HC Deb 03 November 1999 vol 337 cc451-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

1.19 am
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

Let me begin by expressing my gratitude for the opportunity to initiate the debate, and my appreciation to colleagues who have remained in the Chamber until this late hour owing to their concerns about certain issues relating to rugby league. I know that many of them—my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) and for Halton (Mr. Twigg)—hope to make brief contributions later.

Let me begin by declaring certain relevant interests. I hold 500 shares in Wakefield Trinity rugby league football club; I also chair the league's professional players consultative committee, which negotiates between the professional clubs and the players' union. The post is not remunerated, and pays no expenses. I am secretary of the all-party rugby league group, which has about 80 members from the House and another place.

I welcome the Minister to her new post. She has my personal good wishes for the work that she will do. I know that she has a great passion for sport of all types. She has been a member of the all-party rugby league group and, in 1995, participated in the previous debate on the subject, so she is aware of the background to many of the issues about which we are concerned. I believe that this is her debut on the Front Bench in her new position. She could not make it on a more important issue, as I am sure she appreciates.

The title of the debate implies some doubt and questions about rugby league's future. I want to express a personal view. The sport, in both an amateur and professional sense, has a positive future. I will express no doubts about its future. I have concerns merely over the implications of rugby league's administrative structure, particularly the controversies over the merger of certain professional clubs.

In stressing the positives, I recall that, in 1995, when the announcement was made in Paris that rugby union had gone openly professional, Ian Robertson, the BBC's "rugby"—that is, union—correspondent, implied that it signalled the end of rugby league—that it had no future.

Several years on, we see the contrasting fortunes of professional rugby union and professional rugby league. Those of us in rugby league believe that the league game has proved its supremacy and will continue to do so over the years. Certainly, attendances at professional rugby league matches are far higher than at equivalent professional rugby union matches. Therefore, we can stress many positives. This season, attendances at several league matches topped 20,000.

Mr. Colin Burgon (Elmet)

Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity, even though he comes from Wakefield, to commend Castleford Tigers, a small-town club with average attendances of 6,000-plus? Does he agree that the club's community-based approach shows the way forward for rugby league? In his much-valued opinion, what can the game learn from "classy Cas"?

Mr. Hinchliffe

Although they have had a successful season, Castleford were beaten by Wakefield Trinity, but I pay tribute to Castleford's work. I stress my hon. Friend's point: rugby league is essentially a community sport. Clubs such as Castleford are rooted in the local community and have been successful as a consequence of their connections with that community. In the context of mergers, links with the local community are crucial, as my hon. Friend has said.

Let me make one or two other positive points on the future of rugby league. The amateur game has spread throughout the country since the barriers in relation to union were lifted. The summer conference league, which has existed for the past two years, has spread like wildfire across central and southern England. Clubs are queueing up to join the league. Players who have played only union have not had the opportunity to taste the great game of rugby league. That expansion throughout the country is encouraging.

The game is expanding in the armed forces. It was banned in the forces until 1994; a campaign in this place lifted that ban. The armed forces rugby league is growing.

On the issue of bans, I draw hon. Members' attention to early-day motion 972, which is in my name and deals with the position in France during the second world war, when rugby league was banned in disgraceful circumstances. The sport operates against a background of some vindictive treatment, especially from rugby union in recent times.

The game is expanding in colleges and universities. I stress that there is far more female involvement in rugby league. When I go to matches as a spectator, certainly super league matches, I reckon that, on average, about 50 per cent. of spectators at many of the clubs are female. Now, vast numbers of women are playing rugby league, enjoying a great game that I have enjoyed over many years. Rugby league's future looks very positive.

I should like to deal in this debate primarily with current proposals, some of which have been formally agreed, on the merger of some professional super league clubs. My hon. Friends and I are here today primarily to voice the concerns of rugby league fans in the communities that we represent about the proposals.

