Finger points at the National Lottery

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The Independent Online
The Nineties belong to Richard Branson. This is his decade. Consumers want not only top-quality products: they also require them to be morally clean. Mr Branson is one of the few business leaders to have recognised this necessity.

It is in this context that he has taken on those running and regulating the National Lottery. His reputation for honest dealing lends special authority and credence to his allegation that he was offered and refused a bribe to drop his plans to bid for the National Lottery.

He has performed a public service by bringing these allegations - against GTech, the US part-owner of Camelot - out into the open. These claims must be investigated. But Peter Davis, head of Oflot, the National Lottery watchdog, is clearly the wrong person for the task. He has denied Mr Branson's claim that he was tipped off about the alleged bribe. None the less his credibility is already under question.

An independent investigation should be established by Virginia Bottomley, the Heritage Secretary, to clarify three issues. First, it would examine whether a bribe was in fact offered to Mr Branson. Second, it would ask whether Oflot knew about the allegation and, if it was aware of Mr Branson's claim, why it failed to act. If Mr Branson did indeed inform Oflot about the alleged bribe, then Mr Davis is clearly not up to his job and should consider his position.

The third issue that must be tackled is the evidently cosy relationship between Mr Davis and Camelot. The regulator has denied any impropriety in taking flights in a private jet belonging to GTech. He is, however, yet to give a full explanation of how and why he took these free trips. We await this with much interest.

The National Lottery is a huge generator of revenue for the public purse, charities and those who operate it. It must be publicly accountable and shown to be above suspicion. Yet at the moment, there is no guarantee that the Government is prepared to take its responsibility seriously. Only Mr Branson's determination to have his day in court seems certain to flush out the truth.

Clearly, Mr Branson's lone stand is, for him, also a brilliant commercial strategy, for it is likely to enhance his reputation as a business leader of integrity. He also has personal reasons for taking on those who run the National Lottery: he would dearly love to have won the contract himself.

Regardless of these personal factors behind the Branson crusade, the Virgin tycoon has raised issues that require urgent inquiry. It is time that Mrs Bottomley pointed a very quizzical finger at those behind the National Lottery.