26 February 2024
Aldous urges Government to consider impact on horseracing of gambling affordability checks

Peter Aldous calls on the Government to take into account the severe unintended impact on the funding of horseracing if the affordability checks designed to protect vulnerable online gamblers go forward in their existing form.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir George.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on leading this debate. She and I usually have discussions about squash, but I am here to talk about another of my hobbies: horseracing. I have a lifelong interest in and passion for racing. In the past, I have owned legs and hairs of racehorses—not very successfully. At the moment on the farm at home we have a brood mare and we have youngstock, and my ambition—as crazy as it may sound—is to get those horses on to the racecourse. At the moment, the greater problem than affordability checks is dealing with mud fever, but affordability checks are very important. Like everyone else, I know that problem gambling is a major problem, but there is concern that there will be a severe unintended impact on the funding of horseracing if the affordability checks go forward in their existing form.

Horseracing is largely funded through the levy. In recent years additional funding has come in through media rights and sponsorship, but largely it comes from the horserace betting levy, which came in in the early 1960s. I personally think that the Government went down the wrong road with horseracing. It would have been better if we had what is known as a parimutuel form of gambling. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), that is why the prize money is so much higher in places like Hong Kong and Japan, which have incredibly well-regulated industries too.

Horseracing depends to a dramatic extent on the levy. It is quite clear from what I see and the feedback I get that the affordability checks in their current form will have a serious impact on the takings from the levy. Looking at the prize money, horseracing and its funding is facing a real crisis in the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said that we have the best horseracing in the world, and we do, but that is increasing in risk and becoming an anachronism. There is a real worry that if we let this go on horseracing, will wither on the vine in this country.

Look at the horses in training sales from Tattersalls at Newmarket last autumn. A lot of those horses would have traditionally come out of flat racing, gone into national hunt racing and remained in the UK for racing. They are now going all around the world, to the US or Australia, and there are emerging new industries—in Dubai with the Meydan, and in places such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which are making a real impact. A lot of horses are going to those places and a lot of British owners are racing out there. Members may have watched the racing on Saturday afternoon. The very well-known racing figure Sir Alex Ferguson—where was he? He was at Meydan, not watching his horses run at Kempton. I am worried that that is where we may be heading.

We have heard great stories today; everyone has plugged the racecourses we have all around the UK, and we have heard how important they are for their local economies. That is very true, but there is one point I would highlight, which I picked up in the Racing Post over the weekend. An article said that the Grand National meeting every year puts more money into the Liverpool economy than the Eurovision song contest did last year. We see that repeated at Cheltenham, York and Goodwood and at the festivals that take place all around the country. That is at risk.

The racing supply chain extends far beyond that. It extends into the training centres and into the countryside and on to the studs. There are places where horses are pre-trained, and, importantly, there are places where horses are retrained. When horses have finished their racing lives, they are retrained for alternative uses and activities. The tentacles of racing extend a long way, not just into the countryside but into the towns and the licensed betting offices on the high street. I know that the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) has a concern about those, but certainly in the town that I represent, there has not been a dramatic increase in LBOs. They are a very important part—

Carolyn Harris 

No, I do not.

Peter Aldous 

If I have misinterpreted the hon. Lady, I apologise profusely. LBOs are very important on the high streets. They also tend to have a family feel about them in that the staff, many of whom now are women, have a good family relationship with the punters. If people start getting out of control, they very quickly say, “Hang on, do you know where you are going on that?” There is a long supply chain.

We have also heard about unintrusive and frictionless checks. The feedback that I get is that they are very difficult to put into practice. We will either see the rise of the black market—the large article on the front of the Racing Post indicates that that is a reality—or a lot of small punters will say, “Well, I give up. I’m not going to do it.” That then impacts on the levy and it spirals down to the impact on racing.

Finally, there is an element of hypocrisy about this in that the lottery is not included. The lottery is great and it is probably one of the best legacies of the Major Government. Its impact has been profound and positive. When I was growing up, very rarely did we win Olympic gold medals. I remember listening to David Hemery when he won in 1968 in Mexico. We now win in so many different sports, and that is the direct result of the lottery. The lottery is a great thing, but it is a game of chance rather than a game of skill. It is random betting and it can take over people’s lives. I remember one statistic put to me that if I gambled on the national lottery every year since Moses was pulled out of the bulrushes, I still would not have won. We need to look at all forms of gambling and betting together.

In conclusion, I was reading the Racing Post a few months ago. One of its leading journalists, Chris Cook, son of the former Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, made a comment that left me thinking. He said that you would not have expected a Conservative Government to do this to horseracing. I agree with him. On that point, I urge the Minister, who is listening very intently to the great speeches that we have had—

Wera Hobhouse 

I have followed the whole of the debate, and I want to say quickly that this is not a party political issue. It is an issue for all those who feel that horseracing gives us so much across all communities. I sincerely hope that the Minister believes it is a cross-party issue that we all must address.

Peter Aldous 

The hon. Lady is right that it is not party political, but it is a point that Chris Cook made. If we look back, we all remember seeing Robin Cook at the racecourse in his Barbour jacket, down by the final fence. Alex Salmond is actually a great punter as well. It is not party political but at the moment, we have a Conservative Government, so I urge the Minister to take on board what he is hearing this afternoon.