I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I wish to share time with Deputy Jim O'Keeffe.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce the Greyhound Industry (Doping Regulation) Bill 2006. This three-hour debate will provide an opportunity for me and Members on all sides of the House to voice our views on this important Bill and other issues concerning the greyhound industry.
I had the privilege of being responsible for Bord na gCon when I served as a Minister of State at the then Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry from 1994 to 1997. It was a very exciting time for the greyhound industry after the downward cycle in the previous ten to 15 years when attendance figures slumped to approximately 580,000 from over 1 million in the late 1970s. With the aid of increased funding made available by the then rainbow Government, significant improvements in customer facilities and track surfaces took place in racing tracks across the country. In 1995, a new grandstand restaurant, hospitality suites, kennels and full bar facilities were provided at Shelbourne Park. These cost approximately €3.25 million, which was good value for taxpayers' money at that time.
This new development, complete with a strong marketing campaign made an immediate impact and Shelbourne Park became the place to go for evening entertainment and corporate functions. This was the catalyst the industry needed at the time and it resulted in remarkable increases in attendances and tote betting at Shelbourne Park. This model became the example to which the rest of the country aspired. A new grandstand restaurant and bar facilities were opened in Tralee in May 1997 at a cost of €2.3 million. This has been a major success, is part of the tourism infrastructure of Kerry and provides state-of-the-art facilities for owners, trainers and members of the public. New kennels were provided there recently for the comfort of the greyhounds.
I was involved in the relocation of the greyhound stadium in Cork, which resulted in the first new greyhound stadium to be built in the country since the late 1950s. I was also instrumental in the decision to retain Harold's Cross as a greyhound stadium. Before I was given responsibility for the industry, a decision had been made to sell off Harold's Cross and to centralise all greyhound racing in Dublin at Shelbourne Park. I did not agree with this strategy, however, and ensured that it did not proceed. It is heartening to see how well Harold's Cross is doing. A later major investment in Harold's Cross came mostly from the sale of some of the land there. At the time, Harold's Cross would have made very little money compared with what it makes now. It is an outstanding facility and serves as a community centre for that side of the city.
Between 1994 and 1997, the rainbow Government reduced VAT on greyhound feed from 21% to 12.5% and introduced an exemption from tax on income from stud fees in 1996. Between 1995 and 2005, attendances grew from 580,000 to 1.39 million, a return to the levels of the late 1970s. As a result, totalisator betting increased from €6.7 million in 1995 to €51.3 million in 2005 and bookmaker betting increased from €22.2 million to €90.5 million in the same period.
Prize money has increased from €1 million to €11.4 million and sponsorship from €600,000 to €1.9 million. The number of registered owners increased from 8,277 in 1996 to 9,989 in 2005, which reflects the growing popularity of greyhound racing. It is heartening to see many syndicates made up of men and women who buy dogs, come to the track to support them and have great fun in the process. This is a trend across the country and represents a good way to keep people occupied and promote to social interaction. Greyhound centres are good social centres for their communities.
The greyhound industry, including the rearing and training of greyhounds, contributes in excess of €300 million to the economy and is an important source of income for many families, particularly in rural areas. It provides a considerable supplementary income to many farm families.
This dramatic improvement has taken place in Ireland since 1995 while the industry has declined in the UK and the USA. Receiving Government support has helped, especially with the introduction of the horse and greyhound racing fund in 2001. That was a major departure because it ensured guaranteed funding for the greyhound industry in the future. Bord na gCon received 20% of the total fund, which has contributed to the increase in prize money and to the capital development throughout the country.
The appointment of Pascal Taggart as Chairman of Bord na gCon in late 1995 was an important development. In the past 11 years, he has given his time to Bord na gCon free of charge. He declined to accept a director's fee or travelling expenses and must be recognised for that and for his contribution to the spectacular growth of the industry since 1995. He remains the chairman 11 years later, having been appointed by the rainbow Government, not on political grounds but on the grounds that he had business acumen and was supportive of the greyhound industry.
