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Bradford Bulls and Rugby League

Volume 618: debated on Monday 19 December 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Christopher Pincher.)

Thank you for granting me this important debate, Mr Speaker. Ten years ago, the Bradford Bulls were the dominant force in rugby league—not just here in the UK, but in the world. In 20 years of the Super League, Bradford have been champions four times, jointly holding the record for the most titles. They won the league twice prior to the creation of the Super League and have been runners up in the top flight five times.

The Challenge Cup has been brought back to Bradford five times from the club’s 11 appearances in the prestigious tournament’s final. Bradford has won the World Club Challenge, where the European champions take on the champions of Australia, a total of three times—again, jointly holding the record for the club with the most wins in the competition. Bradford Bulls were also the first team ever to win the domestic treble in 2003.

Prior to the Super League, the Bulls were called Bradford Northern and the club was a founding member of the Rugby Football League in 1895. Its stadium at Odsal is in my Bradford South constituency, and it has been the home of the club since 1934. When Bradford moved to the Odsal, it was the biggest stadium in the country outside Wembley and it remains to this day the country’s largest rugby league club ground. In fact, the Odsal holds the record for rugby league attendance. In 1954, 102,569 spectators watched Warrington beat Halifax in the Challenge Cup final replay at the Odsal.

But the success of the Bulls extends beyond the field of play. Their connection with and development of rugby at the grassroots and in the community is noteworthy. Bradford’s community work is outstanding. Its foundation received the much-coveted Foundation of the Year award this year, and it worked with more than 30,000 people in 2016 alone. It runs 15 separate community projects, including coaching in local primary and secondary schools. The Sky Try project has been one of the most successful and has been delivered in association with the Rugby Football League and Sky TV in over 100—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Julian Smith.)

In over 100 Bradford schools.

The Bulls are responsible for some truly amazing work growing the popularity and profile of rugby league in their own district. Participation in rugby league has increased by more than 50% in Bradford this year, and the number of women getting involved is increasing. Some 5% of all registered participation in rugby league in the country is in Bradford, and the figure has increased by roughly 1% every year for the past three years. Aside from the Bulls, there are 15 rugby league clubs within a 5-mile radius of Bradford city centre.

The legacy of the Bradford Bulls on the field and their incredible work off the field, as well as their strong contribution to developing rugby league and their work with their local community, demonstrate just how important and valuable Bradford is to rugby league.

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to some of the fantastic wins Bradford Bulls have had over many years. Does she agree that, in a place like Bradford, with its high levels of deprivation, we need to do more to encourage young people and women to participate in sport?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

Today, however, the Bulls are a shadow of their former glorious selves. Worse still, the club and its impressive legacy are on the cusp of being lost forever. The Bradford Bulls entered administration last month—the third time since 2012. This was devastating news for my constituency. The Bulls are a highly respected institution in my constituency—as a sports club, an employer and a valued and proactive member of the local community. The impact was felt not just by the tens of thousands of loyal fans but, equally, by the city of Bradford and the wider region. It is also a major blow to the rugby league family.

Despite their relegation to the championship, caused by a points deduction from a previous period in administration, Bradford have continued to attract big crowds. In fact, the club has been responsible for just over a quarter of the total combined attendances in the championship for the last two regular seasons. The golden era of Bradford Bulls may have passed for now, but the Bulls retain an enormous presence in the world of rugby league. That presence cannot and must not be lost.

The Bradford Bulls need a solid foundation from which the club can be rebuilt, securing its future for generations to come—for the good of the club, its fans, its players and its staff, for the good of the city and for the good of the sport. Rescued, and with a future in the league and the chance to rebuild, the Bulls could recapture their past glory and continue to be a positive force for Bradford and rugby league.

It seems to me that the Rugby Football League, Bradford Council and, indeed, myself are on the same page when it comes to the future of the Bulls: we agree that rugby league has to be at the centre of any deal that brings the Bulls out of administration. There is a lot of work going on to make sure that that happens and that the club survives. I have met the administrators and know just how much work they, among many, many others, are doing.

My worry is that the site and its stadium—the Wembley of the north—are the focus of many potential suitors. I am worried that rugby is of little to no interest, and at best nothing more than a fleeting interest, to some of those interested in taking the reins at the Bulls—not all, but at least some. There is no doubt that the site at Odsal has considerable potential, which must be realised, but rugby league must be at the heart of that, and I hope it will be. The future does not have to be bleak. People in Bradford should expect top-level rugby league to be played in our city. Bradford is rugby league’s heartland. Bradford has boundless potential to restate its importance to rugby league and to re-establish itself as the spiritual home of the sport. Soon Bradford will be home to a new rugby league museum, which, of course, I welcome.

