Select Committee on Public Administration Written Evidence

Memorandum by the All Party Parliamentary Rugby League Group (HON 91)

  The All-Party Parliamentary Rugby League Group (APPRLG) very much welcomes the decision of the PASC to take further evidence on the honours system as part of its inquiry into Ministerial Powers and the Prerogative. We appreciate the opportunity to outline our own concerns over how the sport of rugby league appears to be treated within this system at the present time.

  Our Group was formed in 1988 by MPs and Peers with an interest in the sport. We currently have around 80 members from the Commons and Lords and meet on a monthly basis to discuss issues of interest and concern within rugby league.

   During the 16 years the Group has been in existence we have contributed to a number of important developments affecting the sport. Our members were instrumental in achieving in 1994 the lifting of the ban on the playing of rugby league in the British armed forces, a measure that had resulted in only the code of rugby union spreading to the many other parts of the world where the British Forces were based. Rugby league is now a very popular sport played to a high standard in the Army, Navy and Air Force.

  Through a range of Parliamentary initiatives the Group played a major role in forcing rugby union to end its ban on even amateur rugby league players and stop the overt discrimination against participants in another sport in 1995. The direct consequence of this development has been a remarkable expansion of rugby league in the UK beyond the traditional heartlands of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria.

  Despite this positive progress and a much improved relationship between the two codes of rugby, our Group remains firmly of the opinion that rugby league continues to be held back by what can only be described as a continuing inbuilt "establishment" bias against the sport. We see this in particular in the way it is treated by the London based national media and in other areas such as the honours system.

  The APPRLG have taken close note of the issues being considered during the current inquiry. It is important to make clear that our submission does not seek to address the merits or otherwise of an honours system or indeed its future. Our members have a wide range of opinions on these matters but we are united in our view that rugby league as a sport is being quite blatantly discriminated against within the current arrangements.

  In light of the historical evidence that the game has throughout most of its existence had to battle against quite open hostility from what might be described as the British establishment, we believe that the treatment of rugby league within the honours system is an excellent example of the way such a system can be argued to exacerbate social divisions.

  At the beginning of the current year, "League Weekly"—one of the two main rugby league newspapers—ran a light-hearted column of month by month predictions of the events of 2004. In July it suggested "History is made when a fourth official forgets to count his thumbs and big toes while running the interchange system and a Super League match ends up with 15-a-side. Immediately everybody who gets the ball starts kicking it into the stand. Within 20 minutes the ground is empty, however 11 of the players, two water carriers and a temporary gateman are awarded MBEs."

  The piece was obviously a scarcely concealed dig at what appeared to some to be the bucket loads of honours given to all and sundry connected with the England rugby union team success in the 2003 Rugby Union World Cup. The underlying sentiment reflected a widespread view in rugby league that it is necessary to stray into the "establishment code" to gain public recognition in the form of honours.

  It did not go unnoticed in the 13-a-side game that two of the recipients of honours in the England rugby union squad had previously given very distinguished service to rugby league without any formal recognition at national level. Jason Robinson achieved numerous cup winning medals with Wigan RLFC, as well as playing for Great Britain. Phil Larder made a very significant contribution to the development of coaching skills in rugby league as well as being a team coach for many years at both club and representative levels. The fact that sportsmen of such calibre have to move from rugby league to gain MBEs gives an implicit message to others involved in the sport which is not helpful in terms of its development and progress.

  The other message that came over loud and clear from the awards to Messrs. Robinson, Larder and their England RU squad colleagues is that somehow British society values their achievements more than similar achievements in other sports. Our Group has noted with interest that while 39 members of that squad received honours, not one was received by any member of the 1954 Great Britain Rugby League World Cup winning squad, nine members of which are known to be still alive. Similarly, according to the DCMS (Written answer 43 N on 17 March, 2004), only Chris Hesketh of the 1972 Great Britain Rugby League World Cup winning team received an honour and he did not get his until some four years later.

  Over the years the APPRLG have received many letters from people asking for our support in securing honours for those individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to rugby league in various capacities. In the vast majority of cases, even with formal backing from both the Rugby Football League (RFL) and ourselves, such nominations inevitably appear to fail. The RFL has raised its own concerns with the DCMS and been assured that its submissions have been completed appropriately.

  Arising from concerns within the game, on behalf of the Group I have tabled as series of written Parliamentary questions to the DCMS regarding honours nominations over the past five years. It is important to outline our concerns over the answers which are attached.

  Firstly, in an answer on 19 January, 2004 (72 N) I was advised that "Three awards have been made to people involved in rugby league football since New Year, 1999." When I subsequently asked for the names of the individuals concerned I was told on 3 February, 2004 (31 N) that Jason Robinson and Phil Larder were awarded MBEs in the 2004 New Year honours list for their achievements in rugby union, "but also in recognition of their previous involvement in rugby league at the highest level."

  Frankly there are few, if any, members of our Group who are of the view that either Mr Robinson or Mr Larder were likely to have received such an honour had they remained in rugby league. We were less than impressed that their previous involvement in the game had been used to give an impression that the honours system is slightly more even-handed than it actually is.

  The 3 February answer indicated that the award of an OBE to the former Great Britain player Alex Murphy in the 1999 New Year honours list was the only one given to the game of rugby league in the last five years. Bearing in mind that another of our Group's concerns relates to inconsistencies between the categories of honours awarded in similar circumstances, it is worth noting for example that Neil Fox, the world record rugby league points scorer, who played at the same time as Alex Murphy and frequently in the same Great Britain team, had some years earlier been awarded an MBE.

  The answer I received on 17 March (45 N) strongly reinforced our Group's views that the current honours system appears to have an in-built bias against rugby league. It gave a league table of the awards to sportspeople over the last five years with rugby union at the top with 52 and rugby league at the bottom with the single one I have referred to.

  Even allowing for the inclusion of the 2003 England RU World Cup squad this still gives a ratio of 13:1 between the two codes of rugby. Our Group accepts that there are more people involved in union than in league but believe the relative numbers involved are substantially less than the 52:1 or even 13:1 honours ratio and in no way explain this discrepancy.

  The Select Committee might also note that I asked the Government (45N 15 March) to list the membership of the advisory committee responsible for recommending the awarding of honours to persons involved in sport. I asked about each member's background, length of service and particular sporting expertise but was advised that none of this information can be made publicly available.

  In conclusion, there is one other factor we would wish to draw attention to in respect of our concerns. The Government have on a number of occasions indicated a desire to ensure that the honours system reaches out to those parts of the community that have in the past been overlooked. Without wishing to over-generalise, there are few sports in Britain that do more work in deprived communities than many of our professional and amateur rugby league clubs. It seems a great pity that those who have worked selflessly for many years steering disadvantaged youth towards healthy and constructive leisure activity gain no recognition because the teams they field comprise of 13 rather than 15 players.

David Hinchliffe MP


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