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Mark Bird Interview - Racing Post

by JIM CREMIN

 

MARK BIRD, 49, director of regulation at the Greyhound Board, is well used to transparency issues. He has now been in his role for over seven months, having last year completed what used to be the standard 30 years career in the Metropolitan Police, ending up as a chief superintendent.

 

His responsibilities included managing major events in London and security operations across the UK. He also oversaw complaint investigations, and sat on Met Police disciplinary boards.

 

Other areas of responsibility included raising the public perception of the Met, which included a stint as commander at the Notting Hill Carnival for three years, and also had senior roles within the firearms and public order branches and the Met Taskforce (Territorial Support Group, dog section, mounted branch, marine and air support).

 

Transparency and especially ‘forensic audit’ are now buzz words attached to the Greyhound Board, with the Greyhound Trainers Association repeatedly calling for both.

 

Asked for his reaction, Bird says: “The term ‘forensic audit’ has been used around cases at FIFA, and it refers to a criminal investigation, so it’s patently mistaken to use it when there is no such investigation. You don’t conduct a forensic audit in the hope of finding a crime, it’s the other way around.”

 

Responding to recent comments from Linda Jones on Sky over why the Fund has fallen from £14m to £7m, Bird says: “The drop in the Fund allocation is nothing directly to do with the GBGB itself, what is needed are specific questions that can be answered, assuming they haven’t already been answered, by Tom Kelly [GBGB chairman] in his recent detailed response.”

 

Bird explains that the GBGB is certainly entirely open to transparency: “It’s important to clear up rumour and speculation once and for all.

 

“We should be challenged concerning appropriate subjects, it’s right to be scrutinised, but let’s remember there’s already an existing audit and management process concerning fund allocations. I find it frustrating that I ask for people to provide actual evidence to support allegations, as opposed to third-hand conjecture . . . and if it’s not then forthcoming then I, too, must be corrupt or covering things up.

 

“There’s a current vacuum in terms of formal communication between GBGB and trainers because of so-called allegations, and it would be better to be talking to trainers’ reps constructively; a way around the impasse needs to be found. We will very likely end up with trainers’ kennels being inspected needing to be part of the Ukas accreditation, and the rumour mill has had it that we will be dispensing with all wooden kennels.

 

“This is not the case, but there are issues about having wood in certain places, for instance the doors of kennels which can be gnawed and splintered by the dogs. Yet there are also first-rate wooden kennels. We need to be debating with trainers the best way forward.”

 

He explains that further engagement with trainers could also discuss whether a new permit-type scheme should exist, and issues such as food-chain contamination, which has been the subject of a number of recent positive sample disciplinary hearings.

 

“We’re not the food police, we want to work with trainers – and they need to protect themselves as much as possible concerning meat contamination.” 

HE describes himself as pleased at the way the GBGB “is working with our colleagues in Ireland and Australia around drug-testing issues”.

 

He insists: “Integrity is everything, and standards within the industry generally are good. Certain people will always try to chance their hand, and that also raises obvious welfare concerns for racing greyhounds.

 

“All the trainers I’ve spoken to strongly support a drug-free sport, and totally despise the actions of the likes of Chris Mosdall. That particular case was ground-breaking as he was jailed for cheating after a Gambling Commission-led prosecution. The message is be prepared to do the time if you do the crime.”

 

Despite his tough message, Bird would like see disciplinary committee (DC) proceedings become less adversarial than they have, and for trainers to be allowed to give evidence via video link in certain circumstances.

 

“Obviously it’s always better for the DC if trainers are there to discuss and account for things face-to-face, but let’s say there’s someone who is based in the north-east but hasn’t the time or resources to cover a trip to London.

 

“Rather than them submitting a written explanation, which may or may not cover the issues, I’d like to explore them attending their relevant track and giving their account to the committee via Skype or similar, should the committee deem it appropriate.”

 

He also intends to arrange for all Category One events – made at the GBGB offices – to be drawn live on webcam. “Let’s start with the Cat One races, and show them on the GBGB website,” he says. “That is being put in place now.”

 

Having been to all 25 tracks, what has struck Bird is differing standards. “There’s almost 25 different ways of doing things!” he jokes. “That might be an exaggeration, but we should be seeking greater overall consistency. That said I’ve seen some wonderful work and, for example, extraordinary support for retired greyhounds being managed by many tracks.”

 

Tom Kelly, the GBGB chairman, says: “Mark has settled in well, has picked up on the sport rapidly, and we’re very pleased he agreed to join us.”

 

Barry Faulkner, the GBGB chief executive adds: “Mark was hugely accomplished in his police role, and with prominent QC Robert Griffiths and the eminent vet Peter Webbon now on our board too we have three top-notch players.”

 

 

ORIGINALLY Bird wanted to be a pilot, but his eyesight was deemed insufficient, so he went into the police force instead at the age of 18.

 

“My father was a docker at the old Ipswich port, and initially was sceptical and less than impressed with my career choice! But he came round, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself for those 30 years, developing a real passion about public service.

 

“Three years at Hackney, as a borough superintendent, helped me appreciate the extraordinary diversity within London, and the challenges. Cutbacks apply everywhere, including social services and housing, and the police have often been a last resort, picking up on problems.”

 

He used to have overall command of 1,200 officers from some 22 bases and a budget of £95m. “The Notting Hill Carnival was ‘mine’ for three years and is the biggest policing event in the whole of Europe, involving some 1.5m visitors, and our trying to avoid any gang-related issues.”

 

Toughest for him personally was dealing with suicide “or informing families of a sudden death. Both are hard, equally any loss of colleagues and thereafter supporting their families”.

 

Bird argues there is clearly a market for greyhound racing. “It’s far from being on its last legs,” he states. “There are those outside the sport who don’t want racing, and no matter what we do there’s little way to reason with them.

 

“I do want to ensure that the welfare of both the racing greyhounds and those who finish their career is paramount in order that the sport avoids the glare of the public.”

 

By contrast he has been delighted to see the quality of staff the GBGB has out in the field. “There’s a lot of hard-won experience and understanding, and we’ve introduced regular fortnightly team meetings for stipes, sampling stewards and our investigator.

 

“The idea is to discuss intelligence and initiatives, there’s a tremendous team spirit already in place, even though few people ever say ‘well done’ to a stipe for doing their job.

 

“I’d also like to see a Code of Practice to complement the Rule Book which elaborates on basic rules and give more detail and practical guidance to tracks, trainers and owners. I think as a regulatory body we could always improve on how we communicate.

 

“I don’t propose to sit in my office in London and merely preside over investigations. It’s important for me to get out, continue to visit stadiums and to listen and talk to trainers, racecourse managements and staff.”

 

He is seeking a new betting investigation officer, a role that is being advertised. “This post will allow us to work more closely with bookmakers, the Gambling Commission and police forces to provide the necessary evidence to link gambling to rule breaches or criminal activity.

 

“As a police officer I sought to make a difference, and that’s exactly what I intend to do now within greyhound racing.”