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3.42 pm

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Like most Members who have spoken, I declare an interest: I am joint chairman of the all-party racing and bloodstock group. I am sure that my co-chairman, the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page), will also make a contribution. Ours is one of the biggest and most active all-party groups, and that is reflected in the number of Members who want to speak in the debate.

I congratulate the Secretary of State and her team on introducing the Bill. There have been calls for the measure since I joined the all-party group in 1996, and indeed, as the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) pointed out, the Home Affairs Committee called for it as long ago as 1991. I hope that I am not being too

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presumptuous in saying that my experience of discussing this matter in the all-party group, which we have done a number of times since 1996, indicates to me that the Bill will have a fair passage. I think that there is agreement to it in principle on both sides of the House, and it is just a question of trying to smooth its rough edges as it wends it way through the various parliamentary stages.

Many of my concerns, which relate to the involvement—or should I say interference—of the Office of Fair Trading in the future of racing, have already been eloquently expressed by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), and we all look forward with trepidation to the likely outcome of that involvement. The future success of racing could well be prejudiced by the outcome of the OFT's deliberations. Like the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, I welcome the Government's decision to retain the levy board until at least 2006. That is desperately important in light of the OFT report.

The meat of the Bill is about bringing the Tote under the Secretary of State's control with the intention of selling it on. The Minister gave a commitment today to set up a racing trust for the benefit of racing which is important, given the abolition of the levy board. It is eminently sensible to take both those issues together, as that will allow the Government to withdraw from their direct involvement in horse racing. Over the years, the Tote and the levy board have done a first-class job in channelling funds from betting into racing, but it is in racing's interests to break the link between direct Government involvement and the racing industry, as that will permit the racing industry more control over its destiny and allow it to continue to flourish.

As one or two Members have mentioned, racing in this country is a growing and successful industry and can stand comparison with the racing industries of other countries. In my opinion, it is the best in the world. The Bill does not deal specifically with the onward sale of the Tote, but hon. Members have referred to it. We do not want to get bogged down in the issue today, but it is important that the sale is pitched at an affordable level to allow the Tote to be successful in its new guise. If anything, the price should be lower rather than higher. Hopefully, the Treasury will deploy common sense when it looks at the issue.

The Bill deals with the Tote's exclusive licence on pool betting, which will eventually become non-exclusive. We have already been given a commitment that there will be a seven-year licence, which has been agreed with the industry, and a new regulatory structure will be set up under the supervision of the gaming board. Like the hon. Member for Bath, I have reservations about whether that seven-year period is long enough, but I congratulate the ministerial team on securing that agreement.

As for the successor body, it must have the ability to provide low-interest loans for future race course improvement, as was said in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley). A lot of race courses have benefited from low-interest loans, particularly those that they have received from the levy board. My own race course at Doncaster holds

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the oldest classic in the world, the St. Leger, which has been held since 1776. It wants to redevelop the course so that its facilities are comparable with those at York and Ascot, and has put together a development package totalling £55 million. If the loan scheme fell by the wayside, race courses, particularly the small ones, would experience problems finding alternative ways of financing redevelopment. I hope that the Minister will take on board the need to extend the scheme and continue to offer loans through the new racing trust.

The League Against Cruel Sports has two concerns that are directly relevant to the abolition of the levy—equine welfare and the future of the racehorses that retire every year from racing. I am glad that, in his introductory remarks, my right hon. Friend the Minister gave a commitment that the funding of vet attendance at tracks will be enshrined in the new arrangements, and the Bill indeed makes provision for that. The League Against Cruel Sports estimates that there are some 4,000 former racehorses. The racing industry has a proud record of dealing successfully with such horses, but according to the league, there are roughly 300 former racehorses for which new homes need to be found. It is important that when the new racing trust assumes responsibility, it ensures that funding is provided to deal with the welfare of former racehorses. I hope that the Minister can make some pronouncement on that in his winding-up remarks.

I hope that the measure has support in all parts of the House. It is not a party political matter. It is important to the future success of the industry, which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston pointed out, is one of the biggest industries in the country. It is also important for the future of the country.

3.51 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): I declare a long-standing love affair with the Tote, which began in 1991 when, as one of the co-authors of the Home Affairs Committee report which recommended the very action that we are putting through today, I hoped that one day we would have a debate when those measures came before the House. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) said, it has been argued long and hard many times that we should have the Bill.

Similarly to the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), I have a consultancy with a City public relations company, one of whose clients is the Tote. I was the sponsor of the last Tote Bill in 1996, when we extended the ability of the Tote betting shops to offer fixed-odds betting to other sports, not just to racing. Like a number of hon. Members, I suspect, I am a regular investor in the Tote on course and a less regular investor in the Tote through my Tote credit account.

