Outlook: Lottery fever

LIKE A National Lottery roll-over weekend, Camelot's annual results have become an eagerly awaited event. This year did not disappoint. The chief executive Tim Holley was roundly condemned for taking an 11 per cent pay rise when profits dipped by a fifth, proving yet again the old adage that it is perfectly acceptable to make a fortune by winning the Lottery but not by running it, no matter how many billions are raised for good causes in the process.

But this year's figures have a particular edge to them. Just as the end of Camelot's seven-year franchise hoves into view, the horrible thought occurs that we, as a nation, may at last be succumbing to Lottery fatigue.

There is a natural stage in the life cycle of all lotteries when the exponential rise in revenues begins to plateau out as a result of boredom and familiarity. When this coincides with a High Street downturn, the effect is likely to be all the more pronounced.

This is bad news for the Government, which earned pounds 664m in tax revenues from Camelot last year and is keen to drum up as much interest in possible for the auction of the next concession (to be run, of course, on a not- for-profit basis).

And indeed, the dream of winning enough money to retire on sounds harmless enough. But is the lottery so benign? It has certainly raised plenty for charity, but at least partly at the expense of other charitable giving. Total donations have declined markedly since the mid-1990s. As a tax, it is regressive, raising a disproportionate share of the total prize money from the lowest income groups.

Then there is its malignant influence on entrepreneurship and ambition. Why bother getting good GCSEs, starting a company, doing anything like hard work, when for a couple of pounds a week you might, just maybe, get the reward anyway. Gambling, even officially sanctioned, has a thoroughly rotten psychological effect. For all these reasons, lottery culture ought not to have a place in a modern economy. But now that it is here, like the poor, it will probably always be with us.

There is, of course the question of whether a private sector company should be allowed to profit from the people's lottery. Certainly, it is easy to sympathise with Richard Branson's pitch for a non-profit making lottery, and hard to resist a sneaky pleasure about the drop in profits reported by Camelot.

Equally, there is a good case for arguing that if there has to be a lottery, it should be run efficiently. The profit motive is therefore unavoidable. However, given that it is a monopoly granted by the state, there must be no presumption of automatic renewal of the licence.