Worcester Warriors Rugby Club

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:20 pm on 22nd September 2022.

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 6:20 pm, 22nd September 2022

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.