Racing: Tote could be privatised by a Labour government

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The Independent Online
Hints were being dropped yesterday that Labour's Treasury team have their eyes on the cash that might be milked from privatisation of the Tote.

But a leadership source advised against anyone putting money on a firm commitment appearing in the Labour manifesto for the impending election.

While it appears that privatisation has been discussed, no decisions have been made. One source said that it was "the sort of thing" that could only be finalised in government - a formula that makes it a racing certainty.

Some Labour MPs believe that against the background of the Conservatives' privatisation of so much else since 1979, it is an absurdity that there should be any state involvement at all in the Tote. There was also a feeling among some MPs that Labour antipathy towards Lord Wyatt of Weeford, a former Labour Minister appointed chairman of the Horserace Totalisator Board in 1976, could explain the threat.

Lord Wyatt has for long been one of Margaret Thatcher's most ardent supporters, through his columns in the News of the World and The Times. More remarkably, however, he remains full-time chairman of the Tote, on an annual salary of pounds 97,426 - a two-year appointment that comes up for renewal under the new Government, at the end of May. Lord Wyatt is 78.

The Tote is unusual in that the Conservatives have made no effort to move it towards privatisation, through the normal mechanisms of turning it into an arm's length "Next Steps Agency", distancing it from direct Whitehall control, or even giving it Executive Agency status.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, ruled out full-scale privatisation last year because the Tote is the vehicle for an pounds 8m annual subsidy for the racing industry - an industry that appears to have special clout with the Conservative Party.

It is estimated that privatisation could raise as much as pounds 400m, and while it might not appear in the Labour manifesto, the odds on such a lucrative sale must be high.