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Rugby League World Cup 2022

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the contribution of the Rugby League World Cup 2022 to culture and sport in the UK.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies—a fellow Bradford MP who recognises the power of rugby league. I am thrilled to be here to debate the rugby league world cup. I have the honour of speaking about the sport, the tournament and the importance of its legacy.

I know many Members share my passion for and belief in rugby league. The power and potential of rugby league is phenomenal, because of what it means to our communities and what it can achieve in those communities. That passion and belief is shared by Members right across the political divide. Rugby league is a unifying force indeed.

The world cup is always a special moment in the sporting calendar, but this year it promises to make a huge impact, setting a new bar for the sport and recognition of all that it offers to the country and on the international stage. The road to this world cup has not been easy. Preparations for the tournament began in November 2015. The lifting of the trophies will mark a seven-year journey that has spanned a global pandemic and multiple crises. That we have got here is a testament to the organisers, whose determination parallels the sport itself. Teams from around the globe have gathered in the birthplace of the sport. For the English heartlands of working-class communities in our northern towns and cities, rugby league has come home.

There is so much to celebrate and marvel at, both on and off the pitch. Since its foundation in 1895, rugby league has always been groundbreaking, and the world cup is no exception. For the first time, the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments will be staged simultaneously. It will be the biggest, best and most inclusive rugby league event in history.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I am very proud of the excellent rugby league clubs in Batley and Spen, including the brilliant Batley Bulldogs, Birkenshaw Blue Dogs and Birstall Victoria, along with Batley Boys and Batley Girls. They provide opportunities for boys and girls, men and women of all ages and from all different backgrounds to play this fantastic sport, and are at the heart of our communities. Does my hon. Friend agree that the world cup—men’s, women’s and wheelchair—is a fantastic springboard to get more people into grassroots rugby league, who will hopefully rise up to be the world cup stars of the future?

I thank my hon. Friend for her important intervention and I welcome her statement about the inclusivity of rugby league. The competition does offer a springboard for grassroots rugby league to re-emerge much stronger post pandemic.

It is an honour to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Lady—my hon. Friend, in fact—for her superb chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary rugby league group. She talks about the beginnings of the sport; of course, it began in the George Hotel in Huddersfield. We have a quarter-final game in Huddersfield next Friday, which I will be going to with my dad.

On the essence of inclusivity, does the hon. Lady agree that it is great to see a sport’s top world competition including not just the men’s game, but the women’s game and the wheelchair game at the same time? As the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) said, rugby league clubs really are community clubs. The Huddersfield Giants Community Trust, for example, runs the National Citizen Service programme through the summer, getting young people out doing activities and going away together as a group. This is about not just what happens during the world cup, but the legacy for the future.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I hope that he and his dad very much enjoy the match at the weekend. I absolutely agree that rugby league is just the best game in the world. Anything that does it good in terms of growth in the community is worth celebrating. I hope he has a great time at the weekend.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate. Her enthusiasm for the sport is self-evident. Does she agree that the focus on team sports in the media and on TV can be the impetus that young men and women need to join a team that builds character and self-esteem, creates friendships, and brings people out of social isolation to social interaction? The promotion of that can only be a good thing for the mental health of people of all ages who could be involved in the riveting game of rugby. I have to say that I am a rugby union man rather than a rugby league man, but that does not make me less of a supporter.

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I married a rugby union player, so I am saying nothing. It is a totally inclusive sport. It is great to celebrate sport full stop, but it is especially great to celebrate the rugby league world cup being held here. It is fantastic because it is so inclusive. We also have a very interesting mental health programme, which I will cover later in my speech.

We have 20 nations competing in the tournament, from Australia to Wales, Canada to the Cook Islands, Fiji to France and Scotland to Samoa—and Greece and Jamaica have made their debuts in the tournament. Every second of every minute of every match will be streamed live on the BBC, which has its own unique heritage with rugby league. Most games will be carried on either BBC 1 or BBC 2.

