HC Deb 07 June 2004 vol 422 cc116-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

9.32 pm
Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) (Lab)

Mr. Speaker, may I say at the outset that it is a privilege for us, at such a late stage in the evening, to see you here, having made your way from your chambers to listen to an Adjournment debate? I just wish that some of our colleagues in this place would follow your example, because tonight we are debating an important subject—the welfare problems in and around the sport of greyhound racing.

As many hon. Members are aware, I have taken an interest in this subject over a very long period. I attempted to argue the case for a greyhound levy as far back as the 1980s, and I was a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs that held an inquiry into that subject and came out in favour of that. Regrettably, that idea has not made much progress and there has been no improvement in the years since I have become interested in the sport. Even though much has been attempted in greyhound racing—second only to football as the mast popular spectator sport in the United Kingdom—it is still far from satisfactory from a welfare point of view.

My speech today is not intended to harm the industry in any way. I accept that there are those who want to ban the sport, but that is not my aim. I simply feel that something must be done to improve greyhound welfare for the sport to mope forward and prosper—indeed, for its very survival. It it particularly galling to me that there is a lack of funds to provide for proper retirement provision for greyhounds when the industry is not short of money.

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab)

What does my hon Friend estimate the cost of such a provision would be?

Mr. Meale

Frankly, it would be peanuts in relation to the amount of money in gaming. For instance, the bookmakers make an incredible sum from the industry: more than £2 billion was bet on greyhound racing in the past year alone. The comparison with the amount that is given in horse racing, even under the new proposals for greyhounds, shows a stark contrast. Perhaps £6 million will be given in greyhound racing, compared with about £80 million.

I welcome the increase in funding that Lord Lipsey, a colleague and friend, negotiated with the bookmakers: a rise to 0.6 per cent. of turnover on greyhound betting by 2006. I note that it remains voluntary and I am sure that the British Greyhound Racing Board will work hard to persuade all bookmakers to collect all the money, but there will remain quite a few—at the present level, about 20 per cent. of the bookmakers that make money from greyhound racing—who will not pay and will do everything in their cower to avoid paying. Nevertheless, the money will move the debate forward, although it does not provide the full solution for all the tracks and the greyhounds that race on them.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and Tourism deserves credit and the thanks of the House for his part in gaining the agreement, but his Department has now passed the issue to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in particular in the form of responsibility for the proposed animal welfare Bill. The only way of guaranteeing that the extra money is put to the best possible welfare use is to ensure that the Bill sets out strict standards of welfare that greyhound tracks and owners must abide by, and that must be on a statutory, not a voluntary basis.

While I welcome the recent increase in funding that the British Greyhound Racing Board has managed to secure, as the Minister no doubt does, it is important to remember that none of the money is proposed to go to independent greyhound racing tracks that are not within the BGRB's remit. That is, I firmly believe, the single most important reason why further delay is unacceptable. The greyhounds racing on the 21 independent tracks need Government intervention now and it cannot be left to the industry and internal reform. That will not be enough. We have had no satisfactory guarantee so far on how much of the money will be spent of welfare. Worse still, there is no guarantee that everyone will pay.

As the Minister has often pointed out, animal welfare Bills come around only once every 100 years, so necessary welfare improvements must be in the new Bill to make the most of the opportunity.

We are all aware that there are welfare problems before, during and after a greyhound's racing career. The League Against Cruel Sports, for one, has recently recognised that and has launched a worthy campaign to improve greyhound welfare, which I urge hon. Members to support. There is clearly strength of feeling in the House for welfare improvements in the sport, as shown by my recent early-day motion, which has so far received 249 signatures from hon. Members of all political parties.

