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Tote

Volume 478: debated on Monday 23 June 2008

The Government have now received advice on the strategic sale options to which I referred in my written statement to the House on 5 March this year. The Government are considering that advice and will announce as soon as possible how they intend to proceed.

It is now some seven years since the Government gave their manifesto commitment to privatise the Tote for the benefit of racing. As a result of dithering and failures in policy, the work force and the management are now still unclear about the Tote’s future. Will the Minister please give a commitment to a final date when we will really know the future for the work force and the management so that we can ensure that the Tote continues as an independent successful model that benefits racing and Wigan?

I know that the hon. Gentleman, along with other Members, takes a close interest in the Tote’s future—not only its development, but what will happen to its staff. The Goldman Sachs report is now with us and we will take a decision on the way forward at the earliest opportunity.

What recent meetings and discussions has the Minister had with representatives of the British Horseracing Authority? Will he reassure the House that once the sale of the Tote has been completed, racing will receive its fair share of the sale as soon as practicably possible?

Again, I know that my hon. Friend, as co-chair of the all-party racing and bloodstock industries group, takes a keen interest in this issue. He will understand the complexity of the issues we face in trying to meet our manifesto commitment while also giving 50 per cent. back to racing. I have had recent meetings with the British Horseracing Authority, the Racehorse Owners Association, the Racecourse Association and others, and they all have a view on what should be done with the 50 per cent. amount after the sale. First things first, however, as we need to take a decision on the way forward, and when we have done that we can talk to the racing authorities about how to divvy up the profits.

After seven years of dithering, incompetence and indecision, what confidence can the horse racing industry have in this Government to deliver any benefit to it from the sale of the Tote when Goldman Sachs is now reporting a £90 million black hole in the accounts and the price tag for the Tote has reduced by £100 million since last year alone?

I do not accept at all that there has been dithering. The issues are complex, involving state aid rules, the price of the Tote and how to give money back to racing. I believe that we have already shown in our discussions with the racing bodies that we are keen to move forward quickly and we will do so. We will honour the commitments that we have made.

Have we not already gone through plan A, plan B and plan C to get to the current plan D, and cannot we only surmise how many more alphabetic characters are to follow? Will not Brussels in any case veto any deal that redistributes any significant part of the proceeds to the racing industry; and in that light, should we not abandon the whole sorry saga?

We could do that, but it would be the wrong direction of travel. What we have to do is look at the options made available to us through the report that I mentioned. We will study it as quickly as we can and then take the appropriate decisions. In the interests of racing and of the staff who work at the Tote, I believe that we have to move forward. It is important to consider all the options, which I hope to do as quickly as possible.

Half the proceeds of the sale would be welcome to racing, if indeed the Minister can get that past Europe, but probably more important is the ongoing contribution that the Tote makes year on year to racing. If the Tote is sold on the open market, how will he guarantee that the money remains available to racing year after year after year?

That is the difficulty if we sell. We will also have to determine what the 50 per cent. should go to by working through what the definition of “racing” should be. Everybody in racing thinks that they should receive the 50 per cent. following the sale, but I have tried to get the racing industry to be more modern in its outlook, which is why we have tried to find a different way of dealing with the levy.

Whether it is with the pitch tenure positions or with the Tote, we are positively engaged with racing. All round the House, there are people who support racing and know that it is a great sport, but we have to try to move from a mentality of looking for handouts and towards the sport standing on its own two feet.

There is a sense of déjà vu: I understand that this question has been posed to the Government more than 40 times since 2001, when the manifesto commitment was made. The Minister must, at some point, make a decision—not only on the Tote, but, as he mentioned, about on-course bookmakers and the future of the levy. To add to that, we have the eagerly anticipated announcement, so to speak, on stakes and prizes. I plead with the Minister: may we please have some support for the £4 billion racing industry?

I will not take any lessons from the Conservative party on investment in racing. We have worked properly with racing to ensure that it modernises, which is why we have seen great developments and great strides forward. The issue involving the Tote is complex and governed by state aid rules. We want to ensure that we act in the best interests not only of racing and the people who work at the Tote, but of the taxpayer. On the other issues that the hon. Gentleman mentions, we will make announcements very soon.