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In his response of 2 October to my stated concerns about Wakefield’s status, the RFL’s Richard Lewis stated that Wakefield’s application for a licence

It is difficult to see how that assertion is in line with the RFL’s published view on Wakefield’s successful application when it was critical about the fact that there was no plan B and that everything was based on the new stadium. Richard Lewis went on to say:

I raise that specific point about Wakefield because it relates to the criteria applied and the fairness of the system. Widnes has a very modern state-of-the-art stadium, which was used as part of their argument for a super league licence.

Mr. Hoyle: I want to back up my hon. Friend and say that, historically, the criteria for promotion—this was certainly true when I was involved in rugby league and a member of the council—included a requirement for grounds to meet certain standards. Those standards were enshrined within rugby league. It was about improving the grounds for the future of the game. It has always been the case that the grounds were part of the criteria for a club to get promotion. A club might win the championship, but that did not automatically mean entry into super league. Part of the entry was that a club had to have minimum ground standards. I totally agree with my hon. Friend that Widnes’ standards are beyond everyone else’s. Does he agree with me that it might be better if we accepted Widnes as an extra team, as part of the family? All families grow. Let us grow it by one more club and put Widnes within super league.

Derek Twigg: I endorse what my hon. Friend says. Given the quality of the Widnes Vikings’ bid, it beggars belief that the super league did not increase to 15 clubs. We have had no real explanation for that. It should have happened, given the comments that I have had from Richard Lewis about the quality of Widnes’ bid. With regard to the other clubs, I am for expansion of the game, but I am not sure about the Crusaders’ bid given the low base of their support. Their away support is almost minuscule, they are relatively new and the ground is of a completely different standard to the Widnes Vikings’ ground. How could their bid outdo that of the Widnes Vikings? I will leave that for others to discuss at a later date.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, if the bid was judged against the current ground, it would appear that the existing stadium fails to meet the minimum standards. I am referring to the situation in Wakefield. Furthermore, the requirement for the home stadium strategy in the super league application form states:

At the end, it states:

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Again, that seems to be a contradiction. I do not think that they can have it both ways.

It is encouraging to note that solidarity with Widnes Vikings has been expressed across the country, not least in Yorkshire itself. On 24 July, in an article entitled “Licence farce is a dark day for the RL,” reporter James Roberts of the Halifax and Calderdale Evening Courier delivered a stinging verdict on the RFL’s handling of the entire process, pointing primarily to the rejection of a super league licence for Widnes as his central argument. He said:

He continues:

Mr. Roberts has this damning conclusion.

In undermining the entire super league licence process with the get-out that it could ignore the criteria it set down and make discretionary decisions outside the process, the RFL has effectively played fast and loose with the entire scheme. At the end of the day, in seemingly moving the goalposts for super league licence approval and showing a breathtaking and arbitrary disregard for its own criteria, the RFL has made a mockery of the entire process from the outset.

Throughout the whole process, Mr. Steve O’Connor and his dedicated team at Widnes Vikings have demonstrated a forward-looking, get-on-with-the-job-and-not-go-about-sulking approach that speaks volumes about the professional integrity and the characters of those involved. I pay tribute to Mr. O’Connor and the staff and players at Widnes for their professionalism and the way in which they have borne this terribly disappointing news.

Halton council was well ahead of the game in ensuring that its rugby league club had a modern stadium with excellent facilities in which to play. The stadium also hosts other sports, including the north-west’s regional table tennis centre. I ask the Minister what message it
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sends to other local authorities that are putting in massive investment and championing their key sporting institutions if Halton is treated in such a way.

In conclusion, Widnes Vikings are under new leadership and have the resources to go forward. They have a fantastic modern stadium—as we have been hearing about—a solid and sizeable fan base with a clear potential to grow, an excellent community development and marketing strategy and they have in place the necessary people and resources to develop young players.

