Roundheads who would steal our dreams

Worthy organisations are lining up to carp at the lottery. But they are out of step with the mood of the times
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The lottery makes some people feel exceedingly uncomfortable. They don't know whether to be more appalled by the winners or the losers. A burst of ecstatic schadenfreude greets each lottery winner whose family falls apart in acrimony or who turns out to be a drunken no-good lout. We tend to wish them ill.

There are good reasons why thoughtful people of benign intent should abominate the lottery. It takes huge sums of money, much of it from the poorest who can ill afford it, and offers them odds that would make a bookie blush. This week the lottery stands accused by the Rowntree Foundation and the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) of draining money from charitable giving, addicting the young to scratch cards, and misleading the public into believing that much more of the money goes to good causes than actually does. Rowntree also accuses the National Lottery boards of failing to put the money back into the poorest communities whence much of it comes.

The puritanical instinct of the charitable classes clouds their judgement as they seek out reasons to criticise. They take it upon themselves to worry about how the poor choose to spend their money. But we neither live nor spend our money by pure reason. We are only partly rational, and partly instinctive, hedonistic beings, fond of luck and fun, blown off course by packaging and advertising, tempted by absurd special offers and free gifts, enjoying the temptation to spend unwisely.

So it is with the lottery. We who buy tickets know perfectly well we would be wiser to spend it blindfold on a horse at Ladbrokes, better to put it on a roulette table, better still not to bet it at all. We know it has the worst of all odds, with only half the money paid out in prizes. But that isn't the point. For a pound you can buy a dream that provides 10 minutes of weekly conversation about how we will share pounds 18m, and it won't change us at all, oh no (although I do worry, briefly, about how my children will grow up with work incentives intact when they each have a couple of million).

And in those moments we join a national dream, part of a collective madness that gives us an illusion of community with virtually every other household, where identically silly conversations are taking place in a great hymn to Mammon. Rich and poor alike, it is a moment of national communion, albeit not a very spiritual one. Anything wrong with that?

Rowntree says it fears the first distributions of money are going to the rich and not the poor communities, with only one sports grant going to an area in the poorest tenth in England. This is hotly disputed by the National Heritage Department, which can list scores of grants to schools and community centres in places far from rich.

Three-quarters of the pounds 146m distributed so far by the boards has been in small sums of less than pounds 100,000, to local community projects. Rowntree has hurried to fire a warning shot at the lottery when a only a tiny fraction of the first year's funds has been handed out. It has not even waited for the first allocations from the National Lottery Charities Board's expected pounds 250m. For the first year that board will give priority "to improve the quality of life of people who are disadvantaged by poverty".

The NCVO report is more than a trifle disingenuous. It asked the public how much lottery money they thought was going to charity. The public replied 20 per cent. Aha, says the NCVO triumphantly, the real figure is only 5.6 per cent! This is a terminological inexactitude: 28 per cent of the lottery goes out in good causes, divided between the arts, sport, millennium fund, national heritage and charities. Does the public, when asked, really make the subtle distinction between money given, say, by the sports council to sporting facilities for the disabled, money given by the heritage board to a community museum, the millennium fund to an inner-city community hall or the charities board to a creche for the poor?

The NCVO represents the vested interests of that random and arbitrary group of organisations that happens to be registered with the charity commission. It complains that charitable giving has dipped since the lottery began, and it quotes an estimated sum of pounds 276m that could be lost in the first year. However it fails to compare this sum with the mighty pounds 1.25bn of entirely new money that will be dispersed by the lottery.

Not only will the lottery boards distribute far more than even these estimated charity losses, but they will, in all probability, distribute it rather more wisely, with far greater monitoring and accountability than the public ever get when they drop coins in a tin. While the Charity Commissioners make only the most cursory checks against gross fraud, the lottery boards' regulations demand far closer scrutiny of how their money is spent.

Left to their own devices, the public give irrationally to the enormously rich Life Boats or Guide Dogs (who have enough capital to buy a solid gold collar for every labrador in Britain). The public love medical research charities which promise us eternal life and which should be getting their money from governments. The public do not like small, minority diseases or mundane ailments such as deafness which affect millions. They do not much like the poor or the mad.

An estimated pounds 1.5bn in tax is foregone by the Treasury each year in tax relief to charities. Through that relief, money belonging to all of us is "donated" to causes we may not approve of at all, like the Moonies and other religions and cults, Eton, the Institute for Economic Affairs or the Japan Animal Welfare Society, caring for Japanese dogs. There is now growing pressure to revise all of charity law, possibly to abolish charitable tax relief altogether, or at least to offer it only for specific worthwhile projects, regardless of whether an organisation has jumped the arcane hurdles necessary to become a registered charity.

It is a reasonable possibility that the lottery boards will distribute their huge sums a great deal more rationally than by public whim. No doubt they will make mistakes, if they take risks with small community groups, as they promise. But the money they spend will have been freely given by those who gamble, and it will not be topped up with tax from everyone else's pockets, in the way that ordinary charitable donations are.

The rush to judgement by reputable bodies such as Rowntree and the NCVO betrays their instinctive distaste for the whole thing. Roundheads who deplore gambling, they clutch at straws with which to criticise the lottery's organisation. But they are out of step with the mood of the times. Telling the poor they are being cheated is patronising, because of course the poor know it, but they also need the dream more than most.