Tuesday, 10 December 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Indecon report and the possible closure of Youghal greyhound track. I have been told that nobody from Indecon visited that track and that the survey was conducted by email. That is getting off to a very bad start. It is a typical Irish thing to try to fix something that is not broken. Only two greyhound stadiums are making money at the moment. The Youghal stadium is making €4,500 to €5,000 a night because it was the first to introduce the Sports Information Services, SIS, betting scheme, which it piloted for two years for free - gratis- for the Irish Greyhound Board, IGB. Now there is talk of closing the stadium. It is also home to the oldest track supporters club in the country, which was founded in the 1950s. The closure of this track will be detrimental to the area and would be similar to the closure of Youghal Carpets when I was young. I do not know whether the IGB or Indecon - although it said it is not liable - will make the decision, but I appeal to the Minister of State to please not close this track.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for choosing this as a Topical Issue today. To be sharp with the Minister of State, last Friday was a black day for Irish sport. One other sport made major headlines, while this report was released without much coverage. In the last three or four days, it has gained momentum, particularly in east Cork, through breeders, supporters and tourism activists. Earmarking this stadium for closure is a bad blow for east Cork and Youghal. I do not think the Indecon report has done it any justice in its comments and recommendations. The Youghal track has a good income, which is not all from spectators because many of them gain free entry during the summer. It also has the great facility of SIS TV coverage with the bookmakers' association, which has gone from one night a week to two and generates automatic revenue of almost €10,000 per week. Taking the greyhound track out of Youghal is like a village losing its post office.
I raise the very important issue of the decision of Bord na gCon to withdraw funding from Enniscorthy greyhound track, and its inevitable closure as a result. I welcome the report's recommendations regarding care home facilities for animals to be opened next year, a fostering programme for dogs and the introduction of a 100% traceability programme involving microchipping. Animal welfare must be at the centre of this report. Anyone who abuses a dog or any other animal is less than one.
The closure of the Enniscorthy track comes as an economic blow to the town, which is only now getting back on its feet. The track makes a significant contribution to rural employment and developing the town of Enniscorthy. It is a profitable track, which makes it difficult to understand why it is being targeted by Bord na gCon. It makes little or no sense for the region. Between 30% and 70% of the dogs raced in Waterford are from Enniscorthy, so when those dogs leave Waterford, Waterford will come under pressure as well. It is difficult to comprehend this decision when so many other tracks are making a loss.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I am aware that this past year has been a challenging one for the greyhound sector. However, I believe that 2019 will be remembered as a key turning point. The Greyhound Racing Act was signed by the President on 28 May 2019 and 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. The board of Bord na gCon remains committed to the protection of the integrity of the greyhound industry and to promoting the welfare of greyhounds. With the new legislation, together with the maintenance of the horse and greyhound racing fund for Bord na gCon at €16.8 million for 2020, the industry will have the tools to reform and to be strengthened.
According to the 2017 Power report, the greyhound sector provides and supports considerable employment both directly and indirectly throughout the country. It is estimated that in 2016, the industry supported 5,058 full-time and part-time jobs in the economy. In addition, there are 7,313 active greyhound owners in Ireland. The total number of people deriving economic benefit from the sector is estimated at 12,371. The welfare of greyhounds is a cornerstone of the greyhound industry. I am assured that Bord na gCon is striving to ensure the highest standards for the sport and its participants both on and away from the race course.
I refer to the enactment of the Greyhound Racing Act 2019. The greyhound industry has undergone a series of reforms in recent years, informed by several key reports into the sector which led to the enactment of new legislation this year. The future of the industry is dependent on a strong governance platform and on the industry having the highest standards of integrity and welfare. On this basis, I am confident that provisions in the new Act, which came into effect last May, will make a significant difference. The Act reflects recommendations for legislative change made in the Indecon report, the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine's report on the greyhound industry and the Morris review of anti-doping and medication control. This new 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. It will also improve the governance of Bord na gCon, strengthen regulatory controls in the industry, modernise sanctions and improve integrity.
Regarding the Indecon review of greyhound stadia, a fully independent, systematic review into the sustainability of individual stadia and the wider industry footprint forms a key element of Bord na gCon's current strategic plan 2018-2022. Bord na gCon released an independent report undertaken by Indecon Economic Consultants on 6 December 2019, which reviewed the future needs of its 16 licensed stadia and made recommendations regarding the industry's footprint into the future. The recommendations of the report, which have been accepted by the board of Bord na gCon, provide a road map to underpin a sustainable long-term future for the industry. The brief for the study included the assessment of infrastructure and services available at all 16 licensed greyhound stadia in Ireland, an assessment of financial sustainability at each track, analysis of population catchments and motorway access, and detailed recommendations regarding each individual stadium.
