Last week I visited trainer Ollie Sangster at his Manton yard, near Marlborough, to learn more about the challenges facing thoroughbred racehorse trainers and breeders, of whom there are several based in my constituency. Racing is part of our heritage and our rural economy. It is a sport that many people in Wiltshire feel incredibly proud of and connected to. It is also a sport that is currently under significant challenge.
The biggest and most immediate headaches are two-fold. Firstly, there are the recruitment challenges concerning the difficulties trainers and breeders are having in sourcing and hiring the people required to staff their operations. As I understand it, the problem is less about pay but more to do with the working hours and conditions that the job entails.
A typical salary for these roles might fall in the £25-40k range, and that can sometimes include accommodation. However, these roles all require early starts with regular weekend work, and horses need exercising regardless of what the weather is doing. Working with thoroughbred racehorses also requires a high level of skill, and training for new entrants. The rural setting of most yards provides a further challenge.
The horseracing industry is lobbying for the Government to add these roles to the Shortage Occupation List, which would mean foreign workers could gain visas to come and work in the UK. This may indeed be necessary, but I start from the position that we need to do a lot more to entice young British people into the racing sector. Something is very wrong in our economy, our education and training system and our culture if too few young people growing up in Wiltshire want to enter this wonderful industry. I hope that improved apprenticeship schemes and support from training providers can help to plug the vacancies before we need to import foreign workers, who will drive down wages and impose further demands on housing and public services.
The second problem is the Gambling Commission and the planned implementation of affordability checks - introduced primarily for the smartphone era to protect those at risk from the negative effects of gambling. I fully understand, and support, the intention to tackle problem gambling but what about those who, traditionally, like to have a flutter on the horses? Many people have already closed their betting accounts because, understandably, they refuse to give highly personal data to the Gambling Commission.
Not only does the racing industry depend on betting but, equally worrying, is that the proposed changes will surely make people simply move from gambling on reputable platforms into unregulated gambling, which is designed to drive people into addiction.
I recently attended a debate in Parliament on the future of racing and remain committed to do what I can to help the important – and much loved – industry survive these current challenges.