[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Durham County Cricket Club and the England and Wales Cricket Board.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir David. It is also a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak about one of Durham’s passions—cricket—and the absolutely disgraceful and shameless way in which the England and Wales Cricket Board has treated Durham county cricket club.
I want to start with some of the background on County Durham’s great cricketing history. The club dates back to 1882. The Riverside ground at Chester-le-Street in my constituency of North Durham has hosted six test matches since 2003, and memorably hosted the Ashes match against Australia in 2013. Most recently, in May, Sri Lanka visited the Riverside; I will talk later about the significance of that match and how it impacts on the issues that the club faces today. In 1992 the club joined the county championship and, after waiting 16 years, won the title for the first time in 2008, retained the trophy in the 2009 season and then won it again, for a third time, in 2013.
Throughout that process, the ECB has had a major influence on not only the Durham club but other clubs as well. One of the main decisions taken by the ECB a few years ago was to encourage county grounds such as Durham to hold test matches. That has led to a large amount of expense on the part of Durham cricket club to ensure that the standards needed for those matches are maintained. It has been a success, not only in making sure that those test matches are run efficiently but in bringing revenue into the club and wider community. That has been one of the key points: the local community has very much been a part of Durham county cricket club’s journey.
County Durham has a very vibrant amateur cricket network. Most villages in County Durham have a cricket pitch and a cricket club. Most former collieries used to have cricket grounds and cricket teams. I look out of my constituency office in Sacriston on to the Sacriston cricket club, which is very vibrant, run by volunteers and has an active youth section. That situation is duplicated not only in my constituency but across County Durham. I pay tribute to those volunteers—mums and dads—who support junior cricket, and to older constituents who give up their valuable time to support local cricket in County Durham.
The Riverside has been a success. It has certainly been a boost to the economy of the town of Chester-le-Street, and has also been a boost to the wider region. It has also engendered a good following and new fans; people who were perhaps not natural cricket fans have come to enjoy cricket through the experiences they have had at the Riverside. Importantly, it has also turned many young players in Durham into huge success stories.
My hon. Friend is making a really strong case. Does he agree that the test matches, in particular, have made good days out for families in Durham, and have introduced a lot of young people and children to that standard of cricket, which is very much to be applauded?
It is, and it is very important that the test matches and other events there have been family events. The other thing that the club has done—I pay tribute to it for this—is that it has actively gone out and worked with local communities and young people. It has not just gone for the easy targets; it has actually dealt with some very difficult-to-reach individuals who have then got into cricket. That has been part of the ethos of the club from the start: it has been community-based in Durham.
We have actually produced some notable successes—Ben Stokes and Keaton Jennings, to name just two—for the national squad. In this country the county sides develop young players and put them forward for our national squads. The ECB’s decision, therefore, to relegate the club to division two of the county championship for the upcoming 2017 season, strip the club of the ability to hold test matches and then punitively deduct 48 points at the start of next season is clearly going to have far-reaching effects on the club’s viability. It is not clear to me whether the ECB had fully thought through the implications of its decision in terms of the cricket fan base in the north-east, the knock-on effect on producing professional international cricketers and the important impact on the local community.
Losing the ability to hold test matches will result in fewer opportunities for the Riverside’s 15,000 capacity to be met. The opportunity to see world-class cricket in the north-east will obviously be diminished, and it will also have a devastating effect on local businesses in Chester-le-Street that are dependent on the cash input that a test match brings to the local town. It also robs the wider north-east of the opportunity to showcase ourselves internationally, which is something that cannot easily be replaced. Certainly, for small businesses, that cash injection from test matches is very important not only for local shops but for local hospitality; I am told that the increased footfall from just one test match can be equivalent to up to a month’s takings.
Thinking about the younger generation of players that are coming into the game, it is quite ironic that the ECB’s current slogan is
“from playground to the Test arena”.
Well, the decision of the ECB to penalise Durham in the way that it has will stifle the dreams of many young, aspiring cricketers not only in County Durham but in the north-east.
I need to cover quickly the events that have led to the situation that we currently find ourselves in. Let us start with the test match against Sri Lanka in May. In order to host the test match, Durham had to pay the ECB a fee of £923,000. It is very odd that supporting county grounds have to pay the ECB, but that is the way it has been—although I understand that it has now been suggested that that should change. There were some important impacts and partly because the ECB scheduled that test match so close to a match at Headingley, gate receipts in Durham were dramatically lower than had been hoped.
Clubs in the north-east—and possibly Glamorgan—do not generate the huge corporate interest and money that southern clubs do, but the ECB does not seem to take that into account at all. I am told that ticket prices for a test match in the north-east have to be lower than they are in the south because of the economic buying power, but the ECB does not regard that as relevant.
If we fast forward to August this year, the chief executive of the club called players, following rumours in the local press that the financial situation was dire, to reassure them that the club was not going bust and all contracts would be honoured. Mr Harker was right. I want to put it on the record that the club has not gone bust, irrespective of what the ECB is trying to say. Talks were taking place between the club, potential investors and the ECB. In October this year the club was forced to accept a £3.8 million financial aid package from the ECB with draconian conditions. It has been described to me by those involved as not only a take-it-or-leave-it option but a gun-to-the-head option, as if to say, “If you don’t take this, there will be no further support.” Those are not the actions of an organisation that is there to foster cricket in all our regions and in the north-east.
