two matters that are especially relevant to the Wakefield area. There have been proposals for the destruction of long-established teams. There are practical questions of particular concern, such as the implication for jobs in an area that does not have many jobs.

There are more than 2,000 professional rugby league players in this country whose family incomes are substantially dependent on what they can earn in the game of rugby league. Many of them will no longer have a job as a direct result of the changes. People such as the coaching staff, the groundsmen and the people who, at my local club of Wakefield Trinity, work behind the bar have asked me what will happen to them if the club folds.

It is proposed that Wakefield Trinity, Featherstone Rovers and Castleford should merge and be called Calder. I am ashamed to say that Trinity's shareholders voted 2:1 in favour of a merger; I argued against the proposal. Perhaps the fact that the club had lost 86–0 to Castleford two days before had an impact on their judgment that day. It is interesting to note that when the local paper, the Wakefield Express, conducted a telephone poll, the result was 9:1 against any merger and to keep Wakefield Trinity as a separate entity.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I come from origins as humble as yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I have only two £1 shares in Hull Kingston Rovers compared with the 500 shares that my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) has in Wakefield Trinity.

When the question of the merger of the three clubs arose, was there any suggestion of a pecking order—of one club being more dominant than the others—or did the rugby league urge the clubs to go in with equal status and to merge their interests equally?

Mr. Hinchliffe

I cannot answer that question in detail. I have no information that any pecking order was ever suggested. My hon. Friend understands the passions in Hull which has a great history of rugby league, with Hull Kingston Rovers and the Boulevard. I suspect that he has shared in the debates, the arguments and the anger, as we have in Wakefield.

As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a book has already been published, emerging from Wakefield, about the anger and the grief of people who are affected by the proposed mergers. The book talks of "the merger from hell" because that is the view of people in my area about the proposals. I congratulate the Yorkshire Arts Circus on its book, "Merging on the Ridiculous" and on its work to get across to people outside our area and in the game at high level just how passionately local people feel about what is going on and about the way in which they have been treated.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

As the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, the whole problem has arisen because of the battle between two Australian media magnates, Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer, over their interests in Australia. Does he agree that the right way to deal with the problem here is by a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission?

Mr. Hinchliffe

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has already written to the Office of Fair Trading about the matter. Perhaps the Minister may reflect on that when he responds to the debate.

May I for a moment crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and quote from the book that I mentioned a few moments ago to show the House the strength of feeling in my area about this matter, especially about the way in which people have been treated over proposed mergers? One anonymous supporter sets out passionate feelings about such treatment. The book quotes him:

A couple of dozen suits making a decision on behalf of God knows how many followers of the game is a disgrace. It's a bit like coming home one day and finding that your walls have been knocked through, and from now on you and your neighbour are all sharing one house. What do you say? 'Thanks very much. Another time, perhaps you'd like to ask me first. That sums up the feelings of so many.

If I may briefly stray into Featherstone, if my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) will allow me, I would like to quote a comment about Calder: What is Calder to the people of Featherstone, but a river somewhere to the side of Normanton, as remote as the Ganges or the Volga … Why not call it Thatcher? She did more for the region than anyone else and you could really get some buzz on the opposition terraces when our team came out. The central point of that comment is that 20,000 mining-related jobs have gone since 1979 in the Wakefield area; the area of Wakefield Trinity, Featherstone Rovers and Castleford. People have lost their identity, their self-respect, their standard of living and their way of life. For many, the one thing left which gives them pride is the local rugby league team. The same philosophy of greed is about to take away that as well.

People in my area are fighting back. For the first time in history, in the pubs of Wakefield last night, people drank a toast to the people of Featherstone, because your members, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in Featherstone, voted by a large margin against the merger. I pay tribute to my many friends and colleagues in Featherstone for the way in which they have campaigned—rightly—against what has been handed down to them on a plate without any kind of consultation.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way while he is on the subject of mergers, relating to what is happening around Yorkshire in particular and describing the anger in the communities. He knows that in my community of Doncaster, it has been suggested that the Dons should merge with the Sheffield Eagles. The same anger prevails among the Dons' supporters about that proposed merger and 3,000 of them have signed a petition against it. A meeting in Doncaster last week with Gary Hetherington from Sheffield Eagles was attended by 400 supporters and only 16 voted in favour. The feeling is the same up and down Yorkshire on this issue. Local communities feel that they are about to lose their local rugby clubs and they will not have that. They will not sit down and take that and they are fighting against it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I appreciate that the hon. Member wants to make a point, but interventions are supposed to be brief and not mini-speeches.

Mr. Hinchliffe

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for working hard to try to sustain Doncaster. I know that behind the scenes he has done an immense amount and he is as aggrieved as I am at the way in which the affair has developed. I think that Gary Hetherington is genuinely doing what he believes to be in the interests of rugby league in south Yorkshire, although I disagree with his strategy.

I shall move on to some of the wider implications of the recent deal and developments of which the House should be aware. First, I find it particularly galling, having worked hard along with many hon. Friends, given that rugby union has for more than 99 years disgracefully discriminated against rugby league, to find out, on the very day that I reintroduced the Sports (Discrimination) Bill, that my sport of rugby league will in future, through the Murdoch deal, be discriminating against people who are not involved with Murdoch. It is not on for people to say that the future Great Britain rugby league team will be exclusive to Murdoch.

I give a commitment here and now—the Minister is aware of the issues and that my Bill will, I hope get its Second Reading on Friday—that if the Bill goes into Committee, I shall certainly try to amend it to ensure that such discrimination is made illegal. Frankly, we cannot be hypocritical and say that union is wrong in doing what it is doing yet do the same in our own game.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

May I point out to my hon. Friend that many Australian rugby league fans have very deep reservations about these developments? A few days ago I spoke to two such fans on the telephone and they expressed their concern. Incidentally, before they migrated from Scotland they were Glasgow Celtic supporters so perhaps, now that they are in Australia, they have come to their senses.

Mr. Hinchliffe

Time spent in the south of England has taught me that rugby league is indeed a civilising influence and I concur with my hon. Friend's comments. Let us consider—this issue is being discussed in Australia—the wider implications, for example, for news management because of the way in which Mr. Murdoch has moved into rugby league. Indeed, he is moving into other areas too. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about Channel 5?"] Indeed, as my hon. Friends say, I was interested to note that Mr. Michael Grade, the chief executive of Channel 4, only yesterday demanded parliamentary action to check Murdoch's tentacles. Frankly, it is not his tentacles that we are after in my part of the world.

