Showdown talks on Musselburgh set for Tuesday

Mon 26 Feb 2018

By Paul Wheeler

Racing, like any other sport, is a results business but on Tuesday an important one may come from the council chamber rather than the racecourse.

The East Lothian Council (ELC) meets to discuss proposals to change the structure of the committee responsible for running Musselburgh racecourse.

Many view this as little more than a power grab and in another move which hardly paints the ELC in a favourable light, their proposed changes to the configuration of the committee that would run Musselburgh - which would consist of four councillors and two members ostensibly drawn from the racing industry – will be presented to a full Council meeting, but behind closed doors.

Musselburgh is managed by the Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee (MJRC) which was established in 1994 and is made up of four councillors from the ELC and three representatives from the Lothian Racing Syndicate (LRS).

However, in recent years the MJRC has reached deadlock to the point where it has been described as “dysfunctional” and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has only allowed the track to remain in business through a series of temporary racing licences.

The BHA has sought for both sides of the MJRC to find a solution and a governance review has been undertaken by Pinsent Masons, a law firm. Its findings remain secret but may have given the ELC the opportunity to take control.

In August 2013 the ELC made the MJRC an associate committee of the Council. This was done without reference to the MJRC or the LRS and now it seems the ELC wishes to use that amendment to overturn the current Minute of Agreement (MOA) between ELC and the LRS in an attempt to marginalise the LRS.

The ruling Labour group is expected to present the associate committee model to the Council as an interim measure to achieve renewal of the racecourse’s licence by the BHA. This is provided opposition parties agree the new committee would consist of four councillors and two non-council members nominated by the Council.

Two names initially mentioned were Raymond Anderson-Green, a leading owner, and Robert Miller-Bakewell, a director of Kelso racecourse.

Both are current members of the LRS but, crucially, they would not be nominated as such and neither man was willing to take up such a nomination offered on those terms.

The obvious sticking point in the ELC’s strategy appears to be that any amendment to the MOA requires the agreement of both ELC and the LRS under clause five of the MOA.

Without such agreement the Council would require the MOA annulled through raising an action of reduction in the courts on the basis that the composition of the MJRC is ultra vires, meaning that the decision is beyond the MJRC’s legal capacity.

Any court action would surely bring a legal challenge by the LRS and it seems inconceivable that the LRS would voluntarily submit to such an amendment to the MOA which would cede all power to the Council.

The very crux of the current dispute is that the Council members of the MJRC have been using their inbuilt majority to dominate the agenda.

And, as if there was not enough sitting on the Council’s agenda, there is the matter of the staff at Musselburgh saying they will resist any attempts to have revised working conditions foisted upon them.

The ELC has stated its intention to subsume the staff within the Council’s workforce but the response of the staff, through the GMB union, has been to threaten industrial action.

Councillor Fiona O’Donnell, the current chair of the (MJRC), met with racecourse staff last week but it would appear she provided little substance to the ELC plans.

The staff are currently employed by the MJRC and there is the question of whether the ELC has the legal right to tear up current contracts of employment. The ELC claim that the staff would transfer under TUPE legislation and their terms and conditions would be protected.

This is just the latest chapter in what has been a series of industrial relations failures at Musselburgh.

The staff issue first arose in 2015 when Musselburgh lost its Investors In People (IIP) award after inspectors for IIP Scotland described the committee as “dysfunctional”.

The staff first issued a grievance in August 2014, which has yet to be dealt with satisfactorily despite a meeting with the then Cllr John Caldwell, the former MJRC chairman, in February 2015. The grievance was dismissed along with their right to an appeal after which the staff joined the GMB. The union managed to get an appeal heard last year but the lack of resolution brought about a second no-confidence vote and a threat of industrial action.

Among the issues at the centre of the dispute, most of which are still outstanding, was the decision two years ago to withdraw a staff bonus scheme without warning or any explanation. The ELC hopes of retaining both their powerbase and the racing licence may yet be thwarted by the BHA which may not look kindly upon a manoeuvre that appears to have the primary aim of excluding the LRS as a viable part of the decision-making process.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, the ELC may not find the final result to their liking.

Read Musselburgh racecourse's series of Tweets on Monday night:

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