PART II: Present Governance and Regulation of British Greyhound Racing

Chapter 5

THE REGULATORY PERFORMANCE OF THE NATIONAL GREYHOUND RACING CLUB.

Introduction

A substantial part of the evidence to this Review expressed some degree of criticism of the performance of the NGRC - to such an extent that, taking that evidence at face value, it is not clear that the Club currently has sufficient trust and credibility within the industry to continue in its present form as, or to become in the near future, a successful regulator earning the confidence of the regulated.

However, the opinions were certainly not all black and condemning (and many of the criticisms made were, in the view of this Review, excessive.) Several witnesses praised the high standards of integrity of the Club, the undoubted honesty and work commitment of its dedicated staff, and noted the improvement in the Club's performance under its present management. Some pointed out that it is a 'lean' operation and that was our personal observation when visiting its modest headquarters where morale and commitment appeared to be good. Financially, the Club may, as alleged, not be sufficiently transparent but it is surely not extravagant.

This assessment is confirmed by striking figures showing that the cost of running the NGRC is in 2007 only 3.1% above the level in 2002 and that the cost per race is now the lowest in the past 5 years - certainly a tribute to the Club's Treasurer. There was wide acceptance by witnesses that the Club's Rules of Racing are satisfactory (Irish administrators described them as 'an excellent model') . Dogs Trust states that the Club is currently showing itself to be increasingly effective at regulation and that the 'improvement over the past 2 years in ensuring that the inspections are at a common standard, while far from complete, have made significant progress'. Its management systems are improving, if from an earlier inadequate level. Even the often critical Board fairly referred to areas of good progress, such as the creation of an appeals mechanism and an independent Nominations Committee. Some individual promoters praised the Club for its policing and judicial work.

Recent Initiatives

The Club's letter to the then Defra minister Ben Bradshaw (6 April 2007) sets out several recent initiatives taken to improve its conduct of regulation, especially in the field of welfare, and it underlines the improved performance of the Club. The crucial Rule 18 concerning care of dogs is now being better enforced and its sanctions publicised. The monthly Calendar distributed to all licensees is informative and more attention is being paid to making it editorially more interesting. The establishment of a Retired Greyhounds Department in 2005 was a significant step forward and the new Retirement Form introduced in 2006 should assist in the tracing of post-racing dogs. Training for kennel staff and kennel inspections is now in place. The appointment of Hazel Bentall to liaise over welfare standards is widely praised as a major advance. Certainly the Club reacted swiftly to the Seaham and Hinckley scandals.

More generally the style with which the Club has recently conducted its affairs appears more harmonious, with greater openness to reasoned debate and less of a closed door approach. Its communications with the welfare groups and even with the BGRB are sometimes less stiff than before. This Review appreciated the impressive quality and volume of the Club's own original evidence, which was very helpful in reaching our conclusions.

Towards the conclusion of the work of this Review, we received from the NGRC an Update setting out the various areas in which progress has been made or is planned (sometimes subject to funding) in response to the Defra minister's request for radical reform on its part. It is an impressive document. Sceptics may say that it is a document produced under pressure from government and under threat from this Review. Certainly more time is needed to test the actions and performance of the Club. But we prefer to be positive and say that the Update is highly encouraging and suggests that, when part of a more amenable structural environment, and when adequately funded, the authors of these reforms should prove able to meet many of the criticisms of their past failings which are listed below.

Areas of Criticism

Many of the more vociferous critics of the Club perhaps do not take sufficiently into account certain factors in its defence: especially that some of the worst failings cited to this Review actually relate mainly to the earlier generations of Club management and not to the present incumbents; and that as a regulator it has operated under severely constrained circumstances, with limited financial resources, overstretched staff and too few stewards implementing its regulations in the field. As a senior Club representative stated: 'The NGRC lacks the necessary independence to enforce the Rules of Racing. For example, the Government's requirements for welfare compliance enforcement is difficult to deliver because when one or two promoters object it is sometimes enough to derail the process thus undermining existing Rule enforcement …. The NGRC is independent in make-up but can be compromised by its funding’.

