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21 Nov 2007 : Column 117WH—continued

9.56 am

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on securing this debate. I have initiated a number of debates on horse racing, and I know that there is tremendous interest in the sport and thus in the debates. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a 90-minute debate, which allows a few more hon. Members to make a contribution.

My hon. Friend mentioned that holding the debate today is appropriate but also slightly difficult, given that the funeral of Sir Tristram Ricketts is taking place this afternoon. I pay a brief but personal tribute to Sir Tristram, who was well known throughout the sport. He always had time for everyone; he always had a smile, a joke, a word of wisdom for people. He will be sadly missed not only by the sport but by his many friends. I hope to set off for the funeral immediately after the debate. I suspect that I will have to stand outside, as so many people will be there. Nevertheless, it is important to be there. In that respect, it is a sad day.

My hon. Friend was right to say how important horse racing is to the country and to rural communities. He was right also to say that it is a magnificent spectacle. There can be no doubt that it is
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the envy of the world. It is my great privilege to represent what I consider to be the greatest race course in the world. Cheltenham race course at Prestbury Park falls within my Tewkesbury constituency. Of course, racing is equally important to those who represent tracks such as those at Hereford and Worcester—and, Mr. Atkinson, the smaller tracks such as Hexham—as that is where horses start their racing careers. They do not start at Cheltenham, although those that are lucky may end up there.

A great process has to be gone through in order to reach the top. All race courses are important. Whatever happens, and whatever decisions are taken, I hope that we retain 59 race courses—and possibly one or two more.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Robertson: And Aintree, of course.

Mr. Howarth: Although I am fond of Cheltenham, even the hon. Gentleman would have to confess that Aintree in my constituency is probably the premier race course.

Mr. Robertson: I agree with a lot of things that the right hon. Gentleman says, but I cannot quite agree with that comment. However, I may return to the point later. It says something about me that I know Members more by the race course that they represent than by their constituency.

Racing is a fantastic sport, and it is the envy of the world. Much of it is right and going in the right direction. The quality of the racing at Cheltenham this weekend was tremendous. However, there are problems. To highlight those problems is not an attempt to run the sport down; it is a refusal to be complacent about the future of the sport, which is probably what motivated my hon. Friend to hold this debate. It certainly motivated me to speak today. My comments are meant not to be negative but to act as something of a wake-up call to the industry’s problems.

One problem was mentioned by my hon. Friend. There are so many different parts to racing—the horses, the owners, the jockeys, the trainers, the stable staff, the race courses, the bookies and the bodies that control racing. In a sense, that is its weakness, because all those elements are indispensable. If one removed jockeys there would obviously be no racing, and if one removed trainers there would be no racing either. Each element is extremely important, yet the industry seems unable to come together and progress in the right direction.

There are a number of current disputes, one of which relates to the emergence of Turf TV. I do not say that Turf TV is a bad thing in itself, but the emergence of a second provider of pictures to betting shops is causing difficulties, and a dispute on that is the last thing that racing needs. I do not want duplication of costs, because it will have a knock-on effect. My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon was absolutely right to say that, technically and legally, the dispute is nothing to do with the levy, but in the real world money has to be considered, and the fact is that there is only one pot, so something will have to give. If only half of
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race courses are featured in bookies in future, less money will be bet on racing in those shops, which means that less money will pass through the levy system. That brings us back to the same point: less money for race courses, and difficulties for them.

We need to look at things in the round. We cannot say that the levy is irrelevant, even if that is legally and technically correct. When bookmakers come to the Minister and tell him that they want to pay £35 million instead of £90 million, he will have to take everything into account. I hope that he will not reduce the levy payments, because that would have a negative effect on race courses, but the trend for the levy is downward.

I am emphatically not asking the Minister to scrap the levy; I am saying to racing that it should look beyond the levy, because the levy has had its day. We have to reach commercial agreements and find commercially realistic ways of funding racing.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although a longer-term solution is needed, we first need a resolution of the current negotiations and of the position on the levy?

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Lady is right. The Minister will have to decide this year’s levy, and I hope that he will do so shortly and without there being too much acrimony over the decision. I am not saying that the levy should be scrapped next year, or even the year after that. I am not saying anything at all to the Minister on that point. My comments are directed instead at the racing industry, because it must not be complacent and assume that the levy will remain for ever, or that it will always remain at its present level. As I have said, the recent trend has been downward, so industry representatives should not come to us saying, “The levy is not enough, long live the levy,” because that argument will not be sustainable for too much longer.

