Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund Regulations 2016: Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Chair and members for the opportunity to be here today to discuss this issue. An important pillar of Government policy is to ensure that the horse and greyhound racing industries achieve their maximum potential and, in so doing, contribute to economic and social development in a very wide geographic distribution around the country.

The horse and greyhound racing industries make a valuable contribution to our economy. It is estimated that the thoroughbred industry has an annual economic impact of €1.84 billion with direct and indirect employment of 29,000 people, and the greyhound sector provides an estimated 10,000 people with economic benefit. The thoroughbred industry, in particular, brings a high level of international investment into Ireland. Government funding, in addition to supporting these key industries, presents an excellent opportunity to yield a high return for its investment, leading to a flow of income right through the economy, thereby providing widespread benefits to our society. The Irish equine breeding and racing industry is extremely competitive at an international level. We are the third biggest producer of thoroughbred foals in the world and estimates place Ireland only behind the United States as the biggest seller of bloodstock by public auction globally.

Successive Governments have acknowledged the importance of these industries and have supported them through legislation and policy initiatives. The support provided by public funds through investment in these industries has enabled Ireland to develop a world-class reputation for excellence in horse racing, greyhound racing and breeding.

Thanks to the hard work and exceptional support of Irish people for the vaccination programme, the Government has been in a position to continue to gradually reopen society over the last period of time. Since 22 October 2021, following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions and in line with the Reframing the Challenge - Continuing our recovery and reconnecting strategy, full attendance has once again been allowed at outdoor events in both greyhound and thoroughbred racing. This situation is being kept under review as the winter months continue.

The horse and greyhound racing industries receive financial support from the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund, which was created under section 12 of the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001. My Department makes payments from the fund to Horse Racing Ireland, HRI, and to Rásaíocht Con Éireann, RCÉ. In the period from 2001 to date, a total of €1.46 billion has been paid from the fund to the horse and greyhound racing industries in accordance with the provisions of the Act. The cumulative upper limit on payments from the fund, provided for under the relevant regulations, has been reached. Exchequer support provided from the fund is crucial to the survival and continued development of both industries. In order to give effect to the provisions of budget 2022, this cumulative upper limit must be increased by regulation.

The Estimates for my Department, passed by both Houses as part of Budget 2022, include an allocation of €80 million for the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund, which will be distributed in accordance with section 12(6) of the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001, with 80% of the funding going to Horse Racing Ireland and 20% of it going to Rásaíocht Con Éireann. In order to allow my Department to provide for these fundings, it is necessary to comply with the technical requirement under section 12(13) of the Act to increase the cumulative limit on the amount payable from the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund by €88 million to €1.54 billion. This is achieved by way of regulations, which I have submitted to the committee today. The aggregate limit on the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund has been increased in this manner in 2004 and in 2009 to 2021, inclusive.

On the horse racing industry, the 2017 Deloitte report, Economic Impact of Irish Breeding and Racing, commissioned by HRI, indicates that the total direct and stimulated expenditure of the Irish breeding and racing industry was estimated at €1.84 billion in 2016. In addition, it is estimated that there are 15,200 jobs at the core of the racing and breeding industry or in directly related industries.

Horse racing generates a very significant return to the rural economy in Ireland, in particular, and a positive international profile for the country. Of course, behind all facts and figures are the thousands of men and women who, directly and indirectly, make the Irish racing and breeding industry what it is today. While the Covid pandemic has had a major impact at all levels of the industry, particularly in the area of racecourses and attendance, the metrics of horses in training, owners, runners, fixtures and race numbers have all shown strong growth this year over the corresponding pre-pandemic figures for 2019. Figures published by HRI for the first six months of 2021 show horse in training numbers, which is a key driver of rural employment in the industry, are up 24% on the last comparable figures from 2019, with ownership also up by almost 24% and new owners registered showing a 30% increase on the 2019 figure. Those are very significant increases across the board and across those key metrics. Turnover in 2021 is estimated to reach €154.7 million by year end, which would be an increase on €48 million in 2020, but down €10.5 million on 2019 levels. HRI continues to engage with all racecourses to crystallise losses incurred due to Covid-19.

As proven in 2021 to date, Irish owners, trainers, jockeys and horses are setting standards globally, and their stellar achievements and enduring influence underscore Ireland’s international prominence. The Irish equine breeding and racing industry is extremely competitive at a global level, despite other major racing nations having much larger populations and economies.

The importance of a strong welfare and integrity foundation to this highly successful industry is crucial and this is well recognised throughout the industry. My Department and I will continue to work with HRI, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, IHRB, and other relevant stakeholders to ensure the highest standards of integrity and welfare are maintained. In that regard, I am in receipt of this committee’s report on integrity in horse racing which the committee issued earlier this month. This followed a series of meetings with this forum involving officials from my Department, HRI, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board and the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association in the summer. My officials are examining the report and they, and I, will fully consider its findings.

It is of note that Government funding, in addition to supporting this key industry, also presents an excellent opportunity to yield a high return for its investment leading to a flow of income throughout the economy. Support for certain strategic industries is important for future economic growth and can provide widespread benefits for our society as well as for our economy. The EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement reached in December 2020 which included the Northern Ireland protocol was a welcome development for the sector. It should be noted however, that challenges remain in regard to the movement of horses between Ireland and Britain, and between Ireland and mainland Europe, for those animals transiting via the UK land bridge. The global nature of major breeding operations illustrates that while Ireland arguably now holds a leadership position within Europe our pre-eminence is never guaranteed.

According to the 2021 Power report the greyhound industry provides and supports considerable employment both directly and indirectly across the Irish economy. It is estimated that in 2019 the industry supported more than 4,000 full-time and part-time jobs in the economy. In addition there are more than 6,000 active greyhound owners. The total number of people deriving economic benefit from the sector is estimated at more than 10,000. The funding provided to the greyhound sector helps sustain a long-standing tradition as the industry is part of the social fabric of our country, both rural and traditionally urban. This funding underpins economic activity in what are, in many instances, highly rural areas. The future of the industry is dependent on a strong governance platform and on the industry having the highest standards of integrity and welfare focused and founded on a strong regulatory system.

There is a strong commitment to improved animal welfare in the sector. That commitment is clear in the programme for Government. My Department is committed to the continued strengthening of welfare standards in the greyhound industry. Future funding of the sector is contingent on welfare standards being upheld and this is reflected in annual parameters set out by my officials in their liaison with Rásaíocht Con Éireann.

Provisions in the Greyhound Racing Act 2019 which came into effect in May 2019 are making a real difference in this regard. This legislation strengthens the legal basis for the industry with a view to fortifying the integrity of the greyhound racing sector and improving provision for greyhound traceability as well. The new Act improves the governance of Rásíocht Con Éireann, strengthens regulatory controls in the industry, modernises sanctions and improves integrity within the sector. It provides the industry with real tools with which it can effect fundamental change and reform.

A key element of the new legislation is the provision for the first time for a full IT traceability system for racing greyhounds. The Rásaíocht Con Éireann Traceability System, RCÉTS, came into operation on 11 January 2021. The system provides a mechanism to ensure that racing greyhounds are properly registered and traceable throughout their lives. The sections of the Act commenced on 1 October 2020 signal a new era for greyhound racing. They facilitate the board in focusing on its priority objective of achieving the highest standards of care and welfare of greyhounds. Further commencement orders to commence the majority of the outstanding sections are currently being drafted. The Greyhound Racing Act 2019, when fully implemented, will enable Rásaíocht Con Éireann to ensure the important heritage associated with greyhound racing in Ireland can continue under the appropriate rules and regulations.

The greyhound industry is predominantly a rural industry with a strong urban support base. The Covid-19 crisis has, similar to other sectors of the economy, resulted in a collapse of commercial activity in greyhound racing and a significant reduction of activity generally also. Recovery of the industry will require ongoing support to aid restoration of normal levels of activity over the time ahead.

Given the wide geographic distribution of these two industries, they are fundamental to the achievement of more balanced regional economic growth. Nurturing rural economies is a key priority for Government and in this context, these industries should be given recognition for the considerable contribution that they make to rural economic activity and employment. The welfare of horses and greyhounds is a cornerstone of both industries and I am assured that HRI and RCÉ are striving to ensure the highest standards for the sport and its participants, on and away from the racecourse. The Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund has played a significant role in providing for this investment and has been instrumental in shaping the destiny of both industries.

Brexit poses an array of threats to the Irish economy and coupled with the fact that we are a small and open economy naturally prone to volatility, it can be somewhat difficult to fully predict what the future holds for both industries. It is therefore crucial that we support both of these important industries and their continued navigation through the challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit as we enter 2022.

Accordingly, I am seeking the committee's support to ensure that Horse Racing Ireland and Rásaíocht Con Éireann receive the funding provided for in budget 2022 and that the very important role played by these industries, and the economic activity generated by them, are sustained into the future. I commend the regulation to the committee, and look forward to discussing any matters arising.