Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Horse Racing Ireland Bill 2015: Second Stage


10:30 am

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senators for their very generous comments, particularly those from the Opposition spokespeople. I appreciate that. I obviously appreciate those from my own crowd as well. They are always welcome.

I will answer some of the questions people have put because I want to reassure people about a number of things. People need to realise that the horse and greyhound racing fund is now €74 million per year. We have dramatically increased that in the past five years. We had reached a point in racing looking from the outside in because when I became Minister and took over political responsibility for the racing industry, the first thing it was important for me to recognise was that the people in the industry know an awful lot more about breeding and training horses than I do, even though I take an interest in horses. My role was really about ensuring that this industry was properly funded and legislated for so that we had the right structures and the experts could operate and run a world-class industry and sport with the protections that proper legislation can provide, and with the necessary resources to be able to provide prize money and investment in this sector to ensure it can compete with other countries like the UK, France, Australia, Japan and the US, which are our big competitors in terms of attracting breeders, owners and big race meetings.

We always said that as soon as we could afford to do it, we would start increasing the funding again for the sector, which had been reduced very dramatically due to a very difficult economic period for Ireland. We are back up to the height of the fund. We have a new revenue stream coming from online betting. I would like to see the levy on that increase but we have a very healthy funding package for the sector and a very good piece of legislation to protect the sector in terms of the transparency and accountability needed in any modern agent of the State or one working for or partly funded by the State, regardless of whether that is providing integrity services or management and marketing of this great industry.

The reason I say that is because when I get questions around the changed board structure in HRI, one of the reasons I believe it is not enough for the Minister to only have the capacity to appoint the chair and nobody else on that board is because I believe that if €60 million or €70 million of public money is going into a sport, the Minister must take responsibility for that. It is necessary to have qualified, smart and informed people representing the State, Government and essentially the public purse on that board. One of those appointees must be from Northern Ireland in terms of representing racing interests. We are talking about three people being appointed by the Minister out of a board of 14. The rest requires a balanced representation of all of the stakeholders.

We have really listened to people in terms of who they should be, including the committee. I was delighted to ensure that stable staff were represented on the board. One thing I have tried to do during my period involved with the racing industry was to raise the profile of and support jockeys and stable staff, many of whom are unsung heroes in this sport and who wake up at 5 a.m. preparing to ride out and exercise horses and take the bumps, bruises and breaks that come with that because these are highly charged athletes in terms of the animals. We read about the superstar jockeys and they take the bumps and bruises too but there is an entire ecosystem in the racing industry that involves thousands of people and it is important that they feel part of the representative body that is there to promote and grow this sport.

I do not agree with the criticism that somehow a ministerial appointment is tainted and that it is less democratic to have somebody on the board representing the State that is putting in significant amounts of money. People can give examples of bad appointments in the past. I stand over all the appointments I have made. I think they have done a pretty good job over the past five years, including my appointment to the chair of HRI. People should not forget that we have a PAS system that tests people before appointments can be made to ensure no inappropriate appointments are made.

I have a lot of sympathy with people who have been asking the Department and I to look in a more proactive way at how we could help harness racing to grow in Ireland but it is not the same as racing as we know it currently. One cannot simply say that because harness racing involves horses and thoroughbred racing involves horses and jockeys, we should all of a sudden lump them together in the one piece of legislation and the one sport. It is not the same. We need to build a well-run and properly-regulated, structured and funded sport in Ireland if we are going to build a harness racing industry here. It is a huge industry in France and the US. We have some really good breeders here and people who are passionate about this sport. We want to help them but it would be very unfair on many other equine sports, be they showjumping, eventing or a whole series of other equine-related sporting activities, to simply say that we are going to take harness racing and plug it into the funding stream that the racing industry gets. It would be wrong to do that without going through the proper assessment processes and taking independent advice in terms of how we grow the harness racing industry in a way that supports and guarantees welfare, excellence, proper regulation, integrity and so on. We can do that and I hope we will do that.

I have given a commitment that we will pursue and prioritise that within the Department but we cannot simply say that because we would like to see this industry develop, it must be forced into this legislation. To be fair to Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael representatives, I think everybody is at one here about the need to do this properly and not rush it. I have intervened to ensure that Dundalk has been used for a harness racing meet. There are other venues as well.Let us build this in a proper structured way, so we can stand over what we are doing, and let us look at the funding models, just as we have to look at the funding models for the horse sports sector. At the moment, harness racing is under Horse Sport Ireland not Horse Racing Ireland. There will always be competition for resources and we need to assess how best to do this in a way that is balanced and fair to everybody but we will do it. I have given a commitment on that and I will follow through on it if I have the opportunity to do so.

I wish to provide reassurance and clarity on forest roads. We had a ridiculous situation whereby people who wanted to build a forest road had to go through two different permitting systems that were totally unconnected with each other. It was a very frustrating process, a little bit like when someone is trying to develop – Senator Ó Domhnaill will know this – something on the coastline and one must get planning permission and a foreshore licence. I am pleased to say we are changing the system with the foreshore Bill but in the past, they were not connected to each other which meant it took a long time to do a basic piece of construction work. We said we would fix that and allow the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which has responsibility for forestry, to permit the building of forest roads. Of course, it requires consultation with local authorities to ensure that it is done in accordance with all of the rules and regulations concerning access to roads in terms of lines of sight and all the other things that are required. We will go through that with the local authority and make sure it is done properly. This is a sensible practical legislation to try to make it easier to build forest roads and to reduce the cost but at the same time make sure the regulations are followed appropriately.

