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8.15 pm

The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn): I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing the debate. He has shown that he is no Johnny-come-lately on the subject of rugby. He has graced many a park with his rugby union skills. Although my rugby career is not as illustrious as his, I played a little rugby at scrum half for Hurlfield comprehensive school and had a few trials with a Sheffield club, but soccer took over and I went on to play the beautiful game.

The hon. Gentleman's support for rugby is welcome. I know that he is a keen Saracens supporter. I go to see Rotherham play occasionally. Both our teams languish in the bottom half of the league—indeed, my team is probably a little below Saracens. We need a few points to stay there, but we must wait and see what the rest of the season brings.

The hon. Gentleman widened the debate to include participation in sport. Any opportunity for the House to debate sport is welcome.

There have been a few upsets. I believe that Ryanair's latest marketing ploy is to run a trip to Dublin for £19.13. The mighty fell but I have no doubt that they will

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come back. I hope that that will happen in Paris when I shall watch the match with the French Minister for Sport.

Let us consider the world cup. It is interesting to reflect that we last believed that there would be a great renaissance in rugby union in 1991 when Will Carling's team showed what England could do and dominated world rugby. It was arguably one of the best sides around at the time. Unfortunately, we did not beat the Australians in 1991 and we were therefore unable to capitalise on that fantastic side. We beat the Australians in the final in 2003, and that has done a considerable amount for rugby.

The hon. Gentleman said that he also liked rugby league. I believe that the oval ball generally gained from the tremendous win in Australia. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) is a great rugby league fan and he told me that participation has increased in rugby league on the back of events in Australia. It was the first English win in a world championship of a major team sport since 1966, when we won the World cup. We can capitalise on that.

Rugby union became a professional game in 1995 and there is no doubt that that has enabled us to take on the southern hemisphere in a way that we could not have done without professionalising the game. The Rugby Football Union was mindful of the probable surge of interest in the game and it knew that it had to be prepared. Nearly 18 months or two years ago, representatives of Zurich, which sponsors rugby union, sat down with the RFU to consider what to do in the event of an enormous increase in interest in the game and how to capitalise on that to strengthen it from the grass roots. I compliment Zurich on the way in which it has supported rugby union and been proactive in ensuring that the game is sustainable from the grass roots upwards.

Zurich, the RFU and MORI came together to produce a document, "Rugby—Making an Impact", a MORI research report. It did not tell us anything that we did not know—it definitely did not tell the RFU anything it did not know—but it quantified various matters. One of its most disappointing findings was that, even though we had such a fantastic win in Australia and the England team had been developed over the years before that, during the late 1990s and early 21st century, the number of clubs had declined. In 1998, there were 1,537 clubs, but by last year there were only 1,480. It was also disappointing to learn that the number of sides per club went down from 2.9 to 2.7 between the 1997–98 season and last year. While the game was flourishing at international level, there was a deterioration in the club structure and in the number of young people coming into the game.

The RFU, Zurich and others, including Terry Burwell, the RFU's director of community rugby—who has played a central part in putting the RFU back on the map at the grass roots, through his work with my Department and Sport England—have been able to analyse the problem and are now investing in rugby in a very focused way. That is to be welcomed.

Participation in rugby union involves about 500,000 regular players across the nation. There are also about 8,000 registered women and girls playing at 420 clubs, compared with only five clubs in 1983. So, while

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numbers have declined in the men's game, the women's and girls' game has developed. The premiership's development scheme, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, has reached 2,500 schools in the last couple of years, which is quite remarkable. The premiership could perhaps be described as limited, but it does commit itself to the development of the game through the schools sports co-ordinators and the specialist sports colleges linked to primary and secondary schools. That provides a structure whereby sports such as rugby union can plug into the school structure. I hope that we shall be able to respond to what the hon. Gentleman has said by continuing to get that development into schools. It is crucial, if rugby is to flourish, to get it right into the school structure.

The hon. Gentleman's point about volunteering, litigation and insurance is an important one not just for rugby but across the whole spectrum of sport. If anything now acts as an impediment against volunteering and against new people coming into the sport, it is the issue of insurance—so much so that I had a number of insurance companies in to meet me a couple of weeks ago. We are working with them—work is also being done in the Home Office—to see how we can get insurance to amateur sports clubs, and a number of ideas are now being explored. That issue is an impediment to the continued development of some of our sports, which is very disappointing. I said to the representatives of the insurance companies that if we continue to make it difficult for young people to come into sport, and if we are not prepared to insure them, they will get into worse and probably more dangerous activities such as drugs and related issues. We are taking up that important issue, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will pursue it.