My first concern is about the breeding of greyhounds. Recent figures show that every year in the United Kingdom about 5,500 greyhounds are bred for racing, yet around 2,000 dogs across the UK and Ireland vanish before even being registered as racing dogs. It is believed that most are killed because they are surplus to requirements. At the very least, we can all agree that if that is true it is very wrong. Indeed, it is disgraceful to over-breed greyhounds simply for sport, and it must be stopped. We need a proper statutory licensing system for all greyhound breeders that would involve registration and the full publication of statistics. Breeders would have to accept full responsibility for all puppies born. Those who overproduced and subsequently abandoned puppies would be dealt with and, if convicted, their licences would be removed.

All too often, greyhounds are seen by the unscrupulous in the sport simply as commodities. For that reason, insufficient consideration is given to their welfare needs during their careers. As with their human athletic counterparts, racing dogs often have very short careers, not least due to the stress caused by repeated minor injuries. Those who, like me., take an interest in greyhound racing are aware that the majority of serious injuries to greyhounds happen on bends. The smaller the bend the greater the centrifugal force exerted on the dog's joints as it runs, which in turn leads to joint problems and injuries. Mr. Paddy Sweeney, MRCVS— the father of a former Conservative Member of Parliament and Britain's best-known greyhound racing vet—has recognised that factor. He argues that the only way to guard against such injuries is for tracks to have a much larger radius—at least 80 m—to enable greyhounds to run upright round bends. As I hope the Minister will appreciate, the really sad part is that despite that simple logic, money for such research and help in establishing such tracks is almost non-existent.

Of course, that is not the only factor that causes injuries: track and kennel standards must also be good. Indeed, there have been several cases of poor track or kennel standards leading to greyhounds dying or being seriously injured. One example is the truly scandalous death from heat exhaustion of the dog "Football Focus" at Catford stadium in August 2002.

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East) (Lab/Co-op)

Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the work being done to improve the lot of greyhounds? One example is Monmore Green greyhound stadium in Wolverhampton, which has just built state-of-the-art, 21st-century kennels with air conditioning and all the facilities necessary to give greyhounds the best opportunities to succeed in their racing careers and to enjoy their subsequent retirement.

Mr. Meale

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and I congratulate him and his local track. That is a shining example of what should happen, but unfortunately much more needs to be done. As I said, the welfare situation at the 21 independent tracks throughout the country leaves much to be desired.

Worse still, the lack of attention to injuries and the inability to cope with the associated problems is illustrated by the fact that some greyhound stadiums do not even have vets at the trackside. The Government must take up this issue as a priority, and the greyhound industry must change its approach. Needless to say, I would welcome the Minister's commitment today to ensuring that a veterinary presence be guaranteed at all tracks, but before he deals with that point, I should inform him that many existing track vets are employed by promoters, which in some instances can lead to conflicts of interest. I hope that he agrees that it would be scandalous if dogs with suspected injuries were forced to race. Perhaps he could ponder that point and respond to it, and take it into account when considering the structure of the proposed animal welfare Bill. Of course, one cannot generalise about the standard of vets employed in the industry, and I am sure that they do their best, but the fact is that, faced with a strong betting market, they could come under pressure to take such decisions. They should therefore be independently employed, so that such conflicts cannot arise.

There is another point that the Minister might want to consider. One reason why I am arguing that vets should be independent and not subject to such influence is that the betting on any single greyhound race totals well over £1 million. We are not talking about peanuts; that is real seven-figure money.

Specialised mandatory training provisions for greyhound vets may also be appropriate. I am sure that the Society of Greyhound Veterinarians would welcome that, or at the very least the monitoring of tracks and the greyhounds that are raced upon them. Vets sometimes have little time to examine racing dogs, which makes it difficult for them to spot minor injuries, and their job is made more difficult by the numbers racing at any one greyhound meeting. Twelve races with six or even eight dogs in each race, plus the reserve dogs, mean that at any one track during the day or night there could be between 90 and 120 dogs.

As with horseracing trainers, trainers should have the right to withdraw any injured dog in their charge, subject to veterinary certification, or at the very least, in appropriate circumstances vets should be able to prevent dogs from racing.

