Who gives a good cause a bad name?

Tory tabloids are frothing themselves into a lather over today's lottery grants to useful small charities

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We have been waiting now for almost a year for the Charities Board to make its first allocations of lottery money, and there has been some impatience for today's announcement. That is partly because many people who support the large capital sums given to the arts believe those awards will not seem scandalous once the whole lottery scheme is up and running. That includes the Millennium Fund grants but, above all, it means today's allocation of money to charities. Once they start receiving their dosh, the sums allocated to arts and heritage will be seen in context.

Well, that's what I thought, and what I was arguing until yesterday. Then along came the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Express, with their outraged discovery that, out of the pounds 40m to be distributed today, "there is pounds 170,000 for the Scottish Council on Alcohol and grants totalling pounds 70,000 for other drugs projects".

The Scottish Council on Alcohol! I take it that this is not, as it were, the Whisky Marketing Board but, rather, a council concerned with problems arising from the excessive consumption of alcohol in Scotland. Why will there be "anger" at such a grant? Who precisely is going to be outraged at the allocation of cash to "an advice centre for the parents of drug addicts in Glasgow"?

The first sentence of the Express story is a marvellous example of that paper's technique with the facts: "Drug addicts, refugees, single mothers, alcoholics and ethnic groups are to get National Lottery grants totalling hundreds of thousands of pounds." No, drug addicts are not going to get these grants. Organisations that deal with them are. One can hardly think of a more traditional area of charitable work than alcohol and drug addiction, single mothers and refugees.

The Mail story focused its outrage on a grant of pounds 90,000 that will go to the Eritrean Advice and Information Centre, described as being based "in a cramped room above a parade of shops in Stockwell Road, south London" (an upstairs room is always a bit sinister) and which gives advice to 7,000 Eritreans about housing, immigration and social security matters, "including helping people fill in application forms".

Once again, here we have a description of a typical charity in action, helping people, in this case, to receive the benefits to which they are entitled as refugees. Keeping them off the streets. Getting them established in the legitimate world. Giving them a fresh start in life. Sounds sensible, doesn't it?

The Mail, in its opinion column, made a distinction between, on the one hand, the pet causes of the rich (the opera) and the obscure politically correct groups such as the Eritrean centre and, on the other, "the charities which work their hearts out for ordinary people" - which are depicted as the losers. So the toffs in the crush bar (most of them Mail readers, I always think) and the volunteers in cramped upstairs rooms in Stockwell form one class - the villains - while the injured parties are ... who? Charities that work for ordinary people? What could be more ordinary than the problems parents have in Glasgow when their children turn to drugs?

As examples of those losing out, the Mail cited groups fighting cancer, diabetes or asthma. I hope that the people working in such groups will repudiate the attempt to put enmity between them and the kinds of charity that have benefited in the first round of grants, which was consciously directed towards the theme of "communities, families and individuals disadvantaged by low income".

One can believe it wrong to exclude medical research from future causes to be supported, without following the Mail in excoriating, for instance, a "handout" to the Vietnamese Mental Health Project, clearly a group concerned with the long-term effects of psychological trauma.

I was talking to an old Tory politician the other day, who was inveighing against the modern demand for counselling. In his day, he said (and by his day he meant the Second World War), nobody expected counselