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Visa Suspensions for Argentine Grooms



Home Office should grant 'stay of execution' for English polo over Argentine grooms


The Hurlingham Polo Association expects an answer this week from the Home Office on the visa issue casting a pall over the 2017 season. This is the time of year when literally hundreds grooms are being interviewed by the British Embassy in Argentina and teams and yards and players are preparing to get their staff the sponsored work permits for the season to begin in earnest from March. They are generally six-month visas for the working season March-September.

But it has been a tedious six weeks behind the scenes for polo's administrators. And no news, in this instance, may not be good news. 

Right now, none of those interviews are happening - or even scheduled. And it affects what the HPA reckons are around 800 grooms, vital for the lifeblood of polo. The Telegraph understands the issue has gone all the way to Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State, and Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill.      

The process of players and yards going through the HPA's system of applying for sponsors' licences has fallen silent. Fifteen licences have already been suspended, after an investigation by Home Office officials at the end of last season, and English polo faces a "catastrophic" start to 2017 with the shortage of specialist grooms.

One solution, of course, would be for the Home Office to allow the status quo for two more seasons and grant a stay of execution so that a new generation of grooms in this country can be trained up by the experts from Argentina, for whom the job is a twelve-month operation.

The HPA, I understand, has put forward itscriteria to which the Home Office have not yet agreed. A decision is imminent, and with the timings being what they are -  the HPA will have to take stock of what they will do if the Home Office do not agree to any continuance of the present visa allowance. 

There is no doubt that it will be catastrophic for polo in this country, as leading officials have told The Telegraph in the last month and a half, through David Woodd, CEO of the HPA, FIP President Nicholas Colquhoun-Denvers and players like Richard Le Poer, who have been presenting the arguments.

The problem with polo is that it's essentially a recreational sport, what people from the bottom to the top do for fun. In the middle, there are a few hundred professionals who make a living from it. The people paying for it, the patrons - do it for fun.

Yes, the professionals are earning money out of it, but the money that comes in from commercial sponsorship in the sport is very little. Patrons in the high goal throw millions of pounds away by being involved in essentially pro-am polo, while helping to service a very small industry. The knock-on effect is that patrons in the lower echelons of the game, not as wealthy as those who run high goal teams, are the ones who will really suffer, while at the high goal level it is not beyond the bounds that patrons there could withdraw. The Home Office rulings, in effect, could hit hardest where the sport is at its most recreational. Players rated at 5-goals or above are considered international elite standard, and will be allowed to bring in grooms.

The high goal, therefore, the top end of the sport, may not suffer at all. But at the levels below that, where young players, and indeed patrons dipping their toes into the sport, could be radically affected. Overall, it makes no sense whatsoever. All the rulings will do is to weaken the sport at its most recreational, and most developmental level.  

The Home Office - by refusing to understand the workings of a unique game formalised by the English and patronised by the Royal Family for the best part of seven decades - is simply bludgeoning a success story in British sport. Prince Phillip played for a number of years, and reached five goals, the Prince of Wales played for a number of years, and both Prince William and Prince Harry play. It's been a game that has done nothing but good for the country and Royal involvement has done a lot for charity. 

The decision to chop out visas for grooms when there is a shortage in the country anyway simply doesn't make sense. And at such short notice, two months before people are starting to prepare for a new season.  

One thing is certain, though, and this has been happening behind the scenes. Polo's administrators will have to look at how they structure the sport and perhaps they will have to change things.

The Home Office, I believe, should give English polo at least a year's breathing space. A stay of execution within which a new raft of grooms and support staff could be trained up. That does happen to some extent with something called 'Trailblazers', which involved all the equestrian disciplines. Look around the country, and every one of the equine disciplines is short on grooms.

But as those close to polo are well aware, the problem with polo is that it is a seasonal job and highly specialised. The view of the Home Office is that grooms are just grooms. All they need to do is clean the muck out and sweep the yard. Yet that is far from the reality of the role they play. Polo grooms are looking after very valuable horses and they have to ride them, school them and get them in a fit state for players to ride them. It is a highly skilled practice. They're not on benefits here, they're not taking anyone's jobs.

Sports minister Tracy Crouch should get involved in this, too, because there is every prospect that the many ponies kept here by three and four goal players, outside the remit of being permitted grooms, are either going to be culled or given away if the players are not allowed back in the UK. High goal players of 5-goals and above will still be able to come in, and there is every chance that the high goal will work in 2017. But it's hard to fathom what the Home Office is trying to achieve. Those with the red pens clearly have not understood British polo's predicament. 

The irony of this whole situation is that the only people who are going to be damaged by this are the better English players and low goal patrons who basically fund the game and create the game for those players to have a job. The Home Office needed to tighten up the regulations on polo, and everybody in  polo accepts that they have to do more, but polo just needs time, and right now, a stay of execution to get the house in order.

Hopefully, sense will prevail with this situation.

 Full Story - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/polo/2016/12/19/home-office-should-grant-stay-execution-english-polo-argentine/