I know that Lord Donoughue produced an important and impressive report whose interim conclusion was that there might be difficulties in finding commercial solutions and appropriate further arrangements. Nevertheless, those solutions must be found. I am not aware that football, cricket, tennis or any other sport in this country is financed by a tax, which is what the levy is. Nor am I aware that the Minister has power to intervene in football transfers or in Wimbledon prize money. That is not his role, and nor is it the role of any member of the Government. I want racing to change so that it grows in confidence and can create more income of its own, and there are ways in which it can do that.

One of the problems has been the European Union—that wonderful organisation that does British business so much good.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): It is always a problem.

Mr. Robertson: Indeed. The EU stepped in and stopped the sale of pictures and data en bloc, but the same EU laws exist for other sports, so I do not think that racing can say, “There you are, Europe would not let us do it.” We must look beyond that, and one possibility is singular selling, which replaces sale as a whole with individual sales.

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We have all been at race courses in the rain and found ourselves unable to get a decent cup of tea or a decent meal in proper facilities. That is not true of all race courses. It is not true of Cheltenham, for instance, but it happens at an awful lot of other race courses, and they could gain much more income if they marketed themselves better and provided better facilities. I have heard the complaint that some young people will not go to a certain race course on a wet Monday afternoon. Why should they? They will go to race courses where there are proper facilities, and providing such facilities would give other race courses the opportunity to raise more money themselves.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I agree with my hon. Friend. However, does he agree with me that it is now much more expensive for race courses to lay on a day’s racing? They have all the pressures deriving from the regulatory burdens that apply to all industry, including the working time directive. They do not have the critical mass that other sports have, so the situation is tougher for them. In cases where a race course is failing to provide any sort of decent service to the public, I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments, but the vast majority are trying their best and having a tough time of it.

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have all been at race courses where the racing has been held up because a second ambulance was not available. I am not saying that a second ambulance is unnecessary, but that is a small example of the health and safety difficulties. The extent of other regulations is a difficulty too, as are add-on costs. Nevertheless, some race courses could do more for themselves, and I think that they will have to.

While the levy has been in place there has always been an excuse not to look beyond it, and to avoid self-help. I agree that the levy should be continued for the foreseeable future, but the industry should try to generate more income for itself and possibly become less reliant on the bookmakers. The share of bookmakers’ takings in betting offices is falling; I think that it is now about 50 per cent., but for greyhound racing it probably used to be 100 per cent. when betting shops were first licensed. The levy removes the incentive on bookmakers to promote racing, because they pay a levy on racing whereas they do not pay any levy on football bets. I say to the Minister that he should carry on with the levy but consider how racing can look beyond the levy and help itself. In 1998, I introduced a ten-minute Bill to try to deregulate race courses so that they could do more on non-race days, and that idea should be revisited, because race courses constitute a huge asset that is rarely used outside of racing days.

I turn to the situation on the Tote. I make no criticism of the current Minister, who was not in his job at the time of the recent legislation. His predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), has unfortunately left his seat, but I make no criticism of him either. When the Gambling Bill was being passed, an unusual aspect of it was that it did not include any stated purpose on the Tote. One purpose of the Bill was to transfer the Tote to a racing trust, and a shadow trust was set up which was chaired
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by Lord Lipsey, so the intention to transfer existed. Amazingly, however, that purpose was not stated in the Bill. Notwithstanding that, the Bill mentioned nationalisation, because the Government did not own the Tote so, before they could transfer it, they had to deal with the ownership position. However, the Bill did not deal with transfer to the trust. A number of us pointed out at the time that that was potentially difficult, and that has proved correct.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon is right that the figure for the transfer discussed at the time was £50 million. I argued that that was too much, because the Government did not own the Tote and no Government had put any money into it. The taxpayer was not owed anything, so I did not see why the Government should take any money out of the Tote—or rather, not out of the Tote but out of racing, as there was nowhere else for it to come from. We now find that the transfer figure is something like £400 million. If £50 million was unjust, £400 million is obscene. My speech is not party political, but the Government need to provide some answers on that.

At the time of the Bill’s passage, our friends in Europe got involved yet again. The same old European Union said, “No, you cannot transfer it for that amount of money”—whatever figure applied at the time—“because that would be state aid.” I really cannot see why that should be the case. How many civil servants did the Government employ? Did none of them see that coming when the 2005 Act was being drafted? I shall be kind and not blame the Government, but I think that Parliament has failed the Tote.

I believe also, however, that the increasing strength of the Treasury over the last 10 years has played its part in this. Yes, we can blame Europe—if there is an opportunity to blame Europe, I shall be there—but the man who was Chancellor for 10 years was so strong and powerful that he became Prime Minister, as we all know, and now £400 million is being quoted. No Government would willingly throw that away.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman keeps talking about the sums of money, but has not yet addressed—I hope that he will in a second—where that money will go. He will recall that although it is not mentioned in the Gambling Act 2005, the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), gave a clear undertaking in Committee that a 50:50 split would enable 50 per cent. of the sale to go back into racing. Does he share the view that it would be very helpful if the Minister could confirm that on the record today?