Bradford Council and the Rugby Football League both have a major interest in the site at Odsal. The council owns a great deal of the land around and near to Odsal. How exciting would that unique partnership be for the owner of the rugby club, right in the heart of rugby league country? Working together, the Bulls could be at the centre of an exciting regeneration at Odsal, and the regeneration of a historic and important rugby club. There is potential for far more. This is where I hope that the Minister will take particular note. The Odsal is the best located rugby ground in the country. It is the biggest, the best connected, and the most accessible, and, as I said, it is right in the heart of rugby league’s homeland. It is the northern powerhouse of sport. Bradford can claim to be the national powerhouse of rugby league; I have no doubt of that. The dream of what the Bulls and Odsal could become is very much what the northern powerhouse is all about. All it takes is the right owner, a brave and forward-looking council, the expertise and drive of a committed RFL, and the boldness to invest.

You know as well as I, Mr Speaker, that rugby is a bold sport: it is not for the faint-hearted. However, when push comes to shove, those with a role in this affair—those charged with safeguarding and developing the future of the club and the sport—must not shy away from the difficult challenges that are now apparent.

I cannot fail to mention how we have got here and the broader context within sport today. There is a great deal of work to do, not just by rugby but across sport, to tackle the profiteers who seek to plunder clubs and strip them of their very essence. Be they rugby clubs or football clubs, there is a serious issue with ownership in sport and with some of the people who take on our clubs. This is another point where I trust that the Minister will pay particular attention. How has this been allowed to happen to the Bradford Bulls three times in five years? What is wrong in today’s sporting culture that means that proud sporting institutions can be humbled and shamed in such a degrading fashion? Why does the law not successfully protect our sporting institutions? As we too often see elsewhere in sport, the fit and proper person test, although a strong safeguard in theory, does not, all too often, deliver what it should in practice.

The RFL’s rules are designed to do two things: first, to prohibit people who have or could have an adverse impact on the game and prohibit any club from controlling or influencing any other club; and, secondly, perhaps more importantly, to protect the long-term health, vitality and viability of our clubs. We are some distance from finding out why the Bradford Bulls have ended up in this position again, but there will be many questions for the RFL to answer. Are its fit and proper person rules too narrow? Do the rules help to create a culture and a vision of integrity in ownership? Do the rules protect the best interests of the clubs who are always the first to be most damaged? Are the rules robust enough? Sadly, I fear they are not.

I hope that the Minister can offer me assurances about the future of community clubs such as the Bradford Bulls. I ask specifically for assurances that our grounds will be protected from property speculators, ensuring that the sport itself is at the centre of any plans rather than the site it sits on, and that ownership of our clubs will be scrutinised more broadly fully to assess who is a fit and proper person. I would appreciate her thoughts on how her Department can help to make sure that this does not happen to the Bradford Bulls again. How can she ensure that the future of rugby league is protected, not just in Bradford but across the country? Will she support my call for a Select Committee hearing on the ownership of sports clubs that would go beyond the Bradford Bulls and beyond rugby league to look at the ownership of sports clubs more generally?

The ownership of the assets of a community sports club is a crucial issue. It sets the direction for the club and it is vital that the owners have a genuine interest in the club. A club’s assets, including its name, colours, badge and home, should not be tampered with without the consent of its most powerful stakeholders, the fans.

Rugby league is a sport that has never lost touch with its roots. It is and always has been the sport of working men and women, both on the pitch and on the terraces. Rugby league, led by clubs such as Bradford, is a sport that is strengthening itself at the grassroots and in the community. Rugby league, Bradford, the fans and the people of my constituency deserve better than what has happened to the Bradford Bulls. I hope that the Minister will commit to helping me understand how things have gone so wrong so many times.

I thank the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) for calling this debate on the future of the Bradford Bulls and rugby league. Despite being a soft southerner, I am a huge rugby league fan. One of my favourite players is Jamie Peacock, who is a legend of both Bradford Bulls and Leeds Rhinos, which is my team. I am grateful that it is you in the Chair, Mr Speaker, and not your Warrington-supporting deputy.

Before turning to the specific issues that the hon. Lady has raised, I would like to quickly pay tribute to Mike “Stevo” Stephenson, a rugby league legend who stepped down from the commentary box at the end of last season. His enthusiasm for the game was infectious and we armchair rugby league enthusiasts will miss him immensely next season.

I was sorry to hear of the Bulls’ recent financial problems and can appreciate that this is a deeply concerning time for the club and its fans. Rugby league clubs such as the Bulls are of huge importance to their local communities in so many ways and have such a positive impact at the grassroots of the sport. The club’s proud heritage, both as Bradford Northern and now as the Bulls, dates back to the very formation of the Rugby Football League more than 120 years ago. The Odsal stadium is notable for hosting the record rugby league attendance of more than 102,000 in the 1954 challenge cup final, and the club has continued to have great success over the years, winning the challenge cup five times and being the first club to win the domestic treble in 2003.