One element in the controversy over the club mergers is the difficult financial position of some of the clubs. Player costs were certainly inflated by the initial professionalisation of union, in 1995. Although it is easy to criticise those who are involved in pushing for the merger of clubs, I appreciate that many business people and individuals with a commitment to the game have spent great sums keeping clubs afloat.

Additionally, super league clubs have been receiving less from Sky Television. Consequently, super league clubs have developed an agenda to reduce their number, from 14 to 12. As a further consequence, this year, £1.25 million was made available to clubs that were prepared to merge.

The key issue—I hope that the Minister will address it today—in the proposed mergers is the way in which, in the past few years, three separate administrative arms have developed in professional rugby league. The first is Rugby Football League, which is the game's constitutional governing body, comprising all the professional rugby league clubs.

The second is super league Europe, which was introduced after the 1995 introduction of super league. Originally, super league Europe was simply a marketing arm of super league, but now has its own headquarters, chairman and chief executive.

The third is the Association of Northern Ford Premiership Clubs, effectively comprising the old first division.

The problem with the current proposals have been caused by the division of responsibilities between those three bodies. Currently, there is a proposal to merge the Huddersfield Giants and the Sheffield Eagles. I should say that I have a constituency interest in the Huddersfield Giants because my constituency includes two Kirklees wards containing significant numbers of Giants supporters. The Giants are based, of course, in the town where the game was founded, in 1895. It is one of the greatest teams in the history of rugby league.

The Sheffield team was established only 15 years ago, in virgin territory. However, it has done excellent development work and—less than two years ago, in 1998—won the challenge cup.

We also have proposals to merge the Hull and Gateshead teams. Hull has another of the greatest teams in rugby league. Its recent demise seems to coincide with the involvement of the tennis player David Lloyd—who has recently bought shares in the Gateshead side, thereby driving forward the merger between the two clubs. Last season, Gateshead was admitted to super league as a new franchise.

Another piece of the jigsaw that will concern my hon. Friends who have attended this debate is that, next season, a new Sheffield club may be admitted to the premiership. Mark Aston—the former Sheffield Eagles player—is proposing admission of the team, entailing the possibility of a team dropping down to the premiership and competing there. However, that will depend on the agreement of the premiership clubs, which have an organisation and constitution separate from those of super league.

Another factor is the position of the Hunslet Hawks—my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) may want to mention that team—which won the Northern Four premiership. The team is not quite sure whether it will be in super league or in the Northern Four premiership. Ultimately, however, its position will depend on whether Hull drops out of super league.

The situation is complex. Thousands of rugby league fans are baffled and angry about what is happening to their much-loved local sides. I want to stress the connection between rugby league teams and the local community, because it is essentially a community game. More than any sport that I know, rugby league is rooted in local communities and is part and parcel of them, particularly in the north of England.

Many professional players do not know whether they have a job for next season. Some clubs have reneged on their contract because the club has been contracted to disappear. They do not know whether they have a living. I am concerned about their circumstances. The situation does not reflect well on the game.

I want to conclude in time to give some of my hon. Friends a chance to have a brief say in the debate. The heart of the problem with the current mergers is the administrative split between the key elements of the sport. It is crucial that professional rugby league should get back to one coherent whole under its constitutional body, the Rugby Football League. The Government have a role to play in assisting the process and I look forward to the support of my hon. Friend the Minister in bringing that about.

1.31 am
Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

My constituency covers Widnes, which has one of the most famous rugby league clubs in the history of the game. They were world champions as recently as 10 years ago. The club had a difficult period a few years ago and did not make the transition to the super league because of an arbitrary decision on which teams would be included. There is some bad feeling about the exclusion from the super league of one of the most successful teams in the history of the game.

After going through a difficult time with many problems, the club has a new stadium that is probably second to none and meets all the criteria for the super league. The club has a new financial structure, new management and a team that is starting to become more successful. However, the management structure of the super league and rugby league generally causes confusion about who makes decisions and who supports who.

Widnes has submitted a bid for super league status, but we are not yet sure about the outcome of the bid. We understand that the independent body that is considering it has said that Widnes meets all the criteria, but we are still waiting for a decision. We shall hear about Hunslet later. The problems there also show complications in the management of the game.