In terms of capitalising on what the RFU has done, and on what the team did in Australia, the hon. Gentleman referred to the £1 million for the "Sweet Chariot" tour linking the world cup with national and local development initiatives. I was present when 2,000 school kids in Rotherham had their photographs taken with the cup. The two Members representing the Rotherham area and I also had our photographs taken with the cup. As someone who had to return early from Australia, I did not get the opportunity to have my photograph taken with the cup down under—[Laughter.] Duty called, and I had to return. Seriously, however, I understand that the tour will arrive in the hon. Gentleman's constituency on 27 May, so he will be able to have his photograph taken in Middlesex.

The RFU has also held more than 90 sessions of "Come and Try It", which is another taster for young people between the ages of 13 and 16. Each of those sessions has introduced 40 youngsters to rugby, which is another means of development. It is paying off, because most of the sport's 1,480 amateur clubs have reported an upsurge in interest from new players. Pleasingly, 2,870 new coaches have obtained the tag rugby certificate in the last six months, and 2,270 new referees have been trained since last summer. That infrastructure is necessary to respond to the upsurge in interest, which we want to be sustainable—we do not want it just to last a year or two. That is why coaching, development and linking the club structure to schools are so important.

On the hon. Gentleman's points about the professional game, my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) had a meeting

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in the House only yesterday with the premiership clubs to discuss how we could assist them in taking forward their role. I hope that the RFU and the premiership will work together. We do not want divisions in the game, which we have seen in some other games. I hope that they can work together, and if they can do so I am sure that it will be for the betterment of the game in the round.

In terms of stadiums, the premiership clubs have made strong representations, particularly since the world cup. While it is accepted that there was investment in football stadiums, which to some extent was a result of the tragedy at Hillsborough, I have said clearly to rugby union clubs that developing their stadiums is a matter for them. If such development can extend into the community so that they become multi-sports clubs, for example, whereby the amateur game can also be developed, the Government will give serious consideration to helping them. The straight commercial aspects are for the clubs to develop, but we will try to help them with the community side. In terms of community work, I am sure that the game will benefit from players going into schools, in which the hon. Gentleman said that all premiership clubs are involved. All premiership players are contracted to work with local schools and clubs for a minimum of 35 hours a month, which is to be welcomed, and I am sure that there will be some spin-off from that.

Nothing is stopping the RFU or the premiership coming together to create a rugby foundation. The moneys that go into the Football Foundation from the football premiership are ostensibly from television rights—5 per cent. of the television money goes into it. That is roughly £20 million a year, which is matched by the FA, and we then match it through Sport England, so there is a three-way partnership. If rugby union wants to develop a foundation, there is nothing to stop it doing so.

The hon. Gentleman raised tax issues. At the request of those representing a number of sports, we have introduced community amateur sports clubs, which can claim a number of breaks, including gift aid. That has been very useful to many clubs. Woodford rugby football club, for instance, had a major debt to finance a new clubhouse in 1994, and was in financial trouble by 2002. This year SportsAid raised £200,000, and a crucial

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£45,000 was claimed back in gift aid by means of the CASC package introduced in 2002. Moreover—I think that rugby, tennis and cricket will gain from this considerably—there is the monetary rate relief that we shall introduce this April, having announced it at the end of last year.

Amateur clubs now get pretty well what any club would get with charitable status. There are about 110,000 sports clubs in this country, of which an estimated 40,000 could gain by registering as CASCs and gaining monetary rate relief. At the last count, towards the end of last month, only 2,300 had applied. The information takes a little time to filter through, but I know that the RFU, along with other governing bodies, wants to ensure that the message is sent to clubs. We have now established a one-stop shop in every region, organised by Sport England. Anyone who telephones the Sport England office will be given the information, and every effort will be made to make the process as simple as possible. Last week, a group addressed by a Treasury colleague and me complimented us on the simplicity of the forms—not something for which the Treasury is usually commended.

Rugby union is experiencing a renaissance in this country, and is pulling rugby league in its wake. As a sports Minister, I welcome that. I want us to do all that we can to capitalise on it, which is why we have been engaged in discussions with the RFU. We want to ensure that the club structure is linked with schools, and we are using the wider development of rugby for the benefit of other sports. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, obesity and the health of the nation are probably the subject of more reports than they have been for many years. The role of sport and other physical activity now features much more on the political agenda. If sport does not capitalise on that, it will miss a golden opportunity. The way in which the RFU—along with Zurich and, indeed, MORI—have approached this is commendable, and I am sure it will pay dividends in the future. I hope we shall see many more clubs, much more participation in the playing of the game, and many more spectators. I think—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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