When we examine the problems that occur after racing, the figures become truly shocking. For example, although statistics show that thousands of greyhounds retire from British greyhound racing every year, little more than 2,000 a year are known to be re-homed by greyhound welfare groups. Every year, we simply do not know what happens to thousands of others. That is unacceptable.

Sadder still is the fact the many retiring greyhounds die because they no longer race. Some are put down inhumanely, dumped on the side of motorways, mutilated or otherwise horrendously injured. One of the most notorious cases occurred in Scotland in 1994, when 19 greyhounds were found dumped in an empty quarry. More recently, many hon. Members will have read of the mutilated greyhound found alive in the Rhymney valley in south Wales, with its ears cut off and a hole in its head. That greyhound had run predominantly at independent tracks in Wales, most recently under three different names—Last Hope, Rusty and Charlie. Its ears had been cut off to remove its registered marks, and the hole in its head had been caused by a Hilti gun, which had been fired into its brain. When the dog was taken to the vet to be humanely put down, it was found that the bolt had gone right through and broken its jaw.

Radio Five Live reported that case, and also that of a man in west Yorkshire who was arrested by police in connection with a dubious scheme of accepting money to take greyhounds to retirement homes. No trace has been found of any of those dogs ever reaching any retirement home. Greyhound retirement charities throughout the country all have stories of dogs that have been injected with some substance or other—sometimes antifreeze—to kill them, or simply tied up and abandoned without food and left to die.

Mr. Dennis Turner

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's case that the ill-treatment of greyhounds is unacceptable and deplorable, but can he give me one example of the wicked ill-treatment of greyhounds that race on registered tracks? All his examples have related to what we used to call pirate tracks, which are not registered under the greyhound rules.

Mr. Meale

I understand what my hon. Friend is getting at, and it is right to say that the BGRB is much more active in trying to ensure that that does not happen in the sport. I pay tribute to the board for that, but the problem is that many dogs that start racing under the BGRB end up on the independent tracks. For instance, the dog with the three names that was found in Wales was initially registered at Nottingham greyhound track, a registered track in my area. Many of the dogs move from area to area and are dispersed and abandoned by their original owners when they are no longer of the top rank. They have to make way for new dogs, and they do not fall into the best hands.

I pay tribute to the excellent work of the Retired Greyhound Trust, which does a magnificent job in finding homes. Frankly, however, it cannot cope, because money is required and it is not coming through. Perhaps it cannot be that everyone can have a greyhound at home, but it is important to set up homes for the dogs. I recently read a report by the all-party group on animal welfare of the National Assembly for Wales, which concluded that approximately 140 greyhounds are abandoned and taken to local authority dog pounds every year in Wales. In reality, that certainly means that thousands more dogs are treated the same elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The report details concern about independent tracks, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) was right to point out that they are the major bugbear. No matter how much money the BRGB gets under the new arrangements to pay out to official tracks, it will not be able to do anything about the independent tracks. We cannot simply have a situation in which only the BRGB is covered; we must cover all tracks.

Greyhounds are currently identified by ear tattoos that are supposed to identify owners or trainers who mistreat or abandon their dogs. However, as in the recent south Wales case, that has led to some dogs having their ears cut off before they are killed or dumped. Surely a better solution would be to place a microchip in all dogs from birth and back that up with a DNA register. All dogs could then be readily identified, and the register should be available so that owners and trainers who mistreat greyhounds can be found and prosecuted. There are no scientific barriers to prevent that in today's world.

There are myths about keeping greyhounds as pets. Some people say it is cruel and that they cannot adapt. I can assure the House that the dogs make excellent pets. Their exercise requirements are not large. Annette Crosbie, president of the League Against Cruel Sports, owns four greyhounds, and she says that they are wonderfully placid loving animals, and that once someone has one in their home, they will never want another kind of dog. Indeed, an ex-Member of this House, the late Peter Hardy, who represented Wentworth, spent most of his retirement looking after a retired greyhound, whose company he and his wife Margaret enjoyed for many happy years.