I spoke last week to a rugby league correspondent whom I have known and respected for a long time. He told me—and I believed him—that certain writers and broadcasters are no longer free to report the facts about the super league. I shall be interested to see tomorrow's reporting of this debate by certain television stations and newspapers.

There is another side to the coin which is worth flagging up. It is fairly common knowledge to a number of hon. Members that at least one non-Murdoch tabloid is planning a highly personal attack on a key figure in British rugby league. I shall say no more about that. I am sad to say that in rugby league we are involved in a dirty business.

I pay a sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield for the way in which he has from the word go set out a principled position on behalf of the parliamentary rugby league group. My hon. Friend's line of opposition to the deal because of its wider implications was endorsed at a meeting of about 40 members—including hon. Members of another place—of the group last week. My hon. Friend, in particular, has pinpointed a number of implications.

My hon. Friend and I had a three-hour meeting on Monday with the chief executive and the chairman of the rugby football league, Mr. Maurice Lindsay and Mr. Rodney Walker. If my hon. Friend catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will no doubt talk about that meeting and cite some detail of the comments that we made and, indeed, their responses. In response to my belief that they were widely seen to have sold the game's soul, they said that they had had no alternative. Their response was about the current financial difficulties facing the game.

I concede that such difficulties have to be addressed at club and board level. There are difficulties arising from the contracting system, which of course came from Australia in the first place, and difficulties with the safety at sports grounds legislation. Soccer's problems have cost rugby league clubs such as mine £13 million since that legislation was introduced. With respect to the Minister's noble efforts, we are still waiting for some real help on that front and no doubt he will comment on that later.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

Many local authorities have supported the development of rugby league clubs' grounds because of the esteem in which those clubs are held in the communities. Local authorities are hard pressed and they have spent money that they do not have.

Mr. Hinchliffe

My hon. Friend is right. I pay tribute to Wakefield district council for the effort that it has made to support the three rugby league clubs. Wakefield Trinity is certainly criticising the council at present, but I said at the shareholders' meeting last week that there is a lot to thank the local authority for in terms of the support that it has given to rugby league and Wakefield Trinity in the past.

I hope that the Minister will also mention the impact of the national lottery, which has wiped out the fundraising efforts at local club level for teams such as Wakefield Trinity. We have lost thousands of pounds as a direct result of the lottery, and the compensation that is supposed to arise from the lottery funds has not yet filtered down to the game of rugby league.

Following our discussions with Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Walker many questions remain unanswered, and I hope that we shall have further meetings with them and with the Minister. The central question that fans, supporters and people throughout the game ask me is how on earth a deal of such magnitude could be concluded without consultation with the various interested parties that surely have a role to play in the game. The players, in particular, are affected, as is the amateur game and as are a range of other organisations concerned with development.

The parliamentary group has worked hard in this place to press the interests of the game of rugby league, but we have been treated with contempt. For nearly a fortnight, no attempt was made to advise us about what was happening. The most important development in the game for 100 years was taking place, yet there was no fax, no telephone call, no letter. I feel rather aggrieved by the way in which we have been treated, and it is worth putting that on the record.

Much more important are the members of clubs, the people who pay for their season tickets and go through the turnstiles. Those are the people who fund the game where it matters—through the gates of the rugby league clubs. They feel that they have been treated with complete and utter contempt by the game's rulers, and in many areas they are angry.

I want to give my hon. Friends and Conservative Members the opportunity to make contributions, so I shall finish soon. But before I do I shall raise one or two specific questions that the Minister may be prepared to reflect on and perhaps to answer. My first question is: can the Government sit back and allow British sport to be taken apart in the power struggle that we are witnessing within the game of rugby league?

I know that the Minister's background is in rugby union, although I think that he has realised that there is a better form of rugby now that he has been to one or two rugby league matches. I am sure that he has worked it out for himself, but I must emphasise the fact that what is happening to rugby league now will be like a vicarage tea party compared with what will happen to rugby union. I do not think that many people involved with rugby union who know what is happening to rugby league are laughing about it. Despite the historic rivalries, when those people watch what is happening now they know that rugby union will be next. It will be hit in a big way and the game will be fundamentally changed.

What steps will the Minister and the Government take to defend British sport, and to alleviate the additional burdens imposed by the sports grounds legislation and by the national lottery, so that clubs such as Wakefield Trinity will be able to go it alone without Murdoch money and without the bribery that is bandied about to make people forget about their principles and forget about the history and heritage of the game of rugby league?

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Is that not the crunch? Many of us share my hon. Friend's reservations about the way in which the deal was done, about Murdoch and about the lack of consultation, but there is one thing that we all know. I represent Huddersfield, where the modern game began 100 years ago, and I know it. We have to grasp the reality that we desperately need money and more spectators, and that we probably need a super league of some kind.

Mr. Hinchliffe

We need money, but do we need to prostitute ourselves on the street? That is a simple question that many of us feel deeply about. Rugby league is a game of principle, which I have supported all my life, but there are certain questions to be asked about the way that we have left some of those principles behind this time. I hope that the Minister will support the calls for an independent inquiry into the way in which the affair has been conducted. I know that the Select Committee on National Heritage has already been approached by its own members to consider the matter, and many hon. Members here today would support that request.

To be fair to the Minister, he knows about the game of rugby league and its qualities. It is primarily a local game, rooted in local communities and based on family relationships. We do not have problems at rugby league matches, and we do not really need police, whether the crowd is 77,000 or 500, because people are well behaved and have decent values. One of the strengths of rugby league is that the game itself oozes the values of decency and friendliness, and I believe that those qualities are well worth defending.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

My hon. Friend will be aware that my local club, Wigan, will play at Wembley on Saturday.

Mr. Hinchliffe

Just by way of a change.

Mr. Stott

It is like playing at home. At last year's fixture Wigan were playing Leeds, the same club that they will play on Saturday. There were about 70,000 people at Wembley stadium last year for that cup final, and there was not one arrest.

Mr. Hinchliffe

My hon. Friend makes my point for me. There was a capacity crowd, yet I saw a police report on the match that questioned the need to police that Wembley event in future. For the record, even if Wakefield Trinity never appear at Wembley again, on the two occasions when we played Wigan we beat them.