My hon. Friend the Minister cannot interfere with the running of the game, but I should like her to bear it in mind that if our teams are to compete against the best in the world from Australia and New Zealand, we need to look closely at what has happened. The change in organisation that has concentrated most of the money in a smaller number of clubs has not produced a national side capable of matching Australia or New Zealand. In the two matches in recent weeks the Great Britain side did very badly. The new structures have not improved standards in the game.

Widnes is getting better gates than many super league sides and has further potential to increase its crowds. There are very few super league clubs on the west of the Pennines. Most of them are in Yorkshire. Widnes could increase gates and interest and bring added value and benefit to the game, but the club seems to be kept out.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) has said, rugby league is a community game. It cannot be taken away from the community. Various bids have come from historically non-rugby league areas and have not succeeded.

The classic example is the idea that Gateshead and Hull should merge, as Gateshead only came into the super league last year and have done reasonably well. There has been talk of Welsh and Scottish teams coming into rugby league, while Widnes—from a traditional rugby league area, with the support and the facilities—has been denied the opportunity to get into the super league.

We need a complete review of how the game is organised, and a review of whether the organisation is delivering in terms of the quality of rugby league, while meeting the needs of the communities that want to take part in the game.

1.35 am
Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West)

Most of the things that I might have said about the organisational problems of rugby league have been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe).

I want to emphasise the community nature of the game, which produced a competitive spirit that enabled communities to bond around workplaces, hotels and schools. It is a natural, organic game, which is at once divisive and unifying.

I speak with a lot of personal experience—I am a former rugby league player. I played to a fairly good level, and I enjoyed the game enormously. I learned the game when I was at school and, throughout that period, it was strictly amateur. I will never forget playing for Leeds city schoolboys and being advised by a teacher—a Mr. Hepworth—that we should beware of the money that was in rugby league. I did not understand what he meant, and I thought it was something to do with his enthusiasm for rugby union and the amateur game which he had played some years ago. Now I think I understand what he meant.

The influence that money can have upon a community sport can be devastating. The drive in sport should be that which comes naturally from the community need expressing itself. I live right outside the ground of Leeds rugby league club. I live on St. Michael's lane, which is the front for the Yorkshire county cricket ground and the Leeds rugby league ground. I watch fans from all clubs corning to play there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield says, at least 50 per cent. are women. It seems to me that women are the growing force in rugby league support.

It is not just women—I see children hand in hand, wearing different club scarves and mingling, and there is no hostility whatever. The sport brings peace and enthusiasm to a community and gives notions of team spirit and high-quality performances. That is what rugby league has been about.

Regrettably, in very recent times, we have seen the new side emerging—takeovers and the manipulation of the ownership of the game and the grounds on which it is played. I am sorry to say that that kind of competitive spirit has little or nothing to do with the game itself.

Anything that the Minister might say tonight to assist those inside the game who are seeking to restore its honourable and sporting competitive tradition would be extremely welcome. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) will have an opportunity to speak, and I remember playing against the club in the heart of his constituency, Hunslet, as an amateur. It was the first time I heard their song, which went: We swept the seas before, boys, and we'll sweep the seas again. I am looking forward to that song being sung by Hunslet fans in the new super league.

1.39 am
Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on having secured this debate. I want to draw attention to the position of the Hunslet Hawks rugby league club. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) said, the name Hunslet has long been connected with rugby league. The club has a proud history. The board of directors is forward looking and there is a committed supporter base in south Leeds. In the last season, a very fine team took the Northern Ford Premiership title by winning the very last game of the season. It swept the seas, as we have heard.

The club was thus entitled to seek promotion to the super league and it put in an application, but it has been turned down by the franchise panel, ostensibly because its otherwise excellent South Leeds stadium does not have the required capacity. In close consultation with the city council, the club made proposals that would immediately—in time for the start of the next season—increase capacity from 2,500 to 5,500, with an increase to 10,000, which is the requirement of the super league, to follow.

