Bottomley rules out change to lottery

Inside Parliament; National Heritage Secretary rejects criticisms by the churches t Cunningham attacks Camelot's 'licence to print money'
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Indy Politics
Virginia Bottomley yesterday set herself against any of the changes to the Lottery mooted by the churches and others concerned at its effect on the national psyche and the pounds 1m a week profits of its operators.

The National Lottery "truly is the Dream Machine", the Heritage Secretary effused in the Commons. She plays it as a member of a family syndicate, she basks in the glow of its awards to charities and, to judge by her performance in the Labour-initiated debate, she believes it a first-rate political weapon.

"Labour's line on the lottery is simple - snuff out success, punish profit and cheat the good causes of the deal they deserve," she said.

The rhetoric was unchanged from her years as health secretary and so was her tactic of bombarding the House with statistics.

The National Lottery had changed the face of funding in the arts, sport and heritage, she insisted. More than pounds 586m had already been awarded to 2,111 projects and over the next seven years the total contribution to good causes was expected to be over pounds 9bn.

"It is the people's lottery. Millions play. Millions watch. Millions win. In years ahead a bonanza of billions will benefit the causes we value."

Ridiculing the notion that huge prizes had brought misery to the winners, Mrs Bottomley said that out of about 280 wins, only 18 had been for more than pounds 5m and many jackpots were shared by syndicates of up to 20 people.

"How many of those 18 have been made miserable by the experience we do not know. We can guess that there are many more people willing to change places with them."

Rejecting Labour's call for the lottery to be run a "not-for-profit" basis when Camelot's seven-year contract runs out, she quoted the Lottery regulator's observation that more would have been kept in costs by Richard Branson's "run it for free" foundation.

As for capping the jackpot at pounds 1m, proposed by the churches and the Liberal Democrats conference, Mrs Bottomley said that in the weeks when the jackpot had rolled-over, sales had increased by 10-20 per cent. "Capping the prizes and cutting the fun is the route to equal distribution of very little."

Tory backbencher John Sykes, MP for Scarborough, urged her to "ignore the sanctimonious claptrap" from the churches.

If fortune did not exactly shine on Mrs Bottomley in last July's Cabinet shuffle, her new opposite number, Jack Cunningham, has had even less luck.

Voted off the Shadow Cabinet last week, Mr Cunningham graciously accepted the Secretary of State's tongue-in-cheek commiserations. "As a life-long supporter of Newcastle United, I am well used to dealing with both triumph and disaster. It is just that the disasters have been too frequent recently."

Mr Cunningham said Camelot had been given one licence to print tickets and another to "print money". And he maintained the 1993 legislation setting up the Lottery gave Mrs Bottomley power to vary the company's take without waiting for the end of its contract.

Brushing aside Tory claims that Camelot had taken a commercial risk, he said it was "a one-way bet in a one-horse race".

No one had envisaged such excessive profits, except perhaps Camelot in private, he said.

Mr Cunningham said he enjoyed playing the lottery himself. People bought tickets because they hoped they would win, but second they hoped that majority of what was left would go to good causes.

"Labour in office will ensure that when a new contract is due, it must be on a not-for-profit basis, thus releasing many more millions for the arts."

Mr Cunningham proposed the establishment of a "Talent Fund" to help young athletes, musicians, artists, inventors and designers who at present struggled on alone or with just parental help.

It was one of the few areas where Mrs Bottomley was quick to acknowledge the merits of a Labour idea.

David Mellor, former heritage secretary and a self-proclaimed architect of the lottery, warned the Government not to increase the amount of tax taken. Currently, the Treasury skims off 12 per cent from the lottery, but Mr Mellor said it originally had "ambitions" for more.

The lottery was already "a nice little earner for our Ken", he said - an estimated pounds 500m so far plus corporation tax on Camelot's profits.

But he went on: "One gathers there are senior figures in the Treasury who still bear the bruises of what they regard as a defeat in failing to get a tax rate that was higher.

"And if anyone should have it in contemplation to introduce a higher tax rate in the forthcoming Budget, I really must urge them to think again.

"In the history of own goals, that would merit a chapter all on its own."