Leading Article: Cabinet `liberals' play the populist game

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Homophobes of the world calm down, Virginia is on the case. It appears that some of that lovely lottery lolly is going to refugees, prostitutes and gays. pounds 82,000 to the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project, pounds 66,000 to advise asylum-seekers, pounds 76,000 for gay and lesbian support groups in London and Leicester. But never fear. The Prime Minister (no less) has taken up cudgels on behalf of the intolerant; the awards, he cries, are "ill-founded and ill-judged". Hot on his heels, the Heritage Secretary has promised a fierce investigation into such appalling "political correctness".

Of course she can't actually make them give the money back. Nor can she veto future decisions by the independent charities board. But she can, er, keep an eye on things, and sneer for the sake of a few headlines.

Had this been Michael Howard speaking to a Conservative party conference nobody would have batted an eyelid. We have come to expect manipulative, xenophobic populism from the Home Secretary. But John and Ginny? These were supposed to be the balanced, mature, sensible and tolerant members of the Cabinet. Probably they look in the mirror and tell themselves that liberals are smiling back. They should look again. Their remarks this week were not only illiberal, but vile.

They are right that the National Lottery Charities Board has awarded money to minority groups. So what? The homeless, the disabled, the deaf and the drug-addicted are all minority groups, too. Organisations working to help all of them received awards this week, and Mr Major did not mutter.

The Prime Minister does, presumably, believe that the general purpose of these latest awards is worthwhile: to help vulnerable young people. He must also surely agree that teenage prostitutes in Edinburgh are vulnerable. How, then, in conscience, can he object to funding a group that educates prostitutes about Aids and helps to get them off the game?

As David Sieff, chair of the charities board, pointed out, giving money to scout groups is easy and popular. Many of them picked up cash this time. But Baden-Powell's creations do not reflect and respond to the range of problems that vulnerable young people face today. Be it drug abuse, sexual health, poverty or social exclusion, groups that help teenagers to cope with such problems deserve applause. These are not cuddly causes. They will never be able to raise cash in the same way as sanitised institutions such as the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, or even Esther Rantzen's Childline. They can't mobilise volunteers to take collections outside supermarkets. That is exactly why they need the support of a funding organisation like the lottery board.

Moreover, for all that they are worthy causes, support groups for gays, prostitutes and refugees are only picking up a tiny proportion of the cash - less than 1 per cent of this latest pounds 159m giveaway. When you take into account the rest of the lottery loot - prizes, profits, sports, arts, millennium parties - the average punter would have to buy hundreds of thousands of tickets before he or she had contributed even a penny towards the Scottish prostitutes.

Competition for these awards has been fierce. The admirable Missing Person's Helpline and the Big Issue both left with less than they had hoped for, largely because so many other groups were as deserving. If the board, faced with so many competing claims, felt that these groups argued persuasively for their particular projects, the Prime Minister should not be so quick to dismiss them out of hand.

Of course, there are real questions to be asked about the way the board makes its decisions and allocates cash. For example, pouring so much into capital projects rather than current funding risks creating nationwide fleets of minibuses with nobody to drive them. Some of the awards will turn out to be wasted or abused - not because they are spent on prostitutes, but because the board has not yet found a way adequately to scrutinise the applications and the spending of the cash.

All these arguments seem terribly obvious. It seems remarkable that we should have to reflect on them at all - except when you consider that these are politicians in the run-up to the election. Last October, the party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, played the same trick at the Conservative party conference. Mid-speech, he hailed with derision Camden Council's support for the "Camden Hopscotch Asian Women's Group". But both Mr Mawhinney's hopscotch and Mr Major's prostitutes demonstrate how hollow and opportunistic these politicians' complaints are. National government already gives funds to at least two of Mr Major's vilified groups, and to the much-maligned Hopscotch as well. What is good enough for the taxpayer is not, it appears, good enough for Lottery cash, particularly in the run-up to the election.

Downing Street tried yesterday to pretend that there was no contradiction between ministers' statements and government policy. The Lottery, we were told, is different; it was set up to raise funds for "good purposes ... nobody had in mind concerns like these." It just isn't what the public expected when they bought their lottery tickets, is it?

What nonsense. Any allocation of a large sum of money is bound to provoke disagreement at the margins. Government spending certainly does, yet those who object still have to pay taxes. If a democratically elected government feels that Hopscotch, Leicester lesbians et al are worth financing, why shouldn't the charities board be able to do the same? Any players of the Lottery who object to the way that the board distributes the profits has an easy remedy which is not available to taxpayers. Stop buying the tickets.

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