The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Rutley)
15 Oct 2018, 6:27 p.m.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) on speaking up for the petitioners, which he did extraordinarily well, while also adding in some of his own views along the way. It has been a useful and stimulating debate.
I am the newly appointed Minister for Animal Welfare, and hon. Members on both sides of the House can be assured that this issue is very important to me. Like other Members, I have also received several emails from constituents who have signed the petition; there were 176 from Macclesfield. It is clear from the contributions made that racehorses spend many weeks training hard to compete in races so that many people across the country can enjoy the thrill of horse-racing, which, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), and others, is the second-best-attended sport after football. That is why we should rightly expect that racehorses are looked after to the highest standard and that their welfare needs, as required by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, are met.
The BHA is responsible for the safety of the tracks, for both horses and jockeys. I am pleased that it works hard to put in place the necessary safety measures for horses and works collaboratively with welfare experts from the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare to continuously improve its work in this vital endeavour, which is important.
As the new Minister, I wanted to understand what these welfare organisations—as well as my colleagues—had to say, so I read with interest the views of the RSPCA, which is supportive of its working arrangement with the BHA. The charity’s deputy chief executive, Chris Wainwright, said:
“We work really closely with the BHA and we think that relationship has resulted in lots of really good improvements, whether it’s the use of the whip”—
we will come on to that again in a moment—
“hurdles design or the review of Aintree.”
It is clearly open to further reviews, but it has a positive working relationship with the BHA.
World Horse Welfare says that it has worked constructively with the BHA for many years, which has resulted in a number of positive changes to further advance racehorse safety and welfare.
The BHA has a dedicated team who inspect the 60 racetracks in Great Britain. There are four inspectors of courses, who have an allocated number of racecourses. I will not go into all the detail of their work, but it is clear that they do preliminary inspections of the racecourses; they are involved at the start of every season. Throughout the season, racecourses continue to be monitored, and then any improvements that are required get acted on. On race day itself, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has seen for herself, a huge amount of activity goes on to ensure that there are high standards then as well.
How do we think that the BHA is performing? There were differing views across the Chamber today. The BHA maintains statistics on the number of horses involved in fatal accidents, and it is really important to see the level of fatalities and the trend. Mention has been made of this, but let me put it on the record for clarity: clearly, each fatality is absolutely tragic. The continuing decline in fatalities from the years 2012 and 2013, when there were 211 and 196 fatalities respectively, to 167 in 2017 is encouraging, but I am keen to see the number of fatalities decline still further. From contributions in today’s debate, including a very useful contribution from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), I think that that ambition is shared across the House. The BHA needs to recognise that and respond to it, and I will come in due course to how I think it could be recognised.
As has been highlighted, there is always a degree of risk in any sport or activity, whether to the humans or animals involved. With 91,000 runners at tracks in 2017, the fatalities represented 0.18% of all runners. It is positive to see the percentage also declining since 2012. That is very welcome, given the work that the BHA is doing to put in place the necessary safety measures. I have to state again that that is done on a collaborative basis with the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare. That approach is vital. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr Cameron) that more needs to be done to ensure that the figures are transparent and available to the public more readily. I will raise that when I meet the BHA.
A good example of a result of the collaboration between the BHA and the RSPCA is the redesign of fences and other aspects of the Grand National course, as the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) will appreciate, given his constituency interests. It resulted in the inner frames of fences being replaced with more forgiving flexible plastic. That has led to a sharp decline in the number of fatalities in that iconic race; indeed, there has been none since the work was completed in 2013. That is good news, and more needs to be done to learn from these important lessons to reduce fatalities further in other races.
There have been very notable contributions to the debate. Some were incredibly supportive of the status quo, although I think that everyone wants further change and improvement. Worth highlighting are the intervention early on from the right hon. Member for Warley and the contributions from the hon. Member for St Helens North and my hon. Friends the Members for Tewkesbury and for Shipley (Philip Davies). They highlighted how much horse-racing means to many people across the country and that the welfare of racehorses is vital, not just for the industry’s sake but for the horses’ sake. They are wonderful animals and their welfare should be paramount. Hon. Members spoke strongly in support of the BHA’s work, but I did not detect complacency. I recognised that they felt that racehorse welfare needed to continue to be a real priority.
We were able to see during the debate what it is like to go to York racecourse on race day. We had a behind-the-scenes view of what goes on from a contribution by the hon. Member for York Central that was characteristically thoughtful and, as always, as I have noticed in these debates, well researched. She raised a number of issues and, with the permission of hon. Members present, I will go through as many as I can. She raised the important issue of starting gates, which was also raised on the petitioners’ behalf by the hon. Member for Hartlepool. It is clear that the BHA needs to look very carefully at the tragic incidents that have been raised, such as the one involving Commanding Officer. More needs to be done to tackle this issue. Again, I will raise it with the BHA when I meet it in the near future.
The use of whips has been much discussed—by the hon. Members for York Central, for East Kilbride and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport and by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. I have to tread pretty carefully on this subject: I am a Government Whip and I have also been the Whip for my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley—I do not think any more needs to be said there. [Interruption.] I have sometimes found that a carrot can be more effective than a stick, but we will not go too far down that track.
None the less, important issues have been raised about use of the whip. In this country, strict rules are in place. Stewards are empowered to hold inquiries and to ban jockeys. The BHA rightly keeps those rules under review, and of course lessons should be learned from places such as Norway. It was interesting to read the report produced by the RSPCA for this debate. It has obviously been monitoring use of the whip and working closely with the BHA on this issue. According to its records and review, between 2012 and 2015 there was a 40% reduction in use of the whip. The RSPCA welcomes that, as I think we all do, but we would probably all say, “Let’s go further down that track.”
On the subject of retired racehorses, it sounds as though New Beginnings, in the constituency of the hon. Member for York Central, is doing great work and it is to be commended. We need to learn from the positive work that is going on to retrain racehorses, which was also highlighted by the hon. Member for St Helens North. Indeed, £750,000 is being made available to see what can be done to facilitate the rehoming and retraining of racehorses. I am really encouraged to see that there are successful second careers for racehorses.
The hon. Member for York Central talked about a number of EU-exit-related issues, including that of skilled staff. The Migration Advisory Committee has been asked to review the shortage occupation list, and I am sure that the racing industry will want to make its contributions to that important review. She highlighted equine movement; that is one of several issues that need to be considered as we look at leaving the EU. The continued movement of equines between the UK and the EU, with the minimum of delay, is very important to the industry on both sides. It is therefore in both sides’ interest to ensure that that is maintained. Technical notices were put out on 12 October about what arrangements will be put in place in a no deal scenario, but obviously what we are working towards—we have heard more about it today—is securing a deal. The negotiation, as we are all too aware, is ongoing.
The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) took a different track with his view of the BHA’s track record. None the less, it stimulated a lively debate. Even he did not want a ban on horse-racing. I think that what we are all saying here, although from different positions, is that we want to see the welfare of racehorses put centre stage. I will take on board the points that he made.
The hon. Member for East Kilbride and several other communities—I can never remember them in order, so I will stick with just East Kilbride—made, characteristically, such a reasonable contribution that it is hard to disagree with many of the things that she said. Further improvements are required. She felt that there was a conflict of interest with regard to the BHA’s role. I do not particularly share that view, but I will go into that in more detail. She did set out some issues to tackle, notwithstanding the figures that we have talked about for the Grand National, and she talked about what can be done to address issues in relation to the whip.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, who also made an important contribution, highlighted the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which came into place under a previous Government, under his party’s leadership. That is a very important Act. I, too, welcome the fact that the present Government are looking to increase the sentences. We are looking to bring that into place as soon as possible when parliamentary time permits. We are seeking the Bill necessary to make it possible, and I know that he would welcome that moving forward as quickly as possible. He also highlighted the fact that this subject is very much about an ongoing journey. I share his ambition; in fact, I want to go further. As the Minister for this area now, I need to press hard on these issues.
I will now wind up and give a few concluding remarks. I would like to stress again that we must do all that we can to reduce the fatalities of horses while racing on a track. I am grateful for all the contributions in this debate, which show the keen interest that is genuinely felt in the welfare of racehorses.
The Government welcome all the work the BHA has done, and continues to do, for the safety of horses and riders and as a functioning and transparent body, which has the key responsibility in this area. With the work the BHA has done to further reduce the number of fatalities at racetracks, the Government do not see a need to take a different approach by creating a new body, as was set out in the initial response to the e-petition. That does not mean that the BHA should not continue to be held to account. It should continue to have to explain what it does in an open and transparent way, as has been set out clearly in this debate.
I am looking forward to meeting the BHA in the near future. The welfare of racehorses will be at the top of the agenda and will continue to be at subsequent meetings. I am particularly interested to discuss with the BHA its review, which is due to be published soon, of the tragic deaths of six racehorses at Cheltenham. I think that will be an important vehicle to understand its commitment and ambition, which—as has been set out clearly in the debate—other hon. Members share. It provides an opportunity to look at what more can be done at the Grand National. Let us use that report as a moment for reflection. I hope that the BHA is listening to this debate.