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Worcester Warriors Rugby Club

Volume 719: debated on Thursday 22 September 2022

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

It is a great honour to secure this debate, on an issue that is very dear to my heart. In recent weeks, Warriors fans have grown accustomed to the odd delay, and I apologise to all those who may have tuned in at 5 pm or 5.30 pm, but I hope I am able to evoke their concerns during the course of the debate. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) for taking up his role, and look forward to his response. I am also grateful to the Clerks in the Table Office for accommodating me at the first possible opportunity after the period of mourning. Sadly, this debate is all too urgent and timely.

Worcester Warriors is a rugby club that has been at the heart of our county and community for decades, and follows in the footsteps of the Worcester rugby football club, who have played rugby union in Worcester for over 150 years. In the era of professional rugby, which roughly coincides with my adult lifetime, the club has been based at Sixways, and throughout my adult life I have been a supporter. The first game of professional rugby I ever watched was in Worcester; the club was then in North Midlands division 2, and although never a player myself, I have worn the club colours of gold and blue ever since. When I gave Worcester rugby shirts to my two nephews, then aged four and eight, they described them as their Uncle Robin suits, as they had so often seen me wearing mine. As is the case for so many other local folk, the club has provided a forum for intergenerational bonding, an arena for local pride, and a gathering space for special events.

The rise and rise of Worcester, who subsequently became the Warriors, was no accident, but the result of the vision and drive of one man: Worcester’s most successful 20th century entrepreneur and philanthropist, the late, great Cecil Duckworth. It is not possible to overstate Cecil’s contribution to our city. The boiler he first made in his garage became the prototype of the modern combi boiler and the basis for Worcester Heat Systems, now known as Worcester Bosch, the biggest private sector employer in my constituency. His endowment of the Duckworth Worcestershire Trust continues to make an enormous contribution to our local environment, and his generous support for the Acorns Children’s Hospice made its Worcester hospice a reality.

Cecil’s greatest and most prominent local legacy, however, was the rise of the Warriors. I was privileged to know Cecil and his family long before I became Worcester’s MP, and to be able to watch rugby at Sixways with him. I recall watching a pre-season friendly between Worcester and Oxford University while I was a student there, and learning that even great figures such as Cecil and his opposite number at the university rugby team, who happened to be a former head of the civil service and distinguished member of the other place, were capable of colourful language when the referee’s decision went against their team. I celebrated with him an astonishing six successive league wins and promotions as, with his support, the Warriors—as they became in 2002—moved all the way up from North Midlands division 2 to National league 1, the league just beneath the rugby premiership. I well remember the ecstatic feeling when our team, unbeaten after 26 wins in 26 matches, first won promotion to the top flight in the 2003-04 season.

Like so many fans, I experienced the pain of relegation in 2009, followed by joy at our return to the top flight in my first year as Worcester’s MP. All of this was masterminded by Cecil and his passion to see the club not just achieve, but cement, its position at the top of English rugby. When I first attended Sixways, there was one stand with a capacity of around 2,000; today we have a 12,000 capacity stadium, which is not only one of the best-equipped professional rugby stadiums in the country but a venue for key local cultural events, from concerts to the trooping of the Mercian Regiment’s colour. Quite rightly, a bust of Cecil adorns the Warriors’ stadium, and he was named life president of the club before his sad death from cancer in 2020.

While some might say that the Warriors is just a sports club, we in Worcester know it is much more than that. So many fans have spoken out about what the club means to them, and the staff and heads of department, as well as the players, have shown a spirit of togetherness in the toughest of times of which Cecil himself would be proud. I do not have time to echo all the sentiments of fans in this short debate, but so many have expressed what the clubs mean to them movingly and with real passion. I commend to the House looking at #together, #WeAreWarriors and #SaveOurWarriors on social media.

The club is also home to one of the most effective and successful community foundations in the rugby world—this is a key part of Cecil’s vision—which reaches more than 15,000 deprived and vulnerable people across the west midlands, championing accessible rugby, delivering innovative and inspiring lessons in schools, including special schools and alternative provision, using the power of rugby to build confidence and unlock opportunity. I have lost count of the number of times I have been downstairs in this place to congratulate the foundation on winning awards at the premier rugby community awards. Sadly, all this is now at risk.