This is an emotional issue for me—I make no bones about it. My team, Wakefield Trinity, began in 1873, based round the YMCA at Trinity church. It had its roots in Christianity, and I shall finish by quoting what one of that team's lifelong supporters, Elaine Storkey, said about the super league two weeks ago on Radio 4's "Thought for the Day": It concerns the central values of our culture. When everything can be turned into a commodity for financial gain, it seems that nothing other than money has any ultimate meaning. Jesus asked 'What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world but to lose his soul?'. It warns us that something of soul could be lost in the north if the pleasure of local contests between neighbours is exchanged for global commercialisation. The cost may be the very meaning of the game, for even rugby league can lose its heart before the tyranny of Mammon".

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I should say that the great interest in the debate is obvious from the number of right hon. and hon. Members present in the Chamber. I do not recall having been in the Chair for an Adjournment debate when there have been so many people here. Bearing that in mind, I hope that those fortunate enough to catch my eye will remember that many hon. Members want to speak.

11.56 am
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

I am mindful of your reference to the sub judice rule, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall choose my words with care. Recent days have seen much conflict and many expressions of anguish; indeed, there have been explosions of anger, and those are entirely understandable. The rugby football league has brought all that about by acting with unseemly speed and above all by failing to allow spectators to have their say, as they undoubtedly should.

Decisions have been rushed in a way unworthy of an organisation that celebrates its centenary this year. It took 100 years to create the rugby league in its present form, and surely it must be disloyal to those who have supported the sport week in and week out, year in and year out, to decide on revolutionary changes in a matter of hours.

Bearing in mind the origins of rugby league, and its creation in 1895 because of discrimination practiced against rugby league players in the north of England, I, like the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), find it a matter for deep regret—indeed, I find it tragic—that the rugby football league has allowed itself to be drawn into a structure in which discrimination will be endemic.

I object especially to the element of the deal with Mr. Rupert Murdoch whereby a Great Britain team will not play international matches against an Australian team containing players not contracted to the Murdoch organisation. Some of us have fought against such discrimination, and will continue to do so.

Last year, the rugby football league published a far-seeing document entitled "The Way Forward", proposing better facilities and ways in which clubs should develop and promote themselves to a wider audience. We all support those objectives.

I want to say a little about my club. I shall not talk specifically about the composition of the super league, or give the reasons why my club should be part of it. As urged to by the rugby football league, the club has adopted a community-based approach. It has promoted in the ground every day what it calls the Cougars classroom, delivering the national curriculum to pupils. It has attracted families. It has admitted youngsters free of charge. It has initiated a scheme in which schools and pupils are encouraged to follow the pursuit of excellence. In two successive years, it has taken 1,000 schoolchildren in 20 or more coaches to Wembley to see an international match.

Now we see some of the results. Some 40 per cent. of spectators at home matches are women. Juvenile crime is said to have decreased in the town as a result of initiatives taken by the club. At Rochdale last Sunday, where the Cougars won 104–4 against Highfield, it was not just the achievements on the field that impressed. The stewards were amazed at the lack of problems among the huge crowd and the absence of litter after the game.

That community-based approach, matched by the creation of a superb team, has led to a dramatic increase in attendances from an average of 445 in 1986–87 to an average of 4,119 in the present season. Indeed, attendance has quadrupled in the past four years. A top coach, Phil Larder, and top players such as Daryl Powell, have been willing to come to a second division club to share in the excitement of reaching for the top. Obviously, however the league is organised, they expect to operate and play in the top flight.

In general terms, the exclusion of top-class teams which are doing now what some clubs still aspire to, epitomises what is wrong with the proposals. It is surely ridiculous to include teams which in some cases do not even exist yet or are incapable at present of playing top-class rugby, merely because they happen to be in the north-east, London, Humberside, Wales or, indeed, France.

It is not surprising that the majority of the mergers which Maurice Lindsay has advocated for a long time are already breaking down. How does he expect people who have followed historic clubs such as Castleford, Featherstone and Wakefield Trinity all their lives to give their loyalty to something called Calder? The hon. Member for Wakefield spoke feelingly on the matter. I know how he feels and how so many clubs and supporters feel.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

It is interesting that, when the people who have supported the game all their lives were asked their opinion in a poll in the Halifax Evening Courier, in just an hour or two more than 3,000 voted against a merger with Bradford Northern and just 300 voted for a merger. So when they were given the opportunity to say whether they wanted to stay in Halifax, they chose to do so overwhelmingly.

Mr. Waller

I acknowledge what the hon. Lady says. Unfortunately, what she says is so accurate. Sadly, the chairmen of some clubs such as Bradford Northern and Halifax are among those who have been carried away by the hype that they have heard. Justifying the stance that he took in favour of the proposals, Chris Caisley, the chairman of Bradford Northern, wrote: now and again, there is a need to step out of Cougarland, put your feet on the ground, and get into the real world. That was from the chairman of one of the clubs that have beaten a path to Cougars' door to find out just what Cougarmania is all about so that they can impart a little of it to their own promotion.

Mr. Sutcliffe

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is Mr. Caisley who ought to be in the real world and recognise that in 1985 there would not have been a Bradford Northern without local supporters and the local authority, just as there would not have been a Keighley Cougars without local supporters and the local authority? That is the real world. It is a bottom-up, not a top-down, process.

Mr. Waller

The hon. Gentleman is so right. He might be interested to know that Mr. Caisley, writing presumably about Members of this House who belong to the all-party rugby league group, many of whom are in the Chamber today, wrote: Don't be fooled by these wolves in sheep's clothing; they will disappear from the scene as quickly as they arrived. If they carry any real interest in rugby league they would be better employed minding their own business and looking after the genuine interests of their electorate. Well, I think I know my electorate reasonably well. My guess is that, in a contest between Chris Caisley and me or any of a dozen hon. Members who are here today, I or they would win hands down. I think that Mr. Caisley owes an apology to the supporters of the Cougars and an acknowledgement that the all-party group has been around for a good few years and its members are in touch with the views of rugby league supporters from many clubs.

There are many educationists who seem to devise plans for schools which would work splendidly without any pupils. There are health professionals who reckon that the health service would be wonderful if there were not any patients. There are also some rugby league administrators who have great theories about the organisation of the game, but attach scant importance to the need to keep the fans it has right now.

