The lottery: does exactly what it says on the tin

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The fact that a man serving a life sentence for attempted rape has won £6.2m on the National Lottery has, understandably, disgusted many people. After all, Iorworth Hoare hardly cuts a sympathetic figure. He was responsible for a string of sex attacks in the 1970s and 80s. On sentencing Hoare to a life sentence in 1989 for trying to rape a retired school teacher, Mr Justice Rougier informed him: "Every moment you are at liberty, some woman is at risk."

But the outraged demands that this never be allowed to happen again are misguided. Some have demanded to know how a prisoner was able to play the lottery. The Home Office guidelines are clear. Prisoners in "open conditions" - those on day release or community projects - are permitted to play the lottery and claim prizes. Hoare was reaching the end of his sentence and staying at a bail hostel in Middlesbrough when he brought his ticket. It was legitimate for him to play the lottery.

If David Blunkett were now to alter the rules to stop Hoare receiving his winnings, or to prevent day-release prisoners from gambling in the future, he would be a submitting to popular prejudice and setting a bad precedent. It would also raise the question of who else ought to be disqualified from playing the lottery.

None of this is to say that Hoare's victims are not perfectly entitled to sue him for damages in the civil courts now that he is in a position to pay. But this row does serve to highlight some bizarre misconceptions about the lottery. The outrage over the fact that undeserving figures occasionally win demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the game. A lottery is a lottery. The fact that Hoare won ought to be no more surprising than the similar recent good fortune of the cancer-sufferer Iris Jeffrey, or any other winner for that matter.

That some of the profits from the lottery are channelled to good causes seems to make it easier for people to take the moral high ground when controversy blows up. But this too is a diversion. The national lottery is essentially about gambling. Only when this basic premise is accepted will we be spared the futile posturing when it performs its job properly and throws up winners at random.