Draconian conditions were attached. Durham was relegated from the county championship division one and docked 48 points for the next season, a handicap that would make it almost impossible for the club to make its way back to its former position. Also, points would be docked from future cup competitions. The situation was completely unprecedented in English cricket. This had never happened before. Also, the Riverside ground was told it could no longer hold five-day test matches, which is the only way that clubs such as Durham can raise large amounts of finance. That route has been cut off completely and, as I said earlier, local fans in the north-east have been denied access to first-class international cricket.
As if such penalties were not bad enough, the ECB then imposed a salary cap on the club from April 2017 to 2020. That means that the club will not be able to pay players above a certain threshold. That is to be determined by the ECB board on an annual basis. That will not only have a negative impact in terms of attracting international cricketers to come to play for Durham but place question marks over whether aspiring and developing cricketers will stay at Durham.
The financial difficulties facing Durham are not unique. Other clubs are in a similar situation and have mounting debt. Glamorgan was bailed out by the Welsh Assembly. Hampshire was facing financial difficulties. Indeed, Yorkshire, famous for its cricket ground, has debts of around £18 million, but it is in a fortunate and unique position because it has a very rich benefactor who also happens to be the chairman of the current ECB. Durham’s only crime is that it has not had access to a rich benefactor with deep enough pockets or good enough connections to be able to see it through.
The news has been devastating for supporters throughout the north-east. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) and I have had many representations from supporters who are constituents. When the news was announced, I wrote to the ECB to find out why the punishment that the club had received was so arbitrary and punitive. I asked whether the offer was a take-it-or-leave-it option. Also, I wanted to understand how the ECB regulations and the penalties that were imposed on Durham were arrived at.
There is, I understand, a set of ECB regulations for deducting points from clubs that get into financial difficulties, so I wrote to the ECB to ascertain how the regulations have been used in relation to Durham. I wrote to the ECB and asked for a copy of the financial regulations so I could see how its actions had been arrived at. I had a reply from Tom Harrison, chief executive of the ECB, on 18 October. I had asked whether he could furnish me with a copy of the regulations. I thought that would be a straightforward task. I thought the ECB would be able to produce them and explain how the points deductions were arrived at. However, in his reply, he said:
“With regard to points deductions, the ECB Board had to consider the points deductions under ECB’s Financial Regulations and the fact that, but for the ECB’s financial offer, Durham CCC was facing imminent insolvency. We do not currently publish the ECB Regulations governing points deductions, but we are reviewing that...in light of this case.”
So what is the ECB’s big secret? Why would it not publish the regulations? There is clearly a complete lack of transparency, which raises concerns for me and many of my constituents. I am quite tenacious in trying to get to the bottom of issues, and my two moles in the ECB have now sent me a copy of the regulations, which make very interesting reading. They cover the issue of a club becoming insolvent, but Durham was not. So I looked at the regulations to see if I could work out how the points deductions were arrived at.
Paragraph 6.4 on page 13 of the regulations states:
“A points deduction pursuant to Regulation 6”—
—the regulation that covers the financial failure of a club and bankruptcy—
“shall be imposed in accordance with the Appendix attached hereto and otherwise on the following basis”.
So then we go to the appendix at the back. It is a pretty simple system. If a club becomes insolvent, 50 points will be deducted from the current club or its successor club in the county championship. Six points will be deducted in the Clydesdale Bank 40 and four points will be deducted in the Friends Provident t20. If we add those together, that is 60 points that could be deducted from the club.
Durham were relegated and then had 48 points taken away; if 50 points had been taken away, they would have gone into the next division. But where did the additional 48-point deduction come from? There is no mention in the regulations about the penalty of taking away test matches or of caps on salaries, so it is clear to me that the ECB has ignored its own financial regulations. What we need from the ECB as a matter of urgency is a clear explanation of how it arrived at that points deduction. It is not clear to me that it was in line with the financial regulations; my mole, whom I talked to yesterday, said exactly that: that the decision of the board is clearly not in line with those regulations.
The chair of the ECB, Colin Graves, who also used to be the chairman of Yorkshire and was a founder of Costcutter convenience stores, clearly does not understand his own rule book. Two weeks ago, in an interview on the Durham situation in The Daily Telegraph, he said:
“The punishments are there within our rules and regulation of penalties for financial irregularities for not being sustainable. We did not create them on a wing and prayer. They are there in the financial laws of ECB.”
I am sorry, Sir David, but the ECB was on a wing and a prayer, because it was clearly not in line with the regulations. Mr Graves clearly knows quite a lot about cost cutting, but he is not an expert at cutting corners when it comes to interpreting the ECB’s rules. What he told The Daily Telegraph is completely wrong.
As for the draconian measures, the ECB needs to explain how its decision was arrived at. There is no reference to a club in difficulty; the reference is to clubs that are bankrupt. I reiterate that Durham was not bankrupt. In looking at how the decisions were reached, we need to know not only the chronology of the meetings, but who was in the meetings that took the decisions. I am told by another mole in the ECB that the decision to penalise Durham was taken on a train and then endorsed by an ECB meeting conducted by telephone conference. If that is so, it is not the way to arrive at such decisions.
If the ECB was to take such unprecedented steps, surely a document should have been produced to explain the rationale for them, with a reference to the regulations, for the consideration of those taking the decision. I challenge the ECB to publish details of the process. It is not clear to me, or my two moles—or many people in the cricketing world to whom I have spoken—how the decision was reached.