I also want to mention Widnes’ large away support. Some of the local derbies will take between 2,000 and 3,000 supporters. That is a sizeable amount of money. Even crossing the border into Yorkshire and elsewhere, the club takes a sizeable number of supporters, which shows their great commitment. That is now lost to rugby super league. In addition, Widnes are sponsored by Stobarts, one of the most well known brands in the country. Surely the super league would have wanted to be associated with that brand, which is the sort of brand it is particularly looking for. Those are the other things that the super league is missing out on.

It is difficult to consider the situation objectively. If Widnes’ application was judged on its merits, as the RFL told me it would, how could they fail? That is the point I keep coming back to. The system has not been transparent as the RFL promised. When my hon. Friend the Minister next meets the RFL, will he raise the concerns that I have set out today and seek assurances that the next licence application process will be much more transparent, and that any expansion of the game should not be at the expense of rugby league heartland clubs such as Widnes?

11.18 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) on securing the debate on Widnes rugby football club and its relationship with rugby league. I know that sport is his passion—not only rugby but football as well. I am grateful to him for making his remarks on a personal basis. He is speaking entirely as a constituency MP and his remarks have not been promoted by the club. He was quite right to make that point. He has put his arguments in relation to the super league with some force.

May I start by adding my condolences to the family and colleagues of Adam Watene, the Wakefield Wildcats prop who passed away suddenly this week. Adam served a number of clubs and made his mark at all of them, including my own club, the Bradford Bulls. He was a talented player and a popular man and will be sadly missed. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) will pass on the condolences of the House to him and to his family.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halton has made his support for rugby very clear, and I will come to the nub of his argument in a few moments. The debate gives us an opportunity to talk about the benefits of rugby league and what rugby league is doing as a sport.

Mr. Hoyle: Given that it is a great game and one of the best sports—the best sport as far as I am concerned—will the Minister tell us when we will see rugby league as
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a category A sport? Perhaps in his conclusions, he can tell us why and when that will take place.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Perhaps we will not go down that track this morning, but I will discuss the matter with him later, because I think that there is some confusion about what the Rugby Football League applied for.

As I was saying, I try to get to as many rugby league games as possible. I was at Old Trafford for the super league final on 4 October and I congratulate Leeds Rhinos on their wonderful win. Being a Bradford Bulls fan, it is difficult for me to praise Leeds Rhinos, but they won a great match. In my view, it was a wonderful showcase for the game of rugby league.

Rugby league is a game that is going from strength to strength. In the 2008 season, record crowds were achieved in both super league and the national leagues. As we all know, sport plays an important role in improving the health of the nation and rugby league is playing its part in that process.

Through Sport England, the Government have invested more than £18 million in rugby league since 2005. Rugby league is one of the 46 sports that are about to submit a whole sport plan to Sport England for funding for 2009. It is right that the sport receives Government funding, as rugby league continues to help to deliver the Government’s sporting aims.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Halton said in questioning some of the governance arrangements for rugby league, it is important that all sports are governed correctly and appropriately. The Government attach great importance to strong and effective governance in sport, especially because of our investment in the grass roots of sport. However, I must say that I believe that in Richard Lewis, the RFL’s executive chairman, and Nigel Wood, the chief executive, the sport of rugby league is in good hands. Richard and his team have done a tremendous job to ensure that the sport is run effectively and in a modern, efficient way. Rugby league is being managed by a strong leadership and by people who are able to take difficult decisions for the long-term good of the game and to protect and grow the sport.

Of course, one of those difficult decisions was the awarding of the super league licences. The licensing scheme was first launched in 2005 as part of the super league strategy. All clubs had the opportunity to influence the application process and the criteria in one-to-one meetings and in club meetings. They also had two dry runs of the application process, in 2006 and 2007, to ensure fairness and robustness in the process. All clubs applying for a super league licence confirmed that they agreed with the objectives of licensing and with the application and selection process. Clubs were entitled to appeal to an independent tribunal if they felt that the process was conducted unfairly. Decisions were made by an independent RFL board of directors after an exhaustive and extensive process.

