Sack the lottery commissioners before it's too late

The award of the next lottery licence is a problem - but not yet a crisis, nor need it be so

Some politicians are trying to equate the troubles engulfing the National Lottery Commission to the difficulties of the Dome. This is wrong. While the former comprises organisational chaos, which can be rectified, the Dome is a failed concept for which there is no solution.

Some politicians are trying to equate the troubles engulfing the National Lottery Commission to the difficulties of the Dome. This is wrong. While the former comprises organisational chaos, which can be rectified, the Dome is a failed concept for which there is no solution.

Yes, if mishandled, the correction of the lottery commission's mistakes could cost money. This would be the result if the lottery draw had to be suspended for a period; it produces £25m a week for good causes. But this doesn't have to happen.

In the case of the National Lottery Commission, the first decision that needs to be taken is to start again. It will be no use trying to patch up the process of awarding the new lottery franchise. Nothing that the present members of the commission can do will command credibility. Even the appointment of new solicitors, in place of the Treasury team which provided advice so bad that the High Court called the commission's actions "conspicuously unfair", has run into controversy. Time must be found for a new competition.

This means that the second action that must be taken is to arrange an extension to the licence of the present operator, Camelot. Probably an extra year would be long enough.

Camelot has been making a meal of agreeing to such a proposal; it points out that property leases, staff contracts and supplier agreements are all fixed to end at the original termination date for the licence. Never mind. There is plenty of short-term office space available. Staff and suppliers would be only too happy to have contracts lengthened rather than have to look for work.

The entire lottery commission must be replaced. Of course they are respectable citizens, every one. They are neither stupid nor venal. But they are woefully inexperienced for the task confronting them and, as a result, timid. Not one of them has actually ever participated in running a big business.

The nearest any of the members comes to having experience of tough, hard-headed, take-no-prisoners operations is as an accountant with a leading firm. I have read that the paperwork the commissioners required to describe the two applications for the new licence, Camelot's and Sir Richard Branson's, amounted to 56 boxes. Only people who realise they are operating in a world they do not fully understand require everything to be written down in such painstaking detail. And little good it did them.

In seeking to explain the hash they have made, the present commissioners blame their lawyers. This tells me that they did not know how to handle them. Lawyers must be instructed carefully and their advice listened to with respect. At the end of the day, however, lawyers are only advisers. Their word is an interpretation of the law, not the law itself. They are not trained to take decisions and should not be asked to; those who commission them must do that.

So what happens when legal advisers state that something that seems sensible to do is, in fact, not permitted or open to challenge? You rephrase your instructions - you say, tell me how to achieve my aim in a manner which is legally sound. There is almost always a way.

I am not saying that the new commissioners should all be business people. I am sure, though, that the chair and at least one other out of the five should have had a long experience of business in its roughest forms - because that is the nature of lottery management. It is not a glamorous assignment, which may explain why the present team is undistinguished.

If there is difficulty in recruiting fresh members, I suggest that the next commissioners should be asked to undertake just the single task of rerunning the award of the new licence. They should be chosen from among suitably qualified people who can give the time to do the job quickly. While they should be remunerated adequately, the appointment should be clearly labelled as pro bono publico. While these interim commissioners were doing their work, the Government would have time to consider some more permanent arrangements.

Meanwhile, the conflicts of interest that have suddenly made the headlines would melt away of their own accord. They arise from the fact that one of the ministers at the Department for Culture, Alan Howarth, used to be a paid adviser to Sir Richard Branson, and that the commission's new solicitors, Freshfields, has likewise done work for Sir Richard in the past. No doubt Mr Howarth will now be kept well out of the way; and a new chair of the commission with the qualities I describe will well know whether Freshfields has a conflict of interest and act accordingly.

The awarding of the next lottery licence has become a major problem, but it is not yet a crisis, nor need it become so.

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