LETTER : 'Good causes' and the lottery

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The Independent Online
From Dr Peter Ayton

Sir: Much of the continuing controversy in distributing the National Lottery proceeds ("Who gives a good cause a bad name?" 23 October) can be attributed to the original government conception that the lottery should raise money "for good causes". This is plainly a fig-leaf concept, as surely every government would claim that all the monies it raises, by whatever means, are for "good causes" - or is this a tacit admission that the Government habitually supports "bad causes"?

The concept is crucial because it justifies the efforts of the five unelected lottery boards to select projects for funding. However, in the ordinary course of events, many of the so-called "good causes" (eg the Royal Opera House, the Churchill papers) would be deemed not-good-enough causes for government spending - particularly one committed to privatisation and cutting public spending. Hence, although surely most would consider medical research a greater priority than Winston Churchill's need for reimbursement, millions have been spent on the latter and nil on the former. We even have an unelected Millennium Commission which, as much-needed teachers are made redundant, tries to find reasons to spend lottery millions on projects that, however worthy, somehow celebrate the millennium - as arbitrary a form of number worship as governs peoples' choice of lottery numbers.

Associating lotteries with "good causes" psychologically mitigates gambling; it motivates people to buy tickets, and explains both why people apparently overestimate the benefits of charities and why direct donations to charities have fallen. The result of the lottery is that monies to many good causes are reduced and public spending priorities are distorted. Meanwhile, ministers boast about the amounts spent on "good causes" but simultaneously are coy about - and try to cut - the amounts spent via taxation. But this is to see taxes as losses and "good causes" as gains; the opposite view is more democratic.

If, as with other state lotteries, the proceeds were not segregated and (along with the 12 per cent lottery tax) went to central revenue controlled by elected and accountable ministers much of the controversy would be avoided - and an element of democratic control would be introduced. Presently, the irrationality of the market forces that motivate people to buy tickets is in danger of being matched by the irrationality of the attempts to dispose of the proceeds.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Ayton

Department of Psychology

City University

London, EC1

23 October