Mr. Robertson: Yes, I hope that the Minister will confirm that. However, I am still concerned about the £400 million. Although the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, my speech is more concerned with what will happen to the Tote. However, he is right and makes a very important point.

As I understand it, the consortium being put together is not coming up with the money that the Government—either because the Treasury needs it or because the European Union would object if it was any less—require. If that is the case, will the Minister give
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the Tote time for reflection? I am well aware that it has been years since the then Home Secretary, now Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, came to the Tote annual general meeting and pledged that it would be handed over to the Racing Trust. I am not asking the Minister to delay it for a few more years—far from it! However, if we have gone so long and so far down the road, can the Tote not be given perhaps just two or three months in which to reflect on the situation and perhaps consider other options? I say that for this reason: the Tote was set up in 1927 in order to benefit racing. I fear that if it is put on sale on the open market, it might cease to exist. That is unthinkable. Would the Cheltenham gold cup still exist? Would the Tote’s financial contribution to racing still exist? That goes for many other things, too.

We have talked about the financing of racing and we recognise the pressures. The last thing that we need is for the amount that the Tote puts into racing to disappear simply because Parliament has botched the sale. If an agreement cannot be reached during the current negotiations, will the Minister please allow a period of reflection, so that we can look at what is going on, have discussions and decide on the way forward? Given that it has taken years to get to this point, I do not think that another three months or so is asking too much.

The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) talked at length about the pitch dispute. I do not want to get into that too much, other than to say that racing does not need yet another dispute, and I hope that it can be resolved. However, I must say that it cannot be a case of dead man’s shoes—we must move on from that. I have every sympathy for the bookmakers who felt that they had bought the right to a pitch, but legally I do not think that they had. We must move forward commercially. I hope, however, that that can be done sensitively and with some recognition that people felt that they had bought a right to a living. However, the jobs for life, the dead man’s shoes and the seniority that existed in the past are from a bygone age, and we must move on.

I thank you for your time, Mr. Atkinson. I apologise for having gone on for perhaps a little too long, but I think that there are some very important points to be discussed. However, I shall finish by echoing the words of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon: racing is a fantastic sport and an absolutely wonderful spectacle. And long may it continue to be so.

10.14 am

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on securing this very important debate. I agree with him that Turf TV has immense implications throughout the industry. I would like to return, however, to the matter mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) although his exposition of the problems of pitch bookmakers was so full that there is very little that I can add. However, I feel that I must add my weight to his cause, particularly in the interests of constituents of mine such as the Morrill family and Adrian Pariser.

Surely the current situation that many in the trackside betting industry find themselves in was never intended when the Gambling Act 2005 was first
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proposed, and it is important to look at the specific matter of trackside list positions and their future allocation. Obviously, the gambling industry as a whole has undergone immense change over the past few years. I disagree with the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) because I think that it is completely different from the inherited system that has damaged the livelihoods of constituents of mine and of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) who has done so much to highlight the problems in recent years.

Throughout the many changes, however, the horse racing industry has shown a willingness to reform. Outmoded practices, such as the notion of an inherited seniority being handed down from parent to child have now given way to the trading of assets in a free and open market. The opening of trade in pick-list positions has led to much-needed fresh blood and new investment in the racing industry, but that fresh blood itself is feeling let down and abandoned by the industry, because those people are now being told that the pick positions, in which they invested so much money, are no longer theirs. Most in the industry would agree that changes made in recent years to modernise it have been of immense benefit to all parties concerned, until now perhaps.

The RCA will continue to argue, of course, that because it owns the physical asset, it is up to it to determine, by whatever means it sees fit, who trades there. However, we must say also that the pick position is merely the order in which a bookmaker can choose their position of trade on the race course, and not an actual physical pitch position. That distinction is obviously important to the RCA, but I suggest that the argument is deliberately two-dimensional in its thinking. An asset does not need to be physical. For example, a CD manufacturer does not own the music that it presses on to plastic. Already, we have agreed on, and spent many hours debating in this place, the concept of intellectual property. I argue also that there is such a thing as moral property, which is what the bookmaker owns.

The RCA clearly recognises the accrued value of a bookmaker’s position on a pick-list, otherwise why would it be attempting to wrestle the control of the pick-list away from the bookmakers? Although it has always been acknowledged, ever since the 2001 gambling review report, that negotiations would take place on admissions charges for bookmakers to race courses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston has mentioned, the tenure of list positions was never in question until March this year, despite numerous—88—meetings on the subject. It has always been understood by the buyer, seller and administrator that list positions were to be held in perpetuity.

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