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15 July 2008 : Column 45WH—continued

I jumped up and said:

which is why it was not his fault. The reply came:

A year later, we are none the wiser about what is going on and many questions remain in the air.

Mr. Caborn: I was responsible then. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he supported my proposition this morning?

Mr. Ellwood: Owing to the shortage of time, I shall come straight to that. The right hon. Gentleman put forward an interesting proposition. The first reaction ought to come from the industry. It is a shame that we did not have an advance copy of the statement that he made today, so that we could have provided more of a reaction. Clearly, I cannot comment now. It is for the Minister, not the Opposition, to comment first.

I mentioned that the right hon. Gentleman was very humble, but he also said that we are where we are, which was an appalling excuse for what happened. As much as I like him—he is an amicable character—he was in the job for six years.

Mr. Caborn: I accepted that. I dropped a clanger.

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order.

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Mr. Ellwood: The right hon. Gentleman indeed dropped a clanger. If more former Ministers came forward and admitted that, we would all be the wiser.

Mr. Caborn: Did you support it?

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order.

Mr. Caborn: Sorry, Mr. Gale.

Mr. Ellwood: The point is that the right hon. Gentleman was the Minister, and the industry has suffered because no decision was made. “Sorry, guv, but it’s not my fault,” does not wash. We need action. I do not want to be talking to the Minister in seven years and hearing his big idea after he has been moved on to another job. We need action today—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman points to his notes and says, “This is the answer,” but where was it seven years ago? Why did he not come up with those ideas back then? Why does he wait until he has retired from his post before saying, “I have finally woken up and thought of something that I can put forward.”? It is very late in the day indeed. That is why the industry is fed up and frustrated with the Government—nothing has come forward.

We need a conclusion to the saga. I remind the Minister what he said in November in response to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster):

I hope that he will confirm today that that will continue to be the case.

I conclude by asking the Minister some questions. What is the current value of the Tote? He has already been asked that. What is the timetable for its sale? What advice has he received from Goldman Sachs? I understand that Goldman Sachs has produced an internal report, and we would very much like a copy of it. What impact will a review of fixed odds betting terminals have? They have not been mentioned, but they provide a phenomenal amount of money for bookies. Will a review affect the price, and how will it fit in with any timetable? Does the Minister endorse any of the proposals suggested, six years late, by the former Minister for Sport?

I congratulate the former Minister on what has been a unique experience. He put his hands up and said, “I got it wrong.” I hope that is a new trend for the Government and former Ministers. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman’s continued involvement in the industry. Many Ministers and hon. Members think, “That’s it, my portfolio has finished,” and do not bother looking back. We should recognise that that is not the case with the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central.

As has been said again and again—I say this as the spokesman for the official Opposition—we share the goal of bringing the matter to a conclusion. However, I fear that with only 24 months left until the general election, it might not be a priority for the Prime Minister. I mention him because I do not believe that it will be left to the Minister to take the decision. The issue is similar to that of arcades. I know the Minister wanted a result with stakes and prizes, but it was the Prime Minister’s
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Office that scuppered the final announcement. I hope that that will not be the case with this issue. Racing is said to be the sport of kings but, unfortunately, it has had a right royal kicking from the Government, as have the Tote, the levy and on-course bookies. I hope the Minister has some good news for us today.

12.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) for securing such a timely debate. I do not accept any of the charges against the Government about trying to resolve the matter of the Tote. We have tried to work with the complexity of racing and betting organisations to resolve the three issues that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) raised.

Before I go into detail, in the little time available, I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), who have consistently supported the work force of the Tote. The likely impact on jobs and the economy in the north-west is an important consideration for me, and I hope that they have a fruitful meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tomorrow. I shall certainly make him aware of the issues that they have raised over some time.

Since becoming the Minister with responsibility for sport, I have not been short of advice about different sectors, but particularly racing. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central for admitting his responsibility for the matter over many years, which he tried to resolve in the best interests of racing. He has been a friend of racing and the Tote for many years. Indeed, he still is. It is right that he should try to come up with a solution, and I shall address the detail of his proposals. However, I am slightly concerned that he dismissed Europe rather lightly. Given that he was an architect of the European White Paper on sport, I am not sure that he has taken a consistent approach in that regard.