Rugby league is about emotion. It is about appreciation of skill. Above all, it is about people. After all, it is the people's game. So let us have some rethinking. Let the rugby league start listening and open up the super league to fresh applications. Rugby league can still be the greatest game.

12.5 pm

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

I am speaking as chair of the parliamentary group, in a debate which I hoped would never happen. I hoped that today we would be debating the National Heritage Select Committee report which concluded that, after 100 years, the rugby football league had been treated disgracefully by organised sports such as rugby union on the issue of sham amateurism. Unfortunately, that will not be the case because, days before that report was published, a secret deal was done between a small group of administrators who control the rugby football league and the Murdoch organisation. The deal that was struck was clearly and simply to undermine, damage and destroy the Australian rugby league—an affiliated international organisation legally standing on its own with a constitution and a right to manage the affairs of rugby league in Australia—and to pick up the pieces and control rugby league on a worldwide basis as a franchised outlet of the Murdoch organisation.

As a supporter of Wigan rugby league club, I could take a cynical approach and see the matter in the short term. A small but significant number of clubs which are already successful will gain access to huge sums of money in a short five-year period. I could say to hell with the rest of rugby league. However, if we are real supporters of rugby league committed to the ethos of community and the honesty of the game, we have a responsibility to ensure that, in promoting itself, the game cherishes the reasons why rugby league is anti-racist, why it does not have a criminal element and why it is a community sport.

It is an outrage that the Taylor report has bankrupted the game of rugby league. As a result of horrific incidents that took place in soccer, there was a need to change the law in Britain to make sporting stadiums safer. We all supported that. The report also covered rugby league, but no resources were given to bring its clubs up to the standards set out in that report. In the intervening years, football has received £130 million. Who says that crime does not pay? Until a few weeks ago, rugby league had been given a paltry £2 million. Yet the accumulated debt of the sport as a whole is less than the cost of implementing the report. That left rugby league unable to resist the way in which the Murdoch organisation moved in.

In this debate I shall not criticise Maurice Lindsay or Rodney Walker. Maurice Lindsay is a good friend of mine whom I have known throughout my public life in the north-west. I have been traumatised by what this matter has done to our friendship. My trust in the views of him and other people on the future of rugby league was wiped out in three days because of Murdoch's ability to move in and place a gun at their heads. The gun was simply that if they did not sign up the sport exclusively to him, once he had destroyed Australian rugby league and the international boards, he would be back for the UK game, would pick it up for nothing and would bankrupt it.

Players are to be cherry-picked and millions of pounds will flow out of the game in the coming weeks, both here and in Australia. A small group of players will become instant millionaires while the sport at the grass roots will wither away, clubs will be left to go bankrupt and communities will see their teams and players made redundant. How can Martin Offiah honestly hold up his hand and say that he did a deal because he wanted to play for his country? The money secured in that contract alone would be sufficient to plough into an investment programme for the clubs left in the first division.

If we are serious about a super league, why will the first division be starved of capital resources, sponsorship and income, as well as the right, even if teams are successful, to apply to join the super league? A head cannot survive if the body is destroyed.

If, in Great Britain today, the Football Association announced that Terry Venables' English international team could not play a country unless that country had secured a deal giving Murdoch exclusive rights to that international programme, there would be international and national outrage. But this deal means that Great Britain cannot play rugby internationally unless the game is with a team that has a contract exclusive to Murdoch. What would be the reaction if David Platt, the England captain, could not play for England ever again because the club that he played for did not have an exclusive deal with Mr. Murdoch? That is precisely the position for Great Britain players.

Phil Clarke from Wigan is a top international athlete, not just in the international rugby league. Last year, he signed a contract, of his own volition, to play rugby league in Australia. In the past two days, he has discovered that his club has not signed up to the Murdoch deal in Australia. So the best loose forward in the world today will be banned forthwith from playing for his country unless he breaks his contract and turns his back on a legally binding document. How could such an arrangement be allowed to happen? It means that the sport has been purchased lock, stock and barrel. For the first time in Britain's history, a media magnate has bought not just a sporting event but a sport and, with that purchase, he will manipulate that sport on an international stage for the long-term aspirations of his company at the expense of the short and longer-term aims of rugby league, both here and internationally.

There are serious implications for the United Kingdom outside rugby league. The House must consider whether it is right that Mr. Murdoch or any other media mogul can decide the shape, size and rights of any sport. Is it right that a media mogul from outside the UK can control virtually every major sporting event in the United Kingdom? Is it right that a media mogul can contract individual players and sports and, with those contractual arrangements, operate a virtual monopoly—a restraint of trade on individuals—which prevents access to that sport for any other sponsor or media agency without his prior approval?

If hon. Members want to surrender British and European sport to Mr. Murdoch, they should say so. He should not be allowed to use rugby league as a Trojan horse to undermine all those public issues.

Ms Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that someone—it is difficult not to mention names and personalities—who is involved with this deal, namely Mr. Walker, is the chairman of the Sports Council? Does he feel that people are confident in how sport in this country will be handled when the same person so quickly sells out a major sport?

Mr. McCartney

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Rodney Walker is a man of integrity but the deal seriously compromises the whole of rugby football league and the ability of its administrators to be regarded as independent in their role in other non-governmental agencies. The Minister must be clear about the future for rugby league outside the super league. Rugby league outside the super league is massive, and not just on the, M62 corridor. With more than 50,000 players and thousands of teams, rugby league is played from Scotland to every constituent part of the United Kingdom. What happens to clubs that currently receive support from non-governmental agencies? They must not be treated as a franchise of Mr. Murdoch's and excluded from investment from other sporting bodies. Rodney Walker and others should consider whether, before making their hasty decisions, they should have thought the issues through more thoroughly.

If we are honest about the future of the game, we must also be honest about the fact that rugby league is virtually a bankrupt game. It is short of capital investment resources, and it is sometimes short of vision. But cherry picking and an international battle for a few players will cause millions of pounds to seep out of the game into the bank accounts of a few players, their agents and the lawyers who represent them, and the game will not be able to survive in the long run. The most damning indictment of the whole issue is how rugby league has lost control of events and the international rugby board has been smashed. The game can no longer be played unless Murdoch says that it can. Each day, the meter ticks on and the only people who ultimately will gain are the agents, a handful of players and a lot of solicitors.

The rugby league family must come together quickly. Some sanity must prevail in Australia and here to end immediately the cherry picking, bans and prescriptions. Unless that happens immediately, none of the £70 million will be left to invest. It will have gone for ever.