I have been speaking to people in and connected with the ECB in the past few weeks, and I do not think that openness and transparency are the first things that come to mind when the ECB is mentioned. Matters to do with financial regulations should be in public documents. The Rugby Football Union’s financial regulations are published on its website. What has the ECB got to hide in not releasing the information—unless it is to cover up the reasoning for and justifications of the punitive measures it took?
I want to explore how the decision was reached and who took it. The press has raised concerns about the role of Colin Graves, including his role in relation to Yorkshire cricket. It is clear that he, a wealthy man—or his family—bailed out Yorkshire county cricket club. Without that support it would clearly be in the same position as Durham.
Some have suggested that Mr Graves took the action because there would be a financial benefit to Yorkshire and other teams, as there would be one fewer ground at which to hold test matches. I have no evidence to prove that, and I certainly do not suggest that that was the sole reason for the decision. However, in his interview in The Daily Telegraph, Mr Graves claims that he no longer has any financial interest in Yorkshire cricket. I understand that he has put the debt, which is £80 million, into a family trust, which someone else now operates. All well and good, perhaps, but he should explain who the beneficiaries of the trust are.
The actions that Mr Graves has taken as a board member of the ECB will clearly benefit not him directly, perhaps, but his family. In most organisations or companies, an arrangement of that kind would mean absenting oneself from the decision in question. That is not because the individual would personally be trying to gain from it, but because of the idea that someone should not be seen to influence something that they or their family could benefit from directly. Mr Graves needs to explain the relationship.
I understand from my mole that at the meeting in question there were other ECB members who did not take part. In one case that was because the member used to play for Kent, which would benefit from Durham’s relegation. If that applied to one board member, why did it not apply to someone with a family interest in a club that would benefit from Durham’s situation? I do not say for a minute that that is why Mr Graves took the decision, but in any organisation decision making needs to be seen to be open and transparent, and beyond reproach, because of the possibility that decisions will be questioned.
Another thing that came up in the Daily Telegraph interview is the way in which county cricket gets test matches, bidding for them and having to pay the ECB for them. The way cricket operates in this country is that clubs generate players locally, to play at national and international level. The ECB generates large amounts of cash from television rights for covering test matches. I am told that something like 60% of that is retained by the ECB and less than 40% is returned to clubs. That is clearly the wrong way round. The clubs produce first-class players and need support at grass-roots level, and should be getting it. My mole also tells me that the ECB has reserves of £73 million. Money is sitting there that could be used at local level, not just to support existing clubs but to bring tomorrow’s generation of kids into cricket.
There are also allegations—I have no evidence for them, but my mole tells me that this is quite open—that being an ECB member involves quite a good life, as far as the way it spends money to support its executives is concerned. That is up to the ECB, if it is what it wants to do, but if it means starving county cricket of much needed resources, that cannot be right.
I should like the Minister to think about the fact that while the ECB hoards money centrally and does not use it to support county cricket, public money is being used to support local cricket. In the case of Durham, there has been £3.9 million from Durham County Council and £800,000 from the local enterprise partnership. Some £6 million was put into Glamorgan on a local basis. Can it be right that in this country the ECB generates huge amounts of money from television rights and other things, which does not go to local clubs, while we expect the taxpayer to support local clubs, because people want them and enjoy them? It cannot be right.
The lack of transparency continues in the way the club operates at the moment. I want to talk about the appointment of its new board. It was announced a few weeks ago that Sir Ian Botham would be the chair of the new Durham board. It is a very strange situation; I was told of his appointment on the day of the announcement about deduction of points and relegation. He was appointed several weeks later. A condition set by the ECB was that he should become chair of the new Durham county cricket club.
Personally, I have nothing against Mr Botham; he has made a huge contribution to English cricket and should be commended on his tireless charity work throughout the country. However, there is a question over how independent he will be as chair. Is he speaking there on behalf of the ECB or on behalf of Durham? Interestingly, in the last few weeks—since he was appointed—he has got good headlines, but he has said nothing at all about the way in which Durham as a club has been treated regarding the points deduction. It will be interesting to see over the coming weeks whether he will be a real champion for the club or just a mouthpiece of the ECB.
My next point is about the reformation of the board and what role the ECB will have in appointing the board’s new directors. Is that yet another condition of the loan? If it is, Durham county cricket club will basically be an arm’s length organisation of the ECB, with individuals who do not question anything the ECB does, but simply implement instructions from on high. That cannot be right; it is not in the best interests of cricket in this country, including County Durham, and many fans who loyally support the club will have a very low opinion of it.
What concerns me in all this is that the fans—the important people who support cricket in this country and in County Durham—seem just to have been completely forgotten in this entire process. Have their opinions been taken on board? Have they been consulted? Have they been given information? Clearly not, and that cannot be right if we want vibrant local cricket on a regional level in this country.
On the ECB and its finances, I have mentioned the situation whereby money is kept separate and some is then sent to clubs. The interview with Colin Graves in The Daily Telegraph mentions a change in that clubs in future that do not get test matches will be given up to £1 million. Again, we do not know how that figure has been arrived at. Likewise, the arrangement whereby clubs compete for test matches is to be scrapped. I welcome that, because in future, clubs such as Durham—well, Durham has been taken out of the equation, but other clubs—will not have to pay punitive charges up front to the ECB to secure a test match.