The current owners of the club have brought it to the brink of financial collapse, and for all that they have claimed this is the impact of the pandemic, they have failed to maintain the trust of their employees, keep their promises to local stakeholders or set out clear plans to reassure their many creditors. Their background in property development and the various complex transactions through which they have manoeuvred parts of the club and its land have raised serious doubts about their genuine commitment to keeping professional rugby at Sixways.

The news that on 17 August the owners had been served with a winding up notice by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs led dozens of my constituents to contact me with their concerns about the future of the club. On 26 August, I convened a meeting of local MPs and council leaders from all the three south Worcestershire councils and the county to discuss the concerns about any possibility of development land being separated from the club, and the risks to the viability of the stadium and the team. We agreed a joint statement. Crucially, included in this were the leaders of Wychavon District Council, the planning authority and Worcestershire County Council, with its responsibilities for economic development. It read:

“We will do all we can to retain professional, elite rugby at Sixways and protect the extraordinary legacy of the late Cecil Duckworth and his family.

We jointly call on the current Worcester Warriors owners to act in the best interests of the club, the players, the staff, the fans and the community served by the club, including the Warriors Community Foundation. We think it is essential that the club and all of its property assets remain linked.

While we recognise that there are significant opportunities for development at the Sixways site, we believe that these need to be utilised for the purpose of sustaining the rugby club and the wider ambitions of the local sporting community.

We are all very clear that we are prepared to work supportively with potential investors to find a positive outcome for the future of Worcester Warriors.”

Since that statement was published, I am grateful to have had messages of support from Worcester’s Labour mayor, city councillors, the supporters’ trust and the president of the amateur side, WRFC—Worcester Rugby Football Club. I am also grateful for the close attention that has been paid to this situation by the Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby Limited and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport over recent weeks and particularly for the patience of the current Secretary of State with the bombardment of messages I have been sending her ever since her appointment. Her predecessor set out to me that the sole focus of the Department has been in trying to protect the club and the future of professional rugby at Sixways—amen to that. Following our statement, local MPs were invited to meet the current owners and hear their plans; we accepted assurances that they were negotiating to sell the whole of the club together and that whatever the formal structures in place around the land, there was no intent to separate or sell of parts of it to the detriment of the club. We were told that the club was in negotiations with a number of parties and that payroll would certainly be made the following week.

The following week, the owners failed to make payroll. Staff were not paid at all on the day their wages were due and players did not receive their pay on time. That triggered players at the club to serve 14 days’ notice that their contracts had been breached, posing an existential threat to the continuation of the team and professional rugby at Sixways. On the same day, the mobile phones of the management at the club stopped working as the bills had not been paid and cars were taken from players because the leases had not been maintained. Academy players were reportedly made homeless as they lost access to their accommodation.

In the days of confusion and deep concern that followed, the players were eventually paid—late and sometimes irregularly. But together, selflessly, they decided to withdraw their notice and return to being in contract. The staff; 200 of whom are permanent full-time staff, with a further 200 part-time, were offered 65% of their wages, with the rest to follow once a deal had been secured. That has not so far been forthcoming, and I am told there are still a number of staff who have received no pay at all. It was at this stage that the five Worcestershire MPs who were free to do so put out our joint statement calling for the club to be taken into administration—I know all six of us were there in spirit. The owners fired back an angry release that stressed all the risks of administration and stated that they had had no offers of help from MPs or councils prior to our statement. The latter, I have to say, is simply a provable lie.

The owners’ case against administration was fourfold: that it would reduce the value of the club’s P share—its share of proceeds from premiership television and marketing rights—due to a call option being available to the PRL to buy it back in the event of administration; that it would leave local creditors out of pocket; that it would lead to automatic relegation from the premiership; and that it would leave season ticket holders without the value of their tickets.

