An embarrassment of lottery silver

Will the government be the loser again when the Charities Board announces its plans tomorrow?; `Staying healthy': a euphemism for drugs projects that make politicians nervous
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The politicians are in a panic about the lottery: every good news story seems to blow up in their hands. So tomorrow they will hope to pacify their critics with an announcement about where the long-awaited lottery grants to charities will be spent over the next 18 months.

It is a sign of the wobbly state of this government that it has failed to deliver one of the few great success stories of its administration. A torrent of money is cascading in from the lottery for cause after cause - and on it will go, year after year, funding projects of every kind, to suit every taste, art, sport and hobby, every community and needy group, money the government could never have provided otherwise. But the headlines have been poison.

True, looking gift horses in the mouth is a national pastime. We are a crabby lot, grudging, sour, eager to find the dark lining to any silver cloud. But all the same, you would think it might not take a public relations genius to stuff these carping mouths with so much lottery silver.

On 23 October the National Lottery Charities Board delivers its first grants, distributing pounds 150m to charitable ventures. Sounds like a good news story? The politicians are exceedingly jumpy. Will it be another PR calamity? Almost certainly.

Four of the National Lottery boards - arts, sport, millennium and heritage - have ladled out their first gifts, and all have been roundly abused from every conceivable point of view. Toffs sitting on quangos of the great and the good have been taking money from the mouths of the poor to give to other toffs like the Churchills, Eton and opera-goers, conning common folk with outrageous odds that would make a snake-oil huckster blench. The fifth fairy, the Charities Board, is already knee-high in opprobrium before it has given out a penny.

Later this week it will try to defuse criticism in advance by holding a press conference to announce where, in broad terms, the next four tranches of money will go, hoping to mollify all those who will not get first-round grants next month. Anxious politicians have been poring over multiple drafts of the press release, a copy of which has landed on my desk with all the worried thumbprints of ministers trying to excise any word or concept that might cause trouble.

In May the Charities Board announced its laudable intention to give money to unpopular, unglamorous causes, overlooked by the random and erratic whims of public giving. It said the first bundle of money will go "to improve the quality of life of people who are disadvantaged by poverty". It seemed a good idea to give money back to those whence much of it was deemed to have come. Not many agreed.

It caused fury among the mighty medical research charities, as well as the animal and environment groups - all dangerous lobbies to cross. The right-wing press derided poverty as too "politically correct" a cause. Other critics said it was undemocratic and the board should follow popular opinion, even making lottery players tick a box for their favourite charity. In fact it did send questionnaires to nearly 8,000 voluntary organisations.

The question now is whether the board dares to hold to its original purpose, or whether under intense political pressure to do something popular, it will be blown off course and end up giving to less deserving causes. Guide Dogs for the Blind - already with more money than it can spend, yet still advertising - lifeboats, the RSPCA and cancer research are among those which the public place at the top of the giving league. Medical research is one of the top recipients of public donations, and gets pounds 200m a year from the Wellcome Foundation; so the board has deemed it a lower priority. But it has never ruled out medical charities - or any others - altogether.

The board's announcement on future grant themes, planned for tomorrow, is so full of weasel words that it might at first glance be misinterpreted. Indeed, the politicians who have been redrafting it have been trying to create a smoke screen so that everyone can read into it whatever they want to find.

Here is what the board plans to do: the second pounds 150m will again go to the poor, so expect a shriek of rage that the poor are getting double rations. This time there will be a special focus on the young, to help them to "get jobs, avoid crime, stay healthy and fulfil their potential". If you wonder what "stay healthy" means, it is a euphemism for drug programmes that nervous politicians wanted to disguise. They fear, too, that the press will inspect each grant minutely in search of all kinds of "take- a-young-criminal-on-safari" projects, since anything done to help delinquents fetches up in the tabloids as pampering the bad boys.

Next spring the theme will be "health, disability and care", including welfare, research and support for carers, a focus designed to silence the angry medical research lobby. However the big cancer research charities are likely to find that yet again it may not be them. The board will not be giving grants to those likely to win Nobel prizes, but rather to mundane, unheroic research into such unglamorous matters as how to develop a more comfortable adhesive tape for colostomy bag users.

More enjoyable euphemisms: the board will next spring also give money to "UK charities working abroad". Originally this was called Overseas Charities, but the politicians' blue pencil thought this formulation sounded more, well, British, since the tabloids will not like 20 per cent of good British lottery charity money going to foreigners.

Next summer grants will go to education, training and enterprise; in the winter of 1996 to "improving people's living environment"; and finally, in spring 1997 they will come under the category "fostering more community involvement", with special emphasis on volunteering.

There will also be a fast-track small grants scheme for sums of pounds 500 to pounds 5,000 not linked to the above big themes. 15,000 organisations have applied for grants in the first round, three times as many as the applications to all the other four boards together, which is why the board has taken longest to get its assessment system working. Each new category will require a host of new expert assessors.

Responsibility for this board rests with the Home Office, so it will be Michael Howard facing the flame-throwers. Without a doubt, whatever the Charities Board does, its first grants will be greeted with uproar from the disappointed and outrage from those who never think the poor deserving enough (unless they are one-legged Christian pensioner ex-servicemen.)

The list of grants next month must be judged by the board's own stated criteria. Has it channelled the money to the best possible causes, not currently well served by other givers? Is it brave enough to withstand the blast of political and tabloid pressure that will hit it from every direction? So far the politicians have only interfered with the presentation, not the content. But how much assault and battery will they endure? Watch this space.