We need a more fundamental look at the way in which English cricket is financed. Clubs such as Durham, which have been completely taken out of test cricket by this decision, will not be helped by the change, but the important thing is that we know how decisions about other clubs are taken. Which club gets which test match in future will be interesting. Again, that comes down to the transparency that we need to make sure the right decisions are taken.
It is scandalous that in 2016 we still have an organisation that is as clouded in secrecy as the ECB is. The first mole referred to the ECB as a very private club, which takes decisions and does not like being questioned when it does things. There is interaction between the ECB and Government, not only in the examples I have given in which public money goes into supporting English cricket, but in respect of the support for English cricket from Sport England and others.
A condition of the Government’s providing that money should be that the ECB reforms the way in which it operates. Transparency has to be one of the key issues. Such things as having £73 million in reserve cannot be right in this situation. Is the current model sustainable in the long term? We cannot have a situation in which people who might be perceived as having direct, vested interests in the ECB’s decisions are part of those decisions. If they are involved, they should at least provide documents to the public and a fully transparent approach should be taken.
In conclusion, I have a couple of things to ask the Minister. I know he is standing in for the Minister with responsibility for sport, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who is on ministerial business elsewhere today, but I would like a meeting with her to discuss in more detail not only Durham, but wider governance and the ECB.
I would like the Minister to address the situation in which Government money—whether that is Sport England money, local enterprise partnership money or Welsh Government money—is going into cricket, when there is clearly enough money in cricket being hoarded or held by the ECB. It is not being used for what most fans would want it to be used for: developing first-class cricket around the country at a local level and providing facilities for young talent. My fear for Durham in future is that the excellent work that Durham has done to engage with young people—boys and girls—and to encourage them to play cricket will be lost, as the emphasis will really be on considering what the ECB wants, rather than what local people want.
The way this has been done is a scandal. Loyal fans who have supported the club over many years—partly through a passionate love of cricket, but also because of a sense of loyalty to their local team—have been completely disregarded. What is the purpose of the ECB? Is it to protect its own interests and be a cosy club, or is it to support fans and young people who actively want to participate, and to encourage people to get involved in cricket? That is the clear question. This type of secrecy and lack of transparency cannot continue in 2016.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir David? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for securing the debate. I am not sure that I will be able to continue with the detailed forensic analysis, but I will do my best. I got to know about this issue, as we all did, from our local press in the north-east and from the volume of emails that suddenly came into my inbox from local people who were deeply concerned about the relegation decision on 3 October. I have pursued the issue alongside my hon. Friend, because I am currently chair of the northern group of Labour MPs.
For those who are not aficionados of Durham cricket club, I will give a quick résumé. It was established in 1882 and had minor county status until December 1991, when it was awarded first-class status. It was the first cricket club to be given the status for 70 years, and it was one of 18 first-class county cricket clubs in England and Wales.
Durham’s first-class county status was made conditional on the building of a new test match-standard cricket ground, on which work started in 1990. The Riverside ground, in my hon. Friend’s constituency, was completed in 1995, and the headquarters of Durham county cricket club have been there ever since. In 2010, the club signed a sponsorship deal with Emirates airline that gave the sponsor stadium-naming rights for six years. That contract was extended for a further seven years in February.
Durham has won the county championship three times, most recently in 2013 and, before that, in 2008 and 2009. It also won the Friends Provident trophy in 2007 and the Royal London one-day cup in 2014. As a minor county, it won the championship seven times, and was the first minor county ever to beat a first-class county in the Gillette cup when it beat Yorkshire in 1973. That might be an important point, given what my hon. Friend said about the influence of Yorkshire. When Durham was still a minor county, it went for a record 65 matches without defeat between 1976 and 1982. I could go on with various plaudits about the club. I am trying to demonstrate that it was an extremely good club that did a huge amount for cricket and raised the profile of cricket in the north-east. That has made the relegation decision so very hard to bear for local people.
Durham county cricket club filed its accounts late, and those accounts showed that it owed £7.5 million. The retiring chairman of the club, Clive Leach, admitted that it could not meet its liabilities for the year, but the situation was very much presented as a series of cash flow difficulties, rather than a need to go immediately into insolvency or administration. We also know—I will say more about this later—that the club was applying for some additional funding that would have helped with the situation. Now, the ECB has agreed to help the club with its debt problems by giving it £3.8 million of financial aid, which will go towards allowing the club to maintain its commitments to salaries and to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and to meet operating costs. It will also settle some of the club’s substantial debts, and the focus will then be on restructuring the existing debts.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I will talk later about the letter I have written to the ECB and the response I received. What is most interesting about the letter is what is not in it, rather than what is. The money owed to the ECB is not mentioned.
Currently, there is an offer of support—£3.8 million of financial aid—that is tied to restructuring, but it is also, as my hon. Friend so clearly outlined, allied to a series of sanctions. Durham will be relegated to the second division of the Specsavers county championship and will start the 2017 season with a 48-point penalty in the competition, a four-point penalty in the NatWest Blast and a two-point penalty in the Royal London one-day cup. All non-player related ECB competition prize money due to Durham for the 2016 season is to be refunded to the ECB or withheld until all debts owed by the club to the ECB have been settled. The club will not carry out any future capital redevelopment works without the prior agreement of the ECB, and the club is to be subject to a revised salary cap. There is an indication that all those measures will be subject to review and ongoing scrutiny by the ECB.
