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Column 781I have just been on a visit to Switzerland, where a lot of voluntary work is done in schools on a local scale. Town halls are too large and too remote from the issues that they have to deal with. I call for much more devolution by local authorities into neighbourhoods, so that real action can take place. Indeed, we should look at the way in which central Government and local government could work more closely together.
In France, child benefit is not paid if children are truant. I have raised that question with the Prime Minister and have been told that it would be difficult to implement, but I think that it would be a very good way to draw attention to the children who are truant, and to inquire why each child is not at school, and what should be done about that. I hope that only in a few cases would the benefit be withdrawn. Perhaps if the child benefit was paid by the schools themselves it would be another source of funding for them if some parents felt that they could leave the benefit with the school in the first place.
If children are truant, it is a serious matter. I would like to see more conditionality of benefits. That occurred in the old days, before we centralised everything. We now have the most centralised system of local and central Government that we have ever had. We are losing touch with issues on a truly local scale. I commend two of the Government's initiatives--the local management of schools and, as I have mentioned, neighbourhood watch schemes--as examples of what can be done through working in a neighbourhood way. That is the way to give proper attention to children's matters.
I commend my hon. Friend on having secured the debate today and hope that we shall have many more opportunities to speak on one of the most important issues for the future of this country.
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) on raising this short but very important debate on the subject of responsibility to children, and also on his strong and compassionate speech. I was very impressed with what he had to say and the trouble to which he has gone to find the facts and figures concerning children in this country. Internationally, the most significant move for children must have been the drawing up of the declaration of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which, for the first time, established a universally agreed set of rights for children and, even more significantly, caused Governments to examine their legislation and priorities--or lack of them--with regard to children. It turned the spotlight on to children, and I hope that it will never again be turned off. It certainly influenced our Government to legislate to draw together our laws in support of children and led to the passing of the Children Act- -a landmark in our Government's attitude towards children's rights. But it does need more than an Act to solve the problems of children. Almost 3 million children--nearly a quarter of all children in this country--live in families who are on income support. More than 4 million children in Britain live in families whose incomes are less than half the average.
It is indeed time for further action. The Government should listen and respond to the criticism of the United Nations convention report, which, earlier this year, made
Column 782a devastating indictment of Ministers' failures to meet the rights of Britain's children on a host of fronts, such as poverty, inequality, homelessness, health, sex education, immigration and criminal justice. The answer to that criticism by Ministers, both in this House and the other place, was to deny the need for the House to give time to debate that report. Their silence speaks volumes about their compassion.
Hon. Members from both sides of the House have taken the opportunity to speak up for children. I must especially congratulate the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), whose knowledgeable and thoughtful contribution to the debate on child tourist prostitution is one that I strongly support. He will be pleased to know that, when I went to the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Madrid a few weeks ago, I devoted my entire speech to that disgusting practice and the need for something to be done. He will also be pleased to know that I was approached by delegates from a number of western countries, who asked what they could do, for a copy of my speech and the Bill that is currently going through the House. Delegates from countries which are doing something, such as Australia, told me that they would send me a copy of their Bill and that they would keep in touch with whatever action is taken.
I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman that it is wrong that people from this country can travel abroad and behave in a disgusting manner and then come back and feel quite comfortable that nobody here has seen what they have been doing.
I must also congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert), who made a telling contribution about the late programmes on Channel 4. Last night in Committee we debated solvent abuse and the late programmes on Channel 4. There was a strong feeling that the Minister should consider the contributions to those late-night programmes. A recent programme seemed to support even drugs for children, which is very wrong. I call on the Minister to consider whether Channel 4 is operating within the terms of the legislation. Illegal drugs have been mentioned, but solvent abuse kills more children than illegal drugs. At the last count in 1991, 122 children died of solvent abuse--two children a week. Something can be done about that. Solvents could be labelled much more clearly. The Home Office should consider the conditions of sale of such products and the clearer labelling of products that can be bought over the counter and abused by young children.
