A squalid raffle, a rich inheritance

<em>Reflections - Gerald Kaufman</em>

Harold Wilson described Premium Bonds as a "squalid raffle". That was the Yorkshire puritan speaking. I suppose I am a Yorkshire puritan, too, and I was far from enthusiastic about the National Lottery when it was introduced. It was not that I was opposed in principle to gambling or gaming; indeed, one of my concerns (justified, as it has turned out) was the potentially adverse impact on employment in the football pools firms on Merseyside. I simply thought that there was something unseemly about the state legislating to institutionalise into our national life a game of chance.

Paradoxically, now that it exists I think it should be run by the state. Although its profit as a percentage of turnover is not particularly high, Camelot is nevertheless making a large profit in cash terms on a monopoly venture allocated to it by the state. It is not that I join in the generalised criticism that sometimes descends on Camelot, though I have voiced specific criticism of certain aspects of its custodianship of the Lottery. I believe that Camelot runs the Lottery with competence and probity; it is simply, as I have told Camelot's bosses to their faces, that I do not believe they should be running it at all.

I trust that when the next licence to run the National Lottery is issued, it will be allocated to a non-profit-making organisation, preferably state-run, so that all revenues after running costs can be allocated either to prizes or to good causes, or to the Exchequer. I also trust that the next licensee will not charge the BBC (according to press reports) the current £500,000 a year for the privilege of televising the results. In Ireland it is the Lottery that pays the TV.

Paradoxically again, however, I believe that the Lottery has done a huge amount of good. There are those who decry it for encouraging those who cannot afford to gamble to spend substantial sums on tickets and scratchcards. Those who spend money on Lottery games would, almost certainly, spend money on other forms of gaming and gambling if the Lottery did not exist. The idea that the Lottery is guilty of seducing innocents is redolent of nanny-state attitudes.

What is undeniable is that the end product of punters' expenditure on the Lottery results in a greater accrual of benefit to society than any other form of gambling. True, the pools have established the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, which has done an enormous amount of good; but the sums distributed by the foundation, though substantial and generous, are far smaller than those deriving from the Lottery and are provided by voluntary goodwill rather than statutory compulsion.

It is also true that some of the benefactions of the Lottery have been controversial, even unjustifiable; the £12 million for the Churchill papers is the most notorious example. Yet the face and functioning of this country have been enhanced substantially by Lottery grants. Millennium projects include the rebuilding of Hampden Park in Glasgow and Cardiff Arms Park in Wales, and a wonderful entirely new structure, the Lowry arts centre in Salford.

Other arts locations, already in existence, have received money for improvements for which they could never otherwise have hoped. These include the present environmental wilderness of the South Bank Centre, the Royal Opera House and Sadler's Wells in London and, to take just one regional city, Manchester, the Royal Exchange Theatre, the Contact Theatre and the Cornerhouse Arts Centre. In my own constituency of Gorton, there have been grants for Manchester Eagles, a voluntary children's football club, for Trinity House, a childminding centre which was in danger of going under, for Bangladeshi and Indian centres, and even to provide instruments for a church youths' brass band.

It can be argued - I have so argued myself - that much, perhaps all, of this money should have come from the Exchequer. The "additionality" principle, enunciated first by Tory ministers and reiterated piously by the Labour government, is supposed to guarantee that money earmarked for the arts should not be replaced by Lottery funding but added to. I never believed the additionality principle would be honoured.

There never was a chance that chancellors, even chancellors as arts-minded as Gordon Brown, would fail to regard the Lottery as a cheap and painless way of reducing Treasury subventions. Chris Smith has had to admit that certain expenditures from his department have been infringed as a result. That fact may be deplorable, but it also has to be conceded that the most generous Treasury there has ever been would never have coughed up the huge sums that the Lottery has paid out.

So I readily concede that the Lottery has done far more good than harm. Just as Harold Wilson's first government will be remembered for introducing the Open University, so the one decent legacy from John Major will turn out to be the benefactions of the Lottery. I am sure that Wilson would have hated to see his own innovation linked to yet another squalid raffle.

The writer is MP for Gorton and chairman of the select committee on culture, media and sport