The alleged failings of the Club outlined below in quotations from witnesses should be viewed and assessed within the above mitigating context. It is also apparent that whereas some critics, especially on the welfare side, point to inadequate implementation of regulation, others, especially among the sport's participants, object to what they see as excessive regulation. It is not clear that both can be satisfied. Certainly it is not the prime objective of regulators to be popular amongst the regulated.

However, even after allowing for the constraints on its resources and the recent perceived improvement in its performance, it is not possible to underestimate, and certainly not to ignore, the breadth and weight of the criticisms of the NGRC which we received. The Society of Greyhound Veterinarians stated categorically that the Club as presently constituted is ‘unfit for purpose’, alleging that it is dominated by the Board which allegedly is ‘itself controlled by the promoters’. They add damagingly that ‘we feel that the past record of the Club and its current performance as presently constituted do not inspire confidence for the future’.

The Greyhound Trainers Association (GTA), representing key human participants in the sport, expressed reservations whether the Club should actually be allowed to continue as the regulator of greyhound racing, stating that it is ‘an unelected, undemocratic body, and should not be in a position to impose their own rules and regulations on greyhound racing…. We do not trust the NGRC (in its present form) to satisfy the government and public that required improvements in welfare are being properly regulated and enforced’. The trainers criticise the Club's alleged lack of 'practical knowledge' of greyhound racing, particularly at stewards' enquiries. They allege that the Club 'want to be politicians' seeking more power - and if they have more power will impose more costs on trainers. The GTA concluded uncompromisingly (and probably unacceptably) that ‘the only way this industry can get back on its feet is with the operators making the rules and the NGRC doing as they are told - policing the rules and no more’. Notwithstanding that the selection of a former champion trainer to become a Steward of the NGRC earlier this year must have mitigated this view somewhat, it is evident that the atmosphere between the regulators and the regulated in some areas currently lacks harmony. Indeed, the divide between the world of regulatory principle and that driven by commercial imperatives is considerable, which is why the independence of the one from the other is so important and will remain a key feature of our recommendations for the future.

A recent issue of the Racing Post, where coverage of greyhound racing is usually reassuringly above tabloid level, carried a serious article stating that the governing regime at the Club is ‘aloof and autocratic to the extent that there is precious little respect for the NGRC amongst those coming under their jurisdiction’ and that it is unclear who the Club is there to serve. The article described stewards [rather like journalists and Peers?] as ‘an unelected group imposing personal views on what is still, by and large, a compliant and law-abiding group…(of)… trainers and kennel hands’. The Club is presented as too 'zealous' in pursuing convictions and as having poor press and public relations. Another expert and generally sympathetic journalist commentator stated to the Review that ‘The NGRC is run by a body of self-elected people who are honourable but often seem to live in a world of their own’.

The BGRB is not a totally objective witness on the NGRC's performance, having clashed with the Club repeatedly over recent years. It contains some members who, from their separate evidence, have no great respect for the Club or for some of its regulatory activities and who wish to see its regulatory authority severely curbed. However, the Board certainly speaks with knowledge and experience of this subject. Its formal evidence, both written and verbal, was measured and constructive, perhaps reflecting the more cooperative and less confrontational style of its latest chairman. The Board evidence focussed on the alleged inefficiency of the Club, apparently resulting from the stewards' heavy involvement in hearings rather than the management of the organisation; on its lack of sufficient transparency and especially accountability; on its inconsistency of regulation, with different penalties for identical offences [not, it might be pointed out, unknown among magistrates and football referees]; and on the alleged inclination of the Club - perhaps hankering after its earlier historical supremacy in the sport - to interfere in the governance role of the Board. The Board accepts the need for strong regulation but does not see the present Club as the body to execute such regulation in future.

One major theme of criticism of the NGRC recurring among many witnesses is that, certainly until very recently, it has shown too little concern for greyhound welfare. Traditionally, Club regulation concentrated on the integrity of the racing. Such high integrity is essential to race running and betting and is therefore of direct commercial concern to the promoters and bookmakers who finance and dominate the industry, as well as to the mass of punters. Welfare of the greyhounds has not until recently been an equally central priority for the Club. (Curiously the Club did not respond to Defra's offer of consultation on the new Animal Welfare legislation). Welfare has been the concern mainly of the welfare charities which have been increasingly vocal, including in political and government circles, though having little formal status or authority within the industry.

