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Covid-19: Support for Rugby League

Volume 683: debated on Monday 2 November 2020

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

It is good to see you in the Chair for this debate, Mr Speaker; I know how strongly you have always supported rugby league and its impact on our communities. This morning, we heard that Castleford Tigers’ next two super league matches have been called off because more of the players have tested positive for covid. I know that you and other Members of the House will join me in wishing those players, as well as the staff who have been affected, a speedy recovery. It is another reminder of the continued impact of covid on the sport, on our rugby league clubs, on local jobs and on our communities.

This is a tough time for everyone. In all the towns and cities in Yorkshire, the Humber and the north-west, where rugby league is strong, cases have been going up in local hospitals and jobs have been hit in our local economies for some time. I called this debate to talk about the impact of covid on rugby league and the way in which it is being hit; why rugby league now needs a new support plan, drawn up with the Government, to support our clubs and the sport through these difficult times; and why it matters so much for our towns and our communities.

We should never underestimate the importance of rugby league for us in Castleford. In normal times, the whole town would turn out to watch the match, but the clubs would also do so much to support the community. A good friend of mine, who has been a lifelong Castleford Tigers fan, was very ill a few years ago: he was starting chemotherapy and having a difficult time. Word got round and he had a knock on the door—and there was Jake Webster, one of our star players from that year and part of the team that had won the 2017 League Leaders’ Shield. Someone had spoken to him and he turned up to wish my friend well and give him a shirt as a gift.

That is not an unusual story. The players supporting the fans, the fans supporting the players, that close relationship across the town—that is rugby league values. Before covid, JT or Tiger Man, the Castleford Tigers mascots, could be found at almost every community event, leading the Castleford Heritage Trust on a May day parade or joining a Macmillan coffee morning. That is rugby league values.

The club, the team and the foundation have been supporting men’s health, from Movember to mental health; setting up a great women’s team, who have been really going from strength to strength; working with our local Morrisons last week to provide holiday meals for children who went along to their half-term session, inspired by Marcus Rashford; and working with local schools as the inspiration for our school rugby league teams, who have done so well each year in the national contests. The Castleford Tigers Foundation launched a jobs and training programme this summer to help people who are unemployed to find jobs.

It is a family game as well. From when they were tiny babies and toddlers, we have taken our kids to the Castleford match—something that Ed would never have done for football. We always had to make sure that we were sitting right at the back, just in front of the radio commentators, so that if we were distracted by having to watch the children and stop them going up and down the steps, we could still listen to the commentators and find out what was going on in the match.

It can be seen right across the community. Whole families turn out for Castleford Tigers and rugby league clubs like it across the country to support their communities —young and old, supporting everybody.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that programmes such as the one at Warrington Wolves, which support children in alternative provision—children who cannot go to mainstream schools, but can get involved with rugby and rugby league—are the sorts of things in a community that really makes a difference to young children?

I agree; this is immensely important. The players in an elite sport are fantastic role models for young people and children, and the way in which they use that power in the community to work with schools and different community groups and organisations has a huge impact on young people’s futures. That is really important. Sometimes people say, “Oh, rugby league—it’s just about your heritage.” No, it is not. This is about our future. Yes, we are proud of our rugby league history, but it also about saying, “See this? This is part of our future. This is part of the next generation. This is part of inspiring young people.”

A Manchester Met report last year found that the economic impact of English rugby league clubs and events is over £140 million and the social impact—the impact on aspirations and on community cohesion—is over £180 million. When you live in a rugby league town, you cannot put a value on it, but you can feel it—you know it. If something like that is lost, it cannot be reinvented. That is why it is so important to support our rugby league clubs.

I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate. With the rugby league world cup taking place next year—including the first ever physical disability rugby league world cup, which will be hosted in Warrington—does she agree that the financial package of support for rugby league is so important not only for proud rugby league communities like our own, but for the entire country because of the tourism revenue that will be generated as a result?

My hon. Friend is exactly right, and I know that she is a strong supporter of the role that her local club is playing and the importance of having the world cup in Warrington. It is about the impact on the economy, but it is also about the inspirational impact on generations of young people getting involved in rugby league. That is why it is so crucial that we support the sport through and are able to support the world cup as well.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this debate. Sport is important for all of us as nations across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Rugby was my game at school—not rugby league, but rugby union. None the less, I just want to say how important it is. Northern Ireland has set aside some money for sporting clubs already, but without any fans at the matches, the £16 million loan for rugby league is not enough. Does the right hon. Lady feel that there is chance for the Minister to step up to the plate and do more?

I agree, and in the end that was the purpose of calling for this debate. We welcome the loans that the Government provided earlier in the year, the work that was done between the Government and the RFL, and the support for our clubs. That has been really important, but our rugby league clubs are under huge pressure now and they need more support. We need a new action plan going forward; the bills still have to be paid.

