Monday 15 October 2018
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 211950 relating to setting up a new independent body for the protection of racehorses.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I should start by saying that I speak as a member of the Petitions Committee and am therefore impartial. This is not my motion; I speak on behalf of the petitioners.
Animal Aid is one of the largest animal rights organisations in the UK. I met its representatives in September to discuss the issue, as it has campaigned on issues of animal welfare for almost two decades. I also met the British Horseracing Authority to get its perspective.
All sports carry an element of risk for participants. A human athlete makes a conscious decision to participate in their chosen sport and should understand the potential risks of injury. In horse-racing, jockeys have the choice whether to participate. The horses that they ride do not have that option; they are bred and conscripted into a billion-pound commercial industry. With that fact comes, or should come, a responsibility towards the animals involved, whether they are among the breeding population, the horses in racing and training or the thousands removed from the industry every year.
According to the petitioner, the BHA bears that responsibility by its own choice. In its diverse and demanding role of governance and regulation, it has to make often conflicting decisions to promote horse-racing and maintain its integrity as part of its remit to foster a healthy horse population that, by any moral, let alone legal, standard, should be kept safe from harm.
Transparency and accountability should be key features of any authority—all the more so where animals are involved, because of the public interest in the sport and the public’s ever-growing concern for animal welfare and rights. We are all stakeholders, from punters, racehorse owners, trainers, bookies, farriers and racecourse admin assistants to MPs, campaigners for animals and the thoroughbred racehorses themselves. People should be assured that the best possible welfare practice is at the forefront of racing policy. Without it, the integrity, veracity and legitimacy of racing fall at the first hurdle. Sadly, racing has fallen at that hurdle and is stricken by its own ineptness at getting up to the task in hand and protecting horses from harm.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that a number of organisations in the racing industry cover these areas. He also mentioned the BHA and the imperfections that it has had. I am not opposed to an independent body, but could not the BHA be changed and improved to take on the responsibilities of one?
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point and will come to it later. I have heard the voice of the BHA and it has tried to effect change.
According to the petitioners, nearly 200 horses are killed on racecourses each year. Others are taken away injured and die later, but do not appear in any industry figures. Horses are whipped as normal practice. Rule-breaking abuse with the whip runs to more than 500 offences a year, committed by 260 jockeys or more. That alone is a damning indictment of the BHA’s failings, and there are other issues, which I will come to. A point of progress noted by the BHA at our meeting was the fact that it now counts horses that have died off the racetrack.
The BHA has lacked urgency and has failed to take pragmatic steps when horses have been killed. If racing has a bad name in the media, that has been brought on by a failure to acknowledge and act. Let me read just a few headlines that expose the deficiencies: “‘Record’ number of thoroughbreds being slaughtered for meat”, “Jockey banned after…punching horse”, “Three horses die within 30 minutes at Hexham races leading to calls for an inquiry”, “Worcester Racecourse is among worst venues for horse safety”, and “Plumpton described as ‘death trap’…six horses died in just nine days of racing”. Of course, there was also the recent Cheltenham incident. Such headlines are written because of the public interest in animal welfare, which is ever growing—a point that the petition’s signatories have made clear.
The hon. Gentleman is making extremely good points. Many people, including me, think that the BHA has many qualities and many good people, and serves an important role. However, does he agree that the BHA has so many responsibilities, of which animal welfare is only one, that it is very hard for it to exercise that responsibility as well as it might? Put bluntly, the conflict of interest between promoting the sport and protecting animal welfare ought to lead us to conclude that there should be an independent body.
A whole number of realms of life are subject to scrutinised self-regulation by people who actually know the profession, industry or walk of life in question. We may look for improvements, but why would we want to take regulation away from the people who have a long-term interest in sustaining the industry and who have the support of the millions who follow racing, either by going to races or by watching them on television?
That is, of course, a perfectly appropriate point to make, and the BHA in particular would agree. As I said, I have sat down with the BHA and it has made improvements in areas where it recognises that they are required.
I will cite examples to make the case that racehorses have been failed by the BHA, and set out why the BHA should lose its horse welfare remit and be replaced by an independent body that has horse welfare as its only concern.
The problem is nothing new; it is historical. The rich and politically influential people in racing have always had their hands on the reins. They have controlled all aspects since they chose to self-regulate the sport back in 1750, just a few streets away from here, in a Pall Mall gentlemen’s club called the Jockey Club. Their stranglehold on power, and for a short period that of jump racing’s National Hunt Committee, existed until this century, when it married for a few years with a fledgling authority, the Horseracing Regulatory Authority. In 2007, those authorities gave birth to the current incumbent, the BHA.
This is a blue-blooded family who maintain power. Their relatives maintain control too. Weatherby’s, racing’s private administrator and registrar of thoroughbred births and deaths, has since 1770 and for seven family generations enjoyed direct involvement in the fully integrated sport of breeding, racing and disposing of thoroughbreds. Much of the information that it gathers on racehorses is kept private, but in some circumstances it can be bought.
According to the petitioners, this is an exclusive old boys’ club run like a masonic lodge with friends in Government. Through the ages, the Government have left this racing club in full control, rarely intervening in horse welfare matters. Parliament has seen few discussions on the subject. The last time any serious debate took place here was in 1954, when Lord Ammon rose to ask
“whether the attention of Her Majesty’s Government has been directed to the disaster on the Aintree racecourse during the Grand National Steeplechase on Saturday, 27th March when 29 horses started, of which 20, including four killed, failed to finish the course; whether the law concerning cruelty to animals applies in such cases, and to move for Papers.”
He went on to say:
“Nor is that all the story; hundreds of the horses who fail are not heard of again. It is difficult to get news about them”.
He was talked down by Earl Winterton, who—with the support of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Lord Lloyd—rejected Government intervention, stating that
“it would be a pity if it went out from your Lordships’ House that there was undue criticism here. Surely we should leave the appropriate authorities”
—by which he meant racing’s self-regulating National Hunt Committee—
“to consider what has been said…and decide what course they should take”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 April 1954; Vol. 186, c. 1041-1049.]
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the self-regulators did not take any course of action.
I mention that historical debate because, importantly, the same scenario is being played out today. Like Lord Ammon, I ask whether Her Majesty’s Government are aware that three horses died just weeks ago in a single afternoon’s racing at Perth racecourse. Is the horse welfare regulator—the BHA—going to make any changes to the racecourse or to the conditions of the races at Perth, to prevent this from happening again? Were the Government or anyone else aware that, more alarmingly, this is the second time that three horses have died in a day’s racing at Perth? After their deaths in August 2016, the BHA failed to act, making no changes and learning no lessons. As a consequence, horses have had to be killed yet again. Just as its predecessor for jump racing, the National Hunt Committee, walked away from horse deaths back in 1954, the BHA is doing the same—and this, of course, when the deaths do not make the headlines.
One might think that horses are racing’s most valuable assets. That is perhaps so for horses such as Frankel, Galileo or Kew Gardens, who are making millions of pounds for their owners, but maybe not for elderly brood mares and former racehorses such as Maidment or Marilouise. These are just two of 23 thoroughbreds, some pregnant and one with a foal at foot, who were taken at the eleventh hour from a bankrupt stud in Newmarket—the beating heart of British racing. Those horses were not saved with the support of the racing industry or the BHA but by Hillside animal sanctuary, a rescue centre that relies on public donations to feed and care for unwanted animals. Had Hillside not taken them into its care just a few weeks ago, on 17 September, those horses, including the foal, would have been destroyed—they were pre-booked for 18 September at 11 am. Fortunately for the BHA’s high-profile public image campaign, The Horse Comes First, and its flagship Retraining of Racehorses scheme, ROR, that desperate rescue of 23 vulnerable racehorses and broodmares, who were down on their luck, did not hit the national headlines.
That highlights the major welfare issue of overbreeding, and likewise what to do with the thousands of horses who face ejection by the industry each year, which in effect is the very same problem. In 2008, the Irish Republic, which is the supply centre of half the horses who are trained and raced in Britain, was hit by the global economic recession. British Racing, led by the BHA, stood by and watched an exponential rise in slaughter figures, from just over 2,000 in 2008 to 24,000 in 2012.
My recollection is that the global financial crisis also led to a crisis in horse-owning more generally, quite apart from horse-racing. I am not clear whether the perfectly legitimate line that my hon. Friend is taking is, actually, to oppose horse-racing.
I remind my right hon. Friend that I am a member of the Petitions Committee and I am quoting the facts and figures of the petitioners on this occasion.
Abattoirs sprung up almost overnight to cater for the demand for the disposal of unwanted horses. In the crudest terms, Irish and British horse-racing had gone from a sport to a food producer. Young foals and those at the end of the careers, the injured or slow, poor-performing stallions and mediocre brood mares similar to Maidment and Marilouise, who Hillside took in just weeks ago, were turned into meat for human consumption or fed to hunting hounds, while others were rendered down to be mixed into everyday products. That massacre of the sport’s equine competitors was the result of a lack of foresight and strategic planning for the future, the ignorance of potential outcomes and the sheer apathy of a self-regulated industry. The average punter and Royal Ascot celebrity would never know this secret, because of a lack of transparency and a closed door to freedom of information.
Since that animal welfare disaster, the BHA has failed to put limits on breeding numbers. One hundred years ago, a top stallion would cover—a polite way of saying mate—with 15 mares. Around 35 years ago, stallions such as the ill-fated Shergar would cover 40 at best. This year, we are seeing single stallions cover 100, 200 or even 300 mares. It is irresponsible, and the BHA stands by and lets it happen. It is as bad as any unscrupulous dog breeder who has hit the news in recent years—behaviour that eventually brought about a change to the law.
The burgeoning racing fixtures list, drawn up to accommodate the swell of horses being bred, will be the biggest ever in 2019, with over 1,500 meetings. It will not meet the needs of a huge number of horses who will not win a race and will earn little or no prize money, and who will then be quickly cast out and replaced by another on the conveyor belt of horses that pass through the industry, which brings me on to racing itself.