There was never an intention for us to undermine point-to-point racing or to change the way in which it operates or for there to be some form of take-over of local hunt clubs and the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee or the Hunt Club by HRI. That was never my intention. That was the reaction to this because people felt threatened. They felt their sport was being threatened by a change in legislation, so we have moved to reassure people that was never the intention. Accordingly, following animated interaction between Deputy Penrose and me, it was agreed that we would stick with the wording agreed at the committee meeting as opposed to the wording I proposed on Report Stage, which I felt strengthened the wording. People were happier with the other wording, which I am also happy to go with. The reference now states:

(i) to maintain the existing nature of point-to-point steeplechases, including making and enforcing the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Regulations for point-to-point steeplechase as made by the Stewards of the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee).”.“

In other words, there is no change. The only thing that is changing is the streamlining of the payment to get hunter certificates. When one registers one’s horse as a point-to-pointer, one pays to get the certificate and that payment goes through the single administrative office run by HRI but the money then goes into the Turf Club or the Irish National Steeplechase Committee as it always would have. The functions of local hunt clubs do not change at all in terms of their charging system and decision making system.

I hope we have put that issue to bed and we have reassured people. I am impressed by the fact that people are so passionate about point-to-pointing that they see any change as a threat, which in IFA language, must be resisted. That is what came back to me, often in very passionate language. I had one meeting where there were tears in the eyes of the person making the case that we must not change anything in point-to-points at all and that it was undermining the independence of the sport among other things. There is a reality that we cannot talk about point-to-points as if it is not horse racing. We cannot have bookies turning up to point-to-points with no regulation at all in terms of how they operate, behave and take money from people. We must have some rules and regulations in legislation without changing the nature of point-to-points, which is this free sport run across rural areas with lots of volunteers doing great work. Members should not forget that we provide prize money for point-to-point races as well, which is also public money, and we must also ensure there are safety requirements for jockeys and so on. The racing regulatory body, the Turf Club, is responsible for the integrity of point-to-points just like it is for the integrity services within race meets at race tracks. I hope Senator Bradford and others who raised the issue have been reassured.

I accept the point made about television coverage. I do not know whether I am right but my inclination is to believe that ten or 15 years ago, there was probably a lot more racing on television than there is today but I do not know that for sure. I will raise the issue with RTE to see what it has to say. Sometimes RTE provides great coverage but only for the big races. The coverage of Cheltenham, for example, is often really good.

On the protection of the integrity and independence of the Turf Club, my position is that this is really good legislation for the racing regulatory body or the Turf Club, as we know it. It enshrines in modern legislation its independence, how and where it gets is budget, the process by which that works and the conciliation body that is in place if a problem arises. The Bill outlines in a very clear way the role and functions of the Turf Club. I have also been careful to ensure that in factoring in the budget for which the Turf Club applies from HRI, that other functions must be factored in outside of simply providing a purely regulatory function. Getting the wording for that was difficult because the Turf Club does other things, such as raise the profile of racing and get involved in the operation of the Curragh. It also holds events as an organisation. There needs to be some recognition of the extra activity, which is difficult to define in legislation, in its income streams and the budget it seeks. We have catered for that in a sensible and practical way. People who understand how racing works in Ireland know exactly what I am talking about when I say that.

What we are doing with the legislation regarding the foal levy is saying that before a horse can become registered, the foal levy must be paid. That is all we are saying. We are not determining how the foal levy is calculated. I do not have any problem with having a discussion about that in the future in terms of listening to what people have to say and looking at how the levy is calculated and whether it can be made fairer. The issue is that it needs to remain simple to calculate. It is much easier to calculate a foal levy on the basis of advertised fees as opposed to having to go after people to find out exactly what was handed over after the deed was done in terms of the paperwork. There have been moves to change the foal levy in recent years to make it fairer. We can examine the matter again. I do not have any problem with that but it does not affect the legislation.

In terms of Senator Mary Ann O’Brien's amendments and comments. On the fixtures committee, the legislation states:

(2) The race-fixtures committee, when considering race-fixtures for a racecourse, shall, before recommending the removal of any existing fixture from that racecourse, consult with the executive of the racecourse concerned and seek to agree with such executive how such removal may be achieved having regard to the economic importance of the fixture to that racecourse".

In other words, the whole point is that the members of the fixtures committee, which is a subcommittee of HRI, speak to people, the kind of people to whom the Senator referred, whose life is racing, the detail of racing and the fixtures concerned. They get the right feedback and then they bring recommendations back to HRI to make decisions.It is accountable and answerable for those decisions to the industry, to me and to the Oireachtas committees if it does not get them right. I believe what we have in the legislation at the moment is sufficient.

There was quite a long discussion on the issue of "consult" versus "inform". We have taken advice from the Parliamentary Counsel on the wording. Let us suppose the Turf Club is going to make a change. If the legislation requires it to inform HRI, it could simply write to HRI the hour or day beforehand to inform it. However, a response may be required from HRI to facilitate that change. Therefore, the word "consult" means someone has to pick up the phone to say that the change is to be made and that there will be a knock-on effect for HRI from a management, cost and resource point of view, so the Turf Club is letting HRI know this is what will happen and is finding out if it is okay with that and whether the change should be phased in or not. The decision remains with the racing regulatory body but it is being asked to consult. However, it is also the case that if an urgent change is required, it can just press ahead.

The reason I believe "consult" is the better word is that we are trying to have a relationship between the people who are applying and setting the rules and the people who are responsible for managing the functioning of racing. There needs to be a practical discussion of changes when they are being made. As I said, we had a long discussion on this, following which I considered "consult" to be preferable to "inform".


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