As my hon. Friend so clearly set out, this punishment is unprecedented. Never has the ECB imposed such a severe penalty on a club, nor has any punishment been so wide-ranging, including a financial penalty, a points penalty, relegation and the removal of the ability to host test cricket. What Durham can do is quite limited.
My hon. Friend again makes an excellent point. That is what it feels like, but this is about the hugely damaging nature of the penalties for the future. The penalties will prevent the club from easily getting back to the first division or getting into a position of financial viability. That is the underlying worry that we all have. As the team will no longer be in the top division, it will not have matches with county clubs such as Yorkshire and Lancashire, which bring quite a lot of crowds because they are quite close to Durham. Instead, the club will play counties such as Essex and Kent, and it will be much harder for those supporters to get to Durham. The club anticipates that gate numbers are likely to be reduced because of the penalties, and it will be difficult to increase those.
There will also be a knock-on impact on the local community, because the penalties strip Durham of its right to hold test matches. It is the test matches that bring new people into watching cricket. Some constituents are concerned about an impact on the area’s economy because restaurants, pubs, guest houses and hotels will lose money, and the area is already struggling economically.
As I said earlier, the ECB interestingly failed to mention to me—in fact, it, seemed to have failed to take this into account when it was putting the sanctions in place—that representations had been made to Durham County Council and the local enterprise partnership to see what they could do to help the club overcome its cash flow difficulties and financial problems. The club received a loan—£800,000 from the LEP—on 16 October, which was only a couple of weeks after the ECB made the relegation decision on 3 October. Why could the ECB not have waited at least a couple of weeks to find out what Durham County Council was going to do, if anything, to help the club? In fact, the council did a lot on 16 October to help the club, agreeing to it becoming a community interest company, which means that it cannot be sold privately. That was important because the previous private sale of Durham county cricket club brought substantial debt. That did not seem to be acknowledged anywhere by the ECB.
A £3.74 million programme of financial assistance to Durham County Council was agreed; effectively, the council has taken shares in the community interest company. It has also been promised a share of special fee payments. Previously—this does not seem to have been acknowledged by the ECB—the council loaned the club £4.3 million in two tranches. The local community—if we can say this—via the council, was trying to do its bit to acknowledge the difficulty and see the club through a difficult period so that things could improve a bit and the club could accept some restructuring.
I chair the northern group of Labour MPs, which met on 18 October to discuss the issue, ably led by my hon. Friend, who knew some of the details. I agreed to write to the chief executive officer of the ECB and to the Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport to ask whether he would consider having an inquiry into the issue. I received a reply from the ECB on 4 November and from the Chair of the Select Committee on 30 November.
The letter that I wrote as chair of the northern group was pretty similar to the letter written by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham. We outlined our concerns about how the decision had been made, particularly the lack of transparency on how the matter had been handled. We outlined our basic understanding of the club’s financial situation, and we acknowledged the need for financial assistance from the ECB, but we wanted to know what discussions had taken place between the ECB and the club before the relegation decision was made. We asked the ECB to set that out clearly so that we could have a better understanding.
We asked how the sanctions were presented to the club. Were the sanctions up for negotiation, with an opportunity for the club to challenge them, or were they pretty much, as we were all told, take it or leave it? We asked for more information about the decision-making process. I was alarmed to hear my hon. Friend say that this might have happened on a train via some sort of telephone conversation, because in our letter we asked how the decision was made and who was involved. In particular, we wanted to know how the ECB arrived at the range of sanctions that were applied and the regulations that had been used. We said that the sanctions seemed rather extreme. We also said how illogical it was to strip Durham of its status as a test cricket venue, because that is the only possible way for the club to get itself out of financial difficulty. The sanctions seem extraordinarily punitive and stupid if the ECB really is interested in keeping cricket going in Durham. We highlighted some issues with the local economy of the north-east, which the ECB does not seem to have taken on board at all.
It is sad that the letter of reply from Tom Harrison did not answer any of our questions. The letter contained little detail. There were some good things, and I will start with those. We asked for a meeting with him, which he has offered. We will take him up on that offer in the coming weeks—we have asked him to come to speak to the northern group of MPs. I will follow that up. He also assured us that the actions had been taken with the
“express intention of saving, preserving and growing cricket in the North East; that is…our primary objective.”
Well, if that is his objective, he is not going about it in the right way at all. He said that the ECB had been working hard with Durham to find a solution to its financial problems, but there was nothing outlining the nature of that work, what the ECB was doing, or anything like that.
Tom Harrison said that Durham’s financial problems were the “most significant” he had seen but, again, he gave no evidence. That does not seem to chime with what we have heard about the situation at other clubs, so we will challenge him on that, too. He said that the ECB had
“consulted…stakeholders including Durham City Council”.
Durham City Council has not existed for quite some time—I assume he meant Durham County Council—but, again, he did not say anything about the outcome of those discussions. As we know, the discussions were incredibly positive and perhaps would have enabled the ECB to see the club’s financial circumstances in a different light. He went on to say that he thought the ECB had helped the club’s future sustainability.
We asked Tom Harrison what regulations the ECB used, how it made these decisions and whether we could see the regulations so that we could understand and be assured that the club was not being treated unfairly. He wrote back:
“We do not currently publish the ECB Regulations governing points deductions, but we are reviewing that position in light of this case.”
That is extraordinary. At the time, I did not realise that the regulations were sitting on my hon. Friend’s desk—he got them through another avenue. We will now formally ask for the regulations to be given to us, and we will ask for a more detailed explanation.