When a horse steps on to a British racecourse, its welfare and protection from potential suffering should be paramount. Yet each horse has about a one in 50 chance of not surviving a year in racing. The BHA likes to minimise that alarming figure by stating that just 0.2% of runners die in racing, although if a horse runs 10 times and dies, that is classed as one in 10 runners. It is confusing and deliberately misleading. The disrespect shown by classing horses’ deaths as a percentage of runners, and the BHA’s unwillingness to name individual horses who are killed in an understandable and comprehensive list, as is done in Ireland, led the campaign group Animal Aid to launch its own online website, Race Horse Death Watch, where one can see the names of ill-fated horses and the racecourses where they died. It has become an endless list and makes for disturbing viewing.
Why do horses die racing? Is it by accident, as the BHA cited in the death of a two-year-old colt last month at Doncaster, or are horse deaths to some extent preventable? In the case of the two-year-old, the BHA shamefully absolved itself and the racecourse of any responsibility for the young horse’s death. I will go through the account of an eyewitness who saw this tragedy unfold. An inexperienced two-year-old colt known as Commanding Officer entered an enclosed starting stall from which to race. The horse became frightened and reared in an attempt to free himself from the all-enveloping stall. Instead of removing this panic-stricken, novice horse from the race, it was decided to blindfold him in the hope of eventually getting him to run. Without his vision, and with natural equine fear, he reared again in the starting stall. The poor design of stalls enabled Commanding Officer to trap a foreleg between the front gates. As he pulled back, blind, to free himself, his foreleg snapped into two as the gates held firmly shut. By design, there is, surprisingly, no quick-release mechanism on the gates to free individual horses from stalls. As a consequence, the colt’s hoof and five inches of bare cannon bone—his shin—were hanging off the end of his leg, held by just a tenuous flap of skin.
The horse was eventually destroyed, but not without immense suffering. The eyewitness described the horse’s destruction as “unbelievable”, and a load of empty syringes were thrown over the screens—those would have contained a deadly cocktail of drugs in a vain attempt to inject the scared and injured animal. The race was held up but still went ahead. As the other horses set off running, Commander Officer’s dead body lay in a white horsebox parked next to the stalls. He was two years old—just a baby.
Shockingly, the BHA stewards’ report of events stated that
“the BHA’s Equine Health and Welfare department…found that the starting and loading procedures were followed correctly, and that the injury sustained by Commanding Officer was an accident.”
There was no mention of the inability to quickly open the stall gates to free the horse. That might have been the end of the story, but it is not. At a previous meeting at the very same racecourse, Doncaster, an identical fatal injury happened that was similarly caused by the poor design of the stalls. An experienced horse known as Mukaynis caught his left foreleg in the starting stall gates when, yet again, the horse’s vision was compromised by a hood. Mukaynis, with restricted vision, was startled by a stalls handler. The gelding reared, the gates trapping a leg. Perhaps the BHA thinks that lightning cannot strike twice and crosses it fingers—it did not act after Mukaynis lost his life, and the young Commanding Officer has now lost his life, too. Both horses were failed by poor practice that could have been resolved with basic insight and cost-effective physical changes to starting stall gates.
That is not the only problem. The BHA’s crude reporting of events should also be scrutinised. The race-day stewards, who are mostly amateurs, are commissioned by and under guidance from the BHA, and are meant to monitor the races, take action, note any concerning matters and report them in the official BHA documents. The stewards reported that both horse victims were “unruly in the stalls”. Their report did not even acknowledge that Mukaynis was dead. The BHA allows anthropomorphic terms to be used to describe fear in an equine that is confined in an unnatural manner and unable to escape when panicked.
I could talk into the night about other heart-wrenching cases in which stewards failed to monitor or report welfare issues. Many racehorse deaths could easily have been avoided if the tired horses that had no chance of winning were simply pulled up. Horses are literally run into the ground: they are forced to race without having time to recover from the previous races.
I have spoken to the BHA, and it has talked about making improvements in the areas that I have condemned. It says that it reviews deaths, but its Cheltenham review came about only because of the public and media outcry over the death of six horses at this year’s festival meeting. It published no review of the 2017 festival and did not even mention the five horses that died during it, or the seven that were killed in 2016. The media failed to pick up on those deaths, so the BHA remained silent. It takes the wrath of public opinion to make it look into deaths, let alone take responsibility for them.
The BHA states that it has spent £33 million since 2017 on veterinary research and education. That sum may sound reasonable, but the BHA grossed more than £1.8 billion during that time, and it equates to less than 2% of expenditure. It is about £150 per horse—less money than a jockey’s riding fee for one race. Racing is a rich industry and can afford to increase its welfare budget. If it does not, horses will continue to pay the price of the underspend with their lives.
The petitioners call on the Government to act by removing the British Horseracing Authority from its role as welfare regulator for racehorses, while allowing it to retain its other roles in racing, and to replace the BHA with an independent body that is responsible only for horse welfare.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I declare my registered interests, in that I receive hospitality from racecourses and racing bodies from time to time, and I am co-chairman, with the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), of the all-party parliamentary racing and bloodstock industries group. I very much welcome this debate, which gives us the opportunity to discuss how to improve the welfare of racehorses in the United Kingdom, because I am also the proud Member of Parliament for Tewkesbury, which includes the Cheltenham racecourse—one of the greatest in the world. It generates a lot of income, which helps the whole area. Tewkesbury is a rural area, and horses are very much part of the rural scene. The petition attracted 313 signatories from Tewkesbury, demonstrating that there is a love of horses there and a concern that they should be properly looked after.
I have a personal interest in this issue: my wife owns horses and has done so all her life. She trains them and competes, not in racing but in other sports. I am an animal lover—we keep farm animals as pets, and we have had pets all our lives—so I want to see what we can do to build on the good work that has already been done to ensure that racehorses are well cared for, not only during their racing careers but afterwards.
It will be heartwarming to the BHA, as I do not always agree with it on everything, to hear me say that I believe it is doing a good and improving job of looking after the welfare of racehorses. Although it is involved in racing, it is independent of racecourses, jockeys, owners and the other racing bodies. It does work on the fixture list, the integrity of the sport—it makes sure it is clean—and welfare. It has a board of 10 members. One comes from racecourses and one from another body connected to racing, but the majority are independent of those bodies, so they can carry out their work completely without bias. They investigate jockeys and trainers, and sometimes come down very hard on them. They have demonstrated their ability to do that as well as their independence.
As the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) mentioned, the Irish racehorse sector already has self-regulated through law. Does the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) feel that, to safeguard the lucrative racehorse sector in the United Kingdom, it is vital that we follow the Republic of Ireland’s lead?
I will come to that issue in a minute, but the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Everybody in racing wants horses to be protected, largely because they love them. Owners pay a lot of money for racehorses, and training fees are some £20,000 a year, so purely from a financial point of view the last thing they want is for anything bad to happen to their horses. That is not what motivates them, but they put an awful lot of money into the sport.
The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) said that racing is a rich industry, but those of us who know it know that it is impoverished. The top 1% are rich, but lots of trainers and jockeys earn very little. Owners get back an average of 23% of the total cost. That is not a return—they lose 77% of everything they put in. They do it for the love of the sport, and it costs them a lot of money, so the last thing they want is for horses to be treated badly on the racecourse or in the stables. They simply would not allow that to happen.
A number of charities care for racehorses, some of which might have been involved in motivating this petition, and the all-party parliamentary group, which I have co-chaired for a number of years, raises money for some of them at a charity dinner in the House of Commons. Retraining of Racehorses, which is not one that we raise money for, does an excellent job of looking after racehorses after they have finished their racing careers. Greatwood—from memory, I think we raised about £50,000 for it in this place a few years ago—does great work in bringing retired racehorses together with disadvantaged young people. It is unfortunate that that work is not recognised as often as it should be.
Even people who are not as into racing as me are captured by the excitement, particularly that of the big race meetings. I mentioned the Cheltenham festival, but there is also the Grand National, Royal Ascot and the Derby. Those races capture the imagination of people not just in this country but across the world, who take a great interest in it. I have travelled the world to watch racing—I was in France just the other week—and, without question, British racing is the best in the world, although Irish racing is also extremely good. In this country, racing contributes some £3.5 billion to the economy and £275 million in tax. Some 17,400 people are directly employed in the industry full time, and another 85,000 are indirectly employed. It really does do a lot for this country, particularly in rural areas.
I am concerned to ensure that we do the absolute best for racehorses, so I am not instinctively against having an extra body to look after them, but I wonder if it is the best way forward. As I have said, the BHA, which is independent of other bodies in racing, is doing a good and improving job. One of the problems in racing is that there are already too many bodies. As well as the BHA, there is the Horsemen’s Group, the Racecourse Association, the Racehorse Owners Association, the Professional Jockeys Association, the National Trainers Federation, racecourse groups and probably a few other organisations that I have not remembered. I am not convinced therefore that bringing in another body would help and I am not sure to whom it would report or how independent it would actually be.
That goes back to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), who asked whether it is not better for people with long-standing expertise in racing and caring for horses to carry out that overview and supervise the work with racehorses. I am persuaded that that is probably the best way to continue, but that is not to say that improvements cannot be made. They have been made over the past few years: the number of fallers has, on average, been reduced, the fatality rate has thankfully been reduced, and there have been changes to the layout of racecourses, to the fences, and to whip regulations. Although those big improvements have been made, I emphasise that I am not satisfied with where we are. We must continue to move forward and I certainly want to continue working with the BHA in order to help it to do so, but that is the best way forward rather than creating another body.
Cheltenham spends hundreds of thousands of pounds a year on veterinary and welfare fees, and other racecourses spend an awful lot of money ensuring that the horses are properly checked and fit to run and that there are no problems. I accept that there is some way to go, but I think that racing is a very clean sport in this country. There are very few examples of drugs being given to horses, of any wrongdoing in betting, or of race fixing—they all happen very rarely. It is a good and clean sport but one that can and should improve, and I believe that it is doing so.
