Tote — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:54 pm on 8th December 2010.

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Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative 7:54 pm, 8th December 2010

My Lords, given the choice, I would choose to address the House rather than the Parliament Channel. I was interested to hear that the noble Viscount get perilously close to suggesting that, because of the allegedly parlous state of the racing industry, there might be some government support. Indeed, I was about to get to my feet and ask him about that, but I did not want to interrupt his performance on the Parliament Channel. Perhaps he will tell me later whether that was indeed his intention.

I have no financial or institutional interests in racing of any kind, although I would have a hide as thick as a rhinoceros if, living where we do in the West Country, a few miles away from the epicentre of National Hunt training in Paul Nicholls's stable at Ditcheat, a certain amount of racing had not entered my DNA. It is certainly much in the local area, so much so that the excellent shoe and boot mender in Wincanton, a local market town, when not mending shoes and boots, owns a leg of a horse here and a couple of legs of a horse there. Notoriously, three weekends ago a number of us went to collect our orders on Saturday but there was a large sign in the shop saying "Gone racing. Have a horse running today. Sorry". Everyone understood, and no one demurred at all from his decision.

We are lucky to have him in Wincanton high street, by the way. So many high streets in market towns are struggling against the depredations of large superstores put by unwise councils on the edges of towns, dragging the centre of gravity away from such market towns as still struggle on. I wish that the local district council had not done so in that particular area. I am happy to be in coalition with my noble friend Lady Garden on the Front Bench, but I certainly do not regard myself as being in coalition with South Somerset District Council and her dotty Liberal Democrat friends down there; I have signed no pledge in that respect. However, that is a matter for another day.

I move from the destruction of market towns to selling off the "nanny goat", as the Tote is sometimes inelegantly referred to on some racecourses. This has been going on for far too long. In the mid-1980s, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, referred to, the Tories had a good look. Merchant bankers were actually employed, at some price, but the process ran into the sands after a number of years. From 2001 onwards there was the Labour manifesto commitment, which has already been referred to. Once again, advisers were employed at huge cost, although the so-called merchant bankers of the 1990s had in the mean time been transmogrified into the renamed "investment bankers" of the early noughties, though their trade in essence remains exactly the same. Heaven knows how much money has been spent on advisers since the 1980s and how much Civil Service time has been taken up by what to do with the Tote. How many special advisers have given their special advice to Ministers, unable in the end to get the business through? Shedloads of time and money have been expended, to no avail.

So I applaud the coalition and its pledges. The most recent announcement was from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on 15 September, launching the open market process this autumn. I congratulate the coalition Government on sticking to their seasonality because "the autumn" is an infinitely expandable and extendable term, sometimes going well on into the new year and into the year after that. The process, however, is happening and the bidders are putting their bids in, as my noble friend said in his introductory speech. That announcement followed the pledge by the coalition in July 2010 that over the next 12 months it had the intention to,

"resolve the future of the Tote in a way that secures value for the taxpayer".

I seek confirmation from my noble friend Lady Garden on one thing when she winds up tonight. Is the timetable of the resolution of this issue-the dusting and selling off of the Tote by July 2012-still in place? Is there any room whatever for delay, yes or no? As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said in his speech, this process has been going on for far too long. It needs to be resolved. The selling off of the Tote will soon turn into flogging a pretty dead nanny goat for its share of horseracing betting is in decline-it has now about 5 or 6 per cent of the market left in the face of competition from much bigger players, not least the online providers. So the answer better be "yes" in reality. Unless we get on with it, there will not be much left to sell; no one will want this beast. Value is being exhausted by the month.

So is it all worth it? Should one go through this whole agonising process for a very low number of hundreds of millions of pounds? The answer is, yes, we should, because this country is in great difficulty. Every little helps. We have the desperate need to re-establish equilibrium between government, corporate and personal debt in this country and to reduce all three. We can do a lot to reduce government debt. We can sell assets. For example the lands that are in the ownership of many government departments will produce very substantial sums. At the same time smaller assets like the Tote will not produce very much. However, they are all assets and in this process there can be no special pleading. If we are serious about reducing government debt over the life of this Parliament-as I know my noble friend Lady Garden is-we have to raise all the money that we possibly can. This is particularly the case in racing. Some people in racing may be in difficulty but an awful lot of 50 per cent taxpayers in racing are in no personal financial difficulty of any sort at all. My friend, the Wincanton cobbler, does not come into that tax bracket.

There should not be any special pleading in reductions of Government expenditure in the matter of the hypothecation of certain sums because it would be nice to help this or that special interest. If we go down this route, we will not get anywhere close enough to reducing debt in the way in which we should in the lifetime of this Parliament. I expect that the Chancellor, the Chief Secretary and, in this place, my noble friend Lord Sassoon, should set their faces like iced marble against blandishments to the contrary and should not allow special pleading of the sort that we have heard across the Chamber this evening. They will have my strong support if they do.

I also hope that the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, who is winding up for the Opposition and is a distinguished private banker, who understands matters about balance sheets in his bank as much as balance sheets in the national account, will take the same robust approach. The proceeds of the Tote sale should go in toto to paying down financial government debt. We should not give in to the blandishments of special pleading.