His predecessor, Kevin Heffernan, carried out a root and branch review of Bord na gCon in late 1994 and early 1995. He proposed the structures, which are still in place, to enable the industry to progress. The chief executives, Seán Collins and Michael Field, who served while I was Minister of State were very supportive. When I served in a junior ministerial capacity and, as a Deputy representing north Kerry, made proposals regarding the track in Tralee, there was a concern that there might not be money available to facilitate such a development. The then chief executive, Seán Collins, was very supportive of this proposal, as was Michael Dowling, who was Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry at the time. We sourced the first €500,000 to get the project off the ground from various funds and savings in the Department. They, together with the staff and board members of Bord na gCon, can all feel justifiably proud of this success story. I acknowledge also the efforts and support of the former Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, and the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, for the industry.
In late 1996, the Government also approved my proposal on new greyhound legislation. When I left the then Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry in 1997, drafting of the Bill was well advanced. The Bill provided for a new greyhound racing authority to replace Bord na gCon. The board was to be larger than the existing board and broadly representative of the various interests of the industry. The Bill also proposed to establish a new independent control and appeals board, with a legal person in the chair and a veterinary expert on it.
Other sections of the 1958 legislation the Bill proposed to update included aspects relating to ethical standards associated with membership of the authority and the duration and number of times an individual could serve on the board, including the chairman. It was also intended to appoint an individual, or individuals, to the board who may not have been involved in the greyhound industry but who had a business, legal or marketing background. The Bill would also have assured gender balance on the board. When the rainbow coalition left office, there were three women on the board. Now there is none, which is a sad reflection on the Government's stated commitment to ensuring gender balance on State boards.
The incoming Government dropped the legislation in 1997. Elements of the Bill were included in the Horse and Greyhound Racing (Betting Charges and Levies) Bill 1999 and the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund Bill 2001. However, the Bill would have led to a comprehensive updating of the 1958 Act which, as the Minister accepted in the Dáil last week, needed major amendment and updating. Unfortunately, it has taken almost ten years for the Government to acknowledge this fact.
The Bill I am introducing represents one of the initiatives contained in the proposed 1997 legislation. It is essential the industry is governed by an effective regulatory structure which has the confidence of all involved. Greyhounds must be allowed to compete on their merits. Trainers and owners must be allowed to compete in the knowledge that their animals will only be beaten on merit and not by a greyhound that has been given a performance enhancing substance. Similarly, people betting on greyhound races must be confident the greyhound they back will perform on its merits. There must be no room in the industry for cheats. For animal welfare reasons, greyhounds should not be raced if they require painkillers or other drugs to boost performance.
Since 1995, Bord na gCon has striven to improve its control procedures. In 1996, the board employed a regulation manager to oversee a radical improvement in the implementation of its control regime. In 2005, it spent approximately €2 million, a substantial part of its budget, on regulation. In 2000, the board tested 1,000 samples with a positive rate of 1.4%. In 2005, some 6,000 samples were taken, with a positive rate of 1.13%. Although this compares favourably with the World Anti-Doping Agency, which tested a total of 2,000 athletes in 2004 worldwide, both in and out of competition, it represents less than 4.5% of those runners competing — an average of 2.5 greyhounds out of 60 taking part on a normal track night.
The board currently tests two randomly chosen samples at each track on each night of racing. This process is supervised by a control steward assigned to each track. The samples are selected randomly from the race card, usually by a draw made by a member of the public. On occasion, testing is carried out by a stipendiary steward and an outside testing team which usually takes pre and post-race samples of a number of races on nights when there is major prize money at stake, usually high profile events.
The urine collection container is usually given to the handlers of the greyhound who collect the urine. They must sign a form indicating their satisfaction with the procedure and stating whether or not they want the sample split. The samples are then sent to the national greyhound laboratory in Limerick by registered post for analysis. Negative samples take two weeks to certify and positive samples usually take four weeks. If the sample is positive, the trainer is informed by letter and asked to provide an explanation for the presence of a prohibited substance.
A letter is also sent to the track control steward directing him or her to initiate an inquiry into the case. The regulation manager in Bord na gCon then submits a report to the control committee, including all documentation, for decision. The committee, consisting of the chairman of Bord na gCon, the chief executive and three board members, then decides on the penalty to be imposed on the individual. First time offenders have the option of accepting the findings of the test, a small fine and forfeiture of the prize money or of appearing before the control committee to present a defence. This arrangement has had some success, but it is obvious from recent events that it is not foolproof and people are questioning it. I understand, from the leaked reports I have seen in the newspapers, that the Dalton report will address this issue. If the leaks are correct, and I presume they are, the report proposes something similar to what I propose in this Bill. Perhaps Mr. Dalton read my Bill.