I should like to hear the Minister’s opinion. My view is that the BHA should take the issue forward and, perhaps, its structure could be altered or it could report more to the Government. I am not saying that changes are not needed in that respect, but I think that is the way forward. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Hartlepool for introducing the debate in the way that he did, and I look forward to hearing what other hon. Members have to say.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Wilson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for introducing the debate, and I also thank those constituents of mine who have written to me and encouraged me to attend it.
York is home to Britain’s second oldest racecourse—it was established in 1731—and on Saturday I had a behind-the-scenes tour and saw all that occurs on race day. The racecourse plays a significant role in York’s economy, bringing in about £58 million. It hosts races for 18 days a year and it also hosts many events on the Knavesmire stand. I thank William Derby, the racecourse chief executive, as well as his staff, for the programme he laid on for me and Councillor Jonny Crawshaw, who represents Micklegate ward.
I observed many aspects of the racecourse hosting an event, including security and policing—particularly for antisocial behaviour and terrorism—as well as stewarding, chaplaincy services, hospitality and gambling, but I also paid particular attention to the welfare of the horses, toured their new facilities and met the vets. The racecourse upgraded its facilities in 2015, including building new tepid and cold water showers for horses post-race; installing a mist fan, based on data from the Olympics that showed how best to keep horses cool; and building an equine hospital facility on the site. York also has an equine hospital, to which injured horses can rapidly be transferred should the need occur. I witnessed the horses warming up for a race and cooling down afterwards. Clearly, I did not see the entire impact of a race on a horse, but I discussed some examples with the vets, such as the potential impact of the stress placed on a horse’s lungs, and internal and soft tissue injuries.
On Saturday, when speaking with the lead vet from Minster Equine veterinary clinic and others, I was reassured that animal welfare is of prime importance to the racecourse, and that the recent investment demonstrated such a commitment. Of the 1,300 horses that have raced this season, there has been one fatality. In 2016 there were three fatalities; in 2014 there were two; in 2013 there were two; in 2012 there were three; and in 2011 there was one. That is 12 fatalities in seven years, which is clearly devastating. Moreover, given that York hosts flat racing, they are also 12 fatalities too many. I should also like to point out that this feeds a gambling industry.
It is clear that much more research is needed on animal welfare and horse welfare. I observed the rehabilitation of horses from injuries resulting from races. As a physiotherapist, I was particularly interested in how horses are rehabilitated and in why more research is not done to ensure that those that sustain such injuries are given more intense rehabilitation to increase their chances of survival. However, it is only by having a comprehensive understanding of the causation of injury that risks can be eliminated. I therefore believe that an independent regulator, which could explore why injuries occur, would be invaluable to the industry. The fact that it would be independent would be helpful for the British Horseracing Authority, as well as to those people working throughout the industry. We should welcome the opportunity for more, rather than less, scrutiny in horse-racing: if there is nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear. We have heard about the conflicts of interest that occur within the BHA, so having an animal welfare champion at the core of horse-racing would be a positive step forward.
On Saturday, I observed a delay at the start line. The horses were in the starting stalls when one decided to dip under the stall and escape. That horse experienced only minor injuries, but the other horses were clearly distressed. I would like to examine what more can be done to limit the distress and stress experienced by horses at the start of a race. One horse, for instance, tried to gallop out of the stalls but it was constrained by the gates; its stress increased with each moment but the gates remained closed. Other horses were taken out of the stalls, calmed down, and then placed back in them, but the stress was clearly building. The cases of Mukaynis and Commanding Officer demonstrate that more work needs to be done on that particular pinch point. An independent body could consider those issues and improve safety for horses.
I followed the race with a doctor, to observe what their role was and how fast medical support was provided. I was puzzled as to why doctors were ahead of vets in the queue and why they did not move around the racecourse in tandem. Vets should be able to reach the scene of an injured horse with the same expediency as doctors are able to access injured individuals. Perhaps that issue could also be looked at.
During the day, I also made inquiries about the use of the whip, because that has been raised with me on a number of occasions. I understand that whip safety has improved over time. It was pointed out that use of the whip has two functions: first, for steering the horse, which can prevent injury; and, secondly, for “encouragement”. I understand that the air cushion on the whip provides protection, but evidence from Animal Aid indicates a lack of confidence about whether a whip injures or hurts a horse. Again, therefore, I believe that an independent body could look into such issues, building confidence whichever way the debate falls. Evidence from an independent regulator could settle an issue such as that of use of the whip in a race. In Norway, to ensure animal welfare, a whip is not used. We need to understand how “encouragement”, if it does not hurt a horse and is to continue, can be made subject to good regulation, because the current penalties hardly discourage the use of the whip. That, too, should be reviewed.
The vet also highlighted risks to the horse once it leaves horse-racing, because that environment is less well regulated, and raised one or two issues. In the afterlife of horses, I want to ensure that we take the greatest care of these precious animals, particularly in their breeding. This House has had many a debate about dog breeding. In order to ensure that animal welfare is upheld, it is clear that regulation of the number of foals that a mare may produce needs to be tightened, and the same applies to regulation for stallion welfare.
I apologise for arriving slightly late—I was on a Statutory Instrument Committee. My hon. Friend makes an important point about unregulated breeding. The situation has changed significantly in recent years and an independent regulator would make a real difference.
I thank my hon. Friend for his observation. I trust that the Minister will respond to that particular point.
Many organisations are doing phenomenal work to oversee the welfare of retired racehorses. In Yorkshire, the charity New Beginnings has been registered in the past few years. It relaxes and settles horses before retraining them for a further career, domestic purposes or other uses. I have also visited the Hillside animal wellbeing centre, which gives phenomenal support to animals, but we need to understand what percentage of animals have the opportunity for a second life. It is the horses that we do not hear about that are the cause of most concern and that the petitioners have brought to our attention.
We need tight regulation, so what is wrong with having an independent regulator to log not only the injuries and fatalities while horses are in racing, but what happens to them after racing? Enthusiasts and people in general would be able to follow the horses’ life course. Transparency is all that is being called for, but it could make such a difference to confidence in horse-racing, instead of everything being left to the BHA, which, as we have heard, already has many responsibilities placed on it. Greater scrutiny would build confidence, and the petitioners are therefore wise to call for it.
Before I close, I want to make a couple of other points about horse welfare associated with the sport. The BHA or an independent regulator might also have a perspective on these issues. First, as we move into a Brexit scenario, given the 26,000 horse movements across European Union borders, delays at a border will clearly have an impact on horse welfare. It would be good to hear from the Minister how he will ensure against animal welfare issues arising. Secondly, given that so many trainers and stable staff come from eastern Europe or Ireland, and that they are not, as we have heard, well paid by the industry, what opportunity will they have to continue to work? Any sudden exit by staff would jeopardise horse welfare, too. What preparations are the Government making to protect horses in such an environment?
I again thank York racecourse for opening its doors to me so that I could look behind the scenes and have better understanding of issues appertaining to horse welfare. I thank the petitioners for raising this important issue and for the measured proposal for independent regulation in horse-racing. We should all reflect on the value of horse-racing to the horse—we need to put the horse at the centre—as well as to other parts of the industry.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I was not planning to speak in this debate, because I had tabled some amendments to the Offensive Weapons Bill, but the party Whips decided against holding that debate, presumably so that I might speak in this one. I therefore thought it would be rude not to take up the opportunity.
I do not want to speak for long, but I want to support my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who set out clearly the case not only for horse-racing but for how well the BHA regulates horse-racing and in particular horse welfare. Like him, I have had my disagreements with the BHA, so I am not someone who automatically and naturally jumps to support it.
I should make it clear, as my hon. Friend did, that people ought to refer to my entry in the register of Members’ interests because, on a number of occasions, I too have received hospitality at the races, including at York racecourse, where I was on Saturday—as was the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). I should add that I do not own any racehorses at the moment, although I have done so in the past. I would say that I was a modest owner of racehorses and an owner of very modest horses at that. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), who led the debate, talked about the great riches in racing, but I assure everyone that I was not participating at that kind of level. My horses participated at the standard not of the Ebor meeting at York, but more of a Saturday evening at Wolverhampton. I should make that clear.
I will add to some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury and respond to a few of the other points made so far. I shall do the latter first, if I may. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who unfortunately is no longer in his place, has Cartmel racecourse in his constituency—I might be wrong about that, but I do not think so—and I hope that he is a supporter of it, but he said something quite extraordinary. He said that it was incompatible for a regulator to promote a sport and to be responsible for animal welfare, but I think that the two go essentially hand in hand. How on earth can a body promote a sport such as horse-racing without a clear commitment to animal welfare? For the life of me, I could not understand his argument. For me, the two are perfectly compatible and must go hand in hand.
We also heard earlier, I think from the hon. Member for Hartlepool, that horses have no choice, unlike jockeys and so on. I have to say, that that is not entirely true, for two reasons. For example, a few years ago there was a terrible tragedy when the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised, favourite for the Grand National that very same year, died. Synchronised ran in the Grand National and fell, but it did not die when it fell with the jockey on board; it died afterwards, after it fell for a second time, running loose and jumping the fences with the rest of the field. That horse did have a choice. It was loose—it had no jockey on its back. It carried on because horses love jumping. They love running, they love racing and they love jumping. There was a terrible outcome in that case—it is in the figures the hon. Member for Hartlepool referred to—but that horse did have a choice. It wanted to carry on with the rest of the field, because horses love running, racing and jumping.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That was going to be my very next point. A horse weighs approximately half a tonne. A flat jockey at York on Saturday would have weighed roughly 8 or 8½ stone. I assure Members that there is no way on God’s earth that an 8½-stone jockey will force half a tonne of horse to do something it really does not want to do. If it digs its heels in and decides it will not go into the starting stalls, it will not go into the starting stalls, and there is nothing an 8-stone jockey can do to force it to. If a horse does not want to set off at the start of a steeplechase, no jockey will be able to force it to.