Libraries have also been mentioned. At a school in my constituency which I visited, the children are crying out for books. When teachers came here to see me about their disputes, they told me that the children had asked them to ask me for more books. It is not that children do not want to read--they do--but the supply and quality of books in our schools is so poor that something must be done. I have written to members of my local Labour party asking them to look for books in jumble sales that would be suitable for use in schools. Books in form libraries have been so well read and thumbed that they are worn out. That is one way in which we could get books back into schools for children to borrow and read in their spare time in schools.
Those are just a few of the issues that have been raised to which I wish to refer, but the most important of all is the support from Conservative Members for the Government to follow the lead of the Labour party and to
Column 783commit themselves to an independent Minister for children, not to an afterthought Minister with that responsibility in the Department of Health.
The Minister should not persist in spending time defending the Government's record having enacted the Children Act. He should look forward, listen to children and be their voice. We must all listen, but the Minister, more than most, has the power to change things.
Mr. Brandreth: I am slightly concerned to hear the hon. Lady moving on to what I would call a top-down approach as though that was the total answer. My experience is that the good news when it comes is from a bottom- up approach. I do not wish to anticipate the next debate, but, for example, last weekend in my constituency I met parents who were organising a rugby tour involving 120 boys and girls aged between seven and 11. They were to set out from the rugby club in Hare lane to visit Preston and Fleetwood to play rugby. That was not a Government initiative from some Minister in Whitehall; it was the result of parents in the community deciding what was needed. It was much more along the lines of the community watch approach. That may deliver something rather more effective than the top-down approach that the hon. Lady seems to be advocating.
Mrs. Golding: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but Governments have to show a lead. Without legislation, support and the money that has been mentioned, all the good will in the world cannot achieve what we need to achieve in order to make things right for our children.
The debate has shown the enormous concern across a wide range of issues. The Government should take the lead and administer for children. The Minister has the support of the House for much stronger action than the Government have so far taken. For the sake of our children, the Minister should use that support.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) on obtaining the debate and on an excellent speech. It was moving, well constructed and full of valid information. It was probably one of the most telling speeches that I have heard in the House for a long time. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) on his high-minded and moving speech and my hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) and for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) on their contributions.
My hon. Friends got to the core of the debate which, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) has just pointed out, is the need for a bottom-up approach. Ministers sometimes kid themselves that we need only legislate, pass some great new initiative, make a speech and things will change. So much of what my hon. Friend said in his intervention is right. In many areas, what will make a difference is not great speeches by Ministers or new legislation, but a change in people's attitudes to their children. I am also grateful to the Maranatha community for producing the booklet "What on Earth Are We Doing to OUr Children?", which addresses issues of deep concern to us all, particularly those hon. Members who have spoken this morning.
Column 784Children are among the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society. We have a moral duty to protect them from all forms of abuse and neglect and to nurture and nourish them physically and spiritually. Nor should we forget that our children represent the future. It is the responsibility of the older generation to ensure that the next has all possible benefits of health, education, physical security and moral well-being. Those are the points made in the conclusions of the Maranatha community's booklet.
First, I stress the Government's commitment to improving and protecting the rights and welfare of children both here and abroad. We are party to the convention on the rights of the child and support the work of the committee on the rights of the child in monitoring states' compliance with the provisions of the convention. I had not intended to mention it, but since the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) did so, I shall refer to the review in Geneva in January. I have no comment to make on other Departments, but I have not been silent on the comments made by the United Nations on my responsibilities. I have said that the committee which carried out that investigation behaved like a kangaroo court, and treated British Government officials disgracefully. Its members asked us 48 questions in advance but did not have the decency to give our people the chance to reply to them. They then suddenly produced their conclusions without even listening to the evidence. That does not do the United Nations much of a service.
The Government also work hard in international bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights. We supported the adoption by the commission in 1992 of a programme of action for the prevention of the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, and we have urged all countries to implement the measures that it contains.
