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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 20 Jun 2001

Vol. 538 No. 4

Horse and Greyhound Racing Bill, 2001: Report Stage.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 6, lines 4 to 6, to delete "or other interest groups affected by the decisions of HRI or who use the various facilities and services provided by HRI".

This amendment is necessitated by my deep attachment to a subsequent amendment. While this amendment simply deletes a certain reference in the section in question, it is motivated by the fact that I am proposing that there be punters representatives on the new board. There was a long discussion on this on Committee Stage. I am disappointed to note that the Minister does not have an amendment tabled for Report Stage that reflects what I proposed on Committee Stage. Has the Minister had any second thoughts in the meantime? He argued on Committee Stage that it would be difficult to find suitable representatives of punters to be members of the board because there was a diversity of interests involved and a rather dispersed group of people, to which I replied that he did not seem to have any difficulty envisaging finding representatives of punters to go on the forum he proposes to set up. I suggested that if he could find suitable representatives to go on the forum, equally he could find suitable representatives to be on the board. The proposal he made to have representatives on the forum is an admission that the basic amendment on which this is based, which I put forward, is feasible and I can see no reason he should not proceed to do this. The Minister knows perfectly well that a person who is a member of the board of the Horseracing Authority, the body which it is proposed to terminate and replace by the HRI, represents punters. She has carried out that job for some time. I am not in a position to judge what kind of a hearing that person has had, but that experience should indicate that it would be appropriate to continue with that, which is what I propose in seeking to expand the board to make that kind of representation possible.

The Minister also told us on Committee Stage that he wants to provide this forum because there are a number of other interests in the sector that he would like to see consulted. For that reason, he felt it would be appropriate and that it could include representatives of racegoers organisations, of jockeys and, if my memory serves me correctly, he even though of representatives of people who work in the stables and so on. I perfectly understand that proposal. If the Minister is going to proceed with that proposal, then these people should also be represented on it.

I seriously want to make the point that it is not enough to pay lip service to the idea that the most important people in this business are the punters. Without them, there would be no business. Without the people who go to the race tracks, who watch races on television, who go to the bookies' offices, who organise race nights to support their political parties or charitable causes or any of the many other reasons people organise race nights, there would not be an industry. People organise race nights because they like racing and because, as the Minister knows well, they think it is a good way to get a crowd in to support a political party, a charitable cause or a community organisation. Those people like racing. They like to see horses racing. They like to have a bet and they are interested in racing.

If those people were not there, there would be no point in having the HRI, racecourses or doing all the things the HRI will set out to do. It is a case of "if you ain't got customers, then you ain't got a business". We need those people because they are the foundation and the sine qua non of the business. If we did not have those people, there would be no point in breeding good race horses or training them. There would be no point in building racecourses or in having senior stewards, clerk stewards and all the rest of them. There would be no point in the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development spending time worrying about it or colloguing with the Minister for Finance to sort it out. Without these people, there would be no business.

It seems that to have a board to run the affairs of the business in the way the Minister proposes here without those people having a say is pure nonsense. Why does the Minister not realise that? There may be people in the business who feel there are aspects of it that are mysterious, arcane or hidden from the public gaze. There are not. There are no mysteries in this business. There is a good deal of competition in it and a good deal of information people in the business like to keep from others in the business for commercial reasons, but there are no arcane mysteries about it. There is no special reason some people in the business are represented there and others are not, although maybe I am wrong, maybe there are. Perhaps it is because people who concentrate on a certain type of activity, who are a smaller group than the total group of the punters, have a particular interest. If I wanted to be pejorative about it, which I do not, I would describe it as a vested interest. It is what is called a vested interest in common parlance. They have a particular interest in the business. They will legitimately try to promote that interest and will argue probably rightly that in promoting that interest they are also promoting the general interests of the business. That is all very fine as far as it goes, but it does not go the whole length.

There is one group of people who have the basic interest that is needed in this business. They are prepared to spend their money at evening meetings on a Saturday or on a Sunday, at festivals, at race meetings, patronising racecourses, going to the tote, going to the bookies' shops, or even, God forbid, there are people who are prepared to pay per view to watch it on television. All those people are there and they do that because they enjoy it. If they did not do that, there would be no point in any of this because there would be no business. It is the punters who generate demand for all the things that the people who will now be represented on this board actually do.

I do not know how one would describe this Government. It increasingly seems to be fractionated. I think most of its members would think they are democratic. If the Minister has them, which I am sure he has, I ask him to unleash his democratic instincts and accept the legitimacy and the fundamental nature of the interests of punters in the business. It is not a major step. It will not do any violence to the Bill, to the board, to the interests which it is proposed to represent on the board or to the future of the business; quite the contrary. If the Minister, when talking to the organisations to which he will talk in order to set up this forum, asks them to agree a proposal so that two representatives of theirs can be appointed to be members of this board, he will have done a good day's work and we will have a board of which it can truly be said represents all aspects of this business.

