Flutter of concern at the missing millions

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The Independent Online
Do the luckless millions who gawped in vain at the Lottery balls last night care where their lost money will end up? The answer to that question contains the answer to the next. Will the National Lottery be as popular in the next four years as it has been in the four years since it was launched in November 1994? Since the future of sport and the positive contribution it can make to the well-being of the country depend largely on what happens to our fluttering instincts, any questions concerning the national attitude to the Lottery are of serious importance.

If the 80 per cent of the adult population who have experienced the small flurry of hope that accompanies the purchase of that rather nondescript ticket are largely indifferent to the destination of the proceeds, the twice-weekly flutter will continue to soar towards the stratosphere. But if, as many of us suspect, the punters retain a parental interest in the future of their departed cash then someone had better put in some swift and serious thinking about the mood in which this lucrative game is played and the goodwill with which the money is offered up.

The sport of Lottery-playing - for a sport it surely is - came into being with the clearly defined aim of improving the quality of British life by creating new opportunities in creative, sporting and cultural activities for everyone. It was recommended that this aim should be pursued independently of the government of the day in order to prevent the proceeds being purloined for political purposes.

Alas, in the rush to apply the nation's lips to this horn of plenty, someone conveniently neglected to give it the charitable status that would have kept it free from interfering fingers. This didn't seem to matter at the time as no one foresaw the extent to which the Lottery would storm into our lives to become the phenomenon of the age. It has gained the largest sales of any lottery in the world, raised pounds 6.4bn for good causes and allowed the Treasury to cream off pounds 2.45bn in tax.

But far from enjoying the independence dreamed of by those whose advocacy led to its introduction during John Major's government, the goose responsible for so many golden eggs is straying closer and closer towards the wicked clutches of Westminster. The Lottery Act of 1998 has already diluted the original ideal, that the proceeds should never replace state funding, by allowing a large cut to be taken by a new beneficiary, the New Opportunities Fund. The NOF will be used for projects in the areas of health, education and environment but, more ominously, will be allocated by the Government. Anyone who doubts that this is the first step in the total annexation of the Lottery hasn't been studying politicians lately.

How much of a calamity that would be depends on your point of view, but it could easily lead to the Lottery losing its appeal and the urge to play could fade as quickly as it flared up. Already, 60 per cent of regular players do not feel that the proceeds are reaching the most deserving causes. Although it promotes a few of us to the rank of millionaire every week, it is of more certain benefit to the fat cats of Camelot, the architects of potential white elephants and to the bureaucrats who make a laborious palaver of distributing the money. Add to that the suspicion that the Government will eventually treat it like an indirect tax and swallow the cash into their general expenditure and you have the recipe for wholesale disenchantment.

The populace will then be vulnerable to a few hard truths that, at the moment, they seem happy to ignore. For instance, those like me who pick the same numbers every week might not be comforted by the fact that any particular line will probably come up only once in 270,000 years.

We should be grateful for these statistics, and for the warning they carry, to a report published by the Lottery Promotion Company, whose leading light is Denis Vaughan, a persistent lobbyist for the introduction of the Lottery and belligerent watchdog for any attempt to divert it from its original mission.

The author of the report, entitled Distributing the Lottery to Everyone, is Richard McGowan, the deputy director of the LPC and the head of research for the Council for the Advancement of Arts, Recreation and Education. His comprehensive assessment of the Lottery's impact and the danger of it becoming just another source of state revenue reminds us of its potential to improve our lives if directed at areas which would not otherwise be developed.

In sport, this is concerned not merely with improving the performance of our representatives at the highest level but with increasing grass- roots participation. The benefits of a fitter and healthier population in reducing the strain on the NHS, lowering our notoriously high rate of heart disease, and reducing the number of working days lost to sickness are immeasurable.

Improving national fitness is a principle often extolled by the mightiest and most eloquent of our leaders but it has never been effectively followed through. Hence, fewer than half of us take enough exercise and, ironically, the percentage has fallen during the life of the Lottery. The attitude of schools and schoolchildren provides little hope of improvement. French kids spend twice as much time playing sports as their British counterparts, who are ranked 13th in Europe in terms of time devoted to sport.

The Lottery has already earned enough to provide the facilities, the opportunity and the encouragement to make a vast difference to those sorry figures and to enhance the quality of all our lives, but the delays in distributing the proceeds are disturbing. Only 43 per cent of the money raised since November 1994 has been paid out. Over pounds 3.6bn is being sat on by the Treasury and, of this, pounds 1.5bn hasn't even been allocated.

This would be more than enough to set up high-quality, readily accessible schemes to make a wide variety of sports available to people in all parts of the country. Every individual sport has in place a scheme to train the extra coaches required to supervise what they hope would be an explosion of new interest. As for encouragement, Camelot, or whoever runs the Lottery in the future, could change their approach from marketing the Lottery as a means of getting rich quick and spend the money on making people aware of the new opportunities the Lottery is creating for them.

This policy has been adopted by lotteries in other countries to great effect. Since New York began to make more of the good work being done by the proceeds, turnover has almost doubled. People do react well to the feeling that their participation has a greater meaning than the desire to win a fortune. When it is perceived as a genuine force for the good of all, the Lottery can look forward to a long future of achieving its aims.

If we continue to receive a message of a government hogging the money it is reluctant to share with those who provided it we may find that, robustly successful as it may seem, the National Lottery has a fragility that could prove fatal.

Paolo di Canio's 11-match ban will serve as a stern warning to those foreign footballers who arrive thinking that life here is going to be pushover. But some are already on their guard about what they say and do. This applies especially to the Chinese players who have joined Crystal Palace. Life in China teaches you to watch your ps and qs, so when one of them took part in that inevitable part of British football, the player interview, he was ready for the obvious trap when he was asked: "If you had a choice, what other career would you choose?" Without a pause, he answered: "I know nothing about the situation in Korea and have no comment to make."