Not all racing greyhounds can be found homes. For that reason, the industry should provide properly regulated greyhound sanctuaries to provide accommodation until a home can be found or so that the greyhounds live out their lives.

The problems that I have outlined and the solutions I propose will all cost money, but animal welfare does not come free, whether it is in homes, on farms or at racing tracks. Some money has been found, but more will be needed. If we can find money to put into farmers' hands and pockets, surely we can do the same for the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals or the Retired Greyhound Trust.

I hope that the Minister will agree that, in addition to the animal welfare Bill, the Gambling Bill, on the scrutiny Committee for which I have served, provides an ideal opportunity to address the question of a financial levy for the sport. After all, it already suggests provision for one in relation to gambling problems. Such an idea is not outrageous. I was privileged to be a member of the Home Affairs Committee some years ago when it examined the question of a greyhound levy, and it supported the idea, principally to address greyhound welfare. I am not suggesting that the bookmakers should bear the full brunt of welfare; clearly, owners and promoters must do more. The reality is, however, that the real money in the industry lies with the bookmakers. To insist, as some industry representatives do, that all responsibility for retirement provision lies with greyhound owners is callously to condemn too many dogs to institutional euthanasia.

The Government have also introduced a Bill this Session enabling them to abolish the horse race betting levy. The situation in greyhound racing differs greatly. As the Minister knows, the Government feel that they can abolish the horse race levy because they are confident that bookmakers and the industry have come to financial agreements without the need for Government intervention.

The House will recall that the Home Affairs Committee, on which I sat, produced a report in 1991 on the financing of greyhound racing. The report looked into the financing of the industry, but it also examined welfare issues. The Minister will know that the Committee recommended that more money should be provided for welfare concerns, and especially for re-homing. It also recommended that track owners and bookmakers be required to donate a part of their profits to the Retired Greyhound Trust. Sadly, 13 years on, that has not happened to any acceptable level.

As I said earlier, the greyhound industry is an extremely lucrative business. For example, Walthamstow track in London has an annual turnover in excess of £8 million, and with many greyhound stadiums set to apply for casino status under the draft Gambling Bill, things can only get more profitable for them. What is more, bookmaker turnover on greyhound racing in each of the last five years was substantial: £1.5 billion in 1998, £1.2 billion in 1999, £1.6 billion in 2000, £1.8 billion in 2001 and £2.1 billion in 2002. Even on conservative estimates, it accounted for at least 23 per cent. of all off-course betting shop business.

The industry is clearly profitable. Indeed, the chief executive of William Hill, David Harding, confirmed that in September 2003, when he said: We are generating far more cash than we need. I have already said that I sincerely hope that more bookmakers pay the increased contributions. Indeed, my own experience in pursuing that objective was not a lone furrow. We should remember that the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont—now Lord Lamont—threatened the bookmakers on several occasions for not paying up. Sadly, I say to the Minister, they did not even listen to the Chancellor at that time, even though he threatened them with increased taxes. What they did, instead, was to play for time and not pay up at all. That is not good enough. The welfare of thousands of greyhounds needs Government intervention—and the sooner the better. Greyhounds have been waiting too long.

I admit that the position is slowly improving, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East pointed out. However, the danger now is that the industry will point to the recent increase as the answer to all evils. As we have heard, the bookmakers have made it absolutely clear that the sum will not rise in the future—not in the foreseeable future, not in the future at all.

I have high expectations of the Minister. I believe that the proposed animal welfare Bill must guarantee a number of things for racing greyhounds. I am sure that the Minister would see them as desirable. For instance, the Government must legislate for the mandatory provision of vets, preferably independently employed, at all greyhound tracks. They should state that all retired greyhounds must be re-homed, including those that are bred for racing but never make it to the track. Records must be kept to monitor greyhounds and particularly their treatment and the levels of care provided by owners and trainers. The proposed animal welfare Bill must also introduce minimum standards across the industry. It must make greyhounds safe from unnecessary death and suffering.

