Tote — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:38 pm on 8th December 2010.

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Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 7:38 pm, 8th December 2010

My Lords, I declare a remote interest as a member of the Starting Price Regulatory Commission; in a broader sense as a former director of the Tote; as chairman of the Shadow Racing Trust, which was set up to buy the Tote for racing; and as a former chair of the British Greyhound Racing Board.

I shall start with greyhound racing, to which the noble Lord referred only briefly. I hate to rebuke the noble Lord, because we are grateful to him for raising this subject and bringing his knowledge to the House today, but the Motion refers to "dog racing". Dog racing is a sport where assorted mutts chase a mechanical lure at a local show. The sport with which I am proud to have been associated is greyhound racing. It is Britain's fourth largest spectator sport, after football, rugby union and horseracing but ahead of cricket. Some 2.2 million spectators go to watch it each year; there are 5,150 meetings and 64,440 races are run. The noble Lord has probably owned the winners of some of them, although I have not had a good winner since my Tooting Becky last ran some years ago. But greyhound racing it is and some of us adore it.

The second thing that I want to clarify-I am sure that I do not need to clarify it for the noble Lord-is the relationship between the Tote and greyhound racing. The Tote, like most other bookmakers, pays a voluntary contribution towards the sustenance of greyhound racing-0.6 per cent of its greyhound racing turnover-and does a small amount of sponsorship. This is not totally insignificant; it is a voluntary levy that goes to greyhound racing and not all bookmakers pay it in full. If the Government proceed to a sale-we will come back to that in a moment-and the Tote is sold to one of those bookmakers that fail to meet their obligations and do not pay the full levy, that would be a tremendous blow for greyhound racing. Those kinds of bookmaker do not deserve to own the Tote, because they do not contribute money that goes mostly to the welfare of retired greyhounds. I am very tempted this evening to name those that do not pay. They have been warned and I am sure that the Government know who they are.

That is what greyhound racing gets out of the Tote. I should say, for the sake of clarity, that the Tote-the outfit in Wigan that we are debating tonight-does not run Tote pools, the pool betting at greyhound tracks. Those are run by individual tracks. A scheme is forthcoming under which tracks will be able to link their totes in order to offer daily placepot and jackpot bets, which I am sure will yield huge returns for greyhound racing. Unfortunately, the last Government decided to legislate so that tracks would not have a monopoly on providing pool betting after 2012. They did not know, when they chose 2012, that we would still be fiddling around with the Tote so many years later.

That brings me to the core of my remarks on the Motion, which concern the Tote and horseracing. There is a very long history to this. One Prime Minister talked about bearing the scars on his back. The noble Baroness, Lady Golding, can probably see the scars on my back, through my suit, of the Government's attempt to rid the public sector of the Tote. The last Conservative Government tried to do it, but could not manage it. Gordon Brown, who did not like to be out-privatised by anyone, immediately tried to do it, but he did not succeed. The Shadow Racing Trust, which I chaired, was set up to buy it for racing, but it ran into the roadblock of the European Union, which decided that, if we were to buy it for anything under the market price, that would be a form of artificial state aid. I am afraid that the then Government, like, I suspect, most British Governments, did not have the guts and courage that the noble Lord, Lord James, suggests to the House should be adopted to totally ignore the European Union, the rule of law and all the other things that go with it. So the issue went back into limbo. Gordon Brown, about 15 months before the election, did not want anybody to think that he had given up just because nobody had any idea what the policy was, so he again promised to sell it. This Government have half picked up the baton. They want to do something with the Tote, but they do not want to go as far as our Government did and sell it. In fact, they are not at all sure what they want to do and the policy remains in an appalling limbo.

For more than a decade, the poor old business of the Tote has operated with a sword of Damocles hovering above its neck. Is it to be privately owned, racing owned or something cobbled together? Uncertainty, caused by government dither, is no way to run a railroad. What the Tote now needs, above all, is a period of stability. This could involve a permanent retention of the status quo, which, after all, has worked reasonably well for the business and for racing over the years. If there is to be a change, let us have quick, clear decisions from Ministers, as an act of mercy to the Tote's board, its management and its superb staff. This matter cannot be left in limbo any longer just so that Ministers can exercise political virility by saying that they are determined to do something about it when it may well be that there is nothing sensible to be done.