On the domestic front, we have taken action across a wide range of areas to improve the standards of health and education of our children and to safeguard their moral and physical welfare. I am confident that our commitment will be borne out by what I have to say.
I come first to the distasteful subject of pornography. Concern has been expressed that children are being exposed more and more to obscene and pornographic material and, most disturbingly, that the trade in child pornography, which by its very nature involves the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, is expanding. The Government share those concerns and took action in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to strengthen our existing controls over pornography, already regarded as among the most stringent in the world.
Britain has tough controls over child pornography, with its simple possession now attracting a possible sentence of imprisonment and the more serious offences that might be committed during the making of a film-- actual sexual intercourse with a child--carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and quite right too. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act fills a gap in the law by ensuring that computer-generated pseudo- photographs of children are also caught by the relevant legislation, and it makes it clear that other indecent photographs of children stored on computer are caught by the law.
Column 785the possible need for further controls on audio tapes, cassettes and compact discs? Apparently, explicit and pornographic audio material, tapes and CDs are around, and there are no controls on their sale to children.
Mr. Maclean: I have not seen my hon. Friend's letter, but I would be surprised if what he said is correct. We do not have to describe pornography in the law as being a tape, a CD or a microchip. The law controlling pornography is so wide that any material, irrespective of how it is stored or produced, or through what electronic medium it is covered or generated, should be caught by it. I shall happily look into my hon. Friend's point, but, as I said, I would be surprised if there is any gap in existing controls.
A new prison sentence exists for the mere possession of child pornography. That is a pretty draconian measure to have, but it marks our abhorrence of the activities of people involved in the evil trade in child pornography-- including consumers who provide the market for that sort of filth.
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act extended powers to search for and seize child pornography and obscenity offences available to the police. Child pornography and the obscenity offences have been made serious arrestable offences. That will ensure that, if the police raid the premises of a child pornographer, he will be unable to telephone his clients or other members of a paedophile ring, after the police have gone, to warn them to destroy any pictures or evidence that they have. The investigation and control of child pornography and related paedophile activity are accorded a high priority by the enforcement authorities in the UK, and the Government whole-heartedly support that policy. We believe that the steps that we have taken in the most recent Criminal Justice and Public Order Act are sensible, practical measures that, taken together, will provide the police with significant additional weapons in the fight against child pornography.
In addition to the increased powers of search, seizure and of arrest which have been provided for obscenity offences, the Government have taken steps to ensure that our legislative controls keep pace with advances in technology. We have ensured that computer transmissions are covered by the Obscene Publications Act 1959. I mentioned earlier that indecent photographs and pseudo-photographs of children stored on computer are also caught by the law.
The Government, the police and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, however, are aware of the risks posed by the growing ease of access to information super-highways. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent referred to that and to the possibility of linking into pornography on a personal computer through the worldwide Internet system. The law is adequate to deal with child pornography and obscene material generated and transmitted on computer in this country, but I accept that the global nature of such networks and their lack of regulation present particular difficulties. The Government and enforcement authorities are alert to those concerns and are working to ensure that they are as adequately and as effectively dealt with as possible, but I do not want to pretend to my hon. Friends that an easy answer exists and that we can easily plug some little loophole in the law. The problem is difficult.
Column 786One forum through which the development of computer pornography is being examined is the recently established inter- departmental working group on obscenity. The formation of that group reflects the Government's continuing commitment to the control of obscenity and pornography, and their determination not to become complacent in the wake of the measures already introduced.
The group will monitor developments in obscenity, with particular reference to emerging trends in computer and child pornography, and will identify any actual or potential difficulties in enforcement, or weaknesses in the relevant law, considering possible ways of overcoming them.
We must not be embarrassed or ashamed if, every year, or every other year, we must plug some gap in pornography controls. Some of our constituents may think that we pass one law and that is it. They say, "Why isn't it working? Surely, it should last for many years." We are aware that, with modern technology and worldwide telecommunications, we may have to make some changes to the law, every other year, to clamp down on such activity.