At its heart, rugby league is about people and communities. Week in, week out, local communities come together to support their clubs, their local kids’ teams and young players, giving up their time, money and energy, and sometimes even their blood, sweat and tears. The late Colin Welland said:

“Rugby league provides our cultural adrenalin. It’s a physical manifestation of our rules of life, comradeship, honest endeavour, and a staunch, often ponderous allegiance to fair play”—

very much like this place. Strong and insightful words indeed. The sport of rugby league has that power and potential. The tournaments are competitions at the very pinnacle of the sport, and they are spectacular, but the event is so much more; it is laying the foundations for the future of the sport, and for communities, regeneration and levelling up, through its social impact agenda and its legacy.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary rugby league group, I am incredibly proud that the world cup organisers and the Rugby Football League have placed that legacy at the heart of their plans before and after the event. Their trailblazing social impact programme has generated £26 million of investment in equipment and facilities, volunteering, mental fitness, education, culture, and an international development programme. That investment in facilities has helped transform clubs into hubs for their communities.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I want to pay tribute to some of the legacy work that she mentioned. I recently went to Woolston Rovers, one of my local rugby league clubs, to see its brand-new, state-of-the-art changing room facilities, which were provided through the legacy fund. That will make such a difference locally, so I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. Does she agree that that legacy right across our communities is exactly what we should see from such an international event?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about investing in the legacy of the game; only by doing that will we see a strong and vibrant future for the game.

As well as widening access, the world cup has enabled more people to connect and take part in physical activity. More than 1,000 volunteers are supporting the staging of the world cup via a drive to make sure that everybody who wants to be involved can be, offering support and encouragement to those with additional needs. Some 83% of the volunteers said the programme had helped them to become more independent.

Figures for men’s suicide remain tragically high, and the sport has had its own tragic instances. The men’s health charity Movember is an official partner of the world cup. Its Ahead of the Game programme, which encourages players to “talk more, play better”, has been rolled out to almost 4,000 players and coaches. Now 92% of players say that they feel more confident in recognising the signs of mental health in themselves and in others, and 96% of coaches say that they feel better able to respond to the mental health challenges of young athletes.

Education is a major part of the programme. Even before the opening match of the tournaments, 36,000 children had benefited through the world cup’s partnership with UNICEF on the Rights Respecting Schools programme, which has seen more than 7,500 pupils educated on the importance of respect as an essential value.

A couple of months ago, MPs and Lords in Parliament welcomed all three world cup trophies into Speaker’s house. Mr Speaker is without doubt the biggest rugby league fan in this place. On the same day, Parliament hosted Julia Lee, Jackie Sheldon and former Lionesses, who brought their fantastic exhibition marking women’s often underplayed contribution to the sport.

Julia was the first fully qualified female rugby league referee, starting when she was just 17—the definition of a trailblazer. Hearing their stories was a timely reminder that sports such as rugby league are built from the ground up, with grit, hard work and determination. It was fantastic to see Julia and Jackie, along with Julie Stott and Sue Taylor, inducted into the rugby league roll of honour last week, in recognition of their huge contributions to the sport.

I welcome the world cup’s international programme, which has helped to double the number of women’s teams supported by the federation. The Lionesses’ victory in the football Euros this summer showed what can happen when athletes are recognised for their exceptional talent and skill. A record-smashing number of tickets has already been sold for an England-based women’s rugby league world cup fixture. I know that the women of rugby league will not rest until they are smashing that ceiling, too.

The world cup has also driven forward on disability and para sport. There has been a huge effort to ensure that physical disability rugby league games play a central role, and figure in the imaginations and ambitions of our young people as they look to the future.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we should all pay tribute to Adam Hills and the Warrington Wolves for all the work they have done over recent years to boost the profile of physical disability rugby league? Will she join me in welcoming the fact that the physical disability aspect of the rugby league world cup is being hosted in Warrington?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Of course, I recognise that Adam Hills has made a significant contribution to rugby league, not only in this country but abroad. He has done a sterling job for everybody.

From keeping ticket prices accessible, taking part in the match days and increasing access to sport and participation, we have seen a huge uptake of interest in rugby league, in all three competitions. The disability rugby league investment alone generates a significant social return. Every pound invested by players and their families generates a social return of almost £10. General investment more than triples its social returns. It is economically transformative and can fundamentally reform the way people think about disability.

Hold that social value in mind, because I want to turn to where it all started—the working-class communities of our northern towns and cities. A recent study identified the fact that investment in sport and physical activity generates a return of four times in social value, and the sector as a whole delivers £72 billion annually. Imagine what that energy and social value, linked to the right investment, could achieve. The transformational power of sport can be used to promote learning and attract employers and investment into places with huge untapped potential that are crying out for levelling up.