That happens from time to time. Horses are wilful and intelligent creatures. They are not stupid. When they get to the racecourse, they know they are at the racecourse and they are there to race. Believe me, when horses decide to set off, they do so of their own volition. Many racehorses decline to race—they do not come out of the stalls and do not set off. That happens from time to time—regrettably, usually when I have backed one.
The hon. Gentleman is making a thorough speech, but he fails to point out that horses are trained to jump and race—those things do not exactly come to a horse naturally. Horses that are not trained, such as those we see in fields as we drive by on the motorway or a country road, do not jump fences automatically just because they naturally love to jump.
I do not accept that. Racehorses are not just trained to race—they are bred to race, and they naturally want to race. That is their natural state of being. I do not accept the hon. Lady’s premise that racehorses, if they were not in a trainer’s yard, would have no interest at all in racing one another. That is what they naturally want to do, and it is what they naturally do.
Someone mentioned the whip. I encourage people to get hold of a whip and hit themselves with it quite hard. They will find it does not actually hurt at all. Whips are not used for that purpose. If someone wants a horse to run faster, they do not hurt it. By definition, a hurt horse will not run faster, just like someone who is injured while running will not run faster as a result of being hurt. Yes, the whip is used to encourage a horse. It is often used for safety reasons, to ensure that a horse runs in a straight line and does not deviate and put other horses and riders in danger. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the use of the whip in horse-racing. Again, a horse will not run faster if it has been injured.
The hon. Member for Hartlepool said racing was run by the “blue-blooded” brigade. I do not know whether more than a few of us have met Nick Rust, the chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, but I am not sure he would recognise that description. Perhaps he would—perhaps I do him a disservice—but I think most people in the Chamber would accept that he is from a very humble, modest and down-to-earth background. Describing people such as him as “blue-blooded” does them a gross disservice.
Of course I recognise that horse-racing is not only the sport of kings—allegedly—but the sport of the working man. However, as a member of the Petitions Committee, I reflected the views of the petitioners. To answer the hon. Gentleman, yes I can ride a horse, but I missed out from my speech the fact that both the BHA and the petitioners recognise that there are issues with the weighting of saddles, which means the weight of the jockey is not natural.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for distancing himself from the description of the BHA as “blue-blooded”, which, as I said, I do not recognise.
The BHA puts animal welfare at the heart of everything it does. Anyone who has read its business plan for 2017 to 2019 will know that the first of its six strategic objectives is “equine welfare leadership”. I do not think anyone can doubt the BHA’s commitment to animal welfare. It has already started a huge animal welfare programme led by David Sykes, the BHA director of equine welfare.
I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury is, like me, a regular reader of the Racing Post. I am sure the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) is, too. He is a fantastic joint chairman of the all-party racing and bloodstock industries group. I am merely a vice-chairman, but I am proud of that none the less. I have to say that the two joint chairmen do a fantastic job. Anyone who has read the Racing Post recently will know about the BHA’s interesting initiative with Exeter University. They have been looking at how horses’ vision affects how they see and respond to their environment. They have looked at the visibility of fences and at what colours make horses more careful when they jump them. As a consequence, a trial will soon be run in which a yellow band appears across the hurdles, because the evidence from Exeter University is that horses are more careful when they see the colour yellow. That was news to me, but it goes to show how the racing industry is leaving no stone unturned to try to make the sport as safe as possible for horses. A padded hurdle design is being trialled at 11 jump racecourses, with the objective of reducing fallers.
The hon. Member for Hartlepool talked about the breeding industry. On 1 January, the BHA introduced 30-day notification for thoroughbred foals born in Great Britain so there is greater transparency and information about the whereabouts of foals born into the racing industry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury made clear the number of people who are employed in the racing industry and the industry’s importance. Having owned horses—modest ones on the whole, as I said—I do not believe anyone is more passionate about the welfare of horses than owners, trainers and in particular the stable staff who look after those horses daily. Of course, from time to time, something happens to a horse that goes racing. No one disputes that that is tragic, but the people who are most upset about it are the owners and trainers, and the stable staff who look after those horses every day.
The hon. Member for Hartlepool clearly met various people and did some research before opening the debate. I genuinely commend him for that. I hope everyone present tries to take the opportunity to visit a racing stable and see how well horses are treated in those stables—how well they are pampered and how loved they are by the stable staff who look after them, the trainers who train them and the owners who own them. I often wish I was as well-pampered as a racehorse. No stone is left unturned in looking after them. They have saunas, swimming pools—you name it. They are rightly treated like kings and queens in those stables.
We should be immensely proud of how well racehorses are looked after in this country. I suspect that we compare very well with any other country anywhere in the world and I would be amazed if any other country had as proud a track record in looking after racehorses as we do. The Horserace Betting Levy Board has supported nearly 500 research projects on animal welfare since its foundation. Since 2000, the levy board and third parties have invested about £35 million of veterinary research funding.
Rightly, we are a nation of animal lovers, nobody more than me. As someone who has been closely involved in the racing industry all my life, I can look people in the eye and say that I think that the racing industry in this country is the best in the world and the one most interested in animal welfare. The BHA does a fantastic job in regulating. I am not entirely sure what an independent regulator would do that the BHA does not already do, given some of the things I have mentioned. Anyone can see that it leaves no stone unturned in trying to ensure that we have as few horse casualties as possible in the racing industry. Unfortunately, accidents happen to horses, but they happen when they are out in a field, not when they are racing. Many injuries happen when horses are just loose in the field; they do a lot of damage to themselves. It is terrible, awful and heart-breaking for everybody, but unfortunately those things happen.
We should not castigate an industry that does so much for animal welfare either because of ignorance or because people just do not like a sport or people in that sport. We should all congratulate the British Horseracing Authority on everything it does for animal welfare; without doubt, it is a world leader, and I hope that the Minister will echo that point.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I welcome this very important debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on how he put forward the case on behalf of the petitioners. All hon. Members speaking today—whether we support or oppose the petition—have the welfare of racehorses at heart, before, during and after their careers. It is not just those advocating for the petition who support horse welfare. Indeed, in my experience there are no more passionate advocates for the welfare of thoroughbreds than those who work in the sport day in, day out.
I draw members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. If the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has a modest interest in a modest horse, I have a minuscule interest in a couple of very modest horses, although our gelding won a couple of bumpers at Sedgefield racecourse in your constituency, Mr Wilson. As someone who grew up with a great love of horse-racing, it was a thrill for me to see a horse that I have a minuscule interest in run at the champion bumper at Aintree on the Friday evening of the festival.
I am always struck by the attention paid by all of the staff at the yard to every possible need of the racehorses in their care. They are just some of the more than 6,000 racing grooms across training yards throughout Great Britain who put the welfare of the horse at the centre of everything they do: racehorses receive a standard of care virtually unsurpassed by any other domesticated animal.
It will not be surprising that I do not agree with the petition and fully support the responsible, proactive and, most importantly, already independent regulation of the British thoroughbred racing industry by the British Horseracing Authority. The current system has in fact been commended by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in its greyhound welfare inquiry as being
“recognised around the world as having implemented a high standard in equine care”.
The Committee highlighted that the racing industry demonstrates
“a very positive example of self-regulation supporting high welfare standards”.
It is a great privilege to be the Member of Parliament for the Haydock Park racecourse. True Lancastrians have loved racing as far back as in 1752; there was a racecourse in Newton-le-Willows where I live. I apologise to colleagues, but I believe Haydock Park is the finest racecourse in the country, not just for the quality of the facilities and the racing it offers 32 days a year over jump and flat racing, but because of the huge economic benefits it provides to the St Helens economy, thanks to its 155,000 visitors a year. It sits right at the heart of the community and works with local organisations and schools.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool mentioned that the petitioners were critical of the Weatherby family and the Jockey Club. I am very proud of our chairman Lord Daresbury, his wife Claire and our association with the Weatherby family. For years, they have given incredible service to horse-racing in this country, in good days and bad days. We are very lucky to have Pete as our chairman. He works with an incredible team at the Jockey Club in the north-west. I had the opportunity recently to join one of the superb educational days offered to a local school by the industry’s Racing to School charity programme. It was incredible to see the fascination of the schoolkids and how racing was used as an educational tool. They got to see some of the fantastic thoroughbreds looking fit, healthy and immaculate in the summer sunshine in St Helens over the summer.
Although I may be a touch biased towards Haydock Park, as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary racing and bloodstock industries group, alongside the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), I am a strong supporter of the wider horse-racing industry, as are many parliamentary colleagues. The industry is worth £3.5 billion to the British economy; it supports tens of thousands of jobs the length and breadth of the country, and it is enjoyed by six million racegoers annually and millions more watching at home on TV screens. British bloodstock is at the forefront of international horse-racing; that was demonstrated just last weekend by the phenomenal back-to-back victories of Enable in the prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Our horsemen have an international reputation for excellence. It is an industry that I, this House and the country should be hugely proud of.
I am afraid that some of the assertions we heard in the debate need to be tackled head-on, although I praise the thoughtful contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), based on her experience of her local racecourse. People often say that horses that are not good enough are simply disposed of or sent to the glue factory, but that is simply not the case. The industry has in place a dedicated charity, Retraining of Racehorses, which rehomes or retrains thousands of horses each year for other equine disciplines. Further work is being undertaken to enhance the industry’s capabilities.
