HL Deb 23 April 1998 vol 588 cc1248-51

3.30 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the implications for the British horse-racing industry if more prominent owners decide to move their horses from Britain to be trained in France or elsewhere.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Government are aware of the concerns at the prospect of racehorse owners moving their business overseas. Those issues are raised in the British Horseracing Board's financial plan for British racing, which we are discussing with the board.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is it not sad and remarkable that this country, which gave the world modern thoroughbred racingߞindeed, the horses that race are known as "English thoroughbreds"ߞshould have an industry whose finances are in such a state that it cannot produce prize money which ranks with other nations that race horses in the same way? Indeed, on average the French prize money is 2.5 times that of British prize money. Do not the moneys that come to racing from betting need to be better distributed? The whole question needs to be re-examined in order to bring us near to par with our neighbouring countries.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Viscount mentioned betting and I must therefore declare a past interest. When I was at the Bar I acted for Ladbroke, William Hill, the Tote, Coral and Mecca. It was the purest and most refined relationship yet devised between man and bookmaker, because they paid me.

In 1996 the last government reduced betting duty from 7.75 to 6.75 per cent. and that was estimated to cost the government around £65 million a year. The Tote is beginning to thrive under its new chairman. It will provide £8 million back into horse-racing; its profits are increasing. In 1993 the government assisted the industry with a preferential hack registration concession worth £15 million to £20 million a year.

I do not overlook the point made by the noble Viscount. If Sheikh Mohammed is the originator of the theme behind the noble Viscount's Question, and if he feels that discussions with Home Office Ministers would be of assistance, we are only too willing to take part in such discussions.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, when the Government discuss with the British Horseracing Board the financial scheme of Mr. Peter Savillߞwho may or may not be chairman of the boardߞwill they bear in mind that racing is a major industry in this country as well as a sport, with many small owners? A flat return of 24 per cent. on 100 per cent. of their expenditure cannot he considered adequate.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I take the point made by the noble Lord, which is why I was careful earlier to describe the horse-racing world as an industry. Of course it has enormous ramifications for all sorts of trades and in all sorts of rural communities. The Government are well seized of the points made by the noble Lord.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, if racing was concentrated on fewer racecourses, does not the Minister agree that that would improve productivity, efficiency and prize money?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, not necessarily. To many people who follow horse-racing, diversity is part of the fun. Not everyone wants to go to one racecourse on every Saturday during the season. To an extent, if it is an industry, then the industry must regulate itself in terms of the number of racecourses it uses and what prize money is attached to specific races.

Lord Sandberg

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, when the Government take decisions on this matter, they will remember that there are around 100,000 people employed in the racing industry? That is without taking into account those who worked for the Minister's previous employers.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, 100,000 is the figure I had in mind and is the sort of consideration to which I was referring when I replied earlier in the context that racing is an industry, as well as giving pleasure to many millions of people.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will admire the candour with which the Minister lifted the veil on his past. Is it too much to hope that the Government will digest the basic fact that unless more of the profits from betting end up in racing, the future is dim indeed?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is a view that is held, though not by most of the major bookmakers. As I have already indicated, we have given assistance to the industry. One does not need to be full of gloom and doom. Attendances at racecourses are at their highest level for the past 30 yearsߞmore than 5 million last yearߞand prize money has been increasing significantly over the period. In many ways racing is a successful industry. However, I hear in mind that if one has an indication of the sort given recently by the Sheikh, one must assess that with care. I read a letter from the embassy in Dubai dated only this morning. It is paying careful attention to this matter.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, it is always a pleasure when the noble Lord answers one's questions so elegantly. However, if I ask another Question about racing, will the reply come from his department? I was expecting the Department of Trade and Industry to answer the Question. I know that the noble Lord's department is responsible for betting, and it would be right if it took the view that this was a betting Question. It is also right that the noble Lord should answer, and that he has done very adequately. However, can he say in which department racing as a whole would generally lie?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am answering for the whole Government, as the Front Bench Opposite constantly reminds me. I am answering the Question because it specifically falls within the remit of the Home Office. No single department deals purely with the whole of the horse-racing industry.