My right hon. Friend is making a fantastic case for rugby clubs up and down the country. Castleford Tigers are fantastic. In my constituency we have the Batley Bulldogs, and we have seen the work that they are doing at the heart of our community during the pandemic. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is quite simple—we could turn the £16 million loan into a grant, and we would save the clubs overnight?

My hon. Friend is right, because the challenge is that the loans need to be repaid. The expectation has been that they need to start being repaid next year. Well, we are not through the covid crisis yet. We still do not have the supporters back in the grounds and there are still huge financial pressures on our clubs. It is simply not realistic, and not good for the sport or our communities, to insist on those loans being paid back. The point that she makes about grants is exactly one of the things that I want the Government to consider.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for securing today’s debate. York City Knights have worked so hard to climb to third in the championship and should be entering the new York community stadium, but without the finances behind them and without being able to open their ground to fans, they may never enter the stadium. Will the Minister seriously look not only at moving loans to grants, but sufficiency in those grants?

My hon. Friend is exactly right, because nobody could have expected what was going to happen with covid, but we cannot let it do huge long-term damage to such crucial community sports and the work they do in the communities.

The bills still have to be paid this year. The crowds are not there, but millions of pounds in ticket revenues have been lost—about £2 million a week, including Super League and RFL. All the clubs have made huge savings. They have drawn down rainy day funds and money that they had put by. Staff and players have taken pay cuts. Contractors have gone. Incredibly reluctantly, jobs have been cut. They have drawn on furlough and other support and whatever they can.

In the summer, the clubs got the matches up and running, even though the supporters could not be there, and that has brought great joy to fans being able to watch the matches again, but also considerable costs, because the clubs could not use furlough for the staff who were back even though they were not getting the income from the tickets to pay for them. They pay out thousands of pounds every single week on getting players and other staff tested for covid. When a club gets a positive test—Castleford has just had a run on them—it then has to do another round of tests as well. Castleford Tigers has been spending over £20,000 extra a month, just to get those covid tests done to try to keep the game as safe as possible. The same applies across all our clubs.

The fans have been incredible. So many season ticket holders who were offered refunds said the club should keep the money this year. In an area like ours, where people feel under considerable financial pressure, that is a really big deal and shows their commitment to supporting the club. Hundreds of thousands of pounds has been lost by every club—from bars, events, corporate hospitality and things such as bonfire nights and beer festivals.

I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate. It is wonderful to hear the contributions, and I notice the gender on the Opposition Benches, which is significant.

It is wonderful to hear the debate, but these are very sad times. For clubs such as St Helens, it is different. Rugby league is a part of the business. The club is a major employer in my constituency, and it is the largest hospitality hub for the local community, whether that is weddings, funerals or parties—you name it, it goes on at the Saints stadium. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s hospitality support scheme needs to recognise that businesses can be across different sectors? We have a hospitality business that is quite separate, but is part of the rugby club. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that?

Just to say, I think you had a funeral Friday night when St Helens played Wigan with the defeat they had.

Mr Speaker, I think you and I first talked about the Castleford-Warrington matches 20 years ago. My hon. Friend is exactly right. I know that both my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) and my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) have been strongly supporting St Helens, which is under particular pressure as well. There is a challenge where the clubs are open for the sport but closed to supporters, and that means closed to hospitality as well. They are closed to all the people who would have come and used the bars or bought food or used the clubs for events, yet they are not covered by some of the hospitality industry support. They could not get the 15% VAT relief. They could not get the closed job support scheme funding, even though the doors to supporters were closed. I think St Helens has powerfully made the case, as has my hon. Friend, as to why more action is needed to support these crucial local employers who play such an important role in the local economy.

Retail and merchandise sales have also been hit this year. Sponsorship next year becomes a challenge after the year that we have had, and so too does the sheer uncertainty of nobody knowing when the supporters can get safely back into the grounds or when ticket sales can safely restart. That makes it difficult to sell season tickets, which would have provided crucial revenue for our clubs in the run-up to Christmas. So again, the clubs are seeing the bills stacking up and the revenue not coming in. There is huge uncertainty. These clubs are at the heart of our communities, and they play such an important role. We need to continue to support them into the future.

I welcome the Minister meeting me over the last few weeks to talk not just about Castleford Tigers but about rugby league clubs more widely. I know that he has shown a really strong interest in this. I know, too, that some of these are issues that he needs to keep pressing the Treasury on, and we need to keep pressing the Treasury on them as well, but we also have to be blunt about this. The loans that the Government have provided were fine for the first 12 weeks. Many clubs had made savings and done a huge amount of work, and they have been resilient and got themselves through the difficult times, but this is not going to be enough to ensure that they can stay strong through into next year, through from 125th anniversary year into world cup year. We need our clubs to stay strong for our local communities, where they play such a vital role.