Absolutely. We need to have far more information in the public domain, particularly on how the decision was made.
Tom Harrison concludes:
“We understand that these conditions are difficult for the club”.
What an understatement. The ECB has plunged the club into a really difficult, if not impossible, situation, and all he talks about is the ECB’s hope that restructuring will help the club. He also says:
“A strong, financially robust Durham County Club is a huge asset for the game.”
He talks about the club’s importance to supporting cricket in the north-east, but there is nothing on how the club will do that.
I intend to write back to challenge most of the points in that letter. I have a helpful response from the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, who has invited us to talk to him about the particular issues with this decision that we think need to be subjected to much more public scrutiny. There are also the issues with Durham County Council, the local enterprise partnership and how the ECB and, indeed, perhaps the Government, will consider support from the public for clubs such as Durham.
The saddest thing in the ECB’s response is that it has consistently failed to acknowledge that the club operates in difficult local economic circumstances. There are not huge numbers of businesses with lots of money to give to the club, and there are not huge numbers of wealthy benefactors. We are in a much more difficult and much more disadvantaged situation than many other clubs. The ECB said in the letter that it had singled out Durham because it wanted Durham to act as a deterrent to other clubs that might think they could get a loan from the board or financial support from the ECB, which is truly shocking. The ECB has failed, at every level, to acknowledge the difficult circumstances that Durham faces. Instead of exemplary penalties, the ECB should have been thinking about how to help Durham address its difficult financial and economic situation. That is the biggest challenge that we need to send back to the ECB today.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for raising this important issue. He has always been a firm advocate for his constituency, his county and his region, and on this issue he is no different.
I have a deep love for the game of cricket. I played to county level as a teenager, and I know what cricket can do to unite communities. Cricket is a sport of which the UK can be proud. It is enjoyed by schoolboys and girls, and by spectators who may be immobile in their home. I am proud to be talking about such an important issue today.
From what we have already heard, we can agree that the situation surrounding Durham county cricket club is serious and has ramifications beyond the club. Nobody disputes that the club found itself in difficult financial circumstances, but it is fair to say that the rescue package offered by the England and Wales Cricket Board has satisfied few people. It will not be lost on people involved with the club that the ECB has said openly that it hopes that its action will serve as a deterrent to other clubs. Although the club’s immediate future appears safe, it has been stripped of the ability in the long term to generate additional revenue through prestigious test match fixtures under an ECB-mandated ban, depriving up to 15,000 people per match across the region of the opportunity to see English cricket at the very top level.
As we have heard, the knock-on effect to local businesses will be substantial. Businesses benefit hugely from the test series, which brings sell-out crowds and overseas visitors. Publicans and hotel owners have already remarked how their businesses will be hit due to lower footfall, at a time when people in the local tourism industry are already concerned about what will happen post-Brexit.
It is welcome that one-day and Twenty20 international cricket will still be played at the Riverside ground. I also welcome Sir Ian Botham as chair of Durham county cricket club, and I wish him the best of luck in restoring the club’s finances and rebuilding it as a leading force in county cricket. However, for many, that is scant relief for a club that has already built an enviable track record in cricket through a much-vaunted academy system and first-class infrastructure. It is highly valued. Despite being the youngest county club in first-class cricket, it has produced excellent former and current England test players, including Paul Collingwood, Ben Stokes and Keaton Jennings, to name a few.
The points deductions for all competitions mean that the club will start in the second division on minus 48 points, which will hamper its ability to be competitive in future as it struggles to keep its star players. In competing at the highest level and providing the ground and infrastructure required by the ECB to host test cricket in the first place, the club appears to have been a victim of its own success. Some may say that it overreached itself in order to compete with Lord’s, the Oval, and Headingley, but questions have been raised about how the ECB has encouraged clubs to blind-bid for test matches, while guaranteeing a quota for London grounds; ultimately, it has not been an equitable or transparent process.
Can the Minister push the ECB to be more open about how county clubs bid on test cricket, to ensure that it is available to everyone throughout the country and not concentrated at a few clubs? Can he also get assurances from the ECB that it is still committed to maintaining first-class cricket in the north-east of England and making it accessible throughout the country? Furthermore, can he also ask the ECB to detail how it came to decide on the severity of the sanctions taken against Durham county cricket club? Given that other first-class clubs have significantly higher debts than Durham did at the time, will the ECB ensure that rules to maintain the stability and competitiveness of the league are evenly applied in future?
As I said from the outset, we cannot ignore Durham county cricket club’s situation. We must have a sustainable financial model for our top-class cricket clubs. However, many top-flight clubs have high debts that would be unsustainable without test matches or wealthy financial backers, while others have experienced financial problems and required local authority backing to sustain them.
The ECB should take action to ensure a more transparent and equitable funding model for top-class cricket, to keep it accessible to all and fair to our clubs. I hope that the Minister has taken note of the many great points made in this debate, and I urge him to give answers that will be satisfactory to everyone here and those who enjoy Durham county cricket club.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing this debate and on what can only be described as the forthright contributions that he and others have made. The sports Minister would like me to put on record her apologies for not being here; she is attending an international conference in Abu Dhabi on cultural protection. If it is any small consolation, I am a cricket-mad watcher and player, so I have a little knowledge about cricket that I hope to contribute to this debate.