It would be remiss of me if I did not make a small mention of the Bradford Bulls in a speech about rugby league. The return of the Bulls to their home at Odsal stadium in my constituency of Bradford South was a tremendous boost to the city, and huge credit should be given to all those involved, because I know it took a tremendous leap of faith and a belief in the future of rugby league in Bradford.

Building on the dividend of the rugby league world cup, and Bradford city of culture 2025, a compelling levelling-up bid has been submitted to Government for a world-class stadium and training complex for elite sports, and a rugby league skills training and education centre, to serve the people of Yorkshire and the north. That would provide more than £1 billion of socioeconomic benefits for Bradford and create many hundreds of jobs. I know that the Minister is already coming to Odsal to see our plans and that you, Mr Davies, would be more than welcome. I cannot wait to host the next world cup in a decade’s time and to be standing in our very own Odsal stadium in Bradford, cheering England on.

Sport is so much more than competition. Regardless of the delight and disappointment experienced by players and supporters alike, sport brings people together. It is a rich cultural asset and a force for good in our society that can help transform fortunes and unlock the potential of our towns and cities, and the rugby league world cup is an incredible opportunity for our northern communities. A record-breaking 61 games in the world cup will be taking place across the north-east, the north-west, the midlands and, of course, God’s own county of Yorkshire. To share the joy, London has the odd game as well. Some of the venues will be household names; others will be new to many spectators and TV audiences alike. All, however, will be proud to play host to world-class players competing in world-class games, which presents the opportunity to promote and share their communities and culture.

Levels of investment and opportunities have not always matched the pride that we feel in our towns and cities, but moments such as the world cup give communities the opportunity to stand tall in the places they call home as they showcase them to the world. That is a testament to the unifying international potential of a sport as fantastic as rugby league, and it is essential that we build on the momentum generated by the world cup tournament. All MPs can get themselves to a game, and I encourage everyone present to go and see a match if they have not done so already, because rugby league is the best game in the world. It gives so much more back than it takes, unites communities and promotes values that make us proud, and we should be proud of the success of the rugby league world cup hosted here in England.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) for securing this important debate. In these challenging times, it is nice to be able to debate a good subject that is not too challenging.

I know that there is wide support for the tournament and that the sport of rugby league has lots of support from Members, including through the active work that the hon. Lady does with the all-party parliamentary group. She mentioned that she is the chair of the APPG and Mr Speaker is its president, and his upcoming term as president of the RFL shows the strength of his support for the sport. I hope the tournament shows that the Government are fully committed to building and maintaining our world-leading status for hosting major and mega sporting events in this country. The rugby league world cup is a perfect symbol of that commitment and of why it is so important to this nation.

Despite the postponement of the event and all the challenges that that presented, it is good that the tournament started with great success, with over 43,000 fans watching the opening match at St James’s Park. As we have already seen over the course of 2022 with both the women’s UEFA European championships and the Birmingham Commonwealth games, major sporting events have the power to unite the whole nation, instil pride in our communities and give us all something to feel good about. The rugby league world cup is doing just that right now and putting the culture and values of rugby league at the heart of the tournament.

As hon. Members will know, the world cup kicked off on 15 October in spectacular style in Newcastle, with a match that saw England men take on the Samoan men—a match that I was lucky enough to attend. I also attended the men’s launch in Manchester and had the honour of meeting many of the nations’ captains. The matches have continued right across the north of England, with games held in Wigan, Leigh, Warrington and, of course, Leeds. It is incredible that towns and cities where rugby league is the lifeblood of their communities have been able to, and will continue to, host matches that represent the pinnacle of the international game.

Does the Minister agree that we are able to share not only the culture of the sport but the culture of the nations that we are hosting in our communities? In Warrington, we are proud to be hosting the Papua New Guinea team, the mighty Kumuls. It has been great to see them out in local schools and in the community, sharing their culture with people right across Warrington. Does the Minister agree that those opportunities, which the rugby league world cup has given us, are great for promoting cultural understanding and multiculturalism in Britain?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to mention that, and I will comment further on the cultural impact of the tournament. She is right: it is great to see so many teams going into the communities where they are staying. They are trying to build support for the tournament itself, but we are also able to share our great heritages and learn from each other.

It is important that, for the first time ever, all matches of the rugby league world cup, including women’s and wheelchair, are being broadcast on the BBC. The opening match, between England and Samoa, hit a peak audience of 1.8 million, which is fantastic. As we saw with the women’s Euros over the summer, visibility is key to bringing a new audience into a sport and giving the sport a platform. The opportunity of the BBC broadcasting the tournament live should not be underestimated. Over the coming weeks, it will be brilliant to see not just the men battle it out on the world stage but, as hon. Members have said, both the women and the wheelchair teams battling it out. Seeing the incredible fitness of those wheelchair teams—and the terrible brutality of what the matches look like—is awe inspiring.

