§ 3.15 p.m.
§ Lord Howell asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ How much financial support the Sports Council gives to the English Rugby Football Union, and 744 whether they consider that this support should be continued in view of the one-year suspension of a young player for playing Rugby League.
My Lords, in 1991–92 the Sports Council provided a grant of £54,000 to the English Rugby Football Union. It is for the Sports Council to determine whether it wishes to continue to pay the grant.
§ Lord Howell
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he consider the information that I have from published Sports Council reports that the grant is well in excess of the sum he has mentioned? I have been informed it is about £200,000 a year. In any case is it right that a sport should receive that kind of money when it takes action against a young lad, Stephen Pilgrim, in this day and age and suspends him for life for the crime of playing another quite lawful sport; namely, Rugby League? Will the Minister also bear in mind that the eminent legal advice that I have received, based on the cases of Eastham in soccer, Packer in cricket and, in New Zealand, Blacker in rugby, suggests that such discrimination is unlawful both because it goes against public policy and also because it is a restraint of trade? In all those circumstances do not the Government think it right that the law of the land should be upheld in respect of the sport of Rugby Union?
My Lords, I understand that the rule which was used to disqualify Mr. Pilgrim was Rule 2(3) of the regulations of the International Rugby Football Board relating to amateurs which states:No person shall play in a trial or play with a non-amateur club or a non-amateur organisation involved in the playing of any other type of rugby football".It is a matter for the rugby authorities to set and apply their own regulations and for players to decide which code they wish to follow and to ensure that they are fully aware of the regulations that govern their sport.
§ Lord Moore of Wolvercote
My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is considerable concern in Rugby Football Union circles about the threat of professionalism to the amateur game, and that therefore there is considerable merit in maintaining as clear a dividing line as possible between the amateur and professional codes in rugby football?
My Lords, that is entirely a matter for the two rugby bodies. It is for them to decide what their codes should be.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, the Minister mentioned the two governing bodies of rugby. The Rugby League is quite definite on this matter and it disagrees with what has taken place. Is not the principle of barring a young person from a particular sport for life totally alien to our approach to sport? Does not this kind of view belong to the past century? Would it not be in everyone's interest to ditch that view before we enter the next century?
My Lords, I understand that the ban was for a year. Perhaps I should point out to noble Lords that the chairman of the Sports Council, 745 Sir Peter Yarranton, expressed his personal disappointment to the secretary of the Rugby Football Union on its interpretation of the rules. Noble Lords will realise that Sir Peter is a distinguished former international England player and that his views are particularly significant to this debate.
§ Lord Lucas of Chilworth
My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that it would be best if the Government kept their fingers out of the sport bowl and left the ruling bodies of each sport to settle their own rulings and their own arguments?
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The Government have no jurisdiction to intervene in the day-to-day affairs of the governing bodies. However, we welcomed the introduction in 1987 of the free gangway system which allows rugby players to play both codes at amateur level and clubs to share facilities.
§ Lord Mellish
My Lords, is the Minister aware that Rugby League has become very popular? I believe that that is due to television coverage. The general public are enamoured of the game. Is he aware that many of us regard it as infamous that a player should be suspended for one year by the ruling body of Rugby Union?
My Lords, I believe that your Lordships would agree that all sporting bodies should have good relations with each other. It is particularly important that those involved in the same sport should work together.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, is the noble Lord aware —although there is no reason why he should be—that when I joined my Rugby Union club in Wales many years ago I was told that anyone seen even talking to a Rugby League scout would not only be suspended for life but would be forbidden to sing the Welsh national anthem? Does he not agree that the young Englishman has got off rather lightly?
My Lords, I believe that the situation has improved a little since the noble Lord's day. As a professional body the Rugby Football League does not qualify for grant aid from the Sports Council and is therefore very much an independent body.
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, does my noble friend happen to have with him the figure for the financial support given by the Scottish Sports Council to the Scottish Rugby Union? Does he agree that that figure and its effectiveness can best be evaluated after the match at Twickenham on Saturday?
My Lords, I do not have the figure with me. It would be presumptuous of me to make any comment on the forthcoming match.
§ Lord Molloy
My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that people who play Rugby Union for their club, their town or city and then for their country are very proud of that fact and do not do it for money? Does he agree that they play for the love of the game and the honour of their club and their country? Rugby 746 League exists for those who do not agree with that principle, and quite rightly so. There are many Rugby Union players who played for their country and who now play for Rugby League clubs. They know full well that they can never return to play for their amateur club or their country. However, does the Minister agree with me that if a young man makes a small error there should be some indication that his case will be examined before he is finally excluded?
My Lords, there has recently been comment in the press about what might be described as under-the-counter payments with regard to Rugby Union, but that is a separate matter. The Government support the discussions between the Rugby Football League and the British Amateur Rugby League Association, and the Sports Council has been actively involved in promoting discussions between those two bodies for their benefit. Consideration is being given to whether a decision on a unified body would be in the best interests of the two concerns.
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is a matter of government and public concern because much public money is involved? Does he also agree that the question of amateurism which has been raised is a very complex one given the huge sums of money which are earned by Rugby Union players? In that context, can he assure the House that the matter will be taken up with the relevant governing body, especially bearing in mind the encouraging statement by the chairman of the Sports Council? Can the noble Viscount promise us that this will be the last case of such injustice?
My Lords, I can make no promises to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, on behalf of the bodies involved. It is a matter for them. I can tell him that the Rugby Football Union has recently issued regulations governing the extent to which players may derive income from non-playing activities. I shall certainly make sure that the two bodies involved are notified of what has been said this afternoon in your Lordships' House.
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, will he allow me to say, as a former member of the national Sports Council, that the Sports Council examines the rules and articles of the various governing bodies and it is open to the council to make suggestions about their application before giving grant?
My Lords, I shall certainly pass on the noble Lord's remarks to the chairman of the Sports Council.
§ Lord Howell
My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that anybody who believes that Rugby Union players receive no money will believe anything? Is he also aware that, contrary to what he told the House, this is a matter of great public concern? If it is unlawful, the Government should look into the matter, and that is all that I am asking the noble Viscount to do today. Will he please examine the legality of the matter?
Yes, my Lords, if the noble Lord wishes I shall certainly look into the matter and write to him.