I want to deal with child prostitution and respond to the moving speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby. No one in the Chamber would dispute that child prostitution and the sexual exploitation and abuse of children is a loathsome and abhorrent activity that should be vigorously opposed. A wide range of criminal sanctions are available to deter and to punish people who use and exploit child prostitutes, and, rightly, the penalties imposed are severe.
The police accord a high priority to the enforcement of laws protecting children, and all police officers receive training on how to deal with child abuse and other sexual offences. The Government are committed to doing what they can to prevent children becoming involved in the first place in harmful activities such as prostitution. The Children Act 1989 provides a framework of powers and responsibilities designed to ensure that children receive the care and protection that they deserve. Local authority social services have a duty to investigate where they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child in their region is suffering from, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. That would include information received suggesting a child may need protection against being drawn into prostitution.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby was especially concerned about sex tourism. Concern has been expressed in this country about British citizens who travel abroad, to countries where child prostitution is linked to the organised tourist industry, for the purposes of sexually abusing children. It is a disgusting traffic and my right hon. Friend is right to call for the strongest possible action against those perverts. An understandable desire exists to combat that evil trade through the extension of our courts' jurisdiction over such offences committed abroad.
As my right hon. Friend said, that is the aim of Lord Hylton's Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, which received its Third Reading in another place this week. The Government have considerable sympathy with the intention behind Lord Hylton's proposal, although we have grave, practical doubts about whether the measures that it proposes would be effective in practice. My right hon. Friend knows that, and he has talked about the matter with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.
It would be difficult to bring prosecutions in this country against British tourists who have committed sexual offences abroad, and the measures would cease to be a deterrent once their ineffectiveness had been
Column 787demonstrated. The Bill would also fail to tackle the real problem: the tens of thousands of child prostitutes in the countries that my right hon. Friend mentioned.
The police tell us that paedophiles are among the most devious and clever of the people with whom they must deal. If such people are travelling 12,000 miles to participate in that disgusting trade, they are clever enough to spot when we have passed a totally ineffective law, especially if we brought a prosecution that failed abysmally.
Mr. Rowe: I hear what my hon. Friend says, and, of course, none of us wants to be party to passing a totally ineffective Act, but he said earlier that he felt that it was proper to keep returning to the House with measures to block various ways of eluding pornography legislation. It might be worth a crack at passing a law and, if it does not work, coming back to the House to strengthen it rather than doing nothing.
Mr. Maclean: One would want a law that was as strong as possible, but I want to mention the practical difficulties that the House must consider in taking power to try British citizens for crimes that they have committed overseas, particularly in relation to sex tourism. If I may put the matter on a practical basis, we are all aware of cases where the police or serious crimes squad, in busting a ring of drug dealers, legitimately wire up a policeman with equipment. They may film him on the street participating in that drugs raid, and he may go into court and give evidence, yet defence lawyers are able, in some cases, to have that evidence excluded. We have grave difficulty in securing convictions in those circumstances. Even with the poorest defence lawyer, it is difficult to get any British court to convict someone when the victim does not give evidence in court, when British police officers are not witnesses, and when we do not have someone in court who has been at the scene. The best that we might be able to offer would be a video tape of someone going into a child brothel in one of those countries. I tell my hon. Friends that, much as I would love to get convictions for people who do such things, we would not have a hope of getting a conviction in a British court.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby mentioned countries that have taken extra-territorial jurisdiction; some have passed declaratory laws. Only Norway, we understand, has managed to bring one prosecution against three people. There was a conviction, although no oral evidence was given in court and no witnesses were called. How the Norwegian legal system could manage that I do not know; it could not happen in Britain.
