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Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab):
I want to raise an issue of enormous concern to my constituents; it is about our local league one football team, the Milton Keynes Dons. The House will be relieved to know that I do not intend to rehearse all the
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old arguments about the events that led to Wimbledon football club relocating to Milton Keynes in late 2003 and taking, in July 2004, the new name of Milton Keynes Dons.
I accept that some peoplepossibly some in the Houseobjected to the move and argued at the time that it set a dangerous precedent. A section of Wimbledon's supporters, including their supporters association, chose to transfer allegiance to the newly formed AFC Wimbledon, which is based in Kingston. Other Wimbledon fans followed the club to Milton Keynes.
Obviously, my constituents and I take a view of events different from that taken by those who support AFC Wimbledon. Wimbledon FC was without a ground of its own, had been based outside its borough for a decade, and was faced with bankruptcy. The move to Milton Keynes was the only viable option, and it met the long-term aim originally set out by the Milton Keynes development corporation of ensuring that the new city had a Football League professional team of its own. The Football Association sanctioned the move, recognising the unique situation of Wimbledon FC and of Milton Keynes, and also agreed the name change in 2004.
Milton Keynes Dons is now well established in Milton Keynes, playing at its temporary base of the National Hockey stadium. Crowds are getting larger, reaching about the average for league one, and there is a very active new supporters association. Work has begun on the new purpose-built stadium at Denbigh, and I was pleased to join Pete Winkelman in cutting the first turf there. I am pleased that the team's performance is taking the club away from the relegation zone, as it has remained unbeaten in the past eight games.
The Milton Keynes Dons supporters association was established in May 2004. It is very active in all things usual for such an association, including holding a very successful appeal for the tsunami in support of a local charity that works in Sri Lanka. The association is anxious to ensure that fans have a strong voice in the plans for the new stadium and for the club's future. Immediately after its formation, it took steps to form a supporters trust. It approached Supporters Direct for help and advice, but unfortunately, that organisation has been extremely unhelpful.
First, the MK Dons supporters association applied to Supporters Direct for financial assistance in establishing a supporters trust, as it was entitled to do. At the request of Supporters Direct, it clarified with the Football Association that
However, Supporters Direct refused to fund the MK Dons association on the grounds that it had funded a supporters trust for Wimbledon already. That decision had been taken before the club moved to Milton Keynes, and before AFC Wimbledon was formed. The money involved was spent before the original supporters trust transferred its allegiance from Wimbledon FC to AFC Wimbledon.
The MK Dons supporters association reluctantly accepted that ruling, but asked instead for practical help from a liaison worker, as is normal when a trust is established. Subsequently, it requested access to the
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model constitution for trusts and asked Supporters Direct to sponsor an application to the Financial Services Authority for recognition as a supporters trust.
Through the good offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), a member of the Supporters Direct board, we persuaded that board at least to consider the request. Supporters Direct has made the model rules available, but it has declined to sponsor the MK Dons' application to the FSA, or to sponsor the supporters association's application to join Supporters Direct.
My constituents and I are extremely angry about what we believe to be the improper and discriminatory decisions made by the Supporters Direct board. Regardless of the events surrounding the move to Milton Keynes, MK Dons is recognised by the FA to be the continuation of Wimbledon FC. The current members of the MK Dons supporters association had no involvement in the club's move to Milton Keynes. They are merely football supporters who wish to exercise, through a properly constituted supporters trust, some control over their club's future.
I have read the aims of Supporters Direct, and my understanding is that that organisation was established precisely for that purposeto promote and support the concept of democratic supporter ownership and representation through mutual not-for-profit structures, and to promote football clubs as civic and community institutions. That is what the MK Dons' supporters wanted when they asked to have their own supporters trust.
Supporters Direct is an industrial and provident society, and its members are the existing supporters trusts. As someone formerly active in the co-operative movement, I know that that movement is well aware of the danger, for co-operative and mutual societies, of becoming exclusive rather than inclusive. I suggest that the members of Supporters Direct should remind themselves of their obligations under the equal opportunities legislation, and of the inclusive nature of a true co-operative and mutual society.
However, Supporters Direct is in receipt of significant public funding£325,000 in 200405 from Sport England and £90,000 from Sport Scotland. That funding is given on the basis that it should be available to help any supporters who fulfil the eligibility requirements and wish to form a supporters trust. My constituents in Milton Keynes, whose taxes, with everyone else's, are funding Supporters Direct, do not understand why they, uniquely, seem to be barred from gaining access to those funds.
The reasons given by Supporters Direct for refusing to help MK Dons supporters seem to be based not on a fair and balanced assessment, but on prejudice and persistence in fighting a battle that was lost when Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes. Many of those who were most active in founding Wimbledon AFC are involved in Supporters Direct either as board members or on the staff. They are entitled to their views, but they should not abuse their position to discriminate unfairly against my constituents who also want to form a supporters trust and have a voice in their team's future.
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The Football Association is clear that MK Dons is the successor to Wimbledon FC. Supporters Direct used that to justify not funding a second trust linked to the same club, but then took no action against the original trust, which switched its allegiance to
that is, Wimbledon AFCin clear breach of Supporters Direct's rules. What authority does Supporters Direct have to set itself up against the Football Association and other bodies concerned with football?
My constituents have been extremely patient and have tried to be accommodating, but their patience, and mine, is running out. I hope that at the end of this debate my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and Tourism the points that I have made. I shall certainly ask him to intervene to ensure that the public funds given to Supporters Direct are in future allocated fairly and without prejudice and that my constituents do not continue to be discriminated against.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Two years ago the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry attempted to come to Cornwall for a holiday. That was an excellent choice, but her plans were thwarted because she found that the transport system into Cornwall was not working as well as it should and she was forced to fly. As a result, she made many public statements in the west country about the Government's commitment to improve the road and rail infrastructure in and out of the south-west. She said:
"What I know as Secretary of Trade for Trade and Industry is that when you are looking at the South West, getting the transport system right is one of the most important things you can do to help grow new businesses, to help those businesses to be more successful and bring in new investment to the region."
