It's the people's lottery, so let the people pick the winners

Why, asks David Aaronovitch, should the ennobled and extremely cultured allocate our hard-gambled cash?
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The Independent Online
I have never met him, but I like Lord Rothschild. It would be stupid not to; he is both rich and generous. His chairmanship of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, which sent £12m in young Winston's direction this week, is only the latest example of his Lordship's contribution to public service. So he could be forgiven for shaking his head, as the Churchill furore erupted around him, and lamenting the ingratitude of the British people. After all he and his colleagues were only doing what they were asked to do.

But are they the right people doing the right job? When the Churchill row broke this week it became clear there was a real credibility gap between popular conceptions of what the Lottery money was going to fund and what the establishment was doing. The latter had decided to disburse the money using the same sort of people and the same sorts of assumptions that govern the use of taxpayers' money by the Arts Council, the Sports Council and - God help us - the Millennium Commission. Most ticket and card buyers almost certainly assumed their pennies were on their way to fund the elderly, children, African villages and other popular projects. Instead the largest grants so far have gone to causes with limited demotic appeal.

This is not surprising when you consider the membership of the bodies set up to hand out the cash. Lord Rothschild's 13-person committee comprises three lords, three knights, one Professor, one Commander and three Mrs's (one a Mrs John Nutting). Of the two plain Mr's, one is an eminent historian/journalist and the other styles himself an Esquire. Is it any wonder that their first grants are to the sort of causes that pepper the mail received by Gold Card holders and members of the Royal Television Society?

This situation is only slightly improved when you examine the other funding bodies. By and large they are composed of the kind of people who spend most of their time with other people who also sit on bodies handing out money. The Arts Council decided its share-out of Lottery largesse under the chairmanship of the Environment Secretary John Gummer's brother, who (surprise, surprise) turns out not to be a retired miner, but chief executive of one of the biggest PR groups in the world. He is helped by a building society chairman, an architect who helped design the new Glyndebourne, a theatre manager, the Arts boss of the Bradford Museums and Galleries and, of course, a David Puttnam.

The Sports Council Lottery panel was always likely to have a slightly more democratic feel. But here, too, there is a strong establishment element. No Eric Cantonas or Vinny Jones's, but Trevor Brooking and Garth Crooks, gentleman footballers straight out of toothpaste commercials. The 13 members muster three MBEs, two OBEs and one CBE between them. Only the members of the charities board (which has yet to announce its grant) seem to lack a clutch of honours or titles - and most of them already sit on a vast number of other boards and trusts.

This is wrong. It is wrong because the Lottery is different. It is a genuinely national institution, attracting the money and patronage of a vast number of citizens - many of them not very well off. As a result there is a much more direct need for the priorities of those giving out the dosh at best to reflect, at worst not to outrage the sensibilities of the ticket and card buyers. But how is this to be achieved?

An easy option would be to swap the committees around, so that Trevor Brooking, say, handed out the Heritage money and Mrs John Nutting was responsible for Sports funding. This change of natural habitat might lead those involved to a more rigorous inquiry about what it is that people want. But it is unlikely to provide sufficiently radical results.

My next suggestion is that a large panel of people be drawn up, selected from volunteers who have experience of running things and handling cash at a level very close to everyday concerns. Those involved would typically be primary school heads, librarians, shop stewards, store managers, army captains and GPs. This panel would then be used to stock the five funding bodies, according to interest. Experts would be on hand to offer advice.

But who would select these people? Would they not be likely to end up aping the same preoccupations as the cultural establishment?

Which brings me to the most democratic solution of all. Each Saturday 12 million people tune in for the Lottery draw on television. They should be invited to phone in their votes for the recipients of Lottery money, as viewers currently do for the Eurovision Song Contest. Money could then be disbursed in proportion to the votes cast. Simple rules could be drawn up to prevent the same charities appearing week after week. Where the money was going would soon become almost as much a matter for pub and workplace debate as which numbers won. Vox Populi, 0891.

Horrified? You shouldn't be. The desire to shut people out of decision- making is much more dangerous than the wish to bring them in. And would the results of doing so be that bad? After all, is Lord Rothschild so very much more to be trusted with our heritage than the lady next door?