I am not, of course, closing the door to the possibility of such legislation. We want to take some action to try to deal with the trade either at an international level or through other means. I merely wish to point out to the House--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): The next debate is on the future of rugby league. Before I call the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), I remind hon. Members that court proceedings are to take place on Friday which concern the subject matter of the debate to some extent. I trust that hon. Members who wish to speak will be careful not to trespass on the specific matters of the court hearing and, in particular, on whether Keighley should or should not be a member of any proposed super league, but will concentrate on the general issues. This is a short debate and I hope that I shall not have to remind hon. Members of the sub judice rule. At present, nine hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak in this hour and a half debate. The Chair will be more than pleased if they are all successful.
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): I express my appreciation for the fact that this morning we have the opportunity for a brief debate on some serious developments in the game of rugby league football, specifically professional rugby league football. There are two separate organisations; the amateur game, run by the British Amateur Rugby League Association-- BARLA--is largely unaffected by the issues that we are talking about this morning.
I declare at the outset an interest in this debate. As is declared in the Register of Members' Interests, I have 500 shares in Wakefield Trinity rugby league football club. I am not sure what they are worth at present.
The issues are simple and straightforward. Why should a battle between two Australian media magnates result in my constituents losing something very important which we have had for 122 years--Wakefield Trinity rugby league football club? Why should a power struggle on the other side of the world mean that I should lose the team that I have supported through thick and thin since I was a small child?
It is very appropriate that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are in the Chair this morning. You have risen from humble origins in my part of the world to be a highly respected Member of the House. You have achieved a great deal politically but, most importantly to the people who matter, you once played for Featherstone Rovers. I have here your autobiography, "A Very Miner MP". The front shows a Castleford miner and a Featherstone miner together. There is a gap; perhaps a Wakefield Trinity miner should be included.
I refer to the book because it is clear from it that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, more than anyone understand the community in which rugby league is played. You more than anyone understand how the events of the past two and a half weeks have shaken some of us to our roots because your roots, like mine, have been intertwined with rugby league football from the word go.
On Sunday, I attended what may well be the last match that my team, Wakefield Trinity, will ever play. Grown men wept. That grief has turned to anger at the way in which those ruling the game of rugby league in this country--Mr. Lindsay, the chief executive, Mr. Walker, the chairman, the club chairmen and others--seem to have allowed us to be used.
As you well know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the root of the problem is that rugby league has become a pawn in a power struggle between Kerry Packer and Rupert
Column 789Murdoch over first, television coverage of rugby league in Australia and secondly, the expansion of satellite television. When Packer won the right to show Australian rugby league on his Channel 9 station, Murdoch's News Corporation retaliated by planning a super league in direct opposition. Murdoch bought up many of Australia's and New Zealand's top rugby league players. When that strategy failed, he turned to Europe and to rugby league in this country. After the £77 million deal between the rugby football league in Britain and Murdoch a couple of weeks ago, Packer's representatives came to Britain trying to lure our best players away. The prospect of Murdoch's money being stuffed into players' pockets to outbid Packer is clear; that is the reality of rugby league's present situation. Martin Offiah may become much richer than he is already, but the game of rugby league will be poorer as a direct result.
What could be achieved if the money being offered to some of the players was used instead to develop the game? As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) said to me this morning, it could be used for balls, shirts, boots and the other equipment that the kids in the community who want to play the game need. I hope that the likes of Ellery Hanley, who come from a social background that is pretty deprived, do not forget where they come from and what the money that they may receive could do for kids who have origins like theirs.
The implications are clear for many of us who are deeply concerned with the game of rugby league. Mergers have been agreed by club chairs of certain teams which will combine to enter, supposedly, the super league. I am aware that we cannot refer to certain issues on this point, but I shall refer to one or two matters that are especially relevant to the Wakefield area. There have been proposals for the destruction of long-established teams. There are practical questions of particular concern, such as the implication for jobs in an area that does not have many jobs.
There are more than 2,000 professional rugby league players in this country whose family incomes are substantially dependent on what they can earn in the game of rugby league. Many of them will no longer have a job as a direct result of the changes. People such as the coaching staff, the groundsmen and the people who, at my local club of Wakefield Trinity, work behind the bar have asked me what will happen to them if the club folds.