Several hon, Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I understand that the winding-up speeches will be at about 12.30 pm. Five hon. Members hope to catch my eye before then. I hope that they will be able to do so.

12.18 pm
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on raising this matter at such a crucial time. I offer my apologies to the House because I should be in a meeting which started at 12 o'clock and I cannot stay to hear the end of the debate. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister.

As a member of the all-party rugby league group in Parliament, I must add my support to the protests against the super league proposals. I also add my protests on behalf of Batley rugby league club.

Undoubtedly, the game needs an overhaul and, as we have heard, an injection of cash, which I believe could come from worldwide television coverage. However, it appears that the rugby league authorities—whose names have been mentioned—have been unable to resist, and have jumped at the first available cash and television deal that anyone has dangled before them, which happened to come from Rupert Murdoch.

I find that surprising, when the authorities know that Rupert Murdoch is in fierce competition with his Australian rival, Kerry Packer, and they know what has happened previously. I do not understand why they could not have given the matter more thought and had the courtesy to consult some of the many people in this country, especially in the north of England, who have supported rugby league for most of their lives.

The Murdoch proposals, which demand the merger of well-known clubs throughout Yorkshire and the north-west, deserve to fail because they completely disregard the traditions of many clubs, which are synonymous with our way of life in the north.

More important, those proposals are unacceptable to the people of Batley. We are not in danger of merger but, following what my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) said, we would be following in the footsteps of Keighley for promotion next season.

Our club has shown great determination, in the past few seasons, to gain promotion from the second division and to meet the demands of the rugby league authorities with regard to facility improvements. The club has had good sponsorship. Fox's Biscuits, a very well-known company in Batley, supports rugby league and has been most helpful. The club has achieved all its targets and is a runner-up in the second division to the champions, Keighley.

The Mount Pleasant club in Batley has spent £1.5 million on ground improvements and hopes to spend a further £2.5 million. It has no debt; although it is always desperate for money, it is not that desperate and certainly, as the hon. Member for Wakefield said, its members will not sell their souls for some immediate cash.

I have had a great deal of contact from people. I shall quote from a letter from Mr. Myers who wrote to me and with whom I have also spoken on the telephone. He says at the end of his letter: Please forgive my rambling on, but it is difficult to write down my true feelings when, after 60 years of supporting Batley, 40 years of doing my best in working and volunteering to help them survive and keep rugby league going in Batley, it seems that now we face another difficulty. With the greed of Mr. Lindsay and others, it is all going to be taken away. That epitomises what people in my district believe.

If a super league format is to replace next season's planned premier league, clubs such as Keighley, Batley and others must be allowed to take part. They have fought and worked for it, and that achievement will be snatched away. They must be allowed to take their place somewhere in the transitional super league, which will be staged between August 1995 and January 1996. Better still, I believe that the rugby league authorities and Rupert Murdoch should reconsider their proposal, because the present one is unacceptable to us in Yorkshire.

Our message to Rupert Murdoch is, take your dollars back and have a rethink.

12.22 pm
Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

I echo what has been said today—that the issue is not about the domestic game. The offer was made, not because the domestic game is in financial difficulties but as a result of a row between Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch in Australia.

If I might say so to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), with whom I always agree, clubs have been forced into bankruptcy, not only by the Taylor report but by the contract system. That is why they were in a weak position when that offer was made to them.

I echo what has been said about the chief executive and the chair of the rugby league—that they were concerned about the future of the game, and when an offer came that was worth about £75 million it was awfully difficult to resist. However, the fact that they and the chairmen of the respective clubs took that decision at Wigan in a matter of three to four hours, and tossed away 100 years of development and community spirit, caused frustration and anger the like of which I have never witnessed among rugby league spectators.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I must congratulate your club, Featherstone, on speaking out. The members have said that they want nothing to do with it. The same thing occurred in Warrington. Neither Warrington nor Widnes wanted to be known as Cheshire. They are the fortunate ones; they have retained their identity, and they have retained it in the super league.

I read this morning that Martin Offiah has decided to stay in this country, but I was worried by the remarks of Mr. Robinson, the chairman of Wigan, who said that the club was enabled to put the contract together because of help from the super league and the Murdoch organisation. Will that apply to other players and other clubs when they come cherry-picking?

I mentioned Warrington and Widnes, but other mergers, such as that between Salford and Oldham, have run into difficulty. That is happening not just in Yorkshire; I understand that, in Cumbria, Workington will more or less go it alone.

I have repeatedly asked what will happen at the end of five years, because that money will be taken on a short-term basis, for five years only. If Rupert Murdoch does what Kerry Packer did in relation to cricket—if he walks away at the end of those five years—where will rugby league stand? Will 100 years of heritage have been thrown away for a mess of pottage?

12.26 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

I love all rugby, but I confess that I am a union man and I would not pretend to be anything else.

I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) criticising rugby union. After all, it was the rugby football league that broke away all those years ago, and I believe that rugby union has been entitled to protect its amateur status over the years.

Mr. McNamara


Mr. Heald

I can hear one or two ribald comments from Opposition Members, but I think that is unfair, and I believe that it is right that the rugby union is now seriously considering the issue of payments for top players. That is to be reviewed in August.

One of the sorrows that I share from that experience is that it is likely that the vultures will be at the world cup, trying to poach some of the best players from rugby union for rugby league. That will damage rugby union, and I regret that.

I realise that there is an argument for a super league. The argument is that 26 of the rugby league clubs are bankrupt and more money is needed. We have witnessed already what money does. Wigan is a fantastic team. In the past three or four years, it has been in a league above.

Mr. Stott

Ten years.

Mr. Heald

The hon. Gentleman tells me that it is 10 years, but certainly in the past three or four years Wigan has been something very special. I believe that the reasons are that it picks the best athletes, it is able to have them as full-time players and it is able to train them at the highest level. Many rugby league clubs cannot do that. If we could have a league in which everyone could reach the standard of Wigan, what a spectacle it would be.

It is easy to criticise the authorities in rugby league and say that they lack a vision for the future, but if one were attributing to them the best motives for what they have done, one would say that they can envisage what it would be like to have a league in which all the teams were as good as Wigan and in which Wigan even found it necessary to raise the standard of its game further; what a splendid thing that would be.

