Racing’s ruling body has clashed with Tim Farron, the former Liberal Democrats leader, on the eve of a parliamentary debate about racehorse welfare. The debate, to take place in Westminster Hall on Monday afternoon, is the result of an e-petition which gathered more than 100,000 signatures, calling on the government to set up a new regulator for equine welfare, independent of the British Horseracing Authority.
The creation of such a body is now Lib Dem policy, following the passing of a motion at the party’s conference last month – the aim being “to prevent abuse of racehorses and reduce avoidable deaths”. Farron, who is the party’s spokesman on rural affairs and farming, hopes to attend the debate.
“The job of the BHA is to promote the sport,” he said on Sunday. “Horse welfare is only part of their work. It won’t ever be a priority unless there is a widespread problem among the horses. An independent regulatory body would have horse welfare at the forefront of its thinking without interfering in the authority’s task of hyping the sport.”
In response Robin Mounsey, of the BHA, said Farron had “misunderstood” the authority’s role and pointed to Great British Racing as the body responsible for marketing the sport. “The role of the BHA is to be the sport’s governing body and regulator with responsibility for, amongst other things, equine welfare,” Mounsey said.
“As regulator, equine welfare is inextricably linked with everything we do, including educating our participants, their licensing, inspections of stables and racecourses, officiating on racedays, veterinary checks, anti‑doping, investigation and prosecution of disciplinary cases, aftercare of racehorses once they retire, a programme of innovation and improvement to reduce injury, and biosecurity plans. We will be writing again to Mr Farron, whose constituency includes Cartmel, to suggest a meeting to discuss our work on equine welfare regulation.”
The debate on Monday arises from an e-petition promoted by Animal Aid, an animal rights organisation which is fundamentally opposed to the use of animals in sport and would welcome an end to horse racing. Nevertheless, the BHA says it is glad of the chance to demonstrate the amount of work it does to promote horse welfare.
“British racing is amongst the world’s best regulated animal activities,” Mounsey said, “with our horses provided with a level of care and a quality of life that is virtually unsurpassed by any other domesticated animal.”
The government has said it sees no need for an independent welfare regulator and, in its response to the e-petition, quoted a BHA statistic that the fatality rate per runner has fallen by a third in 20 years. As recently as Friday the government answered a written question by saying it is “satisfied that the BHA works to make horse racing as safe as possible”.
However, the RSPCA is prepared to consider the case for an equine welfare regulator. Its 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, hurdles design or the review of Aintree. Obviously more needs to be done and our view is quite simple: we want whatever is best for animal welfare.
“So, if the BHA carry on with really great work, are even more determined to improve animal welfare, a bit more public, perhaps, about some of the issues that need to be addressed, then we’re happy to carry on working with them. But equally we wouldn’t rule out an independent regulator just for the sake of ruling it out.
“If it could be shown through a feasibility study that, actually, that was the smartest way forward, that it would improve public trust and result in fewer horse fatalities and improved welfare, then of course we’d be happy to have that conversation. It’s an interesting debate and I don’t think anyone should be scared to debate what’s the best way to regulate the welfare of horses.”
Wainwright said that he will be “extremely interested” in the BHA’s review of fatalities at the Cheltenham Festival this year, due to be published this autumn, and that its conclusions would indicate the BHA’s “direction of travel”. He said: “If we don’t think it’s strong enough, of course we’ll be very open with the BHA and the public about that. We’re a constructive friend to the BHA but ultimately our interest is in the welfare of animals.”