It is proposed that Wakefield Trinity, Featherstone Rovers and Castleford should merge and be called Calder. I am ashamed to say that Trinity's shareholders voted 2:1 in favour of a merger; I argued against the proposal. Perhaps the fact that the club had lost 86-0 to Castleford two days before had an impact on their judgment that day. It is interesting to note that when the local paper, the Wakefield Express , conducted a telephone poll, the result was 9:1 against any merger and to keep Wakefield Trinity as a separate entity.
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North): I come from origins as humble as yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I have only two £1 shares in Hull Kingston Rovers compared with the 500 shares that my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) has in Wakefield Trinity.
Column 790When the question of the merger of the three clubs arose, was there any suggestion of a pecking order--of one club being more dominant than the others--or did the rugby league urge the clubs to go in with equal status and to merge their interests equally?
Mr. Hinchliffe: I cannot answer that question in detail. I have no information that any pecking order was ever suggested. My hon. Friend understands the passions in Hull which has a great history of rugby league, with Hull Kingston Rovers and the Boulevard. I suspect that he has shared in the debates, the arguments and the anger, as we have in Wakefield.
As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a book has already been published, emerging from Wakefield, about the anger and the grief of people who are affected by the proposed mergers. The book talks of "the merger from hell" because that is the view of people in my area about the proposals. I congratulate the Yorkshire Arts Circus on its book, "Merging on the Ridiculous" and on its work to get across to people outside our area and in the game at high level just how passionately local people feel about what is going on and about the way in which they have been treated.
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet): As the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, the whole problem has arisen because of the battle between two Australian media magnates, Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer, over their interests in Australia. Does he agree that the right way to deal with the problem here is by a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission?
Mr. Hinchliffe: The hon. Gentleman may be aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has already written to the Office of Fair Trading about the matter. Perhaps the Minister may reflect on that when he responds to the debate.
May I for a moment crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and quote from the book that I mentioned a few moments ago to show the House the strength of feeling in my area about this matter, especially about the way in which people have been treated over proposed mergers? One anonymous supporter sets out passionate feelings about such treatment. The book quotes him:
"A couple of dozen suits making a decision on behalf of God knows how many followers of the game is a disgrace. It's a bit like coming home one day and finding that your walls have been knocked through, and from now on you and your neighbour are all sharing one house. What do you say? `Thanks very much. Another time, perhaps you'd like to ask me first.'"
That sums up the feelings of so many.
If I may briefly stray into Featherstone, if my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) will allow me, I would like to quote a comment about Calder:
"What is Calder to the people of Featherstone, but a river somewhere to the side of Normanton, as remote as the Ganges or the Volga . . . Why not call it Thatcher? She did more for the region than anyone else and you could really get some buzz on the opposition terraces when our team came out."
The central point of that comment is that 20,000 mining-related jobs have gone since 1979 in the Wakefield area; the area of Wakefield Trinity, Featherstone Rovers and Castleford. People have lost their identity, their self-respect, their standard of living and their way of life. For many, the one thing left which gives them pride is the local rugby league team. The same philosophy of greed is about to take away that as well.
Column 791People in my area are fighting back. For the first time in history, in the pubs of Wakefield last night, people drank a toast to the people of Featherstone, because your members, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in Featherstone, voted by a large margin against the merger. I pay tribute to my many friends and colleagues in Featherstone for the way in which they have campaigned--rightly--against what has been handed down to them on a plate without any kind of consultation.
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way while he is on the subject of mergers, relating to what is happening around Yorkshire in particular and describing the anger in the communities. He knows that in my community of Doncaster, it has been suggested that the Dons should merge with the Sheffield Eagles. The same anger prevails among the Dons' supporters about that proposed merger and 3,000 of them have signed a petition against it. A meeting in Doncaster last week with Gary Hetherington from Sheffield Eagles was attended by 400 supporters and only 16 voted in favour. The feeling is the same up and down Yorkshire on this issue. Local communities feel that they are about to lose their local rugby clubs and they will not have that. They will not sit down and take that and they are fighting against it.