The report has recommended restructuring the footprint of the greyhound sector; ongoing cost efficiency measures; targeted investment in animal welfare, marketing and infrastructure; and the ceasing of funding for four stadia, namely, Enniscorthy, Lifford, Longford and Youghal. These four tracks have a long and distinguished history and have been focal points for recreation and enterprise in their respective communities. The impact of their closure will be acutely felt, and I am cognisant that people's livelihoods will be impacted. The Indecon report highlighted several challenges facing the industry which are a threat to its long-term viability. Bord na gCon has already taken steps to address these challenges.
I will leave it at that and I can come back on a supplementary as my time is up.
I thank the Minister of State for his fairly lengthy reply. Unfortunately, Youghal was only mentioned once in it. It does not really deal with the detrimental effect of this. There is a thriving industry in Youghal. Again, I am asking why we are trying to fix something that is not broken. It says that the recommendations of the report, which have been accepted by the board of Bord na gCon, provide a road map to underpin a sustainable long-term future for the industry. If something is working, please do not try to fix it again. If we lose that industry in Youghal, it will affect our tourism. Many of the issues in this are slightly flawed because they are all about population, numbers and people coming in. In 2018, 1,016 races were held at 101 meetings. On top of that, the two months they do every year - July and August - that are free are not even in the report. This is a thriving business. I again appeal to whoever is dealing with this not to close this track because it will have a massive knock-on effect on local industry such as restaurants and hotels and the transport system. The caravan park behind it is jammed for the two months. It is probably the only outdoor sport that brings everybody in, including children.
We recently voted for the 2019 legislation and approved the funding for the horse and greyhound racing industry. I wholeheartedly supported it but I did not know I was signing the death warrant for Youghal or the likes of Enniscorthy. I ask the Minister of State to take on board our concerns. I know submissions can be taken up to 10 January but I ask him to take on board the concerns that have been raised. As indicated by my colleague, Youghal is a tourist town. We may as well use the facility during the vacation period in summer, particularly when the weather can sometimes be inclement. Youghal greyhound track has seen an increase in the number of race nights because of the SIS supports. There was recent adverse publicity regarding greyhound racing and the greyhound industry. We need to give things time to level out so that they improve again. We saw a massive response in Curraheen Park when a meeting was held to generate sponsorship for the Irish Laurels. The response was tremendous. Youghal plays a large role in local communities and fund raising up as far as my own backyard regarding St. Catherine's GAA Club in Conna. There are tremendous race nights and fundraisers in Youghal greyhound track. I ask the Minister of State to take on board submissions that come forward because it is a big issue of concern.
The track in Enniscorthy is approaching its 90th year. It is a profitable track. Many of the other tracks that are to be left open are losing money hand over fist so the fact that Enniscorthy is one of the tracks to be closed makes no sense. I call on the Minister of State and Bord na gCon to meet with the track operators, an independent track in Enniscorthy, to review this decision. I hope this track will not close. If it is to close, we should remember that when a factory in any town closes, the Government springs into action with a support plan for that town. I ask that a similar support plan be put in place for Enniscorthy, Youghal and any other town that will lose a track because those towns depend on those tracks for their economic well-being. I also hope that the welfare plan in the Indecon report is not only implemented but that there is proper oversight to ensure it is implemented and these animals are properly cared for. What we saw on "Prime Time Investigates" was disgraceful and I hope we never see the likes of that again.
I do not pretend to be anything like an expert on greyhounds but I have visited Youghal and Enniscorthy tracks. I met some members of the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport in Youghal and could see their progressive thinking. Regarding the Indecon report on the footprint and structure, pillar three of the strategic plan was to carry out an independent review so I had nothing to do with it. Bord na gCon had nothing to do with it other than with regard to the terms of reference. I urge people, including the tracks themselves, to make robust submissions before 10 January. When the Indecon report on the future of the greyhound sector, which involved among other things the closure of the Harold's Cross track, appeared, I as Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine asked Bord na gCon to appear before the committee to explain the rationale behind what it was doing. Not everybody agreed. Doing this again would probably be a worthwhile exercise. I will admit to being somewhat surprised that these two tracks were chosen, not because I have visited them but because I am aware they are both profitable.
However, I cannot second guess what was done so it is really important that robust submissions are made regarding both tracks. I have no doubt but that the ability to do that is within the gift of the people who are interested so I will leave it at that. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to say anything more but I am listening.