STAFF at Musselburgh Racecourse are threatening industrial action amid claims they have lost confidence in its management committee.
Workers at the racecourse have passed a vote of no confidence in the chairman of Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee (MJRC), Councillor John Caldwell, and called for immediate action from East Lothian Council.
They claim concerns over the governance of the course have left it facing a possible mid-season shutdown, after the British Horseracing Authority refused to issue a full licence to the grounds, giving it a temporary licence to hold races, which runs out at the end of June.
But Mr Caldwell said the temporary licence had been issued after Lothian Racing Syndicate (LRS), whose members account for three of the seven MJRC members, raised concerns with the authority.
Mr Caldwell is standing as an independent councillor for Musselburgh in next month’s East Lothian Council elections and is part of the Labour-led coalition leading the council. The other councillors on MJRC are Labour’s John McNeil, Margaret Libberton and Andy Forrest.
Mr Caldwell hit back at criticism against him, claiming syndicate members had stopped attending MJRC meetings.
READ MORE: John Caldwell's reponse in full
The concerns raised by staff at the racecourse come after more than two years of turbulent relations between the elected councillors, who hold four of the seven MJRC seats, and syndicate members.
Two years ago, the sides clashed after the course was stripped of its Investors In People (IIP) award – a prestigious accolade which rewards good employer practice.
Inspectors for IIP Scotland described the committee as “dysfunctional”, claiming Mr Caldwell as chairman had “lost the respect” of the staff. Previous reports had found the day-to-day running of the racecourse good enough for the IIP Gold standard but said the workings of the MJRC risked falling below their most basic standards.
Mr Caldwell dismissed the report at the time as “fundamentally flawed with inaccurate and misleading information”. Two years on, the racecourse remains “de-accredited” by IIP Scotland.
Following last month’s vote of no confidence, the second by staff in recent years, LRS took the extraordinary step of speaking out against the way the MJRC is being run.
And the GMB union confirmed it is considering balloting staff over industrial action after talks with Mr Caldwell.
Barry Fletcher, from the GMB, said: “We had a meeting with Mr Caldwell regarding issues with staff grievances and a pay claim. He said he would get back to us and he has still to do so.
“At this stage the GMB is considering balloting its members.”
Staff stressed their support for the executive team in charge of operations at the racecourse, but aimed concerns at the MJRC governing body.
They claimed the committee spent thousands of pounds in legal and professional fees investigating their grievances, only to shelf a report on the issues.
John Prideaux, LRS chairman, said: “The councillor members of MJRC have a 4-3 majority, and have abused – in our view – that position to prevent serious discussion and debate. The input of LRS members and racecourse management is being ignored and there is a chronic lack of direction and strategic planning.”
The staff motion sent to East Lothian Council said: “For a second time we would like to express a vote of no confidence in the chairman of the MJRC. The recent past has seen staff treated with a lack of respect, has seen the organisation lose its hard-won IIP status due to the dysfunctional leadership within the MJRC, and has seen staff grievances and complaints unresolved or ignored.
“The leadership of East Lothian Council has repeatedly been made aware of these concerns, to no avail. The staff now unanimously call on the council to take immediate action to restore confidence in the racecourse and its future.
“The staff confirm their total confidence in the executive team at the racecourse. However, lack of strategic direction and poor governance within MJRC is now hindering the best efforts of all who have the welfare of horseracing at Musselburgh at its heart.”
Bill Farnsworth, Musselburgh Racecourse chief executive, said the vote was not taken lightly by staff.
He said: "It is difficult for me to comment on this matter but Musselburgh Racecourse is an award-winning success story despite, not because of, the way it is managed by Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee.
"This success is down to the hard work and commitment of a dedicated team and the staff did not take lightly the decision to issue two votes of no confidence.
"Musselburgh is regarded by its peers in UK racing at an exemplary racecourse offering first class racing and facilities for racegoers, owners, trainers and jockeys.
"It is highly embarrassing that the governing body, the British Horseracing Authority, feels it can only issue a temporary licence to race and this is an unprecedented situation in British racing.
"If the BHA take the ultimate step and remove our licence to race, it will be a disaster reputationally and economically for Musselburgh Racecourse, the town of Musselburgh and wider business community in East Lothian, and for Scottish racing as a whole.”
Councillor Stuart Currie, Musselburgh candidate and leader of the opposition SNP group on the council, said: “This is a deeply worrying situation. I am particularly concerned by the suggestion the British Horseracing Authority has not the confidence to issue a full licence. Musselburgh Racecourse is hugely important to East Lothian, not just to those it employs but the millions of pounds it brings into our economy.”
Jason Rose, Green candidate for Musselburgh, who has been campaigning for the MJRC to be more transparent, said: “Allegations about the finances, management and governance of Musselburgh Racecourse must be taken seriously. The racecourse operates on Common Good land and the townsfolk of Musselburgh deserve to know how it is run.”
A spokesperson for the British Horseracing Authority said: “From time-to-time, the BHA does attach conditions to the renewal of a racecourse licence to ensure that any issues it identifies as needing to be addressed are resolved satisfactorily and in a timely manner.”
A council spokesperson said: “East Lothian Council recognises the contribution Musselburgh Racecourse makes to the economy of East Lothian and will continue to work closely with MJRC to promote and positionit as one of the country’s top attractions.
“Whilst the council is aware of some concerns expressed by LRS, an investigation by MJRC, under the chairmanship of Councillor John Caldwell, into these concerns is currently ongoing and it would be inappropriate to comment further until the investigation is concluded.”
Musselburgh Racecourse, which was visited by the Queen last summer, is run on a not-for-profit basis, with profits reinvested in infrastructure and improving facilities.
It was saved from oblivion by the council in the early 1990s and is now a five-star VisitScotland tourist attraction; attendances have doubled in 10 years.
The council leases the racecourse and buildings to MJRC annually – the ground is owned by the Musselburgh Common Good Fund and leased in turn by the local authority.
The racecourse has a turnover of about £6 million.