An opportunity exists for rugby football league. I am not saying that the way in which it has been handled is right or that it could not be reconsidered. However, if it is possible to obtain £77 million—£1.1 million a year for each of those clubs in the next few years—it would be a tremendous thing for rugby league. I hope that those people who oppose that do not do so mindlessly and are prepared to consider options and ways forward that would not damage that opportunity for the sake of a history, which, I accept, is a proud one.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Govan)

Given that the hon. Gentleman, like me, is predominantly a rugby union man rather than a rugby league man, does he recognise that the precedent that is being set in rugby league might be followed in rugby union? Indeed, in the Evening Standard today I read that a Euro-cup is about to be launched. I read that the only team that they have from Scotland is Boroughmuir. If amalgamations of Scottish clubs result, that would be inappropriate and unwelcome. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support me in urging the Minister to recognise that that would be an unfortunate precedent for rugby union.

Mr. Heald

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I accept that the arrangement creates real difficulties for rugby union.

I am pulled in two directions, as I think many hon. Members will be, given the sort of spectacle that can be achieved when the best athletes play the game to the very highest standard. There is no doubt that money has a lot to do with that. In American football, the teams with the most money play the game to an incredibly high standard and they are able to maintain that standard because of the vast sums of money involved. Therefore, although I would like to protect rugby union, I can see a role for a rugby league super league—even if it damages union in the process.

12.29 pm
Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

I am also very concerned about the future of rugby league. However, I am even more worried about the secret deal to form the super league that was stitched up behind closed doors. The Rochdale Hornets were not invited to attend the secret meeting that was held in Manchester and they are extremely upset about that.

Rugby league spokesmen said that all the chairmen of the proposed super league clubs were invited to attend the meeting. However, that was not the case. Rochdale is calling for a judicial review and I support the club in its bid, which also has the backing of a number of smaller clubs. It is asking the rugby league to consult properly about the proposals because it has certainly not done that up to now. The club is also requesting the league to consult financially. It is not too much to ask that the rugby league governing body should meet some of the smaller clubs.

The Rochdale Hornets have not seen any written proposals. What is the league afraid of? If rugby league splits in two—which is inevitable—the smaller clubs will definitely go to the wall. They must be safeguarded. We cannot allow Rupert Murdoch and his News International corporation to buy out the sport and have sole television coverage rights. The league should comply with its own byelaws.

The Rochdale Hornets are arguing for certain conditions and compensation. First, the club has requested a five-year deal, including £100,000 per annum to upgrade some of the stadiums. Secondly, it wants to retain the Challenge cup in broadly its current form—of course, Murdoch will want to scrap it. Thirdly, it favours a revised transfer tribunal scheme to provide a predetermined formula for disputed transfer deals which would stop the bigger clubs buying out the smaller ones. Fourthly—this will not benefit the club directly—the Hornets want to see a trickle-down of transfer fees to amateur league clubs to assist the development of the sport at the grass roots level. That is essential. The league must take account of the views of smaller clubs, otherwise it will be responsible for killing off rugby league as we know it.

12.32 pm
Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you not only have had a distinguished relationship with Featherstone Rovers as both a player and a supporter over many years but have supported Castleford. In our area it is very rare, if not unique, to support both those clubs. It is therefore with a degree of diffidence that I shall outline a few points about the way in which our sport has been attacked.

I turn to the question of Mr. Maurice Lindsay's involvement in the proposal. Just one month ago wesupported the principles that he enunciated in his evidence to the National Heritage Committee when he said: The discrimination continues … players who represented Japan, Morocco, the USA and Italy were effectively told that if they competed … they would be debarred from Rugby Union on their re-entry into their own country. Yet that is precisely the effect of the agreement that Mr. Lindsay brought back from Mr. Murdoch. As my hon. Friend the. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) pointed out extremely well in his speech, that is what will happen to those people who play for non-Murdoch teams. That is scandalous. Mr. Lindsay's evidence continued: That discrimination … is based on hypocrisy. No matter how one looks at it, that clearly amounts to a restraint of trade and it must be examined from that perspective.

We are also concerned about the arbitrary way in which the members of the super league have been chosen. No reason was given for debarring the whole of the second division. Mr. Murdoch has made selections within the game; he has cut people out and put people in in a totally arbitrary and unacceptable fashion.

Who is Mr. Murdoch? He is a man who was prepared to change his nationality because he wanted to buy a slice of the media in the United States of America. If a man is prepared to sell his origins in that way, how can we possibly trust him with the future of our game? If he will sell his origins, will he not sell rugby league if it happens to suit his purpose at any given time? Mr. Murdoch will control the television broadcasting rights of rugby league, which adds to the weight of the argument advanced by Mr. Michael Grade about the dangers of a Murdoch bid for Channel 5.

I should like the Minister to consider also the role of Mr. Rodney Walker. As has been said, he is the chairman of the Sports Council and he has overall authority for the sport. It was quite wrong for him to be involved in the manoeuvrings, and the Minister should address that issue in his remarks. I have a warm regard for Mr. Rodney Walker, but he has been wrong in this case.

I celebrate the results of both the Featherstone members' ballot and that conducted by the Pontefract and Castleford Express, which revealed that more than 90 per cent. of the voters opposed the current proposals. It may be that it is a case of David against Goliath—but David won in the end. The heart will not be ripped out of the Featherstone community. We will stand and fight for rugby league and for the interests of little people everywhere.

12.37 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Some hon. Members may wonder why I, as a Scottish Member of Parliament, wish to speak in the debate. However, I played rugby league as a boy—I was too slow to be a wing three-quarter and not big enough to be a forward—and I number among my family friends the late Mick Scott, Johnnie Whitely, Harry Markham, Tommy Harris, and many others whom you would recognise immediately, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My father was a bit of a bigoted supporter. He always went to the Boulevard and he refused to enter Craven Park, even when Hull played there. As someone who played the game as a boy and who follows it still, I am deeply concerned about the recent developments. I plead with the Minister to set up an independent inquiry to examine the whole murky affair, particularly the role played by Mr. Rodney Walker.

I visited Australia over Christmas, and my wife and I stayed in Manly, which has a very famous rugby league team—as you well know, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I spoke to many rugby league supporters who are concerned about the way in which the game is shaping up in both Australia and England—it is still very much a Welsh and an English game. Nevertheless, they were concerned about what was happening in Britain and Australia. They told me to beware of Mr. Murdoch and not to trust him an inch.