As my hon. Friend said, there were four main criteria for assessment: facilities; financial stability and business management; player production; and communities, marketing and social strategies. My hon. Friend is obviously particularly interested in and concerned about the Widnes Vikings. I have to agree with him that it is a great club with a long and varied history, with many highs and a few lows along the way.

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Derek Twigg: I invite my hon. Friend the Minister, perhaps the next time he is in the right part of the country, to take the time, within the demands of his itinerary, to visit the Widnes Vikings in the Stobart stadium, to see the amazing facilities that they have there, particularly the community development and the work that is taking place within the community, including with children and youngsters with difficulties and challenges.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am happy to acknowledge the work that Widnes has done with Halton council and indeed I will try to get to the stadium. I have been to Leeds and Warrington to see the facilities and the tremendous work that is going on in the multi-sports clubs facilities there. Similarly, my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech the table tennis that takes place at Widnes too. I have no problem with how Widnes Vikings are run as a club and how they work with their local authority, and I appreciate the work that my hon. Friend does in trying to ensure that the club will grow.

Of course I sympathise with the situation that Widnes Vikings find themselves in and I appreciate how frustrating it must be for the club and their loyal supporters not to be playing in the super league now. However, I know that my hon. Friend will agree that the organisation of rugby league is essentially for the sport to manage and it is not for the Government to intervene.

I believe that the RFL has been diligent and fair in its decisions, although I will pass on the comments that my hon. Friend has made today, and I am sure that the RFL will look at the debate today to see what he has said and whether there are still any questions that need to be answered.

Derek Twigg: I understand the point that my hon. Friend the Minister has made, and I would not like to put him on the spot in any way. However, does he agree that if Widnes’ financial situation—that of having gone into administration—was going to be the major stumbling block in achieving the super league licence, which has been confirmed by the RFL’s chief executive himself, the RFL should have said that at the beginning? If it had, Widnes would not have bid in the first place and the club would have avoided going through a process that it was never going to win anyway, because of its former financial situation.

Mr. Sutcliffe: My hon. Friend tempts to get me personally involved in this issue, which I do not want to do. As I said, there was an opportunity to express any concerns in the discussions that were had with the RFL and in the dummy run process in 2006 and 2007. I know that there was a problem because Widnes went straight into administration, or insolvency, in 2005.

However, from what I have been told by the RFL, the licensing application process was a fair process. In all processes, there are winners and losers. My hon. Friend is aggrieved because he believes that Widnes are unfair losers. I will raise his concerns with Richard Lewis and Nigel Wood, but in my view it is for the RFL to run the league, and I think that it does so very well.

My hon. Friend said at the start that he did not agree with the franchise system. The RFL believes that licensing offers the best of both worlds. One national league club is guaranteed a place in super league in 2012, and with a three-year licence it will be given every chance of success,
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thereby removing the yo-yo effect of clubs chasing and overstretching for promotion. We know in rugby league, as in other sports, that that has been a problem. All licences into super league were issued for three years and clubs will be judged on how well they deliver their agreed plans.

My hon. Friend mentioned Wakefield Trinity Wildcats. I can confirm that I have received the same information that he did: that the change in the plans for the new ground made no difference to the licensing application. That was not a consideration in relation to the licence.

Super league’s licensing is one of the drivers for the development of new stadiums, which produces benefits for the community and, on game days, for spectators, players and officials. As my hon. Friend knows, Widnes Vikings finished sixth in the Co-operative national league one this season, and things are looking good for next season, both on and off the field, with nearly £10,000 worth of season tickets purchased already and a number of good player signings.

I also know that exciting plans have been mapped out for the national league for 2009 onwards, including a 150 per cent. increase in funding, live TV coverage every week, a weekly magazine, corporate website production and the inclusion of a French club, which will add extra vibrancy and interest to that national league. There will also be significant extra income for clubs from the Challenge cup.

Only two clubs can be admitted to the super league for next season, and inevitably other good clubs will miss out. However, the door is not shut and the players and fans of Widnes Vikings should be reassured and confident that, with their current management team in place, they will be in a far stronger position in two years’ time, when the club can apply again for a super league licence. I wish the club really well in their endeavours.

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