LEADING ARTICLE : No charity for lottery leaders

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Let's hear it for the little lottery winners. Yesterday 627 projects and charities received a total of pounds 40m in grants from the Charities Board of the National Lottery. The list of awards makes you proud to live in a country where so many are trying to do so much for so many, mostly without much help or encouragement from the public purse.

That will not prevent many of the recipients from being the subject of attack. The Mail on Sunday thinks money should not to go help Eritrean immigrants. The Sunday Express doesn't think drug abuse is a problem worthy of attack by lottery-funded charity. The Sun says, predictably, that charity begins at home. David Mellor, who should know better, joins in scripted howls about political correctness.

Most of the recipients on yesterday's list are small organisations that pick up cheques of less than pounds 100,000. Malvern Special Families will receive pounds 34,000 to employ qualified staff at its centre for children with special needs. The pensioners' club in Amlwch, Wales, will receive pounds 2,000 to cover a new gas cooker and repainting.

It is beside the point to say that the list excludes the big medical research charities. In this particular spending round, the board had defined a category - poverty - in order to make the selection process more manageable. Even so, more than 15,000 applications have already been received. Medical research will be in line for lottery money next spring.

Meanwhile, it is perfectly proper that the poor, the central object of Christian charity since biblical times, should be the focus of the first set of awards. The fact that organisations helping single mothers and ethnic minorities figure prominently in the list is hardly surprising; these groups are over-represented among the poor. In fact, lone parents are probably under-represented in yesterday's list, taking just 4 per cent of the money. Refugee charities received 1 per cent.

It would clearly have been easier and less controversial if the board had directed its largess to big national charities such as Age Concern or Mencap, each of which received around pounds 225,000. These charities have a valid concern in arguing that a decline in their direct fund-raising may be attributable to the creation of the lottery. But it is also true that small, community- level groups are often more imaginative and achieve more striking results. These small players, unlike the big charities, do not have the resources to spend heavily on advertising or to attract celebrity sponsorship. Nor do they pay the people who run them corporate- world salaries.

This is not to argue that every award on the list is right. It is simply impossible to say; we and others will judge the work of this board over time. Meanwhile the press is not likely to give it a quiet life, but that is as it should be. Unlike general taxation, over which most have no say at all beyond a vote at general elections, everyone can join in the argument about who receives lottery cash. The board should work hard at consulting widely, should welcome scrutiny of its decision-making processes and should measure public opinion about its awards. It should not, however, be deterred by windbags such as David Mellor.