I ask the Government to look at drawing up a new winter plan and a new plan for next year—a joint plan between the Government and rugby league. It should be a plan that recognises the pressures from the Sky clawback, from covid testing, from the lack of hospitality income and from having done so much work this year. The Government need to provide a guarantee that none of our important rugby league clubs will go under because of covid. We need a plan for getting supporters safely back in the spring. We need a plan that recognises the unusual situation that the clubs are in, without hospitality income but not being covered by hospitality support, and a plan that looks at different ways to support them through the winter by looking at grants and not just loans.

The plan could include providing VAT relief on season tickets; underwriting an insurance arrangement that could support season ticket refunds, should they be needed if things are difficult next year; including working staff in the job support scheme; funding the covid tests that clubs need to keep going; providing a national insurance holiday; and looking at the Sky clawback. It could include all kinds of different things. I am just suggesting different measures that the Government could consider, but they must work with rugby league to put in place a financial support plan to ensure that our clubs can keep going and be strong for the future.

The plan must recognise the role that the clubs play in our communities in pulling people together, as well as the impact on health, wellbeing and families. We must also recognise that they give us something to look forward to, at a time when, to be honest, everybody needs something to look forward to—be it Christmas, a daughter’s wedding or a mum’s 60th. Those are the things that people want to look forward to at the moment, but they are finding it hard to do so. As one friend said, “For me, it’s being able to look forward to the Cas match at the end of the week.” We need to have those things that people look forward to, that bring people together and that become the heart of the community. When you walk through Castleford town centre, you find all the flowerbeds painted in black and amber, as a tribute to the town.

This year is the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Rugby Football Union, which became the rugby league, but instead of a celebration, there have been tough times. The Minister will know from earlier debates how much anger and frustration there has been across the north about what happened with the tier 2 and tier 3 job support, and about the fact that the furlough scheme was not extended until the whole country including the south was covered. I know that that is not his responsibility, but he will know that it is the backdrop to the real concern that is felt across the north. He will also know, therefore, how important it is for the Government to show that they understand how important rugby league is across the north, particularly across Yorkshire and the Humber and across the north-west, and how important it is to our northern towns that we keep rugby league strong. Rugby league has been there for us and for our communities, and we want to be there for rugby league and to ensure that it has a strong future. I urge the Government to work with us, with the rugby league clubs and with the RFL to ensure that there is a strong plan for the future.

In welcoming the Sports Minister, let me say that we have had a very passionate debate and I am sure that he will want to take on board the comments, because there is no greater sport than rugby league. We have the world cup next year, and I am sure the Minister will want to respond accordingly.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I think I heard that quite clearly!

I thank the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for tabling the topic for this debate, and I thank all those who have participated in it. I certainly noted the gender balance this evening, and it speaks volumes about rugby. I know how deeply she feels about the welfare of this sport and the communities it serves, as we have discussed this matter on many occasions, as indeed have you and I, Mr Speaker. Rugby league clubs such as Castleford Tigers and Warrington Wolves, and others, are at the heart of their local communities and it is vital that they are protected. The Tigers are rightly a source of great pride to the town and bring the whole Castleford community together. May I also take the opportunity to join the right hon. Lady in sending my best wishes for a speedy recovery to the players and others recovering from coronavirus in her community?

I know that Castleford without its rugby team would be unimaginable and that rugby league clubs are vital to their towns right across the country, as the right hon. Lady articulated so eloquently. That is why in May rugby league received a £16 million support package from the Government to safeguard the immediate future of the sport and the communities it serves—that was long before any other support package for any other sport, in recognition of that important contribution. These loans were administered by the Rugby Football League, and we have been working with it and Sport England to ensure that support is provided to those who need it, including the Castleford Tigers. The Government have also supported rugby league through more than £11 million of Sport England funding over the 2017 to 2021 funding period, as well as by investing in hosting the rugby league world cup in 2021, which I know will be a fantastic event—we are all looking forward to it.

The Government recognise the impact that covid-19 is having across the economy and in particular on the sporting sector. Clearly, the Prime Minister’s announcement on Saturday of the new national restrictions, although necessary to prevent the continued spread of the virus, will have further impacts on sport. However, as he announced, elite sport will be able to continue, behind closed doors, over the next four weeks of increased restrictions, and that is further testament to the Government’s support for elite sport. It will not only enable vital broadcast revenue to flow into sports, but ensure that sport continues to bring joy to millions of fans. The month-long extension to the current furlough scheme will benefit clubs that have had to delay the resumption of matches, while ensuring that their talented players and staff are assisted through these challenging times. In addition to the bespoke support for rugby league, Sport England’s community emergency fund has provided £210 million directly to support community sport clubs and exercise centres through this pandemic.