I make a plea to the Minister to set up an inquiry and to play the game with rugby league, as, God knows, its players and supporters deserve it. If the Minister does not set up such an inquiry, the Select Committee should take on board forthwith this deeply disturbing affair.

12.39 pm
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

I shall be brief, but I know that the local club in my constituency—the Dons—is also being pushed around. I have already mentioned the opposition within the community to the merger with the Sheffield Eagles. The story is the same whether it applies to Yorkshire or to Lancashire.

Rugby league is essentially a community-based game. The community spirit is being totally wiped out by the Murdoch deal, and that is not on. Our communities are not about to be walked over by Murdoch, Maurice Lindsay or anyone else. They will not sit down and take it because Murdoch, and so on, will not break the community spirit. I hope that the House gives its backing to those people and communities to ensure that rugby league remains a family and community game.

12.40 pm
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not give way. The Minister will agree that we have cut down our speaking time to give many hon. Members with a real interest in the issue a chance to speak.

We have heard much from hon. Members on both sides of the House about specific examples of the disarray caused by the bid from Rupert Murdoch's News International.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on initiating the debate. His comments carry great weight thanks to his long-standing commitment to rugby league, having even played for the team which he loves and which he may have seen for the last time.

I share the concern of hon. Members who have spoken today and I hope that the Minister shares them, too. In the past, I was happy to praise the Minister's efforts when real progress was made, as it was last April with the announcement that rugby league was to be recognised within the armed forces. That was largely due to his efforts and those of my hon. Friends on the Back-Bench committee.

The Minister is highly regarded in rugby league circles and has my genuine recognition for that, which makes it all the more surprising that he should have remained silent about the matter during the past two weeks. I do not know whether he has been muzzled by the Secretary of State, but that will become clear when he replies to the debate. I hope, therefore, that he will not take lightly my points in respect of the history of the deal and the degree to which it is divisive and discriminatory and jeopardises the future well-being of the game.

We should remember why the deal was put on the table in the first place. It did not result from Mr. Murdoch's altruistic desire to help a sport in undoubted difficulty. Instead, it arose from a battle taking place thousands of miles away in Australia, where Murdoch's interests created the breakaway Star League as a way of poaching the coverage enjoyed by great numbers of Australians, but shown on the networks of Murdoch's long-standing rival, Kerry Packer. That has already been said, but now it is on the record and it is as well that everyone knows it.

We have seen that battle before. I am sure that hon. Members will remember Kerry Packer's television coverage which caused the first manifestations of pyjama cricket in the late 1970s. If the battle is allowed to rage on unchecked, we shall end up in circumstances similar to those in the United States, where commercialism is rampant.

I remind the House that Murdoch paid almost $400 million nearly a year ago for the rights to screen the National Football League in America on his subscription Fox TV channel, ending 34 years of universal coverage. Murdoch is in the right position to build up a monopoly with rugby league as a pawn in his game. He has access to vast funds by cross-subsidising his sports broadcasting with other areas of media activities. We can rest assured that once he has built up that monopoly, he will use it to generate sufficient profits to finance a bid for world domination in another sphere of his activities, which could mean sports fans paying through the nose.

In the deal before us today, although it changes from hour to hour, Rupert Murdoch's News International will effectively become rugby league's governing body. He will decide who plays where and when, taking to the extreme the developments within the Premier League in football, when matches are moved to suit BskyB.

The deal is the precedent that could set us on a slippery slope as it involves much more than television rights negotiated through the sport's own governing body. Restriction and discrimination run through the deal like words through a stick of rock.

The players are likely to be contracted to play only against other players also contracted to News International. Individual players are being asked to pledge their contractual allegiance to a single broadcaster as if they were actors in yet another Australian soap opera. It seems that that restriction is to be extended even to national teams, such as those for the forthcoming test series.

On the basis of that deal alone, we now face a clear progression to the day when a broadcaster buys the rights to athletes, for example—the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe), an eminent athlete, is in his place—and can then say, "You can run the 100 m for Britain at the next international meet only if you sign for me." The governing bodies themselves will be reduced to near puppets, implementing the broadcaster's every whim.

Viewers will be discriminated against in an obvious fashion. If they cannot afford a dish or a subscription, they will not be able to watch the sport. It is that simple. What message does the Minister have for pensioners, among millions of others, who will be denied yet another sporting opportunity?

What about those who have enjoyed the BBC's coverage of the Silk Cut Challenge cup since 1964? The BBC's contract comes up for renewal next year. Although the event may remain, what will happen to its coverage? I have heard some favourable comments, but I should like some cast-iron guarantees from the Minister.

The Department of National Heritage made its position clear in response to the National Heritage Select Committee's report on sports sponsorship and television coverage, when it reasserted its faith in the market and the general public were as far from the top of its list of priorities. The Department stands condemned by its inaction.

Fans from families who have supported the same club for generations will suffer from the spectre of those clubs being consumed in some cases and left by the wayside in others just to fit Mr. Murdoch's five-year master plan. If he decides to move on at the end of those five years, what will happen to clubs that have been forced to abandon their core support?

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield expressed his profound concern about the proposed merger of three clubs to form Calder—a merger already rejected by one of the clubs involved, accepted by another and now rejected by a ballot at Featherstone Rovers—a ballot, a club and a history about which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, also care passionately, and only the traditions associated with the Chair prevent that passion from surfacing during the debate.

The deal's rejection by Featherstone Rovers serves only to highlight the lack of consultation and the hurried nature of the deal. Secret negotiations in smoke-filled rooms are no way to treat a game with such loyal and committed popular support.

The Minister would do well to remember that the anger of the rugby league fans that was reflected in some of the comments we have heard today is very real and justified. Rugby league clubs provide a focus for many communities often not provided by other means. Professional and amateur clubs alike offer opportunities for young boys and girls to learn all that the sport has to offer. That is all at stake. Whole communities have been shattered. Although that may be of no concern to some hon. Members who feel that there is no such thing as a society, who could doubt the sincerity, passion and heartfelt commitment of the communities where rugby league is as much a way of life as a sport?

There can be no doubt that all those who have spoken in the debate have the best interests of the game and their constituents at heart. I recognise that before the deal the game was in a poor state financially and that has been accepted by many hon. Members. Clubs are in no position to try to hold on to their best players when there is a bidding war for Australian clubs, and the Government are by no means blameless in that state of affairs.

