NS interview - Estelle Morris

The Lottery minister is consummate at the "just trust me" line. She insists the government is not tr

Bet you didn't know Estelle Morris was the Lottery minister. Indeed, after ten years, it's not obvious why we need a Lottery minister; after all, the National Lottery is a wholly subcontracted private sector monopoly operation with a legal framework and its own regulator to keep things clean, decent and not too profitable.

But that's just half of the Lottery - the input side, if you like. The minister's job is more about watching over the output side: the £1.5bn from our ticket purchases every year that goes on "good causes". And as John Major reminded us in his timely side swipe a couple of weeks ago, that kind of river of gold is sufficiently tempting that only the oddest of governments would fail to appoint a minister to look after it.

Which is not quite how Major put it. The government was guilty of "grand larceny", he said, accusing it of dipping into Lottery funds to bolster its mainstream public spending commitments, something Major never intended back in 1994.

Morris (who didn't get her reputation for being nice by not being nice) says the former prime minister is living in the past. "John Major deserves congratulations for setting the Lottery up. It was a brave political act . . . [but] we had a mandate from the people." She is referring to the changes new Labour made in 1997, adding education, environment and health to the existing Lottery beneficiaries of arts, sports, charities, heritage and the millennium. "What I'd find absolutely unforgivable was a government that did what we did in 1997 - and then cut Exchequer funding . . . because on that basis, it would be a straight swap. We didn't do that. It happened alongside huge increases in funding, so I'm at ease in that in my own political mind."

Would that it were so simple. In fact, the rules preventing substitution of Lottery for tax spend (known as "additionality") are rather more nuanced - no, murky. So murky that, earlier this year, Gerald Kaufman and the culture select committee he chairs spent an entire session agonising about the concept, booked themselves a follow-up inquiry and ordered the Culture Secretary to provide an annual report on how she was applying the additionality rule. Kaufman is, it must be said, weirdly obsessed with the Lottery, and a far more brutal critic than Major on the matter of the government pinching the people's money. But his committee's concern is not without foundation.

How does Morris define the test for additionality, I ask? Her reply starts promisingly: "I'm going to be a bit contradictory about my own government now." She doesn't agree with the official line on this question, "which says", she explains, "the issue isn't whether a government does, um, would fund, um, it isn't an issue of whether the government will fund it, no, does fund it, it's whether it would fund it."

Never mind additionality, I am lost in conditionality at this point. But thankfully it doesn't matter, because Morris doesn't buy that line. "My own line on this is whether it is almost a statutory function of government, a proper expenditure by government, in the way that it has always spent money. And if it funded any of its statutory obligations through the Lottery, I'd have concern. So those are the sorts of things I tend to look at when other ministers whisper in your ear and ask if the Lottery might fund some of their pet projects."

Who controls the cash river has been at the top of the Lottery's political agenda throughout this year. The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, announced last year that, should London win the 2012 Olympics, she would divert £750m of good cause money to help fund the games. The government is also busy rationalising the quangos that give out the funds. A great idea in principle (it is daft to have 15 separate funders), the process is making the charity sector in particular very nervous. The Lottery has been a fairy godmother to voluntary organisations over the past ten years, but now the charities quango is being taken over by the new Labour-created quango to form the Orwellian-sounding Big Lottery Fund.

The new body, charities say, will only fund projects that fit in with themed priorities - set by government. The sector stands to lose its open-ended funding stream, which allowed a diversity of applications to be assessed on merit. Morris knows the arguments well: it is she who has been in constant dialogue over the small print of the forthcoming legislation: "I've met the leaders of the charitable arms several times since the summer, and my feeling is that they do accept our verbal assurances . . . Their fears are whether it will really turn out like that." So she adds, reassuringly: "I understand their concerns. I know our intentions, but we're just going to have to believe each other and keep holding hands until we can actually show how it turns out."

You can see why Tony Blair gave Morris her comeback chance as arts minister: she is consummate at the "just trust me" line that he no longer dares use himself. No wonder the teachers' unions shed tears when she resigned as Education Secretary in October 2002. She is superbly comforting. I ask whether it's true that the draft legislation locks the new quango into a vice-like grip, so that the government (despite Jowell's promises to the contrary) can even more closely determine how it spends Lottery money. "I see our challenge at the moment being to write the legislation in a way that reflects the promises we have given. We're not trying to pull a fast one, we're not trying to do a trick."

OK, let's try another hard case. Ever since a media furore last year over Lottery-funded Peruvian guinea-pig farmers, it has been rumoured that the Big Lottery Fund wants to rule out future funding for international charitable work. Does the minister think this is a proper use of Lottery funding? "Yes I do . . . It should be there in the Big Lottery Fund as one of the outcomes," she says. That counts as a biff on the nose for the Big Lottery Fund, I think.

Another follows, as I question Morris about the way the sports, arts and heritage quangos are backsliding on their commitments to the Lottery's hugely successful small-grants scheme Awards for All. As the minister points out, this fund is heavily tapped by community groups for local sports projects. As I point out, Sport England has halved its contribution this year - "And I'm critical of that," she jumps in. "I don't know whether I should be publicly or not, but they ought not to do that. There's a generosity of spirit that's needed, and they could still achieve their aims by putting money into Awards for All." Take that, Sport England.

There's one big Lottery mess that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport seems to have parked in a corner, ever since another parliamentary scrutiny committee chucked it back at the start of the year. This is the matter of how to organise the competition for the third seven-year lottery licence, which runs from 2009. One thing alone matters here: to find someone, anyone (though preferably not Richard Branson), prepared to bid against Camelot. The regulator recommended divvying up the franchise so that several smaller companies could run one or more of the games, a solution that attracted universal derision. So we're all waiting for a better idea. "We've been having a good hard look," Morris says. "I can't tell you what we've decided because it's not been cleared by government."

What will the government do if the nightmare scenario happens in a couple of years' time and only Camelot bids? "The answer might accommodate that. You'll have to wait and see." What are the chances that the government would then nationalise the Lottery? "What, run it ourselves? Not high."

How does the minister think the public rate the Lottery on its tenth birthday? "I think it's become part of the landscape, a force of habit." But she also acknowledges an "uneasy truce", as the public's anger is periodically mobilised against high-profile, unpopular beneficiaries of Lottery funds. She is still on this theme as I ask her about lessons learnt: "I suspect the level of public awareness about where the money goes is far, far too low, and that's our fault. That's a lesson learnt."

How typically Estelle Morris: anxious to shoulder the blame, she's confessing to a crime in which the government's culpability is very minor compared to the failures of all the other partners in the Lottery funding industry.

I leave with a genuine sense of regret that this thoughtful, open, decent politician will soon be history (she is leaving parliament at the next election), because her style embodies what many of us believed was going to be different about new Labour back in the early, optimistic days. As Morris slips quietly out of view, however, I have no doubt that the Lottery roller-coaster will continue to vex and excite politicians and people for the next ten years.

Jane Taylor is the former editor of the independent newsletter Lottery Monitor

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Bleak morning in America