More widely, the Government have, of course, provided an unprecedented support package for businesses, through tax reliefs, cash grants, employee wage support and many other measures, which many sport clubs have benefited from. However, I recognise and acknowledge that, as the right hon. Lady and others have said, sports clubs, and rugby clubs in particular, are about more than just sport. They often rely on many other sources of revenue, and they have been able to take advantage of some but not necessarily all Government support measures.

As the right hon. Lady will be aware, one key area of focus now is supporting organisations in the sporting sector affected by the decision not to allow spectators in from 1 October as originally planned. The Prime Minister announced on 22 September that sporting events would not be able to take place with socially distanced crowds from 1 October as planned. Although that was obviously disappointing, it was necessary in order to stop the spread of covid-19. The Department has been working with colleagues in the Treasury and with the sports sector to assess the scale of support required and the timescales within which it is needed. That has included further work with the RFL to understand the challenges for rugby league as we head into the forthcoming winter. We are working with the Treasury on those proposals now, and we hope to be able to announce the outcome of these discussions shortly.

I pay tribute to the fantastic speech made by the right hon. Member for Castleford Tigers this evening. Like her, I look at the welcome support that the Government have given to rugby league clubs. However, one thing that would be really helpful would be some indication of the criteria under which clubs would be able to welcome back spectators into their grounds. That would help them to plan and think about the future, rather than just considering what they cannot do at the moment.

Of course, we all want to get fans back into stadia as soon as possible, but only when it is safe to do so. I will mention more about that later in my speech and will be happy to have a follow-up conversation with my hon. Friend.

I know that the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford has previously suggested tax breaks and other measures, particularly business rates holidays. I am happy to say that clubs already benefit from a business rate holiday through to March 2021, which should help them through the winter. We are in conversations with the Treasury and others about other measures that she has suggested.

Rugby—both league and the other one—has many, many fans right across the country and many stakeholders, including in this place. I was pleased to learn from the right hon. Lady that my Department and the team there, who work so hard, have been engaging with many organisations and bodies, including the all-party parliamentary group on rugby league and many other Members in this place. As I said, there are many stakeholders. The RFL in particular has been a valued partner of the Government in the application of the guidance and its development, which has enabled the return of elite sporting competition. I am also grateful to the RFL for the successful delivery of the restarted super league behind closed doors, securing broadcast revenue that will benefit the whole game at this challenging time.

As I said before, we know that the decision not to reopen stadia to spectators on 1 October was immensely disappointing, particularly following successful pilots through August and September. I am grateful to the clubs that have piloted the return of spectators so far. Work continues at pace to find solutions that will allow crowds safely back into stadia as soon as possible. The Government will continue to work closely with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority and a whole range of sports to understand the latest thinking that might allow spectators to return. That includes the creation of a new sports technology innovation group of sporting bodies and health experts to analyse new technologies that will support that. Work continues at pace to find solutions that will allow crowds safely back, but spectators will return to stadia only when it is safe to do so. We will keep the situation under continual review.

As the right hon. Lady said, rugby has a rich heritage in its heartlands and a proud history stretching back over 100 years. But as has been mentioned, there is also an exciting future. We know that the importance of the professional game has come into even more focus given that next year’s rugby league world cup is being hosted on these shores, and the Government are firmly committed to delivering a successful world cup tournament in 2021. Next year’s world cup will bring additional significant exposure on free-to-air TV; it will also be the first time that the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments take place at the same time, as the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) mentioned. It will be a great opportunity to showcase the game and encourage even more people to get involved in this wonderful sport. It will demonstrate to the world, once again, this country’s skill in hosting world class tournaments and events and showcase that Britain is open for business and a bit of fun.

We can but hope that the world cup will be a global celebration of humanity at a time when we trust that the worst of the current crisis will be behind us. Once again, I thank the right hon. Lady for securing this debate tonight, to highlight the importance of rugby league and the vital role that it plays in our communities. I hear, as I am sure does the Treasury, all the requests and points made in this evening’s debate. The support secured already for rugby league was a reflection of the enormous social and economic contribution that rugby league clubs make to their communities; the very real threat to the whole sport earlier this year and indeed currently; and the special circumstances of hosting the 2021 rugby league world cup.

As I have said before, the events of recent months have shown that the impact of sports clubs reaches beyond sport itself; they have proved themselves to be the bedrocks of their communities during this pandemic. We will do what we can to ensure that they continue to be so long into the future.

Question put and agreed to.

10.29 pm

House adjourned.