People also say that racehorses are shot when they are injured because owners do not want to pay for their care. The only reason a horse will be euthanised on a racecourse when injured is that it is in the interest of their welfare. That process will be carried out by a fully qualified veterinarian, using medication to prevent any suffering. I know from working closely with the Racehorse Owners Association that an owner’s only interest is in their horse’s welfare, rather than financial gain, in those sad and rare circumstances, or in any circumstances. From the strong, independent and effective regulation by the British Horseracing Authority across racecourses, trainers, jockeys, owners, breeders and grooms, to fans of the sport, the British racing industry cares deeply about the welfare of these beautiful and wonderful animals. It is important that the industry does all it can to communicate that exceptional care to the wider public. I know that that is a priority of the industry.
I pay tribute to the work being done, from the Racecourse Association, the Jockey Club, the Arena Racing Company and 30 independent courses, to the Horsemen’s Group, the Racehorse Owners Association, the Thoroughbred Breeders Association, the Professional Jockeys Association, the National Trainers Federation and the National Association of Racing Staff. People are working day in, day out, in the interests of the horse and to promote British horse-racing, as are the wider racing community, such as Racing Welfare, Racing Together and Great British Racing, because racing is one big family. Like all families, we occasionally fall out, but we are loyal to each of our component parts. Our love for our great sport and the welfare of the horse trumps all other concerns.
I will deal with the petition’s substantive point, but the House should be clear that the ultimate aim of its organisers is the abolition of the British thoroughbred racing industry. The call from some who signed the petition for an independent regulator may be well-meaning, but the organisation behind it wants to get rid of British horse-racing. I cannot think of any step that would do more to jeopardise the welfare of more than 14,000 thoroughbreds in training or breeding right now—or indeed the breed’s very future—than to abolish the British racing industry.
The RSPCA and World Horse Welfare have spoken of a horse crisis facing the country, with several thousand horses at risk. I emphasise that that does not include the thoroughbred breed; such a step would greatly exacerbate that. All that comes before the hugely damaging economic impact there would be on the British rural economy.
To take the petition at face value, it calls for responsibility for regulation on equine welfare to be removed from the British Horseracing Authority and transferred to an independent body. I reject that on three separate grounds. First, the British Horseracing Authority’s track record in the eleven years since it was founded is one of clear improvement in equine welfare outcomes throughout the sport. Equine fatality and injury rates are down significantly, with fatalities down to 0.18% in 2017 from an already low 0.22% in 2013. A detailed review of the Grand National course at Aintree has resulted in six consecutive runnings of that race without an equine fatality. New rules governing the use of the air-cushioned whip have reduced the threshold for offences by half and breaches are down by 40%. Equine welfare is at the heart of British racing.
As the hon. Member for Shipley said, under the direction of the BHA’s first director of equine health and welfare, the authority has already introduced measures on notification of foal births within 30 days to improve traceability. The BHA is also introducing innovations in hurdle and fence design, working collaboratively with the RSPCA to reduce faller rates, and it is undertaking a benchmarking project with the University of Bristol to understand better what is in the interests of a horse’s welfare.
Secondly, the BHA already demonstrates its independence from commercial interests through its regulatory function. Its board significantly exceeds the Sport England sports governance code criteria for independence, and it has an ambition, which I fully endorse, to increase independence further. A fully independent judicial panel holds participants and racecourses to account for rule breaches relating to equine welfare. If commercial interests were paramount, why would that panel choose to ban the champion flat jockey—unfairly, in my humble opinion—for a significant period for minor whip offences in five races out of 837 mounts, which did not compromise horse welfare at all? Why would that ban run through the sport’s richest annual race day—British Champions Day, at Ascot this Saturday—where he is to be presented with his trophy but cannot ride? The regulation of horse welfare is paramount for the BHA—the regulator—and its panels.
Thirdly, the very concept as proposed by the petitioner of somehow extricating regulation of equine welfare from all of the other rules and regulations in place is deeply flawed. Every rule and regulation in British racing, enforced by the BHA’s stewarding, course inspectorate, stable inspection and veterinary teams has the welfare of the thoroughbred racehorse at its heart. The proposal is therefore as impractical as it is unnecessary.
I commend the BHA’s work in improving equine welfare outcomes in British racing. It has demonstrated a clear track record of upholding and enhancing the welfare of thoroughbred horses. The House should support British racing in its clear ambition to improve those standards further, with the BHA as a strong, already independent regulator of an industry that cares deeply for the welfare of its horses. I have every confidence in Nick Rust and his team to deliver on their ambition for British thoroughbred racehorses.
I encourage hon. Members to go and see for themselves the standards in place and enjoy a fantastic day’s racing at any of the 1,500 fixtures run annually in this country. A new independent welfare regulator in horse-racing is unnecessary and unjustified, because it is already clear that in British racing the horse comes first.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I represent Derby North, where we do not currently have a racecourse, although we do have a park called Racecourse park because we used to have one. I, no doubt like other hon. Members, have been lobbied by many constituents. I have had lots of letters from constituents who are concerned about horse welfare, use of the whip, and the number of horses that have died in horse-racing. They are keen for the House to press the Government to introduce an independent regulatory body.
I joined the League Against Cruel Sports back in 1976, so I have paid some attention to cruel sports, and some elements of horse-racing are undoubtedly incredibly cruel. I have paid much attention to the Grand National. The League Against Cruel Sports, along with a number of other organisations, has made representations about the cruelty associated with that event for many years. The course has been modified somewhat, but it is incredibly gruelling nevertheless. Other hon. Members have made glowing references to the British Horseracing Authority, but in my opinion it has proved itself to be singularly useless on animal welfare since it was founded in 2007. Why do I say that? Since that time 2,000 horses have died in horse-racing. On the barbaric use of the whip, in the order of 500 abuses are recorded every year, and there is no sign of a reduction in that number.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) suggested rather absurdly that the whip does not hurt. He said, “Get a whip and hit yourself with it—it won’t hurt.” Let me put a challenge to him: give me the whip, go stand somewhere and let me hit you with it and see if I can hurt you. He will probably find that I could hurt him.
The hon. Gentleman has a reputation for spouting off without having the first idea what he is talking about, and he has demonstrated that again. He has clearly never come across the new design of the whip in horse-racing—the whip is cushioned. I appreciate that he never feels the need to know anything about a subject before telling us all about it, but I advise him to try to find something out. He should visit racing stables and see for himself the new design of the whip, because it is cushioned and it does not hurt. Old whips may well have had problems, but the new, latest whip does not. He should know that.
Many people would beg to differ. The challenge still stands to see whether I could hurt the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps we can get some witnesses together and see whether that is possible—but perhaps he is tougher than me.
The hon. Gentleman also asserted that he is an animal lover. That is an interesting observation from someone whom I understand is in favour of repealing the Hunting Act 2004. Someone in favour of ripping wild animals to pieces claims to be an animal lover—that brings his assertion into question.
To emphasise the point that the hon. Gentleman comes here without knowing anything of what he is talking about, I have made it abundantly clear that I do not support changing the law on hunting at all. The law should stay in place. Again, he makes the case for me that he comes here spouting off about things of which he knows nothing.
I am delighted to hear that, because organisations have sought to find out how Members of Parliament would vote on a repeal of the Hunting Act and the hon. Gentleman was down as being in favour. However, we digress, because we are not here to talk about blood sports.
A self-governing body in any area leaves a lot to be desired. We see it in a host of things, from financial regulation to the governing of the horse-racing industry. The British Horseracing Authority has a range of different responsibilities, including race planning; disciplinary procedures; protecting the integrity of the sport; licensing and registering racing participants; setting and enforcing standards of medical care for jockeys and other participants; setting and enforcing common standards for British racecourses; research and improvements in equine science and welfare; regulating point-to-point racing in the UK; the compilation of the fixture list; and setting and enforcing the rules and orders of racing. There is only one reference to welfare, and that is in the context of research and improvements in equine science and welfare.
To be frank, I do not understand why any hon. Member would have a difficulty with an independent body having oversight of welfare in the industry. If a body is dedicated exclusively at looking at the welfare of horses, surely that would make it more accountable and better at the job. The BHA’s responsibilities include a host of things, which I have just listed, and welfare receives just a minor reference. Having an organisation dedicated to enforcing and improving welfare standards would improve the welfare of horses.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) tried to widen the debate and question the motives of the organisation behind the petition. He suggested that it wanted to abolish horse-racing, but that is not what we are debating today. All we are debating is whether an independent body should oversee the welfare of horses that participate in horse-racing. Why would anybody have a problem with that?
I certainly do not have a problem with a body overseeing this issue. However, the BHA can suspend a jockey for overuse of the whip—which is about not only disciplining jockeys but the welfare of the horse—and it is also responsible for the integrity of the sport. Does not the hon. Gentleman think that those functions fit rather nicely with welfare issues? A new body would take away those functions from the BHA and isolate the issue, when the fact is that other issues also come into play. Does he understand that point?
I take the point to an extent, but having an independent body would not mean that the BHA would then have no interest in or responsibility for welfare. An independent body would make sure that the BHA did its job properly and it would also have an overarching responsibility to prevent the same number of horses being killed or dying during horseraces. There have been 2,000 deaths since the BHA was founded and there does not seem to be any sign that the barbaric use of the whip is diminishing, notwithstanding the view of the hon. Member for Shipley that it is all lovely when a horse is hit with a cushioned whip and it does not hurt. The case for an independent body is unanswerable, in my opinion and that of many thousands of British people, whom we represent. Many hundreds of my constituents feel strongly about the issue, to the point that a number of them have lobbied me about it.
In conclusion, an independent body dedicated to stopping the tide of death and abuse in the horse-racing industry, is—
The hon. Gentleman has been very generous in giving way, but he seems to dodge the issue by saying that we are not talking today about a ban. Does he want to ban horse-racing? Does he want to ban national hunt racing in this country? Would that be the end product if he were running the show?
No, I am not calling for that at all. What I want to see is welfare standards upheld in the industry. I would hope that all of us wish to see that. There is a difference of opinion: some seem to think that the BHA is capable of doing that, but it has proven itself incapable of doing so, because if it were, we would not have seen so many horses being killed and we would not see the grotesque use of the whip. In a sense, however, that is irrelevant, irrespective of my views. That is not what we are debating today and I am not calling for it.