The Minister is smiling benignly at me as he usually does. It is his way out of most difficult situations and I have seen him do it time after time. He smiles benignly and everyone thinks this is gentleman Joe and that he is a very nice man, but they forget to notice he is not doing any of the things they want him to do. I ask him if there anything inaccurate or untrue in what I have said. Does he believe I am wrong in saying that without punters we would have no business? Does he believe I am wrong in saying that it is punters who provide the impetus for everything this board will do? Without punters there would be no future for this business. If the Minister tells me I am wrong in any of my assertions, I will happily withdraw the amendment. However, if he cannot tell me I am wrong, the only sensible thing he can do is accept this amendment and the later one that gives rise to it.

We discussed this on Committee Stage when I pointed out that the genesis of the Minister's problem is the October declaration in 2000. The Minister's dilemma is interesting and demonstrates the difficulty of deciding matters outside the House which might impinge or have an impact on his ability to be flexible in the House afterwards, especially in relation to a reasonable amendment such as that put forward by Deputy Dukes. This amendment is fundamental to the subsequent amendments; all those amendments could have been grouped together. I do not know why we cannot conduct our business that way. Deputy Dukes could have discussed his later amendment which also covers the subject of my amendment.

It is a truism that people who attend race courses, either for greyhound or horse racing, are the lifeblood of the industry. They are of paramount importance to its survival and growth. There is something peculiar about their exclusion from the body that will run the industry. People pay significant amounts of money to enter race courses. There would be no need for bookmakers and racing could not survive if the punters withdrew en masse. One cannot make a case against Deputy Dukes's assertions about their vital importance.

One could look at another example of consultative forums. The Minister's great predecessor, Éamon de Valera, who probably initially drew the Minister to Fianna Fáil, regularly talked about draining the Shannon. He had many successors in that regard but I never fell for it; I hope I have a pearl of wisdom in my head.

The Deputy more often fell into the floods.

Exactly, especially last January 12 months. They set up a consultative forum on the Shannon. It was the greatest waste of time. It was a talk shop where nothing happened; it was useless. If it had been effective, the problems which arose last January 12 months would have been dealt with. However, it had no power. It could talk all day and night and invite representatives of the ESB and Bord na Móna to talk to it but it could make no decisions. That is the reason punters feel they are excluded.

If a body does not have teeth, one might as well go home and not waste anybody's time. No matter what comes forward from consultations with the punters, it will mean nothing because the real power broking takes place at board level. Only the board has the right to information and the right to make important and strong decisions. That is the reason there is a sub-group of the transport committee considering putting together something that will have teeth and statutory authority with regard to the Shannon.

There have been various discussions about a Shannon authority. Would it not be extremely foolish to establish a Shannon authority which did not have the input of fishermen, farmers or landowners along the Shannon who would be affected by the authority? It would be foolish to exclude the people who are actually involved. It would be equally foolish to exclude Westmeath County Council or Roscommon County Council. Exclusion of the punter from this board has the same effect as engaging in the harebrained idea of establishing a Shannon authority and not having the local authority representatives on board.

This is the only mistake the Minister made in the Bill. The rest of it is good and every change the Minister made has simply refined and improved it. However, this is an area where the Minister got hooked on the petard of conciliation outside this forum. The Minister gave a commitment and I understand what is involved in doing that. I must tell Deputy Sheehan that the Minister is strong when it comes to commitments, although he maintains the Minister did not fulfil the one about the abattoir. In this regard the Minister gave a commitment which has us arguing for something which the punters, the vast bulk of the people who participate in the industry, want but which means he is unable to concede to a reasonable request from myself and Deputy Dukes in our amendments.

I support the comments of my colleagues. Unfortunately, I could not attend the debate on Committee Stage of the Bill but I trust these points were made to the Minister. They were certainly made on Second Stage.

The Bill is a major step forward for the horse racing industry and it has been welcomed by all Members of the House. However, this aspect must be addressed. The Minister gave his reasons for not wishing to proceed in this fashion but I appeal to him to look again at the necessity – it is not simply a desire – to have representation at board level for the people who keep the industry ticking over all year round.

The horse racing industry is strong but we must be concerned about the growth level in attendances. Many of the problems which keep people away from racing, such as poor facilities, can best be addressed by the punters who attend race meetings. They have the strongest voice to address the problems that remain in the industry and to help the industry grow more significantly and attract people back to racing, particularly young people. In recent years the age profile of attendances at race meetings has not been particularly young. To attract people back to racing and involve them even at spectator level, it is important that their advice is heard at board level.

The amendment tabled by Deputy Dukes provides the missing link. This industry is growing, but to thrive more fully, to expand and to secure its future into the coming decades it needs a strong voice at board level from those who are willing to turn up in numbers and spend money at race meetings.

Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.