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Minister states intention to help end row over pitches.

Byline: By Howard Wright

SPORTS minister Gerry Sutcliffe has confirmed his intention to help negotiate a way out of the stalemate between the racecourses and on-track bookmakers over pitch positions from 2012, whatever an investigation by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport select committee decides.

The cross-party select committee, under Tory chairman John Whittingdale, conducted a oneoff, two-and-a-half-hour session of oral evidence in Westminster yesterday, when Racecourse Association representatives Stephen Atkin and Caroline Davies found themselves all but isolated in their insistence that bookmakers enjoy no rights to retain their pitch positions in perpetuity.

A report from the committee is likely to be published before Christmas. However, speaking after giving evidence alongside DCMS officials David Fitzgerald and Eleanor van Heyningen, Sutcliffe revealed his idea of the next steps.

He said: "I had a meeting with the bookmakers and racecourses last week, and there were positive signs. I will chair the next meeting, then appoint an independent person to chair future meetings."

Earlier, when questioned by the select committee, which mustered four of its 11 members for half the time, and a maximum of just five at any one time, Sutcliffe said: "I think a compromise could be reached, where bookmakers' seniority is recognised but around a framework of commercial discussions.

"The best way forward is for discussions to take place round the table. I'm happy to read the recommendations of the select committee, but it's no role of government to interfere. A compromise can be reached."

The "deep-seated positions of both parties" to which Sutcliffe referred were clearly demonstrated yesterday, and centre on what will happen in 2012, when the Racecourse Association says list positions will disappear and commercial arrangements for where bookmakers stand will apply.

The bookmakers argued that they held their pick positions in perpetuity, while the racecourses, through their trade association, countered that "no such security of tenure was given".

Federation of Racecourse Bookmakers director Robin Grossmith described the situation as "a grave injustice" in which the assets of hundreds of racecourse bookmakers had been devalued, and in five years' time would be worth nothing.

He added: "We are willing to sit and talk about a commercial arrangement after 2012, but we can't do that until the matter of tenure is sorted."

Fellow bookmaker Keith Johnson said: "The racecourses have taken the commercial arrangement to mean they can steal the pitches. We believe they belong to us, they are our asset, obtained in good faith."

Barry Johnson, who explained he had invested heavily in his family bookmaking firm after 30 years in business, said he "wouldn't have dreamed of making this investment from earned income" if he did not think he had security of tenure. "I stand to lose everything I have worked for over 30 years," he said.

The bookmakers were supported over tenure of the list positions by representatives of the Levy Board and National Joint Pitch Council, including former NJPC chief executive Clive Reams, who said: "I can definitely confirm that the bookmakers were led to believe the tenure of pitches was in perpetuity.

"For 40 years that was the cornerstone of the pitches, and when the NJPC came along, nothing changed. Tenure was fully accepted by all the regulators, including the racecourses."

Asked by committee chairman Whittingdale how they reacted to the RCA's March 2007 letter explaining the position about list position tenure from 2012, NJPC chairman Tom Clarke replied "stunned", while Levy Board racing director David Bradshaw said he was "surprised".

Their answers, backed by NJPC manager Tim Moore, who said he personally regarded the tenure to be in perpetuity, appeared to take Whittingdale aback, and he afterwards said the NJPC response in particular was "stronger than it appeared in written evidence".

For the RCA, Atkin stuck to his script, saying: "No such security of tenure was given, and the position was made clear in the NJPC pitch rules of 1998. It doesn't mean on-course bookmakers will cease to operate from existing positions, but there will be commercial negotiations."

Referring specifically to Barry Johnson's possible plight, Atkin said: "I see no reason why Mr Johnson and the racecourses on which he trades will not reach satisfactory commercial arrangements."

Atkin revealed that the RCA was working on ideas that included variations on the fivetimes rule for admission by bookmakers, and offering racecourse positions for tender in batches of, say, five to give the first right of refusal, followed by another batch for a second refusal.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Nov 14, 2007
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