Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Greyhound Racing Industry: Discussion

2:00 pm

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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Thank you, Chairman and members. I am delighted to have the opportunity to attend today's committee meeting to discuss this very important industry, namely, the greyhound industry.

It is a sector which merits attention because apart from being a sporting and leisure activity, it is an industry which makes a significant contribution to the Irish economy. In its 2010 report on the sector, Jim Power Economics - Mr. Power is a well known economist - estimated that the Irish greyhound industry employs just over 10,300 people directly and indirectly, that the gross wage bill generated by that employment is €207 million and the tax contribution from that employment is €21 million. Based on a conservative multiplier of 1.5, the Power report estimates that this results in a total economic impact of €279 million in terms of additional spending in the Irish economy.

The report also refers to the rural impact of this activity. The 17 licensed racetracks around the country are widely dispersed geographically, with greyhound owners and activity in every county in the State. Greyhound racing is something that is inextricably linked to rural and farming communities around the country. It is part of the fabric of rural Ireland but also enjoys a strong urban support base.

Bord na gCon is the commercial State body charged with promoting, developing and regulating the greyhound sector. That is a complex task. Bord na gCon employs more than 700 people, including full-time and part-time staff, and has an annual turnover of approximately €40 million. Funds generated from racing are reinvested in the industry through contributions to prize money and grants to various bodies involved in the greyhound racing and breeding sector as well as promotion of greyhound welfare and the regulation of the industry.

The challenge for Bord na gCon is to encourage the development of a commercial greyhound racing and breeding industry, built on a customer focused, high quality entertainment product, which meets the highest international standards of regulation. The work of Bord na gCon since 2008 comes against the background of challenging economic conditions, reduced disposable income in households and lower consumer spending. Against that backdrop, in early 2014 my Department commissioned Indecon economic consultants to prepare a report on certain matters relating to Bord na gCon. Indecon was asked to examine matters relating to governance, finance, regulation and welfare and it reported in July 2014. It identified a number of significant financial and commercial challenges facing the sector and made a number of recommendations in that regard. It also made recommendations in relation to governance, regulation, animal welfare and breeding, which I have broadly accepted.

Implementing the recommendations of the Indecon report is a work in progress. There are challenges, but I know that the board is working diligently to an action plan and that significant progress is being made. It is critical that those involved in the industry have confidence in this process. In that context, I urge the board to consider how it might improve communications to the industry on the implementation of the recommendations of the Indecon report because it is very much in the best interests of both the board and the industry that those involved in the sector have a full appreciation of the progress being made.

I know that the chairman and CEO of Bord na gCon will appear before the committee later today to give a detailed report, but I would like to touch on some of the broad themes and priorities.

Greyhound racing relies on Bord na gCon for the provision of prize money, for financial support for the operation and development of tracks and for a variety of other operations and services, without which the sector could not continue. Putting Bord na gCon on a sound financial footing is a key priority. The context for Bord na gCon’s operation in recent years includes a very difficult economic environment and also the requirement to service bank debt of €22 million. Improving its financial position requires it to take action to reduce its borrowings and improve the commercial viability of its operations. Key recommendations included a plan for asset disposals, the collaboration of race meetings to improve the viability of poorly performing stadiums, the development of new products such as commingling and fixed odds betting opportunities and an exploration of alternative sources of commercial income at each of the stadiums across the country. These are operational matters for Bord na gCon, and, of course, there are no instant solutions. However, progress is being made on all of these fronts.

On asset disposals, Bord na gCon has completed the sale of its former headquarters in Limerick, as recommended in the Indecon report, and is considering the sale of other non-core assets. The board has included Harold’s Cross in its asset disposal plan, in accordance with the recommendations of the Indecon report. I expect any such sale to be subject to a variety of considerations in the final analysis, including the value obtained, the extent to which it can improve the overall financial position of the board and the impact on its ability to develop and promote greyhound racing on a more sustainable basis nationally.

I have been extremely supportive of the board in terms of its finances. In budget 2015 my Department provided an additional €2.8 million in funding for Bord na gCon, bringing its share of the horse and greyhound racing fund to a total of €13.6 million. I am delighted that an additional €1.2 million will be provided in 2016, bringing total Exchequer funding for greyhound racing to €14.8 million. This additional provision has been very well received in the sector. I want to see this funding used to stimulate participation in racing and breeding through the provision of grants for prize money. I would like this incentive to filter through to small races throughout the country and the small trainers who are under such pressure at this time.

I will continue to support the greyhound racing industry in this way. However, the funding provided by the Exchequer is not limitless. I must insist that Bord na gCon takes the necessary steps to improve its commercial outcomes in a way that best serves the interests of the industry and ensures best value for taxpayers’ money. In this regard, significant progress is being made on the development of co-mingling and fixed odds wagering opportunities, including exploitation of alternative commercial opportunities at stadia. Bord na gCon is connecting with consumers through the development of its digital strategy and hospitality services at stadia are being revitalised with new market offerings and admission packages. There are real opportunities, particularly against the background of a strengthening economy, for clubs and organisations across the country to benefit from this.

Indecon made a number of recommendations around the size and composition of the board, some of which will require changes to legislation. In this regard, my Department is working on the heads of a Bill which I hope to bring to Government in this Dáil term. I have already introduced veterinary and legal expertise to the board. All board appointments are now made through the Public Appointments Service and a process is currently under way through that system to fill five board vacancies with people with appropriate expertise in finance, marketing, greyhound industry expertise and a youth role model with experience in other leisure or sports industries. Bord na gCon has also strengthened its risk management and internal audit processes and a review of the effectiveness of board operations is under way.

I want to turn now to regulation. As regulation is central to the reputation of the sector, Indecon made a number of recommendations to strengthen regulatory processes and procedures. A number of firm actions have already taken place and I am determined that Indecon’s recommendations in this area be implemented. From 1 October, the results of any adverse analytical result from a greyhound tested for a prohibited substance will be published on the Bord na gCon website. In the event of such a test, the greyhound will not be permitted to race again until a further test is undertaken, with negative results. This is a strong measure but it is fully warranted because I want to send out the clear message that there is no place in Irish greyhound racing for those using prohibited substances. In addition, the findings of all new cases coming before the controls committee, which adjudicates on any possible breaches of regulation, will be published, as will the reason for its decision. The controls committee operates independently of the board but for the avoidance of any perception to the contrary, I intend to provide in primary legislation that its members should be appointed by the Minister of the day. I will also make explicit provision for penalties in the primary legislation, to which I have already referred, and the question of mandatory sanctions will be considered in that context. Furthermore, in the HRI Bill, which will be brought before the Oireachtas in November, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, will introduce a provision permitting the appointment of persons or classes of persons as authorised officers under the animal remedies legislation.

This provision can provide a basis for off-track inspections at kennels and elsewhere in respect of prohibited substances. This is a very important change. Of course, the field of medication is not static. Technologies move on and it is important that regulators can keep pace with scientific developments. In that context, Bord na gCon has established a scientific committee on doping and medication control with leading experts providing provide advice on an ongoing basis on scientific matters relating to doping and medication control in greyhounds. This committee will review the current list of prohibited or controlled substances - and, where applicable, their associated thresholds or limits - and will advise Bord na gCon on any changes considered necessary.

The five experts who comprise the committee represent the various disciplines of relevance to such a task - animal remedies, canine internal medicine, analytical chemistry and greyhound veterinary practice. Each of the individuals concerned - they were all appointed recently, initially for a three-year term - have relevant experience in the areas mentioned. That experience includes the assessment of veterinary medicines for regulatory approval purposes at both national and European level, the control of such medicines in the field and the sampling and analysis of animals for residues.

In addition to all of this, Bord na gCon commissioned Professor Morris to report on its integrity and control systems. I understand that this report is being considered by the board and I expect it to be published shortly. Naturally, if there are additional recommendations emerging from this exercise, I would expect them to be implemented. I want the greyhound racing sector in Ireland to be synonymous with the highest international standards of regulation. I expect Bord na gCon to continue to evaluate the effectiveness of its systems on an ongoing basis and to make any adjustments necessary. High standards of animal welfare are also a critical part of the reputational dynamic. If we are to attract younger people to the sport and sell our product domestically and internationally, the customer must have confidence that the greyhounds, without which races could not take place, are cared for properly. This requires proactive enforcement and the strict application of effective sanctions. The publication of data on welfare inspections and penalties imposed will also be a deterrent for potential offenders.

I am convinced that, as a rule, those who love greyhounds are extremely concerned for their welfare. The actions of a very small minority who disregard the welfare of their dogs have the potential to damage the reputation of the greyhound sector irreparably, particularly among those whom we are trying to attract as new spectators and participants. Developing a strong welfare culture must be a top priority and the strongest action must be taken against those who would threaten the reputation of this sector by failing to look after their dogs properly. The Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011 provides a robust legislative framework for all the necessary action and I know that Bord na gCon is working with other agencies to ensure that the industry in Ireland operates in accordance with the highest welfare standards.

Those who know me know that this is an industry about which I am passionate. I grew up in the middle of greyhound racing country. In commissioning an independent consultant to look at aspects of the industry, my objective was to ensure that the State's framework for regulating and supporting the industry is fit for purpose.

The Indecon report recognises the challenges facing the greyhound industry at a time when there are many alternative leisure sources of entertainment but also lays down a roadmap for improving the sustainability of the sector over time. It is no secret that the public commentary on the sector, even the commentary from within it, is sometimes characterised by dissension and disagreement. Of course, that is a function of people's passion for the sport and I understand that. We can always learn from dissenting voices. However, it is critically important to map a coherent route around the various challenges that face the sector, take decisive action where it is needed and ensure that this great industry continues to make its vital contribution to the economic, social and cultural fabric of both rural and urban Ireland.

This is an industry with great potential to contribute to employment and the economy. We must take any necessary actions to ensure that its full potential is reached. I am determined that. We will do it and in this regard I will be closely monitoring Bord na gCon's progress in implementing the Indecon report. I thank the Chairman and the members for giving me the opportunity to update you. I look forward to your questions. I also look forward to coming back here because, as I stated, this is very much a work in progress and we all have a similar desire to improve the industry.