Finally, I urge the Minister to recognise that he and his Department need to be actively engaged with the industry. To wait and see how or if Lord Lipsey is able to shift the industry in the direction of improved welfare, including retirement provision, is equivalent to abandoning the issue to those who for years have spent levy money on restaurants, toilets and prize money, while welfare has largely been ignored. If the Minister really wants to improve the standards of greyhound welfare, to bring an end to the unnecessary killing of healthy greyhounds and to see decent welfare at independent tracks, he must act. I say to my hon. Friend that dog lovers throughout the country are relying on him to deliver, and I urge him to act—and to act soon.

9.58 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) for securing this debate and for providing us with the opportunity to debate an issue that I know is of great concern to many right hon. and hon. Members—and, indeed, to Members in the other place. I pay tribute to the excellent work that my hon. Friend has done—not just for greyhounds, but across animal welfare. He has taken significant strides forward.

It is not surprising that greyhound welfare is of such concern. Greyhounds are one of the oldest breeds of dog known to humans, and I fully agree that we have a strong duty to act where there is a need to protect their welfare. As my hon. Friend acknowledged in his speech, more money is now being made available to improve the welfare of greyhounds. On 6 April this year it was announced that an agreement had been reached between the Association of British Bookmakers and the British Greyhound Racing Board, which will see an incremental increase in the voluntary contribution paid by bookmakers to the sport from 0.4 per cent. of betting turnover to 0.6 per cent. in 2006. That could see payments to the British Greyhound Racing Fund—the body set up to distribute that levy— It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put. Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

Mr. Bradshaw

Payments could rise from £8 million to some £16 million by 2006—

Mr. Meale

The problem is that whether the figure is £8 million or £16 million, none of it is guaranteed to go to welfare. It is spent on prize money, stadiums and a range of other things. If history is any guide, very little of it will go on welfare issues.

Mr. Bradshaw

Our hope and expectation is that a substantial proportion of that extra money will be used to pay for improvements in greyhound welfare. It is an extremely encouraging development that shows that the two industries are capable of working together better than they have in the past. I would like to take this opportunity—as did my hon. Friend—to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and Tourism for helping to broker that agreement.

My hon. Friend raised a concern also raised by many Members of both Houses about the welfare of retired greyhounds. Some of the new funding received from the bookmakers will go to help the Retired Greyhound Trust, which has been re-homing greyhounds for nearly 30 years. The organisation re-homed 2,608 greyhounds in 2003, compared with 2,030 in 2002. The trust re-homes dogs from the tracks registered by the National Greyhound Racing Club, and we all hope that increased funding will add extra impetus to its efforts. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, there are many other organisations that work tirelessly to re-home greyhounds, whether they be large canine charities such as the Dogs Trust and Battersea Dogs Home, or smaller organisations such as the greyhound rescue charities in Wales and the west of England.

Even before the extra funding was agreed, the industry had demonstrated a growing commitment to retired greyhound welfare. That was illustrated by the steady increase in payments to the Retired Greyhound Trust, culminating in a payment last year from the British Greyhound Racing Fund of £600,000. It must also be remembered that there are many responsible greyhound owners who make provision for their animals during retirement, either paying for them to live in kennels or taking them into their own home as pets. I hope that the debate this evening will help to give those charities that do re-home retired greyhounds some well-deserved publicity. As my hon. Friend remarked, a retired greyhound is something of a friendly couch potato and therefore an ideal pet for a wide spectrum of dog lovers.

Mr. Dennis Turner

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about the charities that support the care and welfare of greyhounds in retirement, to which we all subscribe. As chairman of the all-party group on greyhounds, I speak for all those Members of the House of Commons who are committed to working for the welfare of greyhounds. We have already had a successful meeting with the League Against Cruel Sports at which we talked about its programme. I assure the Minister that we are committed, together with the BGRB, to advancing the cause of greyhound welfare.

