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Michael Howard says offshore bookmakers should be made to pay levy 19/10/2010
Chris Cook
• Former Tory leader says government may force change • 'Once and for all chance' to secure future funding

The former Conservative leader Michael Howard said today that racing had been presented with a "once and for all chance" to boost its income at the expense of offshore bookmakers who take bets on British racing. Such firms do not currently contribute to the levy on betting profits that funds the sport but Lord Howard, who is chairman of the racecourse group Northern Racing, believes the government could be persuaded to force a change.

"The previous government held a consultation on whether [offshore] bookmakers should be licensed by the Gambling Commission," he said. "My view is that they should and that this licence ought to require them to pay the levy."

From a high of £116m three years ago the levy yield has declined to £75m for 2009-10 and one report today claimed that the bookmakers will offer no more than £50m in negotiations over next year's amount. The betting industry says the sport generates less gambling than in the past but the British Horseracing Authority claims that bookmakers should be paying more than £100m per year.

On the thorny question of how to extract a levy from offshore operators, Lord Howard said the government might have to threaten an advertising ban on non-compliant firms, which would imperil several major race sponsorships.

"But I don't think that would happen. I think the betting industry would accept, at that stage, that the game was up.

"Those firms who remain onshore would welcome this. Those who are offshore clearly will not but I find it difficult to imagine what rational arguments they would advance to counter it."

Lord Howard pointed to last week's government statement that the levy system would be altered "with a view to ensuring the funding for racing is fair and collected from as broad a base as possible".

"What could they mean by 'as broad a base as possible' other than that those who are offshore should pay levy?" he asked. "If racing does not take advantage of this opportunity, it may not come again."