Labour tries to stop 'illegal lottery' of pounds 50m phone quiz: Former arts minister faces controversy at 'Telemillion' launch. Susan Watts reports

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TIM RENTON, the former arts minister, yesterday launched a national telephone quiz game, 'Telemillion', which threatens to become the brash new face of interactive entertainment.

The stakes are high. Interactive Television Services, the company behind Telemillion, anticipates a turnover of between pounds 40m and pounds 50m after its first year, despite the game having been branded 'an illegal lottery' by Marjorie Mowlam, Labour's heritage spokeswoman.

Ms Mowlam is calling for ITS to be prosecuted after legal advice that Telemillion contravenes the 1976 Lotteries and Amusements Act. She wrote to the Attorney General demanding that he halt the first jackpot draw, which went ahead on Tuesday.

The game uses a 24-hour 0891 premium rate telephone number, which connects callers to actors impersonating famous people, including Neil Kinnock, the Queen and Cilla Black.

ITS has calculated that the first call costs entrants an average of pounds 1. They must listen to all the rules of the game, including a warning that they must be over 18 to enter. If callers wait long enough, they are given a number which puts them through to the quiz questions. Subsequent calls should cost an average of 70p.

Two-thirds of the charge for each call is passed on to ITS. The rest is divided between BT and the Inland Revenue. Callers answer a simple question from a category of their choice, and all those who answer correctly are entered for the computer draw. Each week, ITS will pay one pounds 10,000 prize and several smaller ones of between pounds 5 and pounds 100. At the end of each month, somebody will win pounds 250,000. Telemillion has been running since early January in Scotland, Northern Ireland and East Anglia.

Ms Mowlam has accused Mr Renton of using information gleaned when, as arts minister, he examined the potential for a national lottery. He became an adviser to ITS only a few months after leaving the Government, and later became its chairman. She believes the quiz game constitutes a lottery - in competition with the National Lottery - because the draw, once callers clear the initial hurdle of answering a question correctly, is random. Lotteries are allowed only if they offer free entry. Despite mention in advertisements of forms for free entry, most people will be encouraged to enter by the charged telephone number, Ms Mowlam argues.

'Tim Renton has said that he had no detailed knowledge of the Government's proposals concerning the National Lottery, yet Kenneth Baker, (then) Home Secretary, paid tribute to his help with the policy . . . It is possible that Kenneth Baker may have been mistaken, and that Tim Renton had no knowledge. But that begs the question of why ITS was willing to pay him pounds 50,000 a year plus bonus for his advice,' Ms Mowlam said yesterday.

Michael Biden, chief executive of ITS, said Telemillion was too small to be a serious competitor to the National Lottery. He was 'very relaxed' about the idea of an investigation by the police.

At yesterday's launch at the Ritz in Piccadilly, London, Mr Renton said he wanted Telemillion to have a 'charity element'. He hopes to raise pounds 1m by the end of the year, although Mr Biden later said this may be optimistic.

(Photograph omitted)

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