Each one of those assertions is challengeable. From my own conversations with both PRL and the RFU, I know that neither the triggering of a call option on the P share, nor relegation should be considered a certainty. I urge them to do all they can in the event of an orderly administration to enable Warriors to stay in the premiership, with a points deduction if necessary, and to ensure that any new management and investors taking the club on have access to its P share. There is no reason why an administrator or new investor should not be able to honour season tickets, and local suppliers who from bitter experience have no trust in the current owners to pay their bills may stand a greater chance of recouping some of what they are owed if we have an orderly process rather than continued uncertainty and disorder.

Since that time, I am afraid that the situation off the pitch has not improved. Players have gone above and beyond to turn out and play for the club, despite the problems with their pay. Staff have moved heaven and earth to ensure that games can go ahead, meeting the challenges set by the RFU and PRL, even after wi-fi and internal emails went down, and with no support from their directors and owners. That Worcester Warriors players have scored tries against London Irish, Exeter Chiefs and Gloucester is a remarkable achievement in these most difficult circumstances. The solidarity that has been shown by each of those clubs reflects the desire of all rugby clubs to see the Warriors survive. That the University of Worcester Warriors—the ladies’ team—actually won its Allianz cup fixture against Harlequins is truly spectacular. The heroic efforts of underpaid or unpaid staff have been praised by fans of clubs across the country, but those efforts are barely acknowledged by the current owners. Instead, we have had reports of staff facing disciplinary action for daring to point out the string of broken promises that have been made to them, and of key people being mysteriously unavailable when legal or insurance documentation needed to be signed. Through all of this, the team, under the tutelage of Steve Diamond, have maintained a spirit of unity that is admirable in the extreme.

The owners told local MPs last week that they were on the brink of a deal to sell 85% of the club’s equity and that there would be new money to repay staff the proportion of wages owing and to secure all the commitments to the premiership before the end of the week. They promised staff and fans an announcement within 48 hours of the match on Sunday. Neither of those promises has been kept. Staff, fans and players are left with the lingering doubt that the owners might prefer the club to default on its rugby commitments so that expulsion from the premiership makes it easier to focus on developing the property assets away from the rugby. Such an outcome would risk making not only the Warriors but the Community Foundation, the academy, the amateur Worcester rugby football club and the Worcester Raiders football club homeless. It would be a disaster for sport in our county and a huge blow, which neither I nor my fellow Worcestershire MPs are prepared to accept.

Even after staff went above and beyond again to secure this weekend’s matches, another deadline has understandably been set by the rugby authorities for Monday. I know that staff, players and the exhausted heads of department at the club will do all they can to meet it, but I cannot be certain that they will be able to do so without the support of directors or new finance.

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic case for the importance of rugby in his city and in my city of Gloucester. May I just share with him the solidarity that everybody at Kingsholm and Gloucester Rugby feels for his club? We want to see the Warriors back on great form, and we want to see these financial problems resolved. He has our full support in Gloucester.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. As the son of a former Gloucester player, I was very proud and impressed when Gloucester offered free tickets to the game the other day to Worcester Warriors staff and the players who were not playing. That was a great gesture of solidarity, and it was enormously appreciated.

If the protestations of the current owners are true—that they have the best interests of the club at heart—surely, even at this stage, they should be calling in the administrators. However, while any doubt persists about their motivation, I urge DCMS, as the largest creditor and the Department responsible for safeguarding the interests of sport, to step in and to do so before Monday. I know of at least two significant interested parties—one is the party with whom the owners claimed to be about to strike a deal last week—who have said that they are interested in stepping in with new finance to support the club, but only through a process of administration. I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that that now seems the only way forward.

