Focus: You make your own luck

Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, on the lottery, fortunes, and fairness
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The Independent Online
CHRIS SMITH won the lottery for the first time last month. He has been buying tickets week in week out since the draw was launched, but it took him more than 200 tries to get anything back. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport won precisely pounds 10. He is convinced that his luck changed when he stopped basing his choice of numbers on his age and date of birth and started picking Camelot's "lucky dip" of figures.

The extraordinary thing about the lottery, according to Mr Smith, is that so many people, from cabinet ministers to dustmen, buy tickets. "I play religiously," he says, "even though I never used to win." He is determined that - on the fourth anniversary of its launch - the way this national pastime is run should change to take its popularity into account. "The message four years on is the lottery is terrific, it's raising substantial amounts of money for good causes but we have to make sure that it goes to everyone ... Every- one plays the lottery and it must provide something for everyone."

John Major cannot have expected when he bought the first ticket in 1994 that the lottery would have been such a success. Thirty million people - 60 per cent of the adult population - still reckon that it could be them and play every week. The lottery has has made pounds 6bn for good causes, pounds 2bn for the Treasury and pounds 7.4bn for prizewinners.

But there have been problems. The Government stands accused of effectively imposing a "tax on the poor" by using lottery money to fund things such as health and education which have traditionally been paid for by the state. Camelot, the lottery operator, was forced to give more money to charity last year after it was discovered to be paying its directors "fat cat" salaries and lavish bonuses. Sir Peter Davies, director of the regulator Oflot, resigned over allegations of a conflict of interest.

THE Government recognises that it has to change things to stop people becoming disillusioned with the weekly draw. A new lottery commission of five people is being set up to police Camelot's activities. "There's always a danger, even if it's only an apparent danger, that if a single regulator both selects the operator and monitors the way in which it subsequently behaves, then the public may perceive that the person is always going to want to justify that choice," Mr Smith says.

The Culture Secretary has now decided there should be a requirement for consumers to be officially represented. "In the past there's been no formal voice in place for the players. We are deliberately changing the system to make it more open. The lottery is played by virtually everyone and as a result belongs to everyone. That fact ought to be born in mind by those responsible for running it. Having a consumer representative will help to ensure that the player's interests are not forgotten."

Mr Smith thinks that large jackpot prizes (pounds 25m was up for grabs yesterday), criticised by some MPs as an incentive to gamble, are crucial to persuade people to buy tickets. "People play the lottery because they hope they're going to win the jackpot," he says. "Increasingly they're winning pounds 1m, pounds 2m or pounds 3m rather than pounds 7m or pounds 8m because they're playing more at random."

But he wants to ensure there is greater equality between the distribution of grants for good causes around the country. There will be fewer grants for opera houses and more for brass bands. "We want to get more fairness into the way lottery money is distributed. In the past it was entirely application- driven, so the people who had the most resources to employ consultants to put their applications together did the best. We are changing it to a more need-driven process."

The danger is that the cash is used to fund things that the Treasury has traditionally paid for. The New Opportunities Fund, containing the extra money generated by the lottery, will pay for projects such as cancer- screening equipment and after-school clubs for children. Mr Smith insists that all spending will be "adding value not replacing government funding". "And it's wrong to say this is a tax on the poor. The social profile of people who play the lottery is clustered around the C1, C2 range of the population rather than people in the D and E groups."

The distribution of grants has been difficult from the start. Mr Smith has never quite thrown off the row over the pounds 78m award to the Royal Opera House. He was furious about the pounds 13.5m purchase of the Churchill letters - "a very damaging early experience," he says.

But the Secretary of State adores the controversial proposed extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum and would like to see it emulated across the whole country. "It's a wonderful design," he says. "I have for a long time hoped that we can begin to develop some striking new examples of modern architecture."

Unlike some of his predecessors at the ministry for fun, Mr Smith actually likes the arts. He loves swanning around at first-nights and book launches. When Jack Cunningham held the shadow heritage portfolio, he could not remember the last film he had seen, but Mr Smith talks enthusiastically about his favourites - Casablanca and Local Hero - and his best-loved authors - EM Forster, Franz Kafka and James Joyce. His Cambridge PhD was on William Wordsworth (he loves the early nature poems) and Samuel Coleridge.

BORN in north London to a civil servant and a teacher, Mr Smith was, he says, a child of the Sixties. His parents, both Liberal Democrats, were "very supportive" when he announced at a Labour Party rally in Rugby in 1984 that he was gay. Despite the frenzy of stories about homosexual ministers, Mr Smith is the only one with a long-term boyfriend, Dorian Jabri, communications director for the Teacher Training Agency. Mr Smith has escaped the lurid inquiries of the tabloids by being consistently open about his sexuality. In the week that Ron Davies was caught having a "lapse of judgement" on Clapham Common, the Culture Secretary was pictured in the Daily Mail with his partner in a moment of domestic Islington bliss.

"The attitude I took way back in 1984 was to say: 'Yes, I'm gay. So what? Let's get on with the business of being an MP'," Mr Smith says. "That's the approach most people would want us to take." So what does he think about allegations in the Sun that there is a "gay mafia" at work in Whitehall? "It was such a ridiculous story that I don't think anyone, even Trevor Kavanagh [the Sun's political editor] took it particularly seriously." The newspaper appeared to agree, when it did an about-turn, pledging not to "out" any more MPs. "What the leader writers of the Sun realised," Mr Smith says, "is what most people knew long ago - that the sexual orientation of politicians is of no consequence whatsoever to their ability to do their job as MPs or ministers." And if anyone is proof of that, it is Chris Smith.