Dark Money Investigations: News

Matt Hancock under fire for latest donation from top horse auctioneer at ‘super-spreader’ Cheltenham Festival

The health secretary has received more than £350,000 from the horse racing industry, leading an opposition MP to call for ‘undue influence’ check on all ministers

Adam Bychawski
25 February 2021, 12.16pm
Last year’s Cheltenham Festival may have led to dozens of coronavirus deaths
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Chris Radburn/PA Archive/PA Images

Matt Hancock is under fire for receiving £10,000 from a top horse auctioneer that runs a multi-million-pound annual sale at Cheltenham Festival, openDemocracy can reveal. 

The donation comes as local frustration mounts over an ‘overdue’ inquiry into why last year’s festival, held days before the UK went into its first national lockdown on 23 March, was allowed to proceed. Scientists say the four-day event, attended by 250,000 people, may have been responsible for more than ten thousand COVID-19 cases.

Hancock received £10,000 from Tattersalls in November, according to the latest register of ministers’ financial interests. The health secretary has received more than £140,000 from the company, which is the oldest bloodstock auctioneer in the world and the largest thoroughbred sales house in Europe, since being elected in 2010. 

“This kind of revelation further undermines public confidence in whether the government is acting in their best interest,” said the Liberal Democrat MP Jamie Stone. 

“Mr Hancock has already been found to dish out illegal contracts to his buddies during the pandemic. It’s clear we need an undue influence check carried out on all ministers – who funds them and who their industry pals are – so we can make sure our decision makers have our best interests at heart,” said Stone, the party’s digital culture, media and sports spokesperson. 

Last year, the Daily Mirror reported that Hancock has received more than £350,000 in total – over four times an MP’s annual salary – from wealthy figures and companies connected to horse racing.

Last March, Hancock faced pressure to explain why hundreds of thousands of people were being allowed to attend large-scale events despite the UK’s rising COVID cases. The Cheltenham Festival, along with a football match played in Liverpool in the same week, is estimated to have caused at least 78 deaths and almost 13,000 infections, according to one analysis

At the time, Hancock defended the government’s decision to let the festival go ahead, but said there was “absolutely no doubt” that a review would take place, during an interview with LBC.

As the Cheltenham Festival prepares to run a live-streamed event between 16-19 March this year, there is growing frustration among local figures over the lack of answers from the government.

“I called for a review into this decision and was glad that Matt Hancock gave an undertaking for one to happen. But now we are almost at the start of another Cheltenham Festival and yet no review has happened,” Gloucestershire County Council opposition leader, Paul Hodgkinson, told openDemocracy

He added: “The government has failed to properly review it’s decisions over the COVID-19 crisis and there can only be one reason for that – they don’t want the public scrutiny that will go with it, nor the uncomfortable truths that will result.”

The cancellation of Cheltenham Festival would have led to tens of millions in losses for the betting and horse racing industries. The sport is the UK’s biggest after football and is estimated to be worth £3.45bn.

Hancock’s connections to horse racing run deep. Newmarket, which the MP represents as part of his West Suffolk constituency, is home to many racehorse breeders, owners and trainers. It is also the seat of the Jockey Club, an exclusive 270-year-old organisation which owns more than a dozen racecourses around the country, including two in the town. Hancock was gifted an honorary membership worth over £1,300 by the club in 2010.

Many of the MP’s top donors, including racehorse owner Bill Gredley and Tattersalls, who made pre-tax profits of £335m last year, are based in Newmarket. The former has donated £140,000 to the health secretary through his Unex property business.

Hancock used to rent a home in his constituency – a Grade II-listed property on the Thurlow Estate near Newmarket – from the Vestey family. Lord Vestey was chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse for 21 years. Hancock’s £1,450 monthly rent was reimbursed by tax­­­payers via expenses.

In 2015, Hancock urged his fellow ministers to block a housing development in Newmarket that was vehemently opposed by many of his horse industry donors.

Horse racing was the first major sport, alongside snooker and greyhound racing, to be allowed when the government eased lockdown restrictions in June last year. Hancock said it was “wonderful news for our wonderful sport”.

This week, a court ruled that Hancock acted unlawfully when his department did not reveal contracts it signed with companies during the pandemic.

Neither Tattersalls nor the health secretary responded when approached for comment. 

How can we save Freedom of Information?

The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act came into force in the UK a decade and a half ago. The act has proved a crucial tool for citizens to hold government, at all levels, to account. But FOI is under threat. Responses to FOI requests are at an all-time low, and openDemocracy has found that requests are being screened and blocked.

In this free live discussion, co-ordinated by the SOAS Influencing Corridors of Power project and openDemocracy, a panel of politicians and FOI experts will explore the challenges facing official transparency in the UK and ask what can be done to protect the public's right to know.

Hear from:

Lord Clark Former Cabinet Office minister responsible for producing the white paper that led to the Freedom of Information Act 2000

Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter, openDemocracy

David Davis Conservative MP and former Brexit secretary

Peter Geoghegan Investigations editor, openDemocracy.

John McDonnell Labour MP and former shadow chancellor

Alison Scott-Baumann Project lead, SOAS Influencing Corridors of Power project

Michelle Stanistreet General secretary, National Union of Journalists

Ben Worthy Senior lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of 'The Politics of Freedom of Information'

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