Many of the current England pack have come through the Bradford Bulls academy, and the Bradford Bulls foundation was judged foundation of the year at the Kingstone Press championship awards 2016. The foundation has worked with nearly 34,000 people so far this year through 15 separate community projects, including primary and secondary schools coaching, play touch rugby league, the junior bulls academy and activity camps.

As the hon. Lady has said, the Sky Try project has also been hugely successful. It has been delivered to more than 100 primary and secondary schools in the Bradford district, strengthening relationships with community clubs. As she and the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) have said, the Bradford Bulls women’s team reached the women’s grand final in October, inspiring future generations of women and girls to get involved.

I have no doubt that the sport’s profile will continue to grow further in Bradford and beyond as we build up to the 2021 world cup, which was awarded to England in October, following the RFL’s bid to host the tournament. I was delighted, as I am sure the hon. Lady and all rugby league fans were, that the Government were able to support the successful bid with up to £25 million to enhance the tournament and its legacy. In that context of apparent health in the community, it is all the more concerning that the Bulls have not only had to go into administration, but had to do so for the third time in recent years.

The hon. Lady alluded to the role of HMRC in Bradford’s recent financial history. It would be inappropriate to pass verdict on the club’s individual financial status and circumstances while the administration process is ongoing, and against the backdrop of the strict duty of confidentiality set out in legislation. In general terms,

HMRC will support businesses suffering short-term financial difficulties, but not those that are insolvent. HMRC does not enforce debts lightly, but, where the debtor cannot or will not pay, it will take such action where appropriate. It will instigate an insolvency only after all other avenues have been pursued to recover a debt and as a means to stop further debt accruing.

HMRC monitors actions to ensure that cases are worked on appropriately by insolvency professionals, and it will support actions that may increase returns to creditors, which in some cases may include HMRC. On the commencement of an insolvency, whether or not HMRC instigates the action, it will proceed no differently from any other creditor to finalise its claim. The administrator has a duty to investigate and administer the company within, as set out in insolvency legislation. HMRC will monitor these actions to make sure that the creditors’ interests are being met. In all those respects, HMRC will treat a rugby club no differently from any other company entering administration.

The future of Bradford Bulls and of the wider sport fundamentally depends on the ability of all those involved to deliver a sustainable business model. The Rugby Football League has a clear responsibility in supporting the sport to do this, ensuring that one such long-established club repeatedly being unable to recover its financial position is not the first indicator of endemic financial instability in the sport.

I will pick up on the specific issues that the hon. Lady raised about the owners and directors test with the Rugby Football League in the new year. In the meantime, I am sure that she will be aware that work within the “round ball” football leagues has significantly reduced the frequency of insolvencies of their clubs, both with the strengthening of owners and directors tests and with the financial regulations to which clubs must comply to remain part of the domestic competitions. In that respect, much progress has been made within the sport of football, particularly in the lower leagues.

The financial instability that many football clubs have historically suffered is not an environment we should ever allow to creep back in to sport. Perhaps that is something from which the rugby league and other sports can learn lessons. The termination of the Bulls’ membership of the Rugby Football League, and the potential for points deductions in the new season, is obviously a key factor in re-securing the future ownership of the club. I urge the RFL to continue to work closely with the appointed administrator to ensure the future of the club in this respect.

The ongoing wellbeing of clubs such as the Bulls and healthy domestic leagues is of great importance to a thriving sports sector, and I am clear that financial stability is just one facet of how the sector must continue to develop. It is important that sports clubs have good governance in place to sustain and support their financial viability. That is why there will be a requirement for all bodies in receipt of public funding, including the RFL, to agree to a new code for sports governance. The new sports governance code will come into force from the next funding cycle in April 2017. Organisations will be required to have strong leadership in place, with the right checks and balances to minimise the likelihood of financial and integrity issues arising.

The hon. Lady reflected on the importance of protecting facilities and their sporting contribution to the local area. I encourage communities to consider the provisions in the Localism Act 2011 that allow local groups to nominate stadiums in their area as valuable assets, and therefore to ask their local authority to place them on the register of assets of community value. By demonstrating the social value of an asset, communities can be given a right to buy it and preserve that value, should the site be put up for sale.

Bradford Bulls are a positive force in their local community, and I have no doubt that their prompt reinstatement to the Rugby Football League would be a wonderful boost to the area and the sport more widely. Such reinstatement remains at the discretion of the RFL, and remains dependent on new owners being in place, but I understand that there are interested parties engaging with the appointed administrator. I hope this can deliver an exciting new phase for Bradford Bulls, and I wish the club the very best in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.