Let the people spend the cash :LEADER

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The National Lottery was to have been an Aladdin's cave overflowing with treasures for all. Yet though it has indeed created instant millionaires its other expected benefits remain elusive. Far less goes to charity than we imagine and the rest of the spending seems to command little public support. Most people certainly think that a sizeable slice of the takings should not have been used to enrich the Churchill dynasty. In short, if the National Lottery was a conventional tax, people would probably be marching in protest through Trafalgar Square.

This is the message of the opinion poll whose results are published today. A game that would, according to John Major, improve life "for millions of people, irrespective of income and without taxation" has achieved little beyond liberating a popular desire to gamble and making a few people, notably the organisers, very rich. Where grants have been made, they have tended to pander predominantly to the tastes of the middle classes and the great and the good, who have been given extraordinary powers of patronage.

Let's not be puritanical about the popularity of the lottery. It's great fun. Most people enjoy a flutter. There is something wonderful about the way this game has freed us to fantasise about how different life might be if our numbers came up. The National Lottery has vastly expanded the realms of the possible for many people.

But this is just about its sole saving grace, and the main reason why the lottery has not followed the poll tax in becoming a focus of national hatred. The lottery could have been so much better. It promised to be a democratic way of raising public finance at a time when taxation is increasingly discredited. To some extent, it has succeeded in that aim: it remains voluntary. Yet, its organisation is repeating the same mistakes as the tax system. Remote and unaccountable, those who decide how the cash is spent have little in common with most people who buy tickets.

The vast cheque passed to Winston Churchill's family demonstrated this problem. Our poll makes it even clearer. Most people want much more money to go to charity. And they would rather that the NHS and education were funded than that the money should go to the arts. Clearly, the arts need to make their case better if they are to enjoy popular support for extra cash.

However, there is as yet no real mechanism, except perhaps through the media, for the public's wishes to be heard. This is a democratic deficit that the Government should now address. Allowing lottery players to have a say is technically as simple as recording their chosen numbers. Preferences could be given when a person buys a ticket or even through a phone-in when the draw is made. Alternatively, the Government could allow other lotteries to be established by different charities devoted to various good causes.

In the case of taxation, it is understandable that politicians are reluctant to put every spending decision to a referendum. But the National Lottery is different. The public should be trusted to spend its own money.