Mr. Hinchliffe: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for working hard to try to sustain Doncaster. I know that behind the scenes he has done an immense amount and he is as aggrieved as I am at the way in which the affair has developed. I think that Gary Hetherington is genuinely doing what he believes to be in the interests of rugby league in south Yorkshire, although I disagree with his strategy. I shall move on to some of the wider implications of the recent deal and developments of which the House should be aware. First, I find it particularly galling, having worked hard along with many hon. Friends, given that rugby union has for more than 99 years disgracefully discriminated against rugby league, to find out, on the very day that I reintroduced the Sports (Discrimination) Bill, that my sport of rugby league will in future, through the Murdoch deal, be discriminating against people who are not involved with Murdoch. It is not on for people to say that the future Great Britain rugby league team will be exclusive to Murdoch.
I give a commitment here and now--the Minister is aware of the issues and that my Bill will, I hope get its Second Reading on Friday--that if the Bill goes into Committee, I shall certainly try to amend it to ensure that such discrimination is made illegal. Frankly, we cannot be hypocritical and say that union is wrong in doing what it is doing yet do the same in our own game.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): May I point out to my hon. Friend that many Australian rugby league fans have very deep reservations about these developments? A few days ago I spoke to two such fans on the telephone and they expressed their concern. Incidentally, before they migrated from Scotland they were Glasgow Celtic supporters so perhaps, now that they are in Australia, they have come to their senses.
Column 792influence and I concur with my hon. Friend's comments. Let us consider--this issue is being discussed in Australia--the wider implications, for example, for news management because of the way in which Mr. Murdoch has moved into rugby league. Indeed, he is moving into other areas too. [Hon. Members:-- "What about Channel 5?"] Indeed, as my hon. Friends say, I was interested to note that Mr. Michael Grade, the chief executive of Channel 4, only yesterday demanded parliamentary action to check Murdoch's tentacles. Frankly, it is not his tentacles that we are after in my part of the world. I spoke last week to a rugby league correspondent whom I have known and respected for a long time. He told me-- and I believed him--that certain writers and broadcasters are no longer free to report the facts about the super league. I shall be interested to see tomorrow's reporting of this debate by certain television stations and newspapers.
There is another side to the coin which is worth flagging up. It is fairly common knowledge to a number of hon. Members that at least one non-Murdoch tabloid is planning a highly personal attack on a key figure in British rugby league. I shall say no more about that. I am sad to say that in rugby league we are involved in a dirty business. I pay a sincere tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield for the way in which he has from the word go set out a principled position on behalf of the parliamentary rugby league group. My hon. Friend's line of opposition to the deal because of its wider implications was endorsed at a meeting of about 40 members-- including hon. Members of another place--of the group last week. My hon. Friend, in particular, has pinpointed a number of implications.
My hon. Friend and I had a three-hour meeting on Monday with the chief executive and the chairman of the rugby football league, Mr. Maurice Lindsay and Mr. Rodney Walker. If my hon. Friend catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will no doubt talk about that meeting and cite some detail of the comments that we made and, indeed, their responses. In response to my belief that they were widely seen to have sold the game's soul, they said that they had had no alternative. Their response was about the current financial difficulties facing the game.
I concede that such difficulties have to be addressed at club and board level. There are difficulties arising from the contracting system, which of course came from Australia in the first place, and difficulties with the safety at sports grounds legislation. Soccer's problems have cost rugby league clubs such as mine £13 million since that legislation was introduced. With respect to the Minister's noble efforts, we are still waiting for some real help on that front and no doubt he will comment on that later.
Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South): Many local authorities have supported the development of rugby league clubs' grounds because of the esteem in which those clubs are held in the communities. Local authorities are hard pressed and they have spent money that they do not have.