A number of people have expressed concern about the procedures in place for the testing of greyhounds in Ireland. They feel that because they have been in place for some time, it is now appropriate to update them. They are convinced that if we are serious about zero tolerance regarding drug use, we must ensure that our drug testing systems are credible, comprehensive and independent and act as a deterrent to anyone tempted to breach the rules.
The receptacles for taking samples are outdated and are not in keeping with modern standards owing to their design. Horse racing uses the ladle method which is more tamper-proof.
The current system for drug testing racing greyhounds has in place a duplicate numbering system whereby one label is placed on the bottle that contains the urine sample after the handler has taken the sample from the greyhound and the other is part of a form signed by the handler in the presence of the person appointed by the board, who also signs that he or she has received the sample. The administrator or steward appointed by the board is obliged to offer the facility to split the sample so owners can also get it tested independently should they wish to do so.
Ireland allows persons taking samples from their dogs to walk freely into the middle of the track. The system in other countries is far superior with an area such as a sand pit reserved for the taking of samples. Sometimes when people walk into the middle of the stadium to collect a sample it could be the middle of winter and dark. This does not look well. In tracks in other countries a sandpit is reserved where people can see the sample being taken. That should be the practice here.
As the receptacle that contains the urine sample is not sealed, other than by a screw top, it could be open to tampering between the time the sample is taken and the time it reaches the area of administration, which is usually the staff canteen or a crowded weigh room. These bottled samples are placed in a small container, which has a screw cap, but as there is an abundance of them around the track, it is possible that a person could open them and swap a sample. The current system where there is no tamper-proof seal on the urine sample after it has been collected leaves the system open to tampering of samples by unscrupulous persons and would undoubtedly be open to legal challenge. We should remove that doubt. A facility such as a testing station that is locked all the time should be made available at all tracks, like a proper vet's room. In Ireland, no track has an area reserved for the sole purpose of administering testing procedures.
I understand stewards employed by the board do not have the power to randomly test a greyhound they deem to have run above or below form on any night and cannot test a greyhound the morning after a race. Will the Minister clarify that?
There is no testing carried out on greyhounds in semi-finals, which may encourage the use of illegal substances. This is on account of the length of time it takes for a sample to come back and because if the final of the race is the following week, it could be held up by a potential court case. It is a flaw in the system that dogs in semi-finals are not tested. The board, to its credit, tested the losers in the quarter-finals and semi-finals of last year's Irish Derby. Random testing should be the norm in Ireland but it is not. It would be far more advantageous to the board if stewards had the power to test greyhounds on spec. Post-race testing has been introduced in recent years to combat the alleged use of hard drugs. Given that some drugs enhance performance in seconds rather than minutes, they do not show up in urine samples for approximately 30 minutes, thereby making post-race tests useless. That is why there should be tests on the mornings after competitions and at various other times. I am also concerned that there is no testing at trials in Ireland.
Samples are placed in screw-cap containers which do not have seals, thereby defeating the purpose of taking samples in the first instance. The samples are transported by car and posted to head office without a chain of custody or an appropriate type of seal. The container carrying all the samples is screw-sealed, but there is nothing to stop anyone from changing the urine and replacing the samples in another container. Although there is a numbering system on the bottles containing the urine, there is no numbering or seal on the containers in which the samples are transported from the track to the post office. Although the integrity of the people involved is not in question, this system leaves them open to legal challenge. We are aware that cases have been taken on the basis of problems with the carriage of samples. It happened in a celebrated case in about 1994.
I refer to arrangements in other countries for the sake of debate, in support of my argument and to highlight some of the weaknesses in the Irish system. There are individual trainers, owners and agents in Ireland, whereas at tracks in the United States there are kennel owners who supply greyhounds for racing at each track. Greyhounds in that country are kennelled two hours before racing and nobody other than members of staff of the tracks is allowed near the dogs. The track staff who parade the greyhounds for racing are responsible for the care of the greyhounds to which they are assigned for each race.