The criticisms of the NGRC from these welfare charities generally starts from wanting more not less regulation - or sometimes a total ban on the sport. Such criticisms can vary in tone, sometimes constructive, as with the RSPCA, Greyhound Voice and Dogs Trust, sometimes from others becoming more extreme and counter-productively strident. But the general substance of their evidence is not supportive to the Club - often concluding that, as presently constituted, it is unsuited to conduct greyhound welfare regulation to meet the ever rising welfare standards in the future. Some want the sport's mechanism of self regulation to be totally replaced and implemented by a new statutory and welfare-based authority. Others agree on the necessary demolition of the present Club but they do not exclude continuing self-regulation by a new regulatory body if it were truly independent and with a strong welfare ingredient.

These welfare concerns are closely reflected in the July 2007 report of the APGAW, which broadly concurs with many of the above criticisms of the NGRC. While praising improvements at the new Club regime, the report criticised ‘poorly managed systems’ and the inadequate resources which it operates. The report states firmly (and undeniably) that a mere half a dozen or so stewards cannot monitor over 1000 trainers and that the single Retired Greyhound Coordinator, although a commendable new initiative, cannot alone monitor the allegedly over 10,000 retired greyhounds each year. It concludes that the undoubtedly good work of a few dedicated individuals at the Club cannot 'overcome the historical, institutional and structural problems of the NGRC and the inquiry believes that it is time for a broadened regulator that will not be burdened by a flawed legacy and that can maintain high levels of confidence and bring renewed vigour to the industry as a whole.’ [2]

The report envisages that many of the excellent staff who work for the Club will become valuable members of any new regulatory arm for greyhound racing (with which this Review certainly agrees), but concludes that the existing Club - for the reasons set out by it and other witnesses above - should not continue as the institution constituting that regulatory body.

Some of these critical views are apparently mirrored within government. The fragility of the NGRC's reputation and its vulnerability in continuing to act as the official regulator of greyhound racing were exposed in the trenchant words of the then animal welfare minister Ben Bradshaw, writing to the Club on 11th December 2006. He stated unequivocally that ‘There can be no room for doubt that there must be a substantial and radical programme of reform, if the NGRC is to become a modern accountable regulatory body. Under no circumstances could the NGRC be endorsed as a regulator by central government unless they are willing and able to make root and branch changes'.

That was surely a clarion call for radical change, with welfare moved to a higher priority in the regulation of the sport and, most importantly, the Club's very continuing status as the regulator of the sport in serious doubt. The ministerial statement provided part of the context against which this Review has been established and conducted, though the Review is independent and in no way subject to government or any other diktat. The tone of that statement chimes with the instinctive radical instincts of the present Review. As the bookmakers stated in their constructive evidence, the present time and circumstances, with this Review listening to the views of witnesses from the whole industry, is an 'ideal opportunity [for greyhound racing] to modernise in much the way Horseracing's Jockey Club has done'.

Conclusion

This Review has seriously borne in mind the recent considerable improvements in the performance of the NGRC and also the undoubted constraints on its resources. However, it is not possible to ignore the broad thrust of critical evidence. This was so strong and widespread that it is hard to conclude other than that as a regulator the Club, despite its many virtues and recent improvement, lacks the confidence and support of too many of those it regulates. Consequently, in its present form - and carrying the burden of its history - it lacks the necessary credibility within the industry to perform a sufficiently improved regulatory role in the near future.

The Club would argue, with considerable justice, that if it were given sufficient resources, its performance might improve sufficiently to regain the trust of the industry. Sadly, lacking that credibility now, and with no guarantees of rapidly improved efficiency, transparency and accountability, it is unlikely to be trusted by the industry with the extra immediate resources necessary to achieve that improvement.

The Club is sadly locked into a damaging circle where alleged past short-comings appear to preclude it being given the scope and resources to prove it can achieve sufficient improvements now and in the future. This Review believes it is necessary to make a structural leap to break out of that circle and to bury the past in order to create a better future for regulation in the industry. This Review will below look to ways in which a new regulatory arm can be constructed, shorn and relieved of the burden of past failures and internecine animosities in the NGRC's history, and therefore able, with an urgent agenda of reform priorities, to carry forward the virtues of the present Club.

[2] See APGAW Report, page 38