Horse Racing (Amendment) Bill: Second Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 26th April 2021.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That the Second Stage of the Horse Racing (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 20/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Members, we now return to the Second Stage of the Horse Racing (Amendment) Bill.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

This Bill has been brought forward to make minor amendments to the Horse Racing (Northern Ireland) Order 1990 to reflect the recent change in the named operator at Down Royal racecourse and to amend it accordingly. Making this change will allow for the reinstatement of payments to Down Royal and the racecourse at Downpatrick. Because the payments to Downpatrick were suspended, paying one racecourse and not the other could have created unfair competition in the market.

The fund that provides the payments is made up from a levy that has been collected from licensed bookmakers since 1961 and is administered by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. It was established to provide financial support to horse racing at Northern Ireland's two racecourses because of a decline in revenue, such as from gate receipts, as it was no longer necessary to attend a race to place a bet.

The payments go towards the cost of ensuring adequate safety measures for spectators and riders and that there are improved technical and personnel services in place to ensure proper operation of the races. However, there are issues in relation to online gambling on horse racing. Those are not for this Bill, but will have to be considered at another time. I support the Bill.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for his earlier explanatory introduction of the Bill. On behalf of the Alliance Party, I can say that we are content with the proposed amendment to the Horse Racing Order to amend the name and beneficiaries of the fund so that the current operators of Down Royal racecourse are eligible for support. We also recognise that this is an outstanding and necessary measure that the Minister has had to take.

Speaking separately as a member of the AERA Committee, I am acutely aware of the significant impact that COVID-19 has had on income streams for the horse racing industry and for bookmakers. I welcome the Department's consideration of this in its amendment to the 1990 order. Amending the 1990 Order as proposed will ensure that support is available under the fund to both current Northern Ireland racecourses. It will enable the resumption of payments from the fund and support the industry in its recovery from the impact of the pandemic. I do, however, remain hopeful that a future review of this legislation will consider the remit of the fund in respect of the numbers and types of sports, as well as venues, that can receive support. I hope that the Minister can respond positively in that regard later.

Additionally, I recognise the opportunity that the discussion presents for a review of gambling legislation and to move responsibility for the fund so that it sits alongside the responsibility for gambling and sport. I welcome the Department for Communities' consultation on the regulation of gambling in Northern Ireland and look forward to seeing further progress, and indeed specific legislation, on this matter to protect people as much as possible, particularly from addiction.

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the proposal to amend the Horse Racing (Northern Ireland) Order.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

I am happy to support the Horse Racing (Amendment) Bill at Second Stage. Given the difficulties that Down Royal has met with recently, it is evident that amendments to legislation are urgently required. The changes provided for in clause 1 will amend article 2 of the 1990 Order's definition of "horse racecourse operator" to include Downpatrick Race Club and Down Royal Park Racecourse Limited, the current operators of the racecourses at Downpatrick and Down Royal. I note that there is broad support for the proposed legislation from respondents to the consultation that was undertaken by the Department, including from Lisburn and Castlereagh Borough Council, the local authority for the area. I welcome the flexibility at clause 1 in respect of the future definition of a "horse racecourse operator", which will allow amendments to be made by resolution with the approval of the Assembly.

There should, of course, be an opportunity to reflect on the general merits of the legislation. There have been calls to extend support to greyhound courses and other businesses connected with racecourses that are not directly involved in horse racing. This must be balanced against the wider societal impact of on- and off-course gambling as well as online gambling. These issues cannot be viewed in isolation.

We must be mindful of the wider implications of change. It is my understanding that the Department for Communities, which has responsibility for gambling legislation, is considering a wide-ranging review of that legislation. I urge the Departments to work collaboratively. Cross-departmental cooperation will continue to be crucial to ensuring that policies on competitive sport, business activity and gambling are fair and balanced.

As a result of the express text of the 1990 Order, both Down Royal and Downpatrick have been unable to avail themselves of support for some time. Action is required to rectify that situation, particularly given the impact of COVID on those businesses. More generally, the intention of the current legislation should clearly be honoured in good faith. As such, I support the Bill and thank the Minister for bringing it to the House today.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

This proposed legislation has moved through the Assembly quite quickly. While I do not sit on the Committee that scrutinises it, I do have some concerns that I want the Minister to address as best he can.

