Wednesday, 27 January 2016
Horse Racing Ireland Bill 2015: Committee and Remaining Stages
This relates to the accounts of the racing regulatory body. It goes back to some of the initial comments we made and which the Minister heard in the earlier stages in regard to drawing the regulatory body closer to the bosom of HRI through the legislation. Is the Minister satisfied the drafting of this section gives a fair and balanced opportunity to the regulatory body to maintain its financial independence, notwithstanding the fact that where taxpayers' money is concerned, we must ensure it is spent in a proper fashion? It seems a lengthy set of requirements and rules. Is it one which the Minister has reflected on or requested representation about?
I am glad the Senator asked that question. The brief explains it quite well. As the Senator knows, I go off script a lot but the script looks to be accurate in this case.
Section 12 aims to strengthen accountability for public funds by providing that the regulatory body prepare accounts in respect of its statutory obligations and forward the accounts to the Comptroller and Auditor General for audit purposes and that the chief executive of the racing regulatory body attend the Committee of Public Accounts of Dáil Éireann when so requested. The section also replicates the onus on HRI to provide details of compliance with governance codes and policies by requiring the racing regulatory body to provide information to the Minister in regard to its statutory activities, including its compliance with Government codes and policies, so the Minister may be reassured as to the compliance of the horse racing industry with the codes and policies. Finally, the section provides that the racing regulatory body must provide information to HRI with regard to future funding requirements and disposal of funds, so HRI may comply with its statutory obligations in accounting for funding for the industry.
What we are doing here is applying best practice in terms of modern governance. If we are giving €7.1 million a year to the racing regulatory body to perform integrity functions, then it is only a matter of time before somebody raises the question of how it is spending that money, whether we are getting full value for money, how it is being accounted for and where is the transparency. I am not going to allow a situation where the Turf Club gets pulled in front of an Oireachtas committee unfairly, given it is doing a pretty good job at the moment, because of some perception of a lack of transparency in terms of how it spends and accounts for its money. As I said, I think it does a pretty good job and, in fact, I do not believe this section is of significant concern to the Turf Club because it is pretty confident it does a good job.
I have had no real requests to change this section. This is a protection that allows the chief steward to say at any public forum that the Turf Club has to comply with all of the standards any other body that is predominantly funded by the State has to comply with and that it does that and is happy to do it. That is what this section is about. One of the reasons this legislation is so important for me is that I do not want what we have seen other charitable entities go through in terms of getting dragged over the coals due to a perception of a lack of transparency or inappropriate decision-making around how money is spent. The racing industry does not need that and it is not going to have that. We are putting in place proper and modern governance structures. Just as we are demanding of HRI, within reason we also have to be demanding of the Turf Club in terms of complying with the appropriate codes of practice and laying its accounts before the appropriate bodies that are available to the State.
The section is headed, "Compliance by Bord na gCon with State Bodies Code of Practice". This concerns the insertion of a new section 19A, which states: "The Board shall ... furnish to [the Minister] information in relation to such matters as he or she may specify concerning or relating to the scope of its activities (including its compliance with the Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies...) or its strategy, generally or in respect of any account prepared by the Board under section 19 or the policy and activities". Does this suggest that, because of the insertion of section 19A, the board does not at the moment provide such information to the Minister?
I do not think so. We have decided to put this in the legislation because the horse and greyhound fund links these two industries.I expect we will have more comprehensive legislation on the greyhound industry as a whole in the not too distant future, following from the report we have carried out into Bord na gCon and the industry.
The greyhound industry faces challenges but I would not be as pessimistic as some about the future. There are many good people in the industry and many good people on the board of Bord na gCon, who are trying to change the industry for the better. They need help to do that and strong legislation would help in that. We will take the opportunity to ensure that the board must, like Horse Racing Ireland "respond to a request coming from the Minister". It gets its funding from the State and needs to be able to respond to the appropriate codes of practice and governance applying to it, just as they apply to other bodies that are funded or partly funded by public moneys. It is no more or less than that.
I would not see a conspiracy around this corner, although we are making changes. The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, has primary responsibility for the greyhound industry. There has been significant change in the past number of years, but there was a lot to fix. There is a need for that approach to continue to ensure we have a healthy and growing sport that is properly financed for the future and to ensure we deal with some of the legacy debt issues, which are a big problem for the industry.
I thank the Seanad for facilitating the passing of all Stages this evening. I know that is not normal practice. Normally we would have Second Stage, followed by a break for about a week and we would then return and take Committee and Report Stages. I thank Members for the pragmatic approach they have taken towards getting this done. Most people would accept that all the amendments that needed to be made to this legislation have been made and that it is time to pass it and move on with it. It would have been a frustrating night's work for me to have this pushed to a new government to finish. I thank Members for accommodating the Bill, particularly Senators who put forward amendments but decided not to push them.
This is definitely the last time I will get to speak in the Seanad under my current responsibilities. We have had a number of good interactions in terms of legislation, particularly on animal welfare where we had approximately ten hours of debate in the House. We have also had good interaction on fishing and broader farming and agrifood issues and each time that has been a rewarding process for me. I want to wish Senators who are candidates in the upcoming election well and I hope we will all see each other again soon. I expect that in the next few days we will get on with the more raw side of politics in a very competitive election campaign. I thank Senators for their co-operation this evening and believe we have done a very good job on this piece of legislation.