The Secretary of State is persuasive and speaks, as we all know, in dulcet tones. When I am in a telephone system, having made my sixth selection of number to press with Brahms' second symphony playing in the background and a voice comes on the line and says, "Your call is important to us; we will answer your call as soon as possible," I could swear it is the voice of the Secretary of State. She has a persuasive tone that suggests that if we hang on, our call will definitely be answered. In the south-west we have been hanging on for two years waiting for her support for some of the issues concerning our roads.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) is in his place and I know how hard he has worked. With the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), we have made a three-party attempt to persuade the Secretary of State to support, for example, dualling of the A303, which goes through my constituency and is of strategic importance to the whole south-west peninsula.
Unfortunately, as I have said many times in debates, the Secretary of State for Transport has decided not to dual the A303, so we have only one strategic route in and out of the south-west peninsulathe M5 as far as Exeter and then other roads further into Devon and Cornwall.
All three Members of Parliament I have mentioned received representations from the Devon and Cornwall business council and we all wrote, in a collective exercise, to get the Secretary of State to support us. We
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had hoped that she would make representations to the Department for Transport, but disappointingly we can only conclude that she did not press the case for dualling the road, as she had promised in 2003, for the business interests of the south-west.
Even more worryingly, I recently came across a map of the south-west and the south of England which showed that, according to the Government, there were no roads west of Bristol regarded as of strategic national importance. I tabled parliamentary questions to ask Ministers to list all the trunk roads, which include the A30, the A38 and the M5, which goes on past Bristol down to Exeter. I was astonished to find that a major motorway was not regarded as of national importance. In answer, the Government said that they had divided all the roads in the country into two groups, those of strategic national importance and those of regional importance. As far as the Government are concerned, there is nothing of national importance west of Bristol. They say that the classification is to enable local decision making about those roads in the future and that funding will be allocated at local levels rather than through the Government budget for the Highways Agency.
The Government's reason sounds persuasive and I can just hear the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in her dulcet tones, telling us how wonderful that will be. But in reality it means that some of the bigger issues, such as road maintenance for the M5 and some of the structural changes that will be needed, will no longer have the backing of a national Government budget but will come out of the much stretched resources of the region. That will affect various junctions along the M5. For example, at the exit to the services at Exeter, a whole new town is to be built, and the junction will therefore almost certainly need major restructuring and investment. As my political colleague, John Penrose, in Weston-super-Mare, pointed out on hearing the news, junction 21, the Weston-super-Mare turn-off, will almost certainly need more investment.
I do not know why the Government regard the south-west peninsula as a second-class region of this country, but inward investment and important industries rely on good road infrastructure. That is self-evident in the case of tourism, but we also have successful manufacturing businesses throughout the area. When a company is deciding where to relocate, the Government's view of the strategic importance of the road and rail network is one of its considerations. Inward investment in the south-west will therefore be seriously compromised by the fact that the Government are cutting off the south-west from what they see as the important areas of the country. On this issue, I feel like a grumpy old woman[Hon. Members: "Never!"] In fact, I am hopping mad about it.
People in the south-west, and I speak personally about my constituents in Tiverton and Honiton, are hardworking. They come from mainly rural backgroundseven the towns in my constituency are rural market townswhere people are very self-sufficient and prepared to work hard. Yet somehow, their area is regarded by London as a second-class area with second-class citizens. We have seen the effect that has on some of our indigenous industries, especially farming.
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Farming has taken a real knock in my constituency, which is primarily made up of mixed, small, family farms. There have been changes in the countryside, but in my constituency, the perception is that the Government regard us as second-class citizens, in second-class communities.
When we were going into the last election, foot and mouth was with us. None of us who lived through that time will forget it, yet four years later we have still received no definitive answers from the Government about the cause of the outbreak and the lessons to be learned. There have been many inquiries, but none of them seems to have been joined up. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I recently had the opportunity to question the permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the chief vet and others. The Government say that they believe the index farm, which belonged to Mr. Bobby Waugh, was where animals were fed unprocessed catering waste; but what they have not told usand I have pressed them on this in the Committee recentlyis that it was not simply the fact that animals on that farm were fed unprocessed waste but that such waste was kept on the farm at all. It is illegal to have unprocessed food on a farm, yet recently the DEFRA permanent secretary wrote to the national co-ordinator of Associated Swill Users:
If we are to learn lessons from the last outbreak of foot and mouth, it is important to identify where and why it broke out. The consequences of another outbreak, in slaughter and further losses in the rural economy, will not just be felt in pound note terms; the emotional stress of the farming community cannot be quantified.
I want the Government to treat rural communities and farming areas such as mine more seriously and not take them for granted, discarding them as second-class citizens or areas. I was not born in Devon. I have lived there for only 35 years so I am not local yet, but the people of Devon are the salt of the earth. They make this country what it is. They believe in fair play and in straight talkingsometimes their straight talking is very straight indeed. They want to know that in Parliament, whoever is in power, they will receive a fair deal and that they will get straight answers to their questions. They want to feel that our democracy will treat them fairly and not discard them.
As we end this term of Parliament and, I hope, go into a general election, I make this plea. The rural communities of this country must changewe all understand thatbut equally the Government of the day must understand that rural and urban communities are different. Rural communities have sound values and their people are independent-minded. Those people make me proud to represent them and I hope that the Government, too, will be proud of our rural communities and make sure that they get fair play.
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