The House will no doubt recall that interventions were made by a number of hon. Members when we debated football ground safety in 1989 and 1990. It was pointed out that Lord Justice Taylor's report into the Hillsborough stadium disaster had exonerated the rugby league supporters who moved freely without trouble around the terraces, coming largely from the same socio-economic group. It was a shame that the Government felt unable to draw the same conclusion before imposing the burden of safety improvements without financial assistance. Consequently, rugby league clubs spent £30 million on ground improvements but received only £1 million from the Foundation for Sport and the Arts. Meanwhile, football was aided by more than £132 million from the Football Trust. The unacceptable financial burden on rugby league left many clubs on the brink of bankruptcy—although I recognise again the Minister's contribution to redressing the balance, albeit belatedly, by persuading the Treasury to forgo some revenue from the pools and expanding the remit of the Football Trust to rugby league.

When the Minister replies, perhaps he will say whether he was aware of the Murdoch negotiations with rugby league at the time of his or the Treasury's decision and give his views on the possibility of public funds being used to cross-subsidise that bid.

We heard today of huge sums of money being offered to individual players. What is the Minister doing to ensure that smaller clubs prosper, community schemes are maintained and the game flourishes in schools? What consideration has the Minister given to fulfilling those needs? He will know from last week's business questions—at column 340 of Hansard for 20 April—that my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) received from the Leader of the House a commitment that the Minister would reply to that point in this debate.

Does the Minister believe that the predicted widespread player redundancies will help to improve the game? Sport has the potential for being a great leveller, breaking down barriers and bringing communities together. That should be the aim of the Minister. In the past, rugby league has been an example of how much good sport can achieve, yet it is threatened by commercial discrimination and the restrictions of Murdoch's proposals and Packer's counter-proposals.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to refer the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I hope that the Minister will back that call, which has been made also by Conservative Members, including the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste). Only yesterday, none other than Martin Offiah said of his signing to Murdoch that he wanted to play for Great Britain—which is something that he could not do outside the super league. If that is not a trade restriction, I do not know what is. If the MMC's terms of reference do not fit that particular case, the Government should alter its terms.

I urge the Minister to use his good offices even at this late stage to bring about a better deal for this great game.

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

In this extremely important debate, the passions deeply felt were well controlled. I am sorry that we do not have time today to consider the matter in the detail and depth that it deserves. However, this is just the beginning of the debate and discussions that we intend—and I will return to that point later.

I thank the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) for initiating the debate and for something that he said on 28 April 1993, when I was sitting on one of the Back Benches, wondering how there could be a promised debate about rugby when the House was considering the Report stage of the National Lottery etc. Bill. The hon. Member for Wakefield made a powerful speech about what he saw as powerful discrimination by rugby union against rugby league. As a keen rugby union supporter, I was hearing for the first time the other side of the story. When, to my amazement, I became Minister responsible for sport shortly afterwards, I asked the hon. Gentleman to come to the Department for National Heritage to help sort out some of the difficulties that he had mentioned. I say that so that the House will know some of my bona fides.

At that meeting, the hon. Members for Wakefield and for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) made three points above all. They were, "We want rugby union and rugby league to talk, which they have not done since 1895. We want to get rugby league into the armed forces, where it is currently kept out. We want something done about the ludicrous situation whereby the hooliganism and other problems in association football results in it getting help with problems of safety, whereas rugby league, which causes no problems, is paying the price." The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) mentioned that not one person out of a 70,000 crowd was charged even for swinging an odd punch after drinking at a Wembley cup final or international.

As a consequence of that first meeting, there was a meeting between Mr. Pugh and Mr. Rowlands, representing rugby union, and Mr. Walker and Mr. Lindsay representing rugby league. I do not say that it symbolised a great deal, but it was a start. Rugby league is now played in the armed forces, although perhaps not at the level that everybody would like, and the Foundation for Sport and the Arts has a sum of £8 million, some of which will be available to rugby league to sort out ground safety problems. We have made progress.

I thank the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) for his kind words. When I arranged for the FSA to make £8 million available to games other than soccer, I did not know what Mr. Murdoch was up to.

Even in a one and a half hour debate, it is important that the House has a chance to air its views and to let loose the passion that is felt—even though it is clear that we will not reach any conclusions today. However, the world outside can see the passion that has been aroused. One hon. Member said that he went to Belle Vue and had seen grown men weep at what was happening to Wakefield Trinity. Those deep emotions must be expressed and the House is the best place for that. Serious principles are involved. The hon. Member for Makerfield referred to Phil Clarke, one of the finest loose forwards in the world—who, unless he breaks his contract, may find himself unable to play for his own country. One could mention many players and clubs, but that example encapsulates the problem.

As to restrictive practices and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, letters have been written to the Director General of Fair Trading and to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. I am not allowed to say that the implications of what is proposed for the super league are being looked at because lawyers say that if one is looking at something, one is implying that there is a conclusion. In any event, normal people would say that those letters are being looked at without prejudice, and no doubt we will shortly hear the sage advice of the director general and of my right hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Wakefield said that what is happening in rugby league may turn out to be a vicarage tea party by comparison with what may happen to rugby union. With the world cup in South Africa in May and June, I am sure that rugby union will be the next target on which Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Packer will set their sights.

The hon. Gentleman and many others talked about an independent inquiry. As Minister responsible for sport I have a restricted locus in the matter. The Select Committee has already said that it may return to the subject. I suggest that it should do so. I will reply to the previous Select Committee report in the middle of June, if I can knock it out in time. It might be helpful if the Select Committee turned its mind to this other matter.

If I understood him correctly, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said that he thought there was a role for a super league. I pay tribute to the integrity of Mr. Rodney Walker and Mr. Morris Lindsay, who believe that, with half a dozen clubs or more having gone into receivership in the past few years, and with the total debt of the 32 clubs amounting to about £10 million, and with few clubs turning a profit this year, something must be done.

We have heard today that rugby league needs an overhaul; it needs an injection of cash. It is not for me to tell rugby league what to do, but so much is fairly clear. We have to balance the financial problems of the game against the emotions, the community links, the culture of the game and the oozing of values to which reference has been made—decency, for one. All these are important.

I suggest that the Select Committee turn its mind to this subject again and conduct a forensic inquiry—that can be done quickly. Secondly, the hon. Member for Wakefield may like to bring a delegation to discuss the matter further with me.