I also have a considerable constituency interest. Although none of the nine race courses in Yorkshire is in my constituency, Malton is one of the long-standing historic centres of racing excellence through training and breeding, and if the appropriate persons are listening to the debate, I sincerely hope that before the levy is abolished, we will get a £100,000 grant or loan for the laying of a polytrack at the Langton Wold gallops, which we very much need to attract more horses.

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I had hoped that when we had this debate, we would be able to use the gushing language of a red-letter day in the 75-year history of the Tote and the 300-year history of racing, and I hope that that is how we will look back on these proceedings. However, I am slightly cautious about that because, as the right hon. Member for Livingston so adequately put it in his speech, although the future of the Tote and the racing industry without the levy has long been on the agenda, we never expected that when we came to debate it the future of racing would have been plunged into such uncertainty by the Office of Fair Trading rule 14 notice. The disputes that that brings with it over the ownership, sale and purchase of media and data rights add to our feeling of uncertainty about what the future holds.

I hope that we can conclude that, despite those uncertainties, it is right for us to proceed now. We have waited a long time for this slot in the parliamentary calendar. I hope, too, that my right hon. Friend the Minister will understand the need for caution in implementing some of the measures which he, or his successor in the years to come, will be given the power to implement, if the Bill goes on to the statute book.

As I have said, the concept of a sale of the Tote to a racing trust has long been accepted as the best option, and I welcome the fact that the Minister accepts that we should be talking about the sale of the whole of the Tote's business, including the betting shops, which contribute substantially to the profits that the Tote ploughs back into racing.

The features that the Minister outlined in his speech, which he has agreed with the industry and which form the basis of the potential successful implementation of the measure, still need to be given stronger force by being included in the Bill. In my intervention, I paid tribute to the fact that he has really fought his corner extremely hard to ensure that the exclusivity will be for seven years, not less. I would have preferred it to have been for longer, and I share the uncertainty of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on what will happen at the end of that seven years. However, our concerns are not about the nature of the promises, but their absolute delivery. In that, we must also have regard to the fact that nothing in the Bill says that the Tote will be sold to a racing trust, although we welcome the shadow trust chaired by Lord Lipsey.

The more important missing ingredient is the price and what formula will be used by the Government to negotiate that. Every penny that is paid is money that would otherwise have gone to racing. We understand and accept that, but unless the price is reasonable, we could be faced with a situation where even at the eleventh hour the Tote may say that it cannot recommend going ahead on this basis. I hope that, in Committee, the Minister will at least be able to give some indication of what the price will be and how it will be calculated.

The affection that racing enthusiasts and people in the industry have for the Tote largely reflects the fact that they feel ownership of it already and their gratitude for the fact that all the profits from the Tote go to racing. That is in sharp contrast to the levy, which is paid by bookmakers. That is always subject to tough negotiation, as the Minister knows, and all too often it has been the subject of eventual determination, first by the Home Secretary and now by the Secretary of State

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for Culture, Media and Sport. I mean no unfair criticism of bookmakers, but the levy was originally voluntary, and it is not unfair on them to say that they have to fight their corner every time that the levy is negotiated. But both racing and bookmakers have long felt that a commercial negotiation was the better option, and that still has to be the best long-term option.

There are now obstacles in the way. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said, the issue of VAT on bookmaker payments, some £16 million or so a year on the current levy, has not been resolved, and from the racing perspective there is the question that many in racing are asking themselves, which is whether they as an organisation are in a sufficiently strong position to achieve not just more, but at the worst, no less than they get now through the levy by a commercial negotiation.

When the Home Affairs Committee considered the matter in 1991, it said that there was no organisation within racing capable of making that negotiation. Now there is, through the British Horseracing Board, but the OFT rule 14 notice—its unwelcome intervention—is hugely damaging to the negotiation. Until that is resolved, and until the EU interest, to which reference has been made, is resolved, it is not clear to me by whom and to whom the data rights are being sold.

If we end up, God forbid, with each race course having to sell its own data, there will not be 59 race courses within five years of that event taking place, and it will be national hunt courses in the north of Britain, particularly in Scotland, that will suffer. I cannot believe for one moment that anyone in racing or bookmaking could possibly want that to happen.

On balance, therefore, and in spite of those uncertainties, the Government are right to seize this historic opportunity to ask Parliament to pass into law the structural measures needed to achieve what we have all long wanted to see. I hope, however, that the Minister will continue—not just today but as the Bill progresses—to give the assurance that, if necessary, some of these events will be postponed until we are absolutely certain that we are doing the right thing and that the future of racing is secure. That is what everyone in the Chamber wants, and with that spirit of good will in mind, I hope that the cross-party consensus can continue and that we can achieve these long-awaited measures. I wish the Minister and all those who work on the Bill in Committee every success as they attempt to bring that about.

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