Apparently, that was not good enough. The club then offered to play temporarily at other grounds that met the capacity requirement, but that was also turned down. It is not surprising that many supporters feel that whatever the club offers will not be good enough. Many supporters feel great disappointment and frustration because, having earned the right to show what it could do in the super league, the club is being denied the opportunity. Even at this late stage, I would hope that the rugby football league could reconsider the decision.

1.41 am
The Minister for Sport (Kate Hoey)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and all my hon. Friends who have spoken. It is a tribute to the support that they have given to rugby league in their constituencies that so many of them have turned up to contribute and listen to the debate tonight.

I am very familiar with the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield has done in promoting rugby league in this place. The professionalism of the all-party rugby league group is a credit to all those involved. I am very pleased that it was one of the first groups to congratulate me on my new post and invite me to address it.

Rugby league has a long and distinguished past and I hope that it has a future to match. It is one of the many sports that this country has given to the world and now finds it increasingly difficult to compete in successfully at international level. The sport is deeply rooted in the community that it serves and from which it originates. All sport needs to remember where it has come from, because if it forgets its roots and goes for short-termism, it will begin to decline.

All of us here tonight have agreed that it is important to protect the game's long-term interests and that money alone will not make it successful. Next year, rugby football league will play host to a reconstituted rugby league world cup, and the Government will support it strongly, with funding from UK Sport's major events budget; the decision on the exact amount will be made in the next few months. It is important for such major events to come here, as they will give an excellent opportunity to increase the sport's appeal.

The Government are committed to supporting all sports. We are especially keen to promote sport, including rugby league, in schools. I welcome all the initiatives aimed at encouraging more youngsters to participate. I saw the excellent work being done at St. John Fisher school in Wigan to help youngsters in sport. We will work with whatever structures are in place for the organisation of a sport. As my hon. Friends have said, it is ultimately for the sport to decide how best to organise, but it must do so in the best interests of the game as a whole. I would welcome moves to streamline organisation, as long as all levels in the sport are catered for.

I am fully aware of, and understand, the strength of feeling that has been generated by the recent merger proposals. That has been mentioned tonight, and I have received much correspondence on the subject. I have also met Neil Tunnicliffe, the chief executive of the Rugby Football League. My plea to the league and to the clubs would be to canvass the views of supporters when the mergers are discussed. The clubs cannot take the support of supporters for mergers for granted. The clubs have to listen to supporters and examine their plans carefully. If mergers take place without both clubs' supporters' support, the danger is that the merged club will not work, no matter how much financial support it receives. I am keen to ensure that the Government work with rugby league to listen to what local communities are saying.

The future of rugby league is bright, and large amounts of money are available for the game at grassroots level and at the elite level, including through the world-class performance grants. Direct grant-in-aid funding to the Amateur Rugby League Association of £250,000 will fund development officers and improve the women's game—my hon. Friends have mentioned the many more women who are involved, and I welcome that. More money will go into world-class performance grants, including a £170,000 interim lottery award to provide training and expertise for top-class players.

The issues that have been raised tonight parallel other issues in rugby union and other sports. They are complex and, in these days of professionalism, sponsorship and money, will cause concern in local communities. Professional rugby league clubs compete in a competitive, commercial environment. Recent innovations, such as ground sharing with football clubs—for example, in Wigan—have helped to lighten the load on some clubs, but without a firm financial foundation, clubs will always struggle.

The increase in funding for the game brought about by the television deal with BSkyB has helped several clubs, but it is questionable how much benefit it has brought to the sport as a whole, with much of the increase being eaten up by the increases in salaries for the top players. That is a real dilemma for sport, and sport itself must determine it, because it is important not to take the short-term view.

I look forward to the results of the inquiry undertaken by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport into the future of professional rugby in both codes. I hope that it will add significantly to the debate on all aspects of both sports and specifically provide some guidance to rugby league on the way forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Two o 'clock.