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Volume 475: debated on Monday 12 May 2008

As I said in my written statement to the House on 5 March, the Government are preparing for an open-market sale of the Tote and have appointed advisers to undertake a strategic review of sale options. I expect to receive the report before the end of May. The Government will then decide on the next steps.

The Minister mentioned that the Tote is to be auctioned off, and I understand from the Financial Times that Goldman Sachs is acting for the Government. It is reported that Gala Coral is the front-runner in the auction. However, Goldman Sachs also acted as the chief adviser to Gala Coral last year, during its bid for the Tote. We all know that Goldman Sachs is the Government’s favourite banker, but it surely cannot be providing advice for both the bidder and the Government.

The normal procedures are being followed in terms of the appointment of Goldman Sachs. It acts on the basis of giving the Government the widest range of options. I am aware of a large number of interests in the sale of the Tote. Obviously, we have to get the best value for the taxpayer and make sure that we honour our commitment to give 50 per cent. of the proceeds to racing.

The Minister will be aware of the importance of the Tote to the Wigan economy, given the flexibility and high quality of the jobs that have been provided since its administration centre was moved to Wigan. Will he undertake to ensure that in any sale the jobs in the Tote will be preserved for a considerable period, so that they have the opportunity to bed in? We have had informal discussions for some months on the issue, but in addition to those, will the Minister meet my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and me before he makes any decision on it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) and the Secretary of State for their involvement in relation to the jobs in Wigan. Clearly, we want to make sure that we protect as many jobs as possible, and that will be a consideration when we look at the various options. I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield to make sure that we go through every opportunity.

There is great interest in the House about the sale of the Tote; the issue has been with us for some time. We need to make sure that we get the best possible return. I should like to put on the record my tribute to the work force in Wigan and to the Tote’s management, who have been keeping going under difficult circumstances.

Did not the Minister hit the nail on the head in saying that the issue had been going for some time? Is not the real issue chronic indecision by the Government? This move was a manifesto promise in 2001; since then, there have been a botched nationalisation, the chaos and U-turns of the Gambling Act 2005 and consistently different signals. Can the Minister give a categorical assurance that the issue will be resolved in the lifetime of this Parliament, so that this damaging shadow can be lifted from one of Britain’s most important and most loved sports?

It is our intention to deal with the issue as quickly as possible, and in the best interests of the taxpayer. We will make sure that we do all the things that we said we would with regard to racing and making sure that the work force are protected. However, I will not take any lessons from the hon. Gentleman. Recently he was on the radio, talking about the Tote. He talked for 10 minutes, and at the end he said that he supported what the Government were doing.

The best option in terms of the rate of return for the public sector—for ourselves, for the Exchequer—would be to keep the Tote in the public sector, rather than privatising it. Will my hon. Friend, even at this stage, reconsider the decision and not sell the Tote off for what will be a knock-down price for privateers?

Our intention is not to sell the Tote at a knock-down price, but to get the best value for the taxpayer and make sure that we honour the commitments that we have made. Clearly, my hon. Friend has a point of view about where we are at, but for the reasons that I gave earlier, we think it important that the work force should be protected and that we act in the best interests of racing.

Is my hon. Friend seriously considering the option of retaining the on-course operations of the Tote while its off-course betting shops are sold? The on-course operations may be of less interest to commercial bookmakers and private equity houses, are best exploited by racing and would provide an income for racing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his interest in this subject. We are looking at a whole range of options, including the one that he has just outlined, from the Goldman Sachs report. I am delighted to say that this time there is great interest in the sale of the Tote. Some wonderful options are coming forward, and we will be able to act in the best interests of the taxpayer, of racing and of the work force.