Protests against this year's Grand National have drawn sharp attention to the horse racing industry. That the government subsidises the industry by taxing betting profits raises questions about why such a levy isn't in place to use to treat problem gambling.
Controversy dominated last week’s Grand National, with 118 animal rights protesters arrested, the start of the race delayed by 15 minutes and three horses dead over the course of the week. That makes it an average year in terms of death toll, with 62 horses having perished at Aintree since 2000, and activists forceful in their criticism of what campaign group Viva! described as a “cruel, outdated sport that needs to end”. Those involved in the sport insist that horses enjoy good conditions, and argue that fatality rates are lower than they were 20 years ago. Critics argue that suffering and exploitation is inevitable, that progress is slow and stalling, and that jump racing remains particularly dangerous.
A substantial proportion of the public appears to sympathise with the animal advocates’ cause (if not necessarily their methods). A 2018 opinion poll found that 51% of people believe the Grand National is cruel. One from earlier this year found that 38% would favour an outright ban on horse racing, exactly the same proportion as would like to allow it to continue.
Ending horse racing would be a radical and contentious step. But you don’t have to go that far to object to the fact that the UK government doesn’t just permit horse racing, but in fact helps to subsidise it. Through the Horserace Betting Levy, bookmakers have to pay a tax of 10% on their racing-related profits above £500,000. The board that administers the levy expects to generate between £95 and 100 million a year as the “norm”, which goes to support the horse racing industry in different ways. Last year, the Horserace Betting Levy Board contributed £74 million in horse racing prize money. In general, levy funds account for over a third of all prize money. Only a tiny fraction is directly earmarked for animal welfare – last year £2 million went to veterinary science and education, £0.4 million to fund the Horse Welfare Board and £0.1 million to support the retraining of retired horses.
Those numbers are striking in the context of another proposed tax on gambling, in some ways similar to the Horserace Betting Levy, that has been the subject of acrimonious dispute in recent months. The Social Market Foundation is among those to have called for a statutory levy on gambling operators’ profits to fund prevention, research, education, treatment and recovery in order to reduce levels of gambling harm. There has been some debate over how high the new statutory levy should be set, but most proposals are of a similar order of magnitude – £100 million a year, give or take – to the Horserace Betting Levy.
The measure was resisted by many in the gambling industry and the government, which sent mixed signals before ultimately including a compulsory levy in the long-awaited gambling white paper (we expect). The industry does maintain a voluntary scheme for funding research, education and treatment, with £100 million pledged over a four year period.
Yet the whole situation speaks to some questionable priorities. Why is the government in the business of administering a £100 million tax to financially prop up the horse racing industry? Is this the best way of taxing betting? Even if we think horse racing has social value, is it deserving of support that other industries do not get? What does this funding say about our concern for animal welfare? Would it be different if more of the Horserace Betting Levy went to help horses themselves? And even if we don’t care about horses, is the horse racing industry more deserving of such a scheme than problem gamblers?