We can be in no doubt about the depth of feeling about the recent challenges faced by Durham county cricket club, which have been described with passion and conviction in this debate. The great interest that the hon. Member for North Durham takes in Durham county cricket club’s well-being, as both a supporter and an advocate in Parliament, has been clearly heard. I do not know about any moles that he has, but I certainly feel that he has put a cat among some pigeons somewhere in London.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about Durham’s situation. The club has made some major contributions to English cricket, as others have said, since it joined the ranks as the newest of 18 first-class counties in 1992. Durham was the first minor county to achieve first-class status in more than 70 years, which highlights the mountain it has climbed in the past couple of decades. The county demonstrated its ambition early, when Ian Botham agreed to play for it in its initial first-class season.
Durham has gone on to bigger and better things, providing world-class, home-grown England players such as Steve Harmison and current captain Paul Collingwood —a former England T20 world cup winner—as well as having won the county championship on three occasions, as others have said, with the last time as recently as 2013. My own memory spans back to Paul Collingwood’s century against the West Indies in the 2007 test match at the Riverside when he became the first local Durham player to hit a test century at the ground.
It is a matter of great regret to all cricket lovers that Durham has had such serious financial problems recently. The fact that it will have to begin next season in division 2 of the county championship is clearly not considered a satisfactory outcome for the county. The ECB contends that it felt that there was a possibility that Durham would cease to exist, which would obviously have been an even greater loss to the area. The ECB therefore provided a £3.8 million package of funding in what it saw as the most viable way to secure the cricket club’s continued existence. I recognise that many supporters will not agree that the totality of the terms is a good solution, but it should be essential for all parties to share the end goal of securing the future of Durham—not just saving cricket in the north-east, but developing and growing it.
I understand that the ECB has been working with Durham to preserve the club in the face of financial problems that the ECB, as the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) said, regards as the most significant that it has seen in the professional game. I also understand that the ECB has worked with the chief executive and the board of the club throughout the last year and consulted with its stakeholders to ensure that Durham can continue to play in all three domestic competitions.
I thank the Minister for how he has responded. Can he ask his ministerial colleague whether she can get an explanation from the Department of how the points were reached? It is clear from the ECB’s own financial regulations that it cannot make those penalties. That is a basic answer expected by cricket fans in the north-east and Durham.
I can do better than that. I had a conversation with the sports Minister when I found out that I would be responding to this debate. She has agreed to meet the hon. Gentleman—and the hon. Member for City of Durham too, should that be appropriate—and will do so as soon as it can be arranged to everyone’s convenience. The hon. Gentleman can then ask her those questions directly.
The ECB support included making an advance on the annual fee payment of nearly £1.3 million, with which it intended Durham to be able to meet pressing ongoing salary, HMRC and operating costs. The ECB has informed the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that its board felt that the cricketing conditions attached to that support reflected the scale and gravity of Durham’s accumulated financial issues.
The hon. Gentleman asked about concerns around the decision-making process. Obviously I have not been party to the mechanics of that process or to the entirety of the ECB rulebook—he may have more access to that than I do because of his moles. However, if there is any discrepancy, I urge transparency. I understand that the ECB has offered to meet the hon. Members; I encourage them to take up that offer as soon as possible.
I understand those who primarily see the local impact and who feel that the penalty is particularly harsh. The Riverside has hosted international cricket every year since 2000 and it will host it again in 2017 in a T20 international against the West Indies. Removal of test status may be an unpalatable penalty, but the ECB believes it is a necessary part of the response to enable the club’s financial recovery. It has confirmed that Durham will continue to generate revenue via the TV deal with Sky by hosting international T20 and white ball cricket, despite the removal of test match status.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the hoarding of income from fees. To be clear, the ECB is a full signatory to the Sport and Recreation Alliance code of conduct for rights owners, which pledges investment of broadcast revenue back into the grassroots of sport. I hope that that is of some comfort to him.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I think it is best if he takes it up directly with the sports Minister when they meet.
The ECB and Durham will need to work together to bring back viable test cricket to the Riverside at the earliest opportunity. The ECB believes that there is a strong and sustainable future for Durham in meeting the growing demand for white ball cricket that will inspire the next generation, and an attractive growth opportunity to inspire fans to attend and generate a sustainable income for the business, ensuring that the club returns to a firm financial footing.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the ECB does not currently publish its regulations governing points deductions, but in the light of these events it is now reviewing that position. I hope that it will proceed quickly to the right conclusion so that concerned stakeholders can benefit from improved transparency. Indeed, such rules are always better in the public domain.
The hon. Gentleman raised some concerns about Colin Graves. I know that disquiet has been felt in some quarters over the ECB chairman’s role in relation to connections to Yorkshire county cricket club and the awarding of test matches to particular venues. Of course, any allegations of improper behaviour should be taken very seriously indeed, but the ECB has again reiterated that it believes that such claims are entirely unfounded and that the chairman neither derives benefit from the Graves trust nor plays a role in match allocation.
I am glad that we have been able to clear that up and that it is on the record. I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that absolutely clear. That cat among the pigeons is off on another trek.
It would not be appropriate for the Government to become involved in the financial affairs of individual clubs. However, the Government’s new sports strategy, “Sporting Future”, which was published last December, makes the wider governance of sport a high priority. It contains a requirement for national governing bodies, including the ECB, that are in receipt of public funding to agree to a new code for sports governance. The new sports governance code was launched last month and will come into force from the next funding cycle in April 2017. One of its requirements is that organisations must have strong leadership in place, with the right checks and balances to minimise the likelihood of integrity issues arising.