This legislation is being presented as a minor technical change to allow the new owner of Down Royal racecourse to avail itself of a system of funding that has been in place for decades. However, it appears to me, and indeed to some who responded to the consultation, that the outworkings of the Bill would or could further deregulate funding in an industry that is in need of more regulation. By my reading, this Bill will allow a fully commercial and for-profit firm owned by the Dublin-based Merrion Property Group to avail itself of subsidy based on taxation of other companies — often, smaller traders.

Whatever purpose the legislation might have had in past decades, the amendment would be much more of a change in direction than just a technical tweak. My worry is that it will open the door to a worse problem, with big businesses able to avail themselves freely of a state-directed subsidy in order to maximise their profits. The industry is already known for questionable practices on gambling and animal rights. Anyone who knows anything about the gambling industry will tell you that the bookie always wins, not the punter. It is always the working class and poor people who lose out to the gambling industry, in devastating ways at times. When we consider the impact of gambling addiction on society, we see that there is clearly a great need for tighter regulation, but the Bill would see the deregulation of funding and those who stand to make a profit from gambling gaining even more.

In the light of all that, I find it disappointing that the Minister and the Committee seem to have agreed to plough ahead with the amendment when the option was on the table to conduct a fundamental review that would explore future options. In the context of a pandemic, when large businesses have availed themselves of significant government money and smaller businesses, traders and workers have suffered comparatively, it is simply not good enough to say that we do not have time to complete such a review. I find it difficult to support the legislation going forward without a better explanation for not conducting a proper review and a proper explanation of how the Bill could guarantee that a for-profit organisation is not set to line its pockets further with the subsidy. For that reason, I look forward to some clarity from the Minister.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Members who spoke on the Bill and for the widespread support across the House for the legislation moving to the next stage.

I appreciate the points that have been raised by Members. Some raised the issue of the ability of dog tracks to draw down funding of this nature, which is not available at this time. The Bill really picks up what was available under previous legislation, which ceased to happen after the sale of one of the racecourses. Consequently, both racecourses lost out. We did not think that that would be the case, but, in 2019, we were informed that, because of state aid issues in the European Union, Downpatrick would lose out as well the Down Royal.

Mr Carroll raised the issue of gambling per se. It is not a pursuit that I have ever engaged in, and, frankly, I do not understand those who do. I know that it can be addictive, but the bookmaker always wins ultimately. In essence, it is the bookmaker who will pay this, not anybody else. That will ensure that the industry of equestrianism — the keeping of horses, having high standards for the participation of those horses and providing appropriate support and all that — which is entirely different from the gambling side of it, is maintained. That is the situation with that, and it is not something that we can conflate with the issue of gambling, because that is dealt with by a separate Department — the Department for Communities — which has the responsibility for gambling and gambling legislation. I believe that it needs to be addressed and renewed. My colleague Jim Shannon was one of the leading people to bring the issue of one-armed bandits to the attention of the Westminster Parliament. They were in many bookmakers' shops, and people lost massive amounts of money on them. Thankfully, he had some success in bringing that forward. Therefore, whilst I respect what Mr Carroll says, this is not the appropriate legislation to deal with it. That legislation would need to be brought forward by the Minister for Communities.

I recognise that a fundamental review of the legislation and the fund is necessary. That review needs to deal with a wide range of complex matters, some of which Members have raised today, and will, by necessity, take place over a longer time frame. I brought the Bill forward to lift what is there already and enable it to continue. I will ensure that the matters raised today that are not covered in the Bill, such as extension beyond the currently named locations, are included in the scope of a future review, so that they can be addressed. My officials and I look forward to working closely with the AERA Committee as it begins the detailed and important scrutiny of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Horse Racing (Amendment) Bill [NIA Bill 20/17-22] be agreed.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:45 pm, 26th April 2021

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)