LEADING ARTICLE : Bringing the lottery bigwigs to book

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The Independent Online
For more than a year, most of us who've played the National Lottery have lost a small stack of money. We are transfixed by the prospect of winning but fairly bored by how the money we lose is being spent.

Every so often another list of lottery grants is announced. Their decisions are frequently greeted with bemusement. Does anyone understand why it was a top priority to further enrich the Churchill family with pounds 12.5m for Sir Winston's papers?

The Government has designed the lottery as a way of raising money for a variety of causes. Yet it has not established a proper machinery to make sure the money is spent in a way that people support. Taxation and government spending is at least scrutinised by the House of Commons. But the vast sums generated by the lottery slush through unknown agencies, staffed by anonymous people, who seem to be barely accountable to anyone.

How many people, for example, know that David Sieff, director of Marks and Spencer, is chairman of the body that distributes lottery cash to groups fighting poverty? Has he ever had to put forward a manifesto, outlining his priorities and asking for public approval?

It is not unusual that an elite should be charged with writing huge cheques to dole out millions of pounds of other people's money. Governments do it all the time. The extraordinary aspect of the lottery is that those in charge of distributing its funds are subject to minimal public scrutiny. During the lottery's first year, the lottery boards were asked to dispense pounds 1.2bn to sports, arts, heritage sites, the millennium celebrations and charities. That would be enough to fund a considerable tax cut.

Now at last, those in authority are to take a look at the books of cheque stubs that have been accumulating at the five boards that spend this good cause's cash. As reported in the Independent yesterday, the National Audit Office, the public finance watchdog, is planning to examine how the money has been spent.

All very well but it would have been better had these issues been debated more openly in advance. And the NAO is not rushing into the investigation. Its report will not be ready until next year. It will tackle the difficult questions about who spends the cash only after dealing with more mundane issues such as whether all those pounds 1 wagers collected in shops are being properly handed over to the Government.

The NAO should get down to the important issues more quickly. By next year the "good causes" boards will have spent nearly pounds 3bn without making any of us much the wiser as to their mysterious workings.

Nor should the NAO be shy about suggesting new ways of making these boards responsive to public opinion: too many of them at the moment are stuffed with bankers, politicians and businessmen appointed by ministers. We should stick with an old motto and demand - no spending without representation. A much wider review of who decides how lottery money is needed. The NAO investigation should be just the start of that inquiry.