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10.39 pm

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on obtaining the debate. Many hon. Members know that he has long been a friend of the industry and that he takes an interest in the subject. Hon. Members who are present also take an interest in that industry and represent various facets of it.

We are in one of the most crucial periods in the history of horse racing in this country, and my hon. Friend outlined some of the reasons for that. The debate is therefore timely and gives us a chance to recognise the importance of racing to the economy and to consider some of the challenges and opportunities that it faces. The most important is its future funding, which my hon. Friend mentioned.

Perhaps for too long, racing has relied on the statutory levy. I hope that it is well established that the Government believe that such a levy is no longer needed. That rightly places the responsibility for funding squarely on the racing industry and those whose businesses depend on its success. I am therefore heartened that it has become widely accepted in recent months that racing and bookmakers should regard each other as business partners rather than traditional foes. Meaningful discussions are now taking place and I shall be disappointed if they do not reach a successful conclusion in the not-too-distant future.

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I believe that there are people of genuine ability on both sides of the negotiations. Despite some of the recent megaphone diplomacy, which has blighted relationships to some extent, there is a recognition that they need each other. Both industries' perception of each other will not change overnight; it will evolve and shared initiatives and partnerships will develop. If the industries work together, they will prosper.

It is encouraging that a deal for the sale of pre-race data is in sight. My hon. Friend referred to that. Doubtless both sides have made concessions, which will be needed throughout the process. I urge everyone to maintain the flexibility that has been required to get the recent negotiations to the current point. I hope that such a flexible approach can be adopted for the last mile. I have always believed that there was a deal to be done and I hope that I am right for the sake of the industry.

I expect the bookmakers to reconsider whether it is in their interests to pursue their outstanding legal action against the Government on state aid. It would be nice to believe that a settlement between racing and betting would be taken into account by other agencies that are currently examining both industries. I believe that such agencies should consider the maturity that has been shown in reaching a deal of the sort that we believe is under discussion for the fundamental change that my hon. Friend outlined.

Of course, the negotiation is properly commercial, and the Government cannot play a direct role in it. However, it would be fair to say that we have played our part in creating the environment in which a deal can be done. Through a changed tax regime, the Government have given the betting industry a boost. That benefit will be shared with the racing industry, as we wanted. We are in the enviable position of having two important industries that should do better financially in future than in the recent past. By any standards, that should count as a success.

For the first time, bookmakers are being asked to pay a commercial price for the racing product. I understand that separate negotiations will take place for the sale of the picture rights. Let us hope that they will be quickly resolved so that racing will continue to be televised throughout Britain's betting offices after 1 May when the current contract expires.

The Tote is another, albeit less significant, source of finance for racing. I should like to restate the Government's position on its future. I take on board what my hon. Friend said earlier, but our preference continues to be that we sell the Tote into a consortium of racing interests. A model of the consortium and of the way in which it would acquire the Tote was put forward jointly by the BHB and the Tote's management. As long as circumstances do not change markedly, there will be no need for us to revisit our planned strategy.

The recent disagreement between the Tote and the BHB about the sale of racing's media rights was unfortunate, and was made all the worse by its public nature. Although this has understandably raised some concerns about future relations between these two bodies, it is important to make it clear that this episode has not caused us to reconsider our plans for the Tote.

I have talked so far about the importance of funding for the racing industry, whether it comes from commercial payments, the levy or the Tote. When we all get caught

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up in the machinations surrounding these issues, it is vital that we do not forget why continued funding on such a scale is needed. Again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which he described the industry, and its importance to the many thousands of people who rely on it for their livelihoods.

The sport of racing in this country has a rich history and, I have no doubt, an equally rich future. That future, though, must be built on firm foundations. That means that it must have the funding to attract the best horses and to provide the best facilities at race courses, but also that it must have the money to invest in the grassroots staff upon whom the whole industry depends.

In many rural areas, horse racing is one of the main employers, and we should never forget the role that it plays in local economies and local communities. Largely as a result of changes to the tax regime covering them, bookmakers will be paying more to racing than ever before. There can be no excuse if these additional funds do not also contribute to improved pay and conditions for stable staff.

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It is to be hoped that that would be one way of addressing the problem of poor staff retention rates. Another way might be to put more resources into the training of people at all levels in the industry. This is an area in which I have previously expressed an interest, and one that I will continue to keep a close eye on.

The racing industry is now the responsibility of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I had not long been Minister for Sport when Clare Balding interviewed me, as my hon. Friend noted, and asked whether I knew which horses were running at a meeting. I am running a half marathon in two or three weeks' time, and I invited 70 journalists to join me. They told me how good they were at writing, and I said that they write the write, I talk the talk and we all should run the run. Unfortunately, only seven—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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