I am a vegan and, indeed, the vegans will inherit the earth—there is no doubt about that. We have to reduce the amount of meat we are eating because we are killing the planet, but we are not getting into that now. We are not having a wide debate about the rights, wrongs and wherefores of various different topics. The hon. Gentleman and others have sought to muddy the waters by questioning the motives of the people behind the petition.
I do not question for a minute the right and entitlement of anyone to say that horse-racing should be banned. My hon. Friend and other Opposition Members have a long track record of campaigning and speaking out on these issues, and while I admire that, I just do not agree with it. It is important to say that, although ostensibly this debate is about moving to an independent regulator, the ultimate aim of those behind the petition is to ban horse-racing. I do not agree with that, but it is an entirely legitimate view and we should at least be up front about the motivation behind trying to disaggregate the component parts of racing, which is to end racing altogether. I do not doubt my hon. Friend’s motives or his sincerity.
I appreciate that, but I do not necessarily see the logical, sequential steps that my hon. Friend has outlined. If we agree that there is a need for an independent body, that does not inexorably lead to the abolition of racing. In many ways I think it would preserve it, because the concerns of the many thousands of people who were spurred on to sign the petition would be dissipated if they could see a body that was effective in reducing the number of horses killed and in reducing—or, indeed, eliminating—the use of the whip. Why would people call for the abolition of horse-racing, if they were that way minded, if the cruelty associated with it were eliminated? Contrary to what my hon. Friend has suggested, eliminating the cruelty would help to preserve the longevity of horse-racing.
My last few words are that the time is long overdue for an independent body of the kind called for by the petitioners.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, and to speak in this important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for speaking on behalf of the Petitions Committee.
The petition had 105,000 signatures, showing the great concern of members of the public for horse welfare across the United Kingdom. They want the debate to reflect their concerns. We want the very best animal welfare standards and to be leaders in this important field—that goes to the core of what we are speaking about. The petition demonstrates that there is great public interest in this area. Some people who signed it may wish for an abolition of racing, but at the core and the heart of many people’s reason for signing is a wish to see welfare standards improved, to make sure that we have the best possible standards for horses.
I am not against horse-racing. I have been down to Hamilton racecourse, next to my constituency, and to the Ayr Gold Cup. I have met jockeys and trainers, and spoken to the industry. I believe that we must put welfare at the heart of what we are doing. It is important that we have a balanced debate that covers what we are doing properly and where things can improve. We need to make sure that regulations can improve and that the issues raised by the public and those concerned about animal welfare are placed at the centre of the debate.
I agree with everything that the hon. Lady has said thus far. The British Horseracing Authority has equine welfare as its No. 1 strategic objective. How much higher on the list would she like to see it before she accepts that it is at the heart of what it does?
[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]
I thank the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect on matters of sport in general—and particularly given his love of darts, which I share; we are both in the all-party darts group. Yes, the authority claims to have horse welfare at its heart in the way that he mentioned, and that must be the case; but there is a need for increased transparency and better reporting. There is also a potential conflict of interest with its other activities. Those are some of the issues that the very discerning public are bringing into question. Is not it time, therefore, to consider an independent regulator, if the issues cannot be ironed out and we cannot make the necessary strides forward in horse welfare? I take the point that there have been improvements at the Grand National, but there is still some way to go in making the improvements needed to ensure that horse welfare is at its heart. I think the public are fully behind such improvements. I agree with the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) that improved horse welfare standards would ensure that the industry could continue.
On the welfare point, does the hon. Lady agree that although, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) said, welfare might be at the heart of things and a top priority for the BHA, it is not very good at maintaining welfare if 2,000 horses have been killed and the whip is used as much as ever?
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says. I understand that the whip is no longer used in Norway, including when our jockeys and horses race there, so it is not a necessity to use it, regardless of any disagreement about whether it is sore to be whipped with a horsewhip or whether the whip may be cushioned, as other hon. Members have suggested. Horse-racing could continue without the use of the whip and, if there is any dubiety about the level of cruelty in using it, the Norwegian example is surely a step forward.
I thank the charities that have been involved in the petition and in working towards good standards in horse welfare. It is important that we give not only our views but those of our constituents. Hundreds of my constituents have grave concerns, and many of them emailed me to ask me to speak today and raise concerns about horse welfare with the Minister. I thank all hon. Members who spoke, as well. There was some divergence of opinion, but that is good for debate and for moving forward. It brought out many of the issues that the Minister will grapple with. I know he will do a good job of summarising and responding to the debate.
The BHA actively promotes horse-racing in Britain, but it is also responsible for the welfare of racehorses. To my mind that creates a conflict of interest. That is important. Any industry where the regulator was also the promoter would have to recognise some conflict of interest. When that is pointed out, the response should be to try to improve welfare and to counteract the arguments by addressing the concerns.
As we have heard, about 200 horses are killed as a result of racing in Britain every year, and an undisclosed number die in training for races. I was concerned to hear during the debate about the horse deaths at Perth racecourse. I shall follow that up with the racecourse industry. I ask the Minister to look at the matter; perhaps he would also speak with industry representatives about the Grand National and whether more can be done to ensure that horse welfare is at the heart of racing and the Grand National in particular. The public would, I am sure, be behind him if he were to do so.
I mentioned that jockeys in Norway do not use the whip; suffice it to say that it is not necessary, and not using it would not mean the end of the industry. Another issue raised in the debate was the fact that the BHA does not apply limits to thoroughbred foal production, and that that can lead to what is called industry wastage, involving huge numbers of horses. The BHA must address that issue if we are to have faith in it to carry out its current role. It was mentioned that race day governing stewards are also frequently found to fail to report accurately on racehorse injuries. I think there have been many occasions when stewards did not report on racehorse deaths. There is a need for more transparency, through independent reporting and disaggregation of figures. I do not see that as something that would put the industry asunder, if there were nothing behind the figures to cause the public alarm. Statistics would mean we could look at the issues and at which types of racecourse and races were causing them, and consider how to improve welfare standards and address the issues fully for horses and jockeys.
The case for an independent racehorse welfare regulator is that an independent body of professionals would be accountable to the Government, and would be responsible for scrutinising all aspects of racehorse welfare. It would implement measures to help to resolve welfare issues in three key areas, breeding, racing and training—and in post-career provision, as has been described. The new body would be responsible for scrutinising individual racecourses and racing conditions alongside the race calendar programming. It would be able to place requirements on racecourses and the BHA to make tangible changes to reduce the rate of injuries and deaths, which otherwise will surely continue. The rate of injuries and deaths must come down. The BHA has had a long to time to achieve that. It has made some progress—but is it sufficient? The fact that 105,000 people have signed the petition to Parliament that we are debating today suggests that it has not been living up to the standards of public expectation. It must do so—or what else can Parliament do but support an independent regulator? The onus is on the BHA to continue to do more.
The hon. Lady is generous in giving way, and I do not want to test your patience, Mr Sharma. She is right that 100,000 people signed the petition. They went online, submitted their details and clicked the button. Does she think that the 6 million people who get in their cars or on the train and go to a racecourse and take part in horse-racing every year care about horse-racing welfare too? Should their voice be heard, vis-à-vis the 100,000 people who signed the petition?
Absolutely—I totally agree. As I said, I am one of those people who would go in their car to see the races, and have a day of enjoyment there; but at the very core of that, I want to make sure, and to know in my heart, that the best possible standards are being applied at that racecourse. I do not believe for a moment that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that there are 100,000 people who care about animal welfare and 6 million other people, who go to races and care differently; those are the same people, who care about both. They care about animal welfare, and many also go to the races.
I disagree with the premise that if someone does not sign a petition, they think that something suffices. If the hon. Gentleman were to organise for the BHA to start a petition to say that people were entirely satisfied, we would see how many signatures that collects; that would answer the question.
I will finish by asking a few questions of the Minister. First, will he speak to the industry about the Grand National and what more can be done there? Public opinion is firmly behind change. Secondly, will he consider looking, with the BHA in the first instance and perhaps over time, depending on how it responds, at the transparency of the figures produced and what more we can do in that regard? Thirdly, will he be kind enough to look at the examples in other countries, such as Norway, where the whip is not used any more but where it has no undermining effect on the industry, and see whether improvements can be made there?
I think that everyone who has spoken spoke of the need for horse welfare to be the crux of the debate. I thank everybody for taking part and would be very much obliged if the Minister would address the important issues that the petitioners and I have raised.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on introducing this debate so well, and thank all hon. Members on both sides for their passionate discussion. This issue spans not only my brief, in the shadow Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team, but that of the shadow Sports Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), who I thank for her input, as this is not only a welfare issue but an issue for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Plymouth, which I represent, has many fantastic things, but it does not have a racecourse. It is 27 miles to Newton Abbot, or a little further on to see a race at Exeter. However, that does not mean that the issues are not pertinent to the people I represent, as has been shown by the sheer depth and breadth of numbers of signatories on this petition.
It is important to mention from the outset what an important contribution horse-racing makes to the UK economy and to local economies across the country, providing jobs as well as entertaining punters. Horse-racing estimates that it employs 85,000 people around Great Britain and measures its contribution to the economy at over £3 billion. No one doubts its contribution, but the welfare of horses needs to be an important part of that contribution if it is to continue supporting those economies.
While horse-riding is an extremely dangerous sport for horses and their riders, according to Horse & Hound—which I admit might not be at the top of every Labour MP’s reading list—around one in 17 jump jockey rides ends in a fall. Many jockeys suffer life-changing injuries and mental health problems as a result, as they compete for prize money in a hotly contested sport. As was mentioned earlier, however, while being a jockey is a voluntary occupation, being a racehorse is not.
