Angry Camelot sought victim for licence bungle

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The Independent Online

The pressure from Camelot has been intense and personal. For two weeks the lottery operator has first hinted at, and then demanded, the resignation of the woman who chairs the National Lottery Commission.

The pressure from Camelot has been intense and personal. For two weeks the lottery operator has first hinted at, and then demanded, the resignation of the woman who chairs the National Lottery Commission.

Dame Helena Shovelton's departure is the price Camelot believes should be paid for the commission's handling of the competition for the next lottery licence and the criticisms of a High Court judge 14 days ago. Camelot executives accused her of high-handedness and, in effect, arrogance, by refusing to admit publicly that the commissioners had been at fault. But Dame Helena, believing Camelot's attacks were malicious, seemed unmoved.

She told The Independent last Friday her task was to see the current process through to its conclusion: the appointment of a lottery operator. Although she prefaced her remarks with a crucial caveat, she said: "It would feel, at this moment in time, irresponsible to just clear off. How would that exactly help resolve the issue?"

Her remarks, however, came soon after Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said on BBC1's Question Time on Thursday that the court's criticisms suggested the commissioners should "consider their positions". Although he did not necessarily believe they should go, they were now "on notice" to get the licence decision right.

Yesterday, after meeting the commission's new lawyers - the City firm Freshfields - it seems she decided enough was enough. It is two weeks since Mr Justice Richards declared that the commission had "abused its powers" when it said on 23 August it had ruled out Camelot from any further discussions on the next lottery licence. He said the decision had been "conspicuously unfair" in deciding to hold exclusive talks with Sir Richard Branson's The People's Lottery. He said, however, the commission believed it had acted correctly throughout.

Camelot executives were less charitable. They believe the commission is biased towards Sir Richard's not-for-profit bid, and shows hostility towards Camelot. Its executives maintain Sir Richard was secretly coached on how to improve his bid, while they were misled over the commission's real misgivings about the honesty of its software supplier GTech.

But all the court offered them was the chance to tackle the GTech problem, after it emerged in April that two GTech executives had withheld for four years a software error that affected about 100,000 prizes.

For the commission, these events raised fatal doubts about GTech. And, the commission has since made clear, TPL also beat Camelot on the share of money going to good causes.

Camelot realised their only genuine hope of winning back the franchise was to get the entire process re-examined. Today, Camelot's chairman, Sir George Russell, and the Camelot board were due to call formally for her to resign.

However, Dame Helena's decision may actually undermine Camelot's strategy. Their goal requires the Government or the commission to order the bidding process to be completely rerun, or for their existing bid to fully re-evaluated. She has called Camelot's bluff. Her resignation suggests the remaining four commissioners will just continue the existing process of assessing Camelot's strategy to tackle the GTech issue, by buying out its UK operation for £100m, over the two weeks Camelot has left. It remains to be seen whether they will see a need to reopen the entire process and give Camelot a fresh, more realistic chance to overtake Sir Richard's offer.

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