Before my right hon. Friend responds, I want to address two further points that have been brought to my attention by the press. First, there is the suggestion from one creditor of the club that Sport England has somehow unwittingly assisted in the separation of assets from the club or made it easier for property to be alienated from it. I hope my right hon. Friend can assure me that that is not the case. In doing so, I would urge him not simply to reiterate that there was already a formal separation of the stadium from other land before the Sport England loan was negotiated. We all know that, but it is not the point. The concern is that the new lease negotiated at Sport England’s behest changed the terms on which the rugby trading company held use of the stadium, and reduced its access to non-rugby income and the proceeds of any events other than those related to the game itself. The accounts show that, prior to this, the book value of the lease held by the trading company was £16 million.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that book value still sits with the club and the assets over which DCMS has a call? If not, I hope he can reassure me that any process of administration will take into account all uses of public funding, and that where any of it has been used to pay property debt or secure other assets for the owners or their holding companies—MQ Property Ltd, Sixways Property Ltd and Bond Group Property Ltd—these can be brought into scope of any administration process. I do not believe for a moment that Sport England or anyone at the Department wished to reduce the income available to a sports club, but it is vital that we ensure that no inadvertent harm is done through the complex processes that the club has gone through under departmental supervision.

Finally, and most damningly in the eyes of most Worcester folk, is the report in today’s Daily Mail that the owners borrowed money from the family of the late Cecil Duckworth and have failed to repay it. I cannot stress enough how upsetting and appalling that is. One senior player has described the suggestion as “heart- breaking.” What is also striking, having now discussed the matter with Beatrice—Cecil’s widow—is that the money was borrowed in January 2020, before any impact of the pandemic and long before the owners admitted to the current financial woes of the club, with the express intention of making payroll. Within a few years of taking control of the club and after one of their original investors pulled out, they went to the great founder and benefactor of the Warrior’s success and borrowed half a million pounds. Since his death, they have refused to communicate with his widow or her lawyers to give an update as to the status of this debt or to confirm when and how it might be repaid.

The owners have asserted that half of the money is not owed, as a promise was made on the basis of a handshake for Cecil to cover the costs of employing the then manager of the club, Alan Solomons. Although there is no documentary evidence to back that claim, the family have accepted that they will not contest it. Even after this, there has been no further engagement with the Duckworth family on the remaining money. I cannot express in parliamentary terms my personal revulsion at the way in which those charged with protecting Cecil Duckworth’s legacy have behaved and seemingly continue to behave. I am told that the loan does not appear anywhere in the published accounts of the club or the holding companies, which prompts questions as to how they are meeting their legal responsibilities as directors and what other undeclared debts they may have taken on. It is no wonder one potential buyer has this week called for administration to include

“a forensic investigation of financial activities”.

My request to the Minister is simple. Two weeks ago, I and my fellow Worcestershire colleagues spoke out with one voice to call on DCMS to step in and take the Warriors into administration, in order to secure its future. That call is now more urgent than ever. Nothing in the experience of the past two weeks has given us any greater confidence that the current directors can or will deliver. The patience of staff, players and fans is being stretched beyond endurance.

Investors are waiting in the wings with serious offers backed by serious local business people and serious rugby folk to take the club out of administration and set it on a secure footing. Securing their support is vital. I urge the RFU and PRL to continue to show the forbearance and understanding that they have shown to date and to listen to the calls from across the rugby world that a way be found to allow the Warriors to continue to play in the top flight.

I urge DCMS to delay no further and to trigger formally a process of administration to secure the club and all the property assets associated with it before Monday’s deadline. I urge them to ensure that there are directors in charge of the Warriors who are fit and proper. In short, Minister, please #SaveOurWarriors.

I am pleased to respond to this debate and am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) for securing it. The interest shown this afternoon is testament to the importance that this club represents to the local community and to the sport of rugby as a whole. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done. I also offer my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), who did this job extremely well. I know that I have very big shoes to fill. I know, too, that he is now able to take a keen interest in this issue.

As we have heard today, the club has had many different forms, but can date back to Worcester Rugby Football Club, which was first established in 1871. It was a long and eventful journey to the club’s debut in the men’s top flight in 2004, under the stewardship of John Brain and Cecil Duckworth, whom my hon. Friend has talked so movingly about today. Both of them have had a lasting impact on the club and local community.