When major sporting events come to the UK, we regularly talk about legacy: what the event leaves behind once the spectators leave the stadiums and the participants leave the field. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, that also highlights the importance of team sports to the rest of the nation. The rugby league world cup organisers prefer to call it the social impact of the tournament—not just what is left behind but what can be done right now. The tournament’s social impact programme is the first of its kind. It focuses on four areas: facility investments, to enable clubs to create welcoming and inclusive environments; a mental fitness programme; an inclusive volunteering programme; and an international development programme, which has developed new relations between emerging rugby league nations and supported development programmes in international communities.

Before a whistle was even blown, the CreatedBy facility investment programme saw investment in 38 club houses, 22 changing rooms, 18 pitches, and 102 kit and equipment packs. Over 50% of the CreatedBy programme went into areas of socioeconomic deprivation, and 90% helped to grow women and girls’ participation, which is an important aspect of the wider work in the Department. Nearly a quarter went to support and grow disability rugby league.

I saw the very real impact of the programme when I went to visit Leigh Miners Rangers rugby league club and saw the new 3G pitch, which the programme funded. That will enable the club to train at the ground all year round, which will save them from hiring additional facilities and enable the teams to have more training sessions. That is important for the grassroots element, which we have discussed. Our thanks should always go to all the amazing volunteers who ensure that such work continues.

As we have heard, the rugby league world cup has also partnered with Movember, and Rugby League Cares delivered its mental fitness programme, which aims to improve the mental fitness, literacy and resilience of young athletes, coaches and parents. Nearly 300 mental fitness sessions have been delivered to rugby league clubs, schools and online, reaching over 4,000 players and 400 coaches. A strong social impact and legacy programme helps to ensure that major sporting events continue to bring benefits to the whole country, and the rugby league world cup is a brilliant example of that.

As the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) mentioned, as well as being an incredible sporting spectacle, the world cup offers a great deal of culture to this country. A number of fan zones will be set up near the venues in city centres, and fans from competing nations will be able to mingle and learn from each other’s heritage. The games themselves also offer brilliant opportunities to witness other nations’ cultures. At the opening match, which I attended, I saw the spectacular Siva Tau, which is performed by the Samoan team. If I were facing that, I would have felt really intimidated. Of course, the New Zealand rugby league team kicked off its match against Lebanon with the Haka. In addition, the tournament’s cultural festival programme includes a major new outdoor performance, an epic touring public art and poetry commission and a programme of engagement projects rolled out across 40 library services across the whole of the north of England. It is important that major sporting events enable a broad reach across society and a strong cultural programme helps to do just that.

The benefits that the rugby league world cup has brought to its host town and cities and across the country are clear. The United Kingdom has a fantastic track record of hosting events such as this one and has seen a bumper year of incredible sporting events, such as the Commonwealth games, the women’s Euros and now the rugby league world cup. The Government are committed to continuing to build on our track record and bring more events like the world cup to the United Kingdom. England was recently announced as the host for the rugby union women’s world cup in 2025 and we will continue to build a strong programme of events to ensure that communities right across the UK get to experience the benefits and atmosphere of major sporting events like the rugby league world cup.

I thank hon. Members for their contribution and the hon. Member for Bradford South for introducing this timely debate. I note the point she makes about Bradford. If I am still in post by the end of the week, I will come. Otherwise, I will leave a note on my desk to my successor to say that their first trip needs to be to Bradford.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I hope he remains in post. However, if he does leave that message, will he also make a note to invite the Minister to the physical disability rugby league world cup, which is being hosted at Victoria Park in Warrington? We would be delighted to host him or, indeed, another Minister during the course of the tournament.

I will graciously accept the invitation, on behalf of myself or whoever follows, because that would be an important and great visit.

Finally, I repeat the points made by the hon. Member for Bradford South: I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will take time out to go and watch one of the matches. They are great to see. I know that we will want to send all our home nations the very best. This is where I get myself into trouble as I have a Scottish father, an English mother and I was born in Wales. Trying to decide which team to support is often a challenge, but I wish them all the very best. Let us hope we go from strength to strength with this amazing tournament.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.