Mr. Hinchliffe: My hon. Friend is right. I pay tribute to Wakefield district council for the effort that it has made to support the three rugby league clubs. Wakefield Trinity is certainly criticising the council at present, but I said at the shareholders' meeting last week that there is a lot to
Column 793thank the local authority for in terms of the support that it has given to rugby league and Wakefield Trinity in the past.
I hope that the Minister will also mention the impact of the national lottery, which has wiped out the fundraising efforts at local club level for teams such as Wakefield Trinity. We have lost thousands of pounds as a direct result of the lottery, and the compensation that is supposed to arise from the lottery funds has not yet filtered down to the game of rugby league.
Following our discussions with Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Walker many questions remain unanswered, and I hope that we shall have further meetings with them and with the Minister. The central question that fans, supporters and people throughout the game ask me is how on earth a deal of such magnitude could be concluded without consultation with the various interested parties that surely have a role to play in the game. The players, in particular, are affected, as is the amateur game and as are a range of other organisations concerned with development.
The parliamentary group has worked hard in this place to press the interests of the game of rugby league, but we have been treated with contempt. For nearly a fortnight, no attempt was made to advise us about what was happening. The most important development in the game for 100 years was taking place, yet there was no fax, no telephone call, no letter. I feel rather aggrieved by the way in which we have been treated, and it is worth putting that on the record. Much more important are the members of clubs, the people who pay for their season tickets and go through the turnstiles. Those are the people who fund the game where it matters-- through the gates of the rugby league clubs. They feel that they have been treated with complete and utter contempt by the game's rulers, and in many areas they are angry.
I want to give my hon. Friends and Conservative Members the opportunity to make contributions, so I shall finish soon. But before I do I shall raise one or two specific questions that the Minister may be prepared to reflect on and perhaps to answer. My first question is: can the Government sit back and allow British sport to be taken apart in the power struggle that we are witnessing within the game of rugby league?
I know that the Minister's background is in rugby union, although I think that he has realised that there is a better form of rugby now that he has been to one or two rugby league matches. I am sure that he has worked it out for himself, but I must emphasise the fact that what is happening to rugby league now will be like a vicarage tea party compared with what will happen to rugby union. I do not think that many people involved with rugby union who know what is happening to rugby league are laughing about it. Despite the historic rivalries, when those people watch what is happening now they know that rugby union will be next. It will be hit in a big way and the game will be fundamentally changed.
What steps will the Minister and the Government take to defend British sport, and to alleviate the additional burdens imposed by the sports grounds legislation and by the national lottery, so that clubs such as Wakefield Trinity will be able to go it alone without Murdoch money and without the bribery that is bandied about to make people forget about their principles and forget about the history and heritage of the game of rugby league?
Column 794Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Is that not the crunch? Many of us share my hon. Friend's reservations about the way in which the deal was done, about Murdoch and about the lack of consultation, but there is one thing that we all know. I represent Huddersfield, where the modern game began 100 years ago, and I know it. We have to grasp the reality that we desperately need money and more spectators, and that we probably need a super league of some kind.
Mr. Hinchliffe: We need money, but do we need to prostitute ourselves on the street? That is a simple question that many of us feel deeply about. Rugby league is a game of principle, which I have supported all my life, but there are certain questions to be asked about the way that we have left some of those principles behind this time. I hope that the Minister will support the calls for an independent inquiry into the way in which the affair has been conducted. I know that the Select Committee on National Heritage has already been approached by its own members to consider the matter, and many hon. Members here today would support that request. To be fair to the Minister, he knows about the game of rugby league and its qualities. It is primarily a local game, rooted in local communities and based on family relationships. We do not have problems at rugby league matches, and we do not really need police, whether the crowd is 77,000 or 500, because people are well behaved and have decent values. One of the strengths of rugby league is that the game itself oozes the values of decency and friendliness, and I believe that those qualities are well worth defending.