Mr. Bradshaw

That intervention reflects the spirit of co-operation and constructive engagement between the two sides that will result, I hope, in further improvements in the months and years to come.

Over the last decade, a number of welfare organisations have tirelessly campaigned for the racing industry to do more to raise standards. We are now seeing tangible evidence of that, including an increase in funding for welfare and the excellent work done by Clarissa Baldwin, the chairperson of the Greyhound Forum, in getting the industry and welfare groups to work together to produce the charter for the racing greyhound. The charter, which has now been in place for two years, represents a solid commitment to higher welfare standards. Building on the charter, there are now some exciting initiatives under way that should lead to further significant improvements.

Briefly, I would like to mention the research that is going on in Poole to establish the best way to prepare and lay a track from the welfare point of view—something to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield referred in his speech. The initial cost to the industry for that research is £75,000.

In addition, the British Greyhound Racing Fund has spent £600,000 on grants to tracks so that their kennelling facilities could be upgraded. That work is almost complete. Ii has enabled air management systems to be installed, which will, I hope, avoid incidents such as the death of the greyhound Football Focus at Catford in 2002 and others of the sort mentioned by my hon. Friend. All other track maintenance grants were refused until that work had been carried out. Those initiatives are in addition to the core funding that the fund provides to enable tracks to implement welfare provisions.

My hon. Friend also reminded the House that the Government hope goon to publish their draft animal welfare Bill, which will impose a duty of care on all animal owners and will allow action to be taken before an animal is actually suffering. That provision will of course extend to the owners of racing greyhounds, and will lead to further improvements in greyhound welfare. The Bill will also allow the Government to introduce secondary legislation to regulate certain activities, and the welfare of racing greyhounds is an area where those powers could be used.

Provisions are already in place on which the industry could build; for example, a vet must be in attendance at all NGRC race meetings and all track and trainer kennelling must meet a minimum standard. There is also a responsibility on the owner to ensure that any change of ownership, including at the time of retirement, is sent to the NGRC. The tracks are also inspected by local authorities under the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1963, and for public safety reasons.

This is an extremely exciting time for the greyhound racing industry.

Mr. Meale

Would it be possible for the Minister, via one of his friends in the local government section of the Government, to provide advice that local authorities dealing with planning permission for independent tracks should lay down a 106 planning condition that a registered vet is in attendance at all race meetings?

Mr. Bradshaw

That is a very interesting suggestion. Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to give it some consideration and to discuss with my officials whether it would be practicable; it certainly sounds desirable.

With the new leadership to which my hon. Friend referred and the renewed vision at that leadership, there is the possibility of a sea change in attitudes over the next two or three years.

As my hon. Friend also acknowledged, Members are aware that the draft Gambling Bill has recently undergone pre-legislative scrutiny. The Bill is primarily concerned with ensuring that the gambling industry is regulated in the most appropriate form, but it is also concerned with safeguarding the integrity of the product. That means that measures with an impact on welfare may appear in the Bill.

I realise, however, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that 20 tracks in Great Britain fall outside the auspices of the NGRC. They are not entitled to any of the funding from the British Greyhound Racing Fund, as off-course bookmakers do not operate at them. I must stress that all greyhounds will enjoy protection under the proposed animal welfare Bill, and that will include those that run at independent tracks, so those tracks will need to start thinking extremely carefully about welfare improvements. In the future they cannot expect to operate at a lower welfare threshold than other tracks.

In July 2001, an Adjournment debate on greyhound welfare was held in another place. During that debate, my colleague Lord Whitty said that the racing industry had to get its house in order. There are now very clear signs that we are starting to see that reordering, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield that we must not be complacent and that much remains to be done.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Ten o'clock.