My right hon. Friend will know better than anyone that the Government have tried to secure a sale of the Tote to racing interests. Their original intention to sell the Tote to a racing trust foundered in 2006 on the state aid ground. There were two subsequent attempts to sell it, first to a racing consortium, and then to a consortium of racing and Tote staff in 2007, but those attempts failed because we could not meet the independently assessed market value needed to allow a sale to proceed lawfully under state aid rules. As a former Minister with responsibility for competition, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield, I know that we face competition issues.

It was with great reluctance that I announced on 5 March that we had exhausted all practical options for the sale of racing, and that we would prepare for an open market sale with the aim of maximising taxpayer value. I make no apology for wanting to maximise that value. The Government had previously recognised, during the passage through the House of Lords of the paving
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legislation for the sale of the Tote—the Horserace Betting and Olympic Lottery Act 2004—that a sale to racing in line with policy intentions might not prove possible. My noble Friend, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said:

I stand by that commitment, and we will bring forward proposals if the Government decide to proceed with a sale on the open market. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East chided me for the length of time that the matter has taken, but I want to get it right. I want to ensure that racing benefits and that we do the right thing.

I was struck by the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) made about current economic conditions. As for our intentions, I have the Goldman Sachs report, which we will consider, and we hope to take a decision—

Mr. Ellwood: May we see it?

Mr. Sutcliffe: Well, there are commercial confidentialities to consider, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, but I am happy to meet delegations and discuss the details. If he hears me out, I will tell him more.

I intend to make an announcement pretty soon about our intentions. However, I must consider the current economic state and what the best return would be. I would be chided by both sides of the House if I did not do that. What does 50 per cent. represent? It represents the net figure—sales less debts and pension arrangements—and we want to give it back to racing.

I was struck by the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central about his idea for the trust. As hon. Members said, there needs to be certainty and determination for the Tote. I pay tribute to the staff who work for the Tote, and to the leadership of the Tote, for what they have been doing under trying and difficult conditions. Since I have had my present ministerial position, I have tried to expedite matters in difficult circumstances. Our first intention was to sell to racing, but we were not able to do that, although we tried all the routes available to us. I certainly do not want to hang about with decision making now. It is important that we move forward, but with the caveat that we must consider the market conditions.

The sport is showing signs of modernisation. The British Horseracing Authority, the Racecourse Association and the Racehorse Owners Association are coming to terms with the future of the industry and are prepared to consider different models for the Tote and the levy. My right hon. Friend is right that the two are brought together by issues that the industry has to face. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) talked about warring factions. I congratulate those concerned on the dinner that was held the other night and the £50,000 that was raised for the Injured Jockeys Fund.

There are complex issues involved regarding differing industry aspirations. One problem with my right hon. Friend’s suggestion is that it will take an inordinate
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amount of time to get people around the table and to get things to where he wants them to be. We still have no guarantee that what he suggests would meet state aid rules and would take us much further forward. I am prepared to talk to him and work with him on that solution, but we must hear what the industry has to say. If the industry supports his proposals, we will go through that.

It is important to get some certainty. I need to move as quickly as possible with the information that I have received. I want to make sure that we protect the interests of the Tote, because it and the race courses have the opportunity to take the industry forward. There is also an international aspect to the future of the Tote. We do not want to delay matters. We simply want to make sure that this long-standing issue, about which Members on both sides are concerned, is taken forward in the right way for the taxpayer and for racing. We want to ensure that it can be successful. I hope to take decisions pretty quickly, and I shall listen to what my right hon. Friend has to say. I will put the issue of jobs in the north-west to the fore, as I have been asked to do, and I shall do so as quickly as possible.

My right hon. Friend asked about perpetuity, which is an interesting concept when one considers issues such as on-course betting—

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. I am afraid that time is up.