It was recently announced that a new racing commission is to be established in England to deal with matters relating to the misuse of prohibited substances there. I am sure the Minister is familiar with the commission. Under the English procedure, which is to be commended, heavy fines or total disqualification are used to reprimand those who breach any rule concerning drugs. Samples are taken in a railed area in full view of the public prior to racing, which is an excellent method because it removes the risk of tampering with samples. Authorised track personnel, rather than handlers, take all the samples in England. The "flying squad" that is in operation in the UK carries out random testing on many sports at any time, day or night. The "flying squad" found that certain samples taken from greyhounds did not test positive unless taken after races. Post-race testing did not start here until 2005 and then only in a very limited form.
A leading Irish trainer received a substantial fine last year for using nandrolone in England, where it is prohibited. It is not a banned substance in Ireland, however. It is time to put in place an international agreement to standardise control procedures in various countries. There is a particular need for a bilateral agreement between England and Ireland, given that many English dogs race in Ireland and many Irish dogs race in England. We need to standardise all our procedures. Substances which are banned in England should be banned here and vice versa. I understand that a high profile trainer who was banned in the UK for using drugs got a licence to train in this country. When he returned to the UK, he was banned for a second time for the use of drugs, but he returned to Ireland to resume training here. He has never been detected for the use of drugs here. Perhaps he did not use any substances which are prohibited here. Some drugs which are being used here may not be allowed in England.
In Australia, guidelines are given to stewards and trainers on their rights and on how they should implement the rules. The stewards' rooms there are equipped with video recording. Nobody is allowed to refuse to co-operate with the system. Stewards have the right to question owners or trainers at any time and to issue on-the-spot fines to people in respect of dogs. I understand that under the system introduced in Australia, the samples from dogs which were tested on the Saturday night are back by the Monday morning. Any greyhound found positive in a semi-final is automatically disqualified from the final. Legislation is in place to ensure that nobody can challenge this rule. Drug tests are carried out by authorised people and are taken in a ladle, just as they are by the horse racing authorities here. The samples which result are untouched by hand. It is obvious that Bord na gCon's drug testing procedures need to be updated and made more comprehensive. If that requires more finance, I suggest it should be provided.
An independent body that is responsible for the independent regulation and control of doping and illegal drug use in the greyhound racing industry needs to be established. The Bill I am proposing this evening seeks to achieve that objective. I recommended this approach in a Bill I had ready for publication in 1997. I have repeated the view I expressed in several public statements when I was Minister of State on many occasions in this House since then. I have said many times that an independent control procedure is needed. If this legislation had been accepted when I proposed it in 1997, we would not now have the debacle in Bord na gCon. The industry has definitely been affected by the delay. Last week, when the House discussed the crisis that followed the Supreme Court decision, the Tánaiste accused the Opposition of failing to come up with a solution. The Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, cannot point the finger at the Opposition in this instance. We were ready to put a Bill in place almost ten years ago and we have proposed since then that it be accepted, but we have been ignored.
I spoke in this House on 17 June 1999, which is almost seven years ago, during the debate on the Horse and Greyhound Racing (Betting Charges and Levies) Bill 1999. I said:
Control is most important and recent events in athletics demonstrate that people are much more conscious now of true and genuine performances. I question the application of control in the greyhound industry in terms of its effectiveness and the implementation of procedures. There is a need for manpower to carry out more spot checks. It is most important that the Minister introduces legislation to set up an independent controls board. If he does not do so, I will introduce a Private Members' Bill in an effort to do so because controls are important to the credibility of the greyhound industry.
I signposted my intention to introduce legislation a long time ago. The Minister said during the subsequent Seanad debate on the Bill that he could introduce an independent controls body, but he did not do so thereafter.
I appeal to the Minister to consider seriously accepting this well thought-out and balanced Bill, which will ensure that the members of the control group, or "an comhlacht" will be totally independent of Bord na gCon, will have legal and veterinary expertise and will have a good understanding of the greyhound industry. The establishment of such a group would ensure that all decisions on doping would be published and would not be questioned. It would avoid any conflict of interest on the part of board members who might be acquainted with or have associations with greyhound trainers or owners. Ireland is a very small country and everyone in the greyhound industry knows everyone else. They are very familiar with each other — it is a very closely-knit community. The Government's failure to remove control and responsibility from Bord na gCon has placed the people to whom I refer in a compromised position. We will debate the Dalton report in the weeks ahead, after we have seen its contents. If the sentiments of the legislation I am proposing had been accepted in the late 1990s, we would not be facing the current crisis and debacle.