Major oversight in area of fund and games

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR's man-of-the-match performance on behalf of sport during the spirited Na- tional Lottery debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday was marred by only one little matter it seems churlish to mention, so impassioned were his pleas. But if Major and his team had taken more precautions when they introduced the lottery in the first place, sport would not now be in fear of being elbowed off the gravy-train after the year 2001.

Our former leader will go down deservedly in history as the Prime Minister in whose reign the lottery was born three years ago. The case for it was blindingly obvious but someone had to trap the ball and dribble with it. He not only did that effectively, he saw the goal clearly - a chance to improve the quality of life of everyone in this country.

As he told the Commons last week: "I was concerned to ensure that a child who lived in a tower block had the same opportunity in arts and sport as the child who was heir to the rolling acres."

That commendable vision, however, was not accompanied by the realisation that more hard-nosed values would one day be applied to the distribution of lottery proceeds, and those of us who pleaded that the operation should be run as a charity to fend off the grabbing hands of a future government went unheeded.

Hence the dismay that the new Lottery Bill they debated on Tuesday includes an additional candidate for handouts - it carries the vague title of the New Opportunities Fund and the pounds 1 billion earmarked for it will immediately reduce the percentage available for the original good causes - and that the Bill contains no guarantee that sport and the arts would receive any money at all in three years' time.

There was, said Major, only one reason why the Secretary of State (Chris Smith) was not prepared to give that guarantee - the Treasury would not let him because they were keeping open the option of a further smash-and- grab raid on the existing good causes.

He was interrupted while expressing his concerns about the "sticky fingers" perverting the original intention of the lottery by the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, shouting: "Trust us". Even a former premier would hesitate to trust a single politician, let alone a plurality of them.

I had hoped that Banks, who wound-up the debate, might use this chance to strike a telling blow for sport. He has talked about "evolving from a bar-room sage to a world statesman" and this would have been a splendid opportunity to begin that metamorphosis even if he had to buck the Government's line in order to demand a durable commitment to sports funding.

Alas, he only got as far as the lounge and, given New Labour's intolerance of rebellion, perhaps it was asking too much to expect more. As it was, the most he felt able to do was to say: "I would find it wholly strange and quite remarkable if, after 2001, we did not continue to fund the existing good causes, particularly sport. I would love to be able to give a commitment ... I cannot bind a future Parliament. I cannot say what Governments will do in the future."

That very doubt provides all the more reason to chisel out in parliamentary marble sport's claim for a level of long-term funding that won't leave us so far adrift from the vast majority of developed countries with whom we expect ourselves to compete.

One Labour member who was prepared to speak his mind about what he called one of the most important Bills the government have introduced in this session was Tom Pendry, who before the election was the opposition's sports spokesman and rated the favourite for the Minister for Sport job.

Since Pendry led for the opposition when the original Lottery Act was going through Parliament, his was a fascinating and not uncourageous input. As someone who warned the then Government about the lack of safeguards against future interference in the distribution of lottery money, there was some substance in his concern that the present Bill "represents a watering down of Labour's previous commitment to sport".

He reminded the Government of their manifesto promise which stated: "Sport will continue to be a permanent good cause for the purpose of lottery funding." Pendry also chided the Government for removing sport from the list of compulsory subjects on the national curriculum and for excluding sport from NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts which will use lottery funds to assist the talented - but not the sporting talented as originally planned.

Pendry expressed the hope that when the Bill returns to the House from the Committee stage in a few months' time, the pledge to sport will be clearly contained therein. No doubt, sport will mount a vigorous lobby in the interim and, maybe, even the sport's media at large may take an interest.

It is worth recalling that when the calls for a national lottery began to gather impetus 10 years or so ago, there were much more basic views on where the money should go. A private member's Bill initiated by Ivan Lawrence held that crime prevention should be the priority. By devoting 40 per cent to sport and 30 per cent to the arts, we could offer every youngster in the land an interest that might tempt them off the streets.

That is still part of the aim. Indeed, the Government would be wrong to ignore the contribution that sport makes to the popularity of the lottery. The most recent survey among lottery users reveals that 70 per cent think it is important that lottery money is spent helping the country achieve international success.

The group of lottery lobbyists headed by Denis Vaughan are redoubling their efforts to re-focus government minds on the benefits of sticking to the original aims. They believe that the lottery has reached only one- third of its potential sales. Evidence from the United States shows that where the lottery has a clear aim, such as inspiring young people to more creative pursuits than crime, the takings shoot up. The Government have time to reflect that this might be a more tempting sales pitch to the nation than what one Tory opponent accused them of last week. They are treating the lottery as their re-election fund, he said.

BY COINCIDENCE, Tuesday's business in the House included another interesting sporting interlude in which a member put forward a Bill calling for a Football Levy Board with powers to impose levies on football organisations for the benefit of the whole game.

In other words, take some off the Premiership to help out those in the lower divisions. Sadly, the 10-minute rule Bill introduced by Gillian Merron, MP for Lincoln, has little chance of success but there is merit in her idea. Not surprisingly, Lincoln City are uppermost in her mind - she sponsors the boots of the club's longest-serving player, Craig Brown.

The plight of clubs such as Lincoln does need attention and a levy board might be the best way to help them. But Merron's eloquent description of the heartbreaks suffered by the millions who follow struggling clubs might hurt her cause. "Some say that losing a game is like losing an election," she said. "It is not; it is worse." That's the Conservative vote gone for a burton.