The Government are fully committed to tackling corruption in sport at all levels. Working closely with our arm’s length bodies, we will continue to work with domestic and international sports stakeholders in the wider fight to eliminate corruption from sport. We expect all sports bodies, including the ECB, to adhere to the principles of good governance, financial stability, and transparency. The new code will help to promote those principles to all bodies in receipt of public funding.
Sport England is providing £20 million to the ECB over the current funding period to help to deliver on its challenging whole sport plan to increase participation in the wonderful sport of cricket, as well as focusing on talent development in the women’s games and in disability cricket.
I hope to come to that very point in just a moment.
In addition, £7.5 million will go directly from Sport England to the Cricket Foundation to extend the Chance to Shine grassroots cricket programme, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is well aware of, for a further three years. Since 2010, Sport England has invested more than £42 million in community projects and facilities to get more people playing cricket, aiming to reach more than 400,000 young people and develop more than 1,200 new satellite clubs on school sites.
In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency of North Durham, more than £67,000 of Sport England funding has been invested into five community projects and facilities since 2010. For example, Burnmoor Cricket Juniors and Chester-le-Street cricket club have benefited from getting more young people involved in the game and from improvements to pitches—this is literally grassroots investment. Across County Durham as a whole, more than £379,000 has been invested by Sport England in 23 community cricket clubs and facilities. These are the kinds of clubs at which public investment must be targeted. Through that investment, we have greater potential to nurture new Harmisons and Collingwoods in the future for the benefit of both Durham and England—although some may argue that we need them out in India right now.
It is really helpful to have on record the money going into grassroots cricket, but one of the points that we have been trying to make this afternoon is that inspiring young people to get involved in cricket and building up local cricket grounds partially depends on having a cricket club in Durham that is able to host international test matches. It is a way of bringing world-class cricket to the area to inspire young people and others. We do not want to see that money wasted or given to grassroots cricket without looking at test cricket as well.
I understand the concern about test cricket and I am sure there will be further debate about it when the hon. Members meet the ECB. However, international cricket will continue at Durham county cricket club with Twenty20 internationals, including against the West Indies next year. I hope that that means that international cricket, at least in the form of limited overs games, will be able to continue at Durham, and let us hope that in the not-too-distant future full-blown test cricket can come back to the Riverside ground.
The ECB is the custodian of the game, which must protect its health, and I agree that it is important that cricket in Durham continues to thrive, not only for elite performance but for those thousands of young people and amateur players who look forward to their weekend or after-school games. Increased participation is vital to the lifeblood of any sport, helping to feed the elite level from a healthy grassroots base.
Finally, a strong, financially robust Durham county cricket club would be a highly desirable outcome from this process and a huge asset for the game, allowing Durham to continue to play a vital role in developing England talent, enriching our domestic competitions and supporting the wider growth of the game. As I have already said, I understand that the ECB has offered to meet the hon. Gentleman and the other members of the northern group of Labour MPs at their convenience; I hope that meeting takes place very soon. I also understand that Durham is now looking forward to the coming season with the aim of returning to the top tier of the county championship at the first opportunity. I wish Durham the very best of luck in that ambition, and in securing a more prosperous and sustainable future.
I thank the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) from the Opposition Front Bench for their contributions. The Minister did very well in outlining the importance of cricket in communities such as Durham at a grassroots level, and my hon. Friend also stressed its importance. However, if public money is going to the ECB, it must be conditional on full transparency, because as a result of what has happened there is now a level of mistrust among cricket fans in the north-east and people from other clubs who have spoken to me over the last few weeks. For credibility purposes, the ECB could do itself a great favour if it shone a spotlight on some of the ways in which it operates. In some cases, those ways of operating lead to suspicions and accusations, even if those suspicions and accusations are unfounded.
I forgot to answer that point when the hon. Gentleman made it earlier during my remarks. The £20 million funding from Sport England is subject to the current cycle of requirements and assurance processes that runs to 17 April next year. The new governance code will go even further and will apply to future funding agreements between Sport England and the ECB. I hope that clears up that particular issue.
It does, and I thank the Minister for that clarification. This is an important issue and it will be one of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) and I will raise when we meet the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). I will put on the record my thanks for the Minister’s courtesy in informing me herself that she was not going to be here. There are some Ministers who could take lessons from the way she interacts with parliamentary colleagues.
The issue of transparency is an important one, because without transparency I do not think any public money should be put into the ECB. As for the way forward for Durham county cricket club, we need a vibrant club. It has a large amount of support from local people, who love it for the sport it provides.
However, the one thing that the ECB could do that would restore some faith in it in the north-east would be to review the points penalty, because, as I think I have explained today, no one can justify how that penalty was arrived at. If the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, most cricket supporters in the north-east, and certainly my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham and I want a vibrant way forward for the cricket club, then going into the new season without the 48-point penalty would be a step forward. That would be seen as fair and it would mean that the ECB could at least get some credibility back. After the way it has acted over the past few months, it will take a lot of time and effort to get any credibility back among local supporters of cricket.
I will put on the record my thanks to you, Sir David, for chairing this debate, to my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting for her contribution, and to the Minister for his reply.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Durham County Cricket Club and the England and Wales Cricket Board.