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UK Consular Services (Laura Hill)

12.30 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate despite the application of the sub judice rule. This case is of the utmost importance to the Hill family in my constituency, and I am pleased to see the Minister in his place to listen again to the story of Laura Michelle Hill and the events surrounding her tragic death in Argentina. I shall concentrate my remarks on the provision of consular services by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; I certainly shall not seek to pre-empt the coroner’s findings.

Laura Hill was an independent and vibrant 25-year-old woman. She worked as a dental nurse and, having saved enough money, embarked, like so many young people, on a South American adventure with some friends. I have spoken to her GP, who confirmed that Laura was in good health. She was the much-loved daughter of Alison and Kevin Hill. Laura arrived in Argentina last summer, on 19 August 2007, and kept in regular contact with her family in Eastbourne until 14 September, when the phone calls stopped. Her parents had no reason to suspect that anything was amiss until, to their horror, on 2 October, the police arrived at their door to inform them of their daughter’s death. The following day, the Foreign Office contacted the Hills and appointed a family liaison officer from Sussex police. The initial reports from Argentina indicated that Laura had been found dead on 1 October, sitting alone on a park bench in Buenos Aires. Her parents were told that Laura had died of natural causes, but that terrible tragedy has been made even worse—if that is possible—by the lack of accurate or timely information about the circumstances of Laura’s death, the lack of understanding and support from the FCO for Laura’s family and, in particular, the failings of the consular service in Argentina. Since Laura’s death last October, her parents have struggled to uncover the truth of her death, and for almost 10 months, they have been given conflicting information through the consulate and the FCO. Even the cause of death is still unclear.

Whatever the risks that an individual assumes when travelling abroad, the Foreign Office should demonstrate a greater concern for the unexplained death of a British national in a foreign country. I shall go into detail about the events following Laura’s death to put on the record the entire story. It has not been easy to piece those events together—only by pressing the UK consular officials in Argentina, the Foreign Office in the UK and, finally, the Minister himself, were we able to gather what little information we have.

I shall start at the beginning. On the evening of 2 October 2007, Mr. and Mrs. Hill were interrupted by a visit from the police, giving them the worst news of their lives. They then contacted the Foreign Office, and were told that Laura had died of pulmonary oedema—of natural causes—and was said to have been found the day before on a park bench. Despite the Hills’ distressing situation, they decided to remain in the UK. They had no reason to suspect that Laura had died of anything other than natural causes, especially since the toxicology reports were not expected until December. The Argentine authorities were not treating the case as suspicious, and
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they seemed to make no attempt to trace Laura’s travelling companions, her belongings or where she was staying at the time. However, was it not obvious from the outset that there was something suspicious about the circumstances? Laura was healthy, young and did not have any significant health problems.

Like all parents in such a situation, Alison and Kevin Hill could sense that something was not right, and they were concerned that the investigation was being delayed. When they came to my advice surgery on 31 October, they still had not seen the results of the autopsy that had been carried out in Argentina, and they also feared that Laura’s organs would not return with her body, as Argentine law does not require any consent for their removal. I immediately wrote to the Minister expressing those concerns. Three weeks later, and before the Minister’s response arrived, the autopsy report came through, and only then did the actual circumstances surrounding Laura’s death begin to emerge.

I remind the Chamber of the initial reports. The Foreign Office told the Hills that Laura had been found on a park bench and had died of natural causes. The autopsy report, however, could not have been more contradictory. She had been found not on a park bench but in the first-floor hallway of an apartment building. She had suffered extensive bruising on various parts of her body, and other tests suggest that she may have been interfered with sexually. She had fluid in her lungs, but the question is, what caused it? Three days later, the Minister’s reply arrived, but I am afraid it offered little in the way of support or new information. In fact, the only comfort to the Hills was the part of the Minister’s letter that stated:

It mentioned nothing about the autopsy reports or the conflicting information from Argentina. Even though the report strongly suggested that Laura did not die from natural causes, the Foreign Office, as far as I am aware, did nothing to press for a more thorough investigation in Argentina.

In the letter, the Minister said:

With respect, I do not think that that is the point. Whatever the nationality of the deceased, the FCO should press throughout for an expeditious, thorough and efficient investigation.

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