The lottery's rewards should be redistributed

`The Camelot deal, a product of the Tories, was not one of their better gifts to the nation'
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The Independent Culture
I'VE NEVER had any interest in gambling. Apart from anything else, politics is enough of a game of chance as it is. But I also grew up in a household where I had to be quiet while Mum wrote down the horse-racing results and the football scores on Saturday. Indeed, Mum carried on getting out to the betting shop until 10 days before she died. It was harmless fun - she never placed a bet of more than 50p and usually fell just short of breaking even each year. But when the lottery started we drew the line at her demand that we leave restaurants early so we could go home in time to get the results live on TV.

I see that the lottery show is now called Red Alert, which the New Musical Express tells me is also a Basement Jaxx single. I wouldn't claim to be a dance expert, but give me Basement Jaxx over the National Lottery Live any day.

What is so insidious about the lottery is that having chosen your numbers, you know that you have to keep buying a ticket for the rest of your life out of fear that the one week you don't fork out, your numbers will come up. Spending what seems a small amount every week pales into insignificance against losing a million - that's the hook. On the back of this simple concept, Britain's Saturday nights (and Wednesdays for the truly committed) have been changed for ever.

Still, I am not surprised that sales of lottery tickets have recently been dropping. In fact, as gambling goes, the lottery is a bad deal. Your chance of winning is remote and the whole thing is a licence to print money for Camelot, whose contract for the lottery is up for renewal in the near future. The Camelot deal, a product of the last Tory administration, is not one of their better gifts to the nation. For a start, no one has adequately dealt with the issues raised by Richard Branson's unsuccessful bid to run the lottery. Branson alleged that not long before the lottery operating deal was announced, a member of the Conservative Party asked him if he would make a donation to the Tories. Branson refused. Aside from his legal wrangle over the Camelot deal, Branson's proposal was for a non-profit-making lottery that would have had the advantage of devoting more of the profits to good causes.

The issue raised by Branson seems even more relevant in the context of the main objection to the lottery itself. Camelot, with its Arthurian imagery, was always the wrong name for the company administering the lottery. Camelot in fact behaves more like King John than King Arthur. The lottery is very popular, and the public is not going to be persuaded to give it up, but the fact remains that it is a regressive form of taxation. Overwhelmingly played by those in middle- and lower-income brackets, the lottery does a lot for Camelot's shareholders, and a bit for good causes. It takes from the poorest and subsidises the rich, even in many of the "good causes". Who can forget Winston Churchill's selling his family's papers to the nation for a cool pounds 8m, paid for by ordinary punters queuing up every Saturday in the supermarket?

There is a sense in which London is a loser in the Camelot arrangements. The concentration of prestige projects funded by the lottery means that although London as a whole may doing well, ordinary Londoners are not seeing enough of the benefits directly. Personally, I am opposed to rectifying this situation by introducing a London lottery, which has been supported in the past by some of the other candidates for mayor. I see no real argument for adding to the redistribution of the poor to the rich which has been such a feature of the last 20 years. But there has to be a way of having the lottery's decisions about grants being influenced by democratic opinion. Perhaps it would be too cheeky by half to suggest that the mayor of London should be able to allocate the lottery's London grants. Even if that were not the case, I should certainly advocate that the mayor should become active around the issue. The Greater London Authority will have enough people of experience in the voluntary sector, the arts and the environment to make some really strong proposals outlining what London needs.

For a start, although London is a world capital for the arts, much of the arts activity is focused on the centre of the capital and often excludes the young, the elderly and less well-off. The lottery's money could be used more aggressively to promote an arts policy, which would be inclusive of the whole of London.

London is blessed with a host of excellent festivals, ranging all the way from the Greenwich Asian Mela to the Notting Hill Carnival. Some of these are under-resourced and undervalued. Some of these problems can be overcome by commercial sponsorship - but the rest require a combination of resources, and strategic assistance. Many of these free events, organised by ordinary people but vital to the cultural life of the nation's capital, would benefit from a more organised lobbying on their behalf, by the mayor, for additional resources.

If we were to concentrate on those good causes that benefit the vast majority of people, then we might begin to roll back the most regressive aspects of Camelot's lottery deal.