The club has gone from strength to strength and seen its talent recognised at an international level with multiple players, including current captain Ted Hill being capped for England. The dramatic extra-time premiership cup win against London Irish in May provided an unforgettable moment for all involved with the club. The success is not limited to the men’s team, however, with the Worcester Ladies team having won their inaugural premiership title in 2013 before becoming part of the Warriors group in 2016. The success has continued since then, with Laura Keates and Lydia Thompson both being named in England Women’s world cup squad this week. Off the pitch, the Warriors Community Foundation makes a significant impact around the local area, providing vital services including a positive and safe learning environment for some of the hardest to reach young people.

For all these reasons, I was pleased that the Government were able to support the club to survive the challenges of the covid-19 pandemic through the sport survival package. Like many other sectors, the sport sector suffered as a result of the essential restrictions we all lived under during the pandemic. The Government were proactive in taking action to protect the sector through the £600 million package.

The package was set up to ensure that as many sport clubs reliant on spectators survived the period of restrictions during the pandemic as possible, while also seeking to minimise the potential long-term damage to sport, with a particular focus on the importance of grassroots activity and women’s sport. That intervention was essential in maintaining professional sport in this country through such a difficult period.

However, as the nation recovers and crowds return to stadiums, it is right that the Government take a step back from providing direct financial support. The sport survival package was administered by Sport England on behalf of DCMS and all decisions for awards were taken by an independent board set up by the Department, based on a robust assessment of an individual organisation’s financial circumstances; where appropriate, security was taken to protect the taxpayer.

I know this is a time of stress and anxiety for all associated with the club, from the playing and non-playing staff to the fans who have stuck with the club over so many years. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester described so well many of the things they have gone through recently. The match this weekend was a demonstration of the passion and commitment that so many people have for the club within the local community and I applaud everyone involved in ensuring that the fixture went ahead.

The Department is working tirelessly with the club’s directors, Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union to seek the best possible outcome for all concerned. We have expended more energy on Worcester than on any other club and we will continue to do so. That has included daily dialogue with stakeholders and the club’s directors to explore all options available and to take appropriate professional advice.

While I am only in the first few hours of my time in this role, I assure my hon. Friend that I and the Secretary of State take a keen interest in this issue and that we will continue to do so and to explore every possible option. Indeed, one of my very first meetings in this role was on this matter. At this stage, we are not ruling out any options and are sending in professional advisers imminently to take a closer look at the club and potential options. If it emerges from that work that the most viable option for saving the club is to put it into administration, that is a decision we will not be afraid to take.

Of course the responsibility for governance and oversight of the game sits with the RFU and PRL, and any potential investors will need to pass the RFU’s fit and proper owner tests as part of any takeover. DCMS does not have a direct role in finding new owners or investment for the club, but we have continued to encourage all interested parties to put their offers to the current owners or administrators, should that step be taken.

I understand the frustration of supporters due to the lack of progress over the past weeks and the calls for Government action. This is clearly a fast-moving situation, and we continue to reassess all options available to us as a creditor to protect taxpayers’ money and deliver the best possible outcome for the players, staff and club on a daily basis as the situation evolves. As I have said already, we are taking action and not ruling anything out.

Any claim that Sport England or the Government are responsible for asset stripping or at any point were not working in the best interests of the club or taxpayers is incorrect. DCMS and Sport England have not been involved in the management decisions of any club to which they have lent. Those decisions were and remain, rightly, the responsibility of the directors of those clubs, and I can assure the House that the Department and Sport England thoroughly assessed all applicants’ financial information and provided clubs with strict conditions on how the funds could be utilised following an assessment of need. As my hon. Friend highlighted, any administrators appointed would also look to explore the actions of directors and the previous use of funds in any administration. Unfortunately, I cannot comment further on the specifics of individual cases, including on the issue that he has raised, because of the confidentiality obligations in the legal agreements with the club.

As this debate has clearly demonstrated, Worcester Warriors has a rich history and is a crucial part of the local community. I thank my hon. Friend for calling the debate, and thank him and other hon. Members in the area for the work that they are doing to discuss the future of that important community asset. The Department will continue to engage closely with the owners, Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union to try to ensure a positive outcome for the rugby offering in Worcester. I give him a guarantee that I will take an extremely close interest as the issue develops.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.