As Peter Singer put it in the 1975 book, “Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals”, animals do not have a voice to speak up for themselves, so I firmly believe that as parliamentarians we have a duty to give them that voice. Today, this House has spoken: every horse matters. In their welfare, their health, their conditions and their life from birth to death—before racing, during racing and once their racing days are over—every horse should matter. If every horse matters, as we have heard today, then we need robust and constantly improving equine welfare regulation to ensure that that happens.
We will shortly hear from the Minister about the Government’s position, but when this petition reached 10,000 signatures back in March, the Government responded by saying that they did not consider it necessary to establish a new welfare body, as
“overall racehorse welfare is improving and fatalities at racecourses are falling”.
Both those statements are true; my question is, how ambitious are we in wanting to see those improvements? I appreciate that DEFRA is a busy Department, but we must not be casual or cautious when it comes to animal welfare. We must be bold, ambitious and demanding. I think the Minister will have heard that from both sides in this debate.
The Government response at that time also pointed out:
“Racehorses, like all domestic and captive animals, are afforded protection under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Under this legislation, it is an offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to an animal or for an owner, or keeper, to fail to provide for its welfare needs.”
That is right, and I am pleased that the Government have accepted the argument that sentences for those who fail to provide for the welfare of their animal should increase. Will the Minister say when he expects that to come online and when we can expect our courts to be able to use those sentencing powers in cases of poor animal welfare in horse-racing and elsewhere?
It is clear that the Government wholeheartedly back the British Horseracing Authority, but the crux of the debate is whether the BHA is conflicted in its mission between its support for the industry and animal welfare. I agree with hon. Members from across the House that we must have an integrated welfare component to all sports. We cannot have the idea that animal welfare is not something that anyone running a race is responsible for. It is the core thing that everyone running a race is responsible for.
This goes to the heart of what the BHA is there for. In its briefing paper it stated:
“Thoroughbreds are the centre of our sport, they are its very heart and soul.”
It is right. To its credit, the BHA does not hide from concerns raised about this sector. I met with its team earlier to go line by line through many of the concerns raised, and it is clear that the BHA understands the acute challenges ahead for the industry and what it needs to do to put it right. The BHA has been around since 2007 and was brought in by the Labour Government of the time. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs stated in 2016 that the BHA
“is recognised around the world as having implemented a high standard in equine care.”
Key to that is the BHA’s role in improving animal welfare and equine care in particular. That is where we need to ask ourselves at what pace this improvement is happening and whether it could go faster. Although we have seen improvements in the number of deaths, down from 0.3% to less than 0.2% of runners in 2017, the question at the heart of this debate is: where next? If we are to legitimise the BHA continuing to govern the regulatory approach, when will that figure be halved? When will we get to 0.1%—by what date? What steps will be taken to get there? What happens if we do not get there? When will the target be zero?
We have heard some great speeches today from my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) and for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and for Shipley (Philip Davies), but the purpose of today’s debate and all those contributions is to look at how we can improve equine welfare faster than we are at the moment. In a highly charged, high-pressure competitive sport, where financial gains can be made by winning or going faster, we must ask ourselves whether there is a profit motive in not ensuring the best animal welfare as part of that.
We must ensure at all times not only that equine care is the foremost of the industry’s concerns, but that it is seen to be the foremost, with the industry communicating how to do that. I am sure there is agreement across the House that animals should not suffer for our entertainment. What separates horse-racing from banned sports such as foxhunting, cockfighting and dogfighting is that it does not include unnecessary pain or suffering to the animals used. That is the heart of the social contract on the basis of which horse-racing is permitted.
The World Horse Welfare organisation believes that
“the role of horses in sport is legitimate and right, as well as mutually beneficial—so long as their welfare is put first.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool said, while some racehorses are treated like kings, horse-racing still causes death, pain, distress and suffering for many horses. While progress has been made on making the sport safer for horses, are we comfortable with the pace of change to date?
While the Labour party is still developing its full animal welfare position, hon. Members will know that we have consulted on our 50-point animal welfare plan, “Animal Welfare For The Many, Not The Few”. During the consultation period in the summer we received 5,000 responses, which is quite a lot for an Opposition consultation on this subject. At the heart of that plan was a desire to see an independent animal welfare commissioner introduced as a safeguard to ensure that all Government policy is not only compliant with animal welfare but is being enforced and that, where animal welfare is entrusted to self-regulatory bodies, that body is maintaining high animal welfare standards. That should be at the heart of this debate and goes to the heart of some of the petitioners’ concerns to ensure that animal welfare in the horse-racing sector is put front and centre and delivered.
If the BHA commits to always putting horse welfare above the interests of commercial sport, as it has done and says it does, if it can properly separate those sides of the organisation and always act to protect horses in line with the latest scientific evidence, it should have nothing to fear from enhanced scrutiny, inspection and transparency. Indeed, it has told me that it wants that, and an animal welfare commissioner would be a step towards achieving it.
The crux of the concerns of those who signed the petition and those who have spoken in the debate can be split into two broad themes. One is independence. Although the BHA has gone to great lengths to make its animal welfare bodies independent and separate, I believe it needs to do more to communicate that governance to the public and to continue to drive for those bodies’ greater independence and separation from the sector. The second theme is standards, and the demand that they should be world-class, world-leading and so ambitious that they set the UK out a furlong ahead, not edging it by a nose. I also want to see faster and further progress on the key equine welfare issues raised. The social contract that allows the use of animals in sport is changing. Consumers are more demanding, and welfare standards are rightly being pushed higher in response.
Having spent many years working for the Association of British Travel Agents, the travel trade body, I know about the power of self-regulation. However, I also know about the responsibility to ensure that, where an organisation regulates members who pay its wages, that organisation should remain one step ahead, in a leadership position, not following the pack. There can be no dash from last place to win the day in good governance or vision. Good governance and independence is not a destination but a constant journey. Standing still is not an option. The BHA should welcome this debate as an opportunity to improve not only its standards but its communication.
I suspect that the Minister will argue that the BHA is the right body to oversee equine welfare. If so, what ambitious and stretching targets does he have for the sector? How can the deaths of 0.2% of runners be halved in the next five years? If they cannot, what will the public response be? I believe in self-regulation, but it has to work and has to carry consumer confidence to remain relevant. As we have heard, there is still a challenge with self-regulation in the sector, and more needs to be done for it to continue. That is why I want the BHA to publish ambitious plans to further reduce racehorse deaths, to set out how new technologies will help to support better behaviour, and to review the use of the whip. Many sound voices in the racing industry want change in that regard.
When our animal welfare plan was put out for consultation, we received countless responses on the use of the whip in racing, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central mentioned. The BHA has taken steps to reduce the use of the whip, limiting it to seven strikes in a flat race and eight in a national hunt, or jump, race. However, we need to look again at whether that is right. I mentioned the changing social contract between those who participate in the sport, those who watch the sport and, importantly, those who bet on horse-racing. The use of the whip is one element of the social contract that has recently changed and that will continue to change. I know that there are voices within the industry that would like the use of the whip to be further reduced, if not outlawed, except in cases of safety. There is a strong argument in support of that.
The RSPCA believes that the only whips permissible should be those of proven shock-absorbing designs. I must admit that I think replacing whips in horse-racing with MPs whipping each other may soon become more fashionable, given the exchange that we heard earlier. However, it is important that whips are used with minimal force and on minimal occasions, and only for genuine safety purposes. If everyone in horse-racing stopped using whips, the horse that wins a race would be the one that is best trained, has the most energy and is most focused. The best jockeys with the best tactics would win the race, not necessarily those who strike the most with their whip. That has been happening in Norway since 1982, and British and Irish jockeys adhere to those rules when riding there.
The social contract is changing. We need to look at it and in particular at the number of deaths. At the moment, the deaths of 0.2% of runners is too high, equating to roughly one in 500 racehorses. The only reason that it is accepted is because they are horses. Were they humans, that level of fatality in a sport would not be accepted. We have to ask whether, if we applied the same standards to animal welfare as we do to human welfare, as is increasingly the case in animal welfare policy, we would accept the same number of deaths in cricketers or rugby players.
Labour demands that the industry comes up with more stringent and ambitious targets. I want the BHA to bring together its frequently good work, which we have heard about during this debate, into a more ambitious plan.
At the moment, there is a strong case for reform and greater ambition. A self-regulatory system needs to carry the confidence of the public. I think that the BHA has heard the concerns voiced by Members on both sides of the House, including those who support its role, in wanting a more demanding and ambitious set of policies. We need to look at what will happen if that is not put in place. Organisations that do not keep pace with changing consumer demands on animal welfare and the changing social contract will see their business model effectively erode from the bottom up, as we have seen with SeaWorld in the tourism sector. If there continue to be more deaths, there is a real danger that the industry’s legitimacy could be threatened, as mentioned by Members on both sides of this debate.
Much more needs to be done on improving animal welfare. We should be clear that British horse-racing is a national success story, but we want the industry to work harder, faster and smarter to improve equine welfare and to set transparent targets that can be independently verified. The public have a right to know if activities only pay lip service to that or are genuine—ambitious plans or simply pedestrian. The industry has a lot of good stories to tell about animal welfare and safety, but it can also do a lot more to improve them.
If Labour was in government and I were in the Minister’s place, I would be demanding a greater set of targets from the industry, looking at how we can halve the deaths of horses involved in horse-racing. When will we reach the 0.1% target, and can it be a numerical target, not just a percentage target? As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central, Brexit could have an impact on the number of runners for races, so we want to make sure that we are not simply hitting a percentage target but talking about the number horses that die in the trade.
There is an awful lot of good news from the sector. However, there are an awful lot of improvements that Members on both sides should rightly demand if the industry is to continue to adapt and flex to meet the changing social contract and changing consumer demands that our electorate are making.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on speaking up for the petitioners, which he did extraordinarily well, while also adding in some of his own views along the way. It has been a useful and stimulating debate.
I am the newly appointed Minister for Animal Welfare, and hon. Members on both sides of the House can be assured that this issue is very important to me. Like other Members, I have also received several emails from constituents who have signed the petition; there were 176 from Macclesfield. It is clear from the contributions made that racehorses spend many weeks training hard to compete in races so that many people across the country can enjoy the thrill of horse-racing, which, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), and others, is the second-best-attended sport after football. That is why we should rightly expect that racehorses are looked after to the highest standard and that their welfare needs, as required by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, are met.
The BHA is responsible for the safety of the tracks, for both horses and jockeys. I am pleased that it works hard to put in place the necessary safety measures for horses and works collaboratively with welfare experts from the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare to continuously improve its work in this vital endeavour, which is important.
As the new Minister, I wanted to understand what these welfare organisations—as well as my colleagues—had to say, so I read with interest the views of the RSPCA, which is supportive of its working arrangement with the BHA. The charity’s deputy chief executive, Chris Wainwright, said:
“We work really closely with the BHA and we think that relationship has resulted in lots of really good improvements, whether it’s the use of the whip”—
we will come on to that again in a moment—
“hurdles design or the review of Aintree.”
It is clearly open to further reviews, but it has a positive working relationship with the BHA.
World Horse Welfare says that it has worked constructively with the BHA for many years, which has resulted in a number of positive changes to further advance racehorse safety and welfare.
The BHA has a dedicated team who inspect the 60 racetracks in Great Britain. There are four inspectors of courses, who have an allocated number of racecourses. I will not go into all the detail of their work, but it is clear that they do preliminary inspections of the racecourses; they are involved at the start of every season. Throughout the season, racecourses continue to be monitored, and then any improvements that are required get acted on. On race day itself, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has seen for herself, a huge amount of activity goes on to ensure that there are high standards then as well.
How do we think that the BHA is performing? There were differing views across the Chamber today. The BHA maintains statistics on the number of horses involved in fatal accidents, and it is really important to see the level of fatalities and the trend. Mention has been made of this, but let me put it on the record for clarity: clearly, each fatality is absolutely tragic. The continuing decline in fatalities from the years 2012 and 2013, when there were 211 and 196 fatalities respectively, to 167 in 2017 is encouraging, but I am keen to see the number of fatalities decline still further. From contributions in today’s debate, including a very useful contribution from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), I think that that ambition is shared across the House. The BHA needs to recognise that and respond to it, and I will come in due course to how I think it could be recognised.
As has been highlighted, there is always a degree of risk in any sport or activity, whether to the humans or animals involved. With 91,000 runners at tracks in 2017, the fatalities represented 0.18% of all runners. It is positive to see the percentage also declining since 2012. That is very welcome, given the work that the BHA is doing to put in place the necessary safety measures. I have to state again that that is done on a collaborative basis with the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare. That approach is vital. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr Cameron) that more needs to be done to ensure that the figures are transparent and available to the public more readily. I will raise that when I meet the BHA.
A good example of a result of the collaboration between the BHA and the RSPCA is the redesign of fences and other aspects of the Grand National course, as the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) will appreciate, given his constituency interests. It resulted in the inner frames of fences being replaced with more forgiving flexible plastic. That has led to a sharp decline in the number of fatalities in that iconic race; indeed, there has been none since the work was completed in 2013. That is good news, and more needs to be done to learn from these important lessons to reduce fatalities further in other races.
There have been very notable contributions to the debate. Some were incredibly supportive of the status quo, although I think that everyone wants further change and improvement. Worth highlighting are the intervention early on from the right hon. Member for Warley and the contributions from the hon. Member for St Helens North and my hon. Friends the Members for Tewkesbury and for Shipley (Philip Davies). They highlighted how much horse-racing means to many people across the country and that the welfare of racehorses is vital, not just for the industry’s sake but for the horses’ sake. They are wonderful animals and their welfare should be paramount. Hon. Members spoke strongly in support of the BHA’s work, but I did not detect complacency. I recognised that they felt that racehorse welfare needed to continue to be a real priority.
We were able to see during the debate what it is like to go to York racecourse on race day. We had a behind-the-scenes view of what goes on from a contribution by the hon. Member for York Central that was characteristically thoughtful and, as always, as I have noticed in these debates, well researched. She raised a number of issues and, with the permission of hon. Members present, I will go through as many as I can. She raised the important issue of starting gates, which was also raised on the petitioners’ behalf by the hon. Member for Hartlepool. It is clear that the BHA needs to look very carefully at the tragic incidents that have been raised, such as the one involving Commanding Officer. More needs to be done to tackle this issue. Again, I will raise it with the BHA when I meet it in the near future.
The use of whips has been much discussed—by the hon. Members for York Central, for East Kilbride and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport and by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. I have to tread pretty carefully on this subject: I am a Government Whip and I have also been the Whip for my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley—I do not think any more needs to be said there. [Interruption.] I have sometimes found that a carrot can be more effective than a stick, but we will not go too far down that track.
None the less, important issues have been raised about use of the whip. In this country, strict rules are in place. Stewards are empowered to hold inquiries and to ban jockeys. The BHA rightly keeps those rules under review, and of course lessons should be learned from places such as Norway. It was interesting to read the report produced by the RSPCA for this debate. It has obviously been monitoring use of the whip and working closely with the BHA on this issue. According to its records and review, between 2012 and 2015 there was a 40% reduction in use of the whip. The RSPCA welcomes that, as I think we all do, but we would probably all say, “Let’s go further down that track.”
On the subject of retired racehorses, it sounds as though New Beginnings, in the constituency of the hon. Member for York Central, is doing great work and it is to be commended. We need to learn from the positive work that is going on to retrain racehorses, which was also highlighted by the hon. Member for St Helens North. Indeed, £750,000 is being made available to see what can be done to facilitate the rehoming and retraining of racehorses. I am really encouraged to see that there are successful second careers for racehorses.
The hon. Member for York Central talked about a number of EU-exit-related issues, including that of skilled staff. The Migration Advisory Committee has been asked to review the shortage occupation list, and I am sure that the racing industry will want to make its contributions to that important review. She highlighted equine movement; that is one of several issues that need to be considered as we look at leaving the EU. The continued movement of equines between the UK and the EU, with the minimum of delay, is very important to the industry on both sides. It is therefore in both sides’ interest to ensure that that is maintained. Technical notices were put out on 12 October about what arrangements will be put in place in a no deal scenario, but obviously what we are working towards—we have heard more about it today—is securing a deal. The negotiation, as we are all too aware, is ongoing.
The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) took a different track with his view of the BHA’s track record. None the less, it stimulated a lively debate. Even he did not want a ban on horse-racing. I think that what we are all saying here, although from different positions, is that we want to see the welfare of racehorses put centre stage. I will take on board the points that he made.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride and several other communities—I can never remember them in order, so I will stick with just East Kilbride—made, characteristically, such a reasonable contribution that it is hard to disagree with many of the things that she said. Further improvements are required. She felt that there was a conflict of interest with regard to the BHA’s role. I do not particularly share that view, but I will go into that in more detail. She did set out some issues to tackle, notwithstanding the figures that we have talked about for the Grand National, and she talked about what can be done to address issues in relation to the whip.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, who also made an important contribution, highlighted the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which came into place under a previous Government, under his party’s leadership. That is a very important Act. I, too, welcome the fact that the present Government are looking to increase the sentences. We are looking to bring that into place as soon as possible when parliamentary time permits. We are seeking the Bill necessary to make it possible, and I know that he would welcome that moving forward as quickly as possible. He also highlighted the fact that this subject is very much about an ongoing journey. I share his ambition; in fact, I want to go further. As the Minister for this area now, I need to press hard on these issues.
I will now wind up and give a few concluding remarks. I would like to stress again that we must do all that we can to reduce the fatalities of horses while racing on a track. I am grateful for all the contributions in this debate, which show the keen interest that is genuinely felt in the welfare of racehorses.
The Government welcome all the work the BHA has done, and continues to do, for the safety of horses and riders and as a functioning and transparent body, which has the key responsibility in this area. With the work the BHA has done to further reduce the number of fatalities at racetracks, the Government do not see a need to take a different approach by creating a new body, as was set out in the initial response to the e-petition. That does not mean that the BHA should not continue to be held to account. It should continue to have to explain what it does in an open and transparent way, as has been set out clearly in this debate.
I am looking forward to meeting the BHA in the near future. The welfare of racehorses will be at the top of the agenda and will continue to be at subsequent meetings. I am particularly interested to discuss with the BHA its review, which is due to be published soon, of the tragic deaths of six racehorses at Cheltenham. I think that will be an important vehicle to understand its commitment and ambition, which—as has been set out clearly in the debate—other hon. Members share. It provides an opportunity to look at what more can be done at the Grand National. Let us use that report as a moment for reflection. I hope that the BHA is listening to this debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I will seek clarification myself, based on what he said. Whether six or seven, it is a tragic number of horses to have died in one event. That review is important and timely, particularly for me as a new Minister. I look forward to that meeting, which will be testing and challenging, quite rightly, because of what has been set out in this debate.
I will also continue to monitor the reports of future fatalities and review associated action plans, to ensure that further progress is made in the months and years ahead. As previously stated, I am pleased that the BHA has an open and fruitful relationship with the key welfare bodies in this area—the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare—and that it takes advice on animal welfare from those organisations. I am sure that that will continue; it should be encouraged.
While the Government may not agree with those who signed the e-petition on the need for a new body, I hope that we can all agree that more can and should be done to work collaboratively, to keep the spotlight on reducing fatalities and improving the welfare of racehorses. I look forward to playing my part in this important work.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I thank the e-petitioners and Animal Aid, representatives of which are here, for bringing this e-petition. I thank the Authority, which is also represented here, for meeting me. Finally, I thank the Petitions Committee support team for its programme of online engagement on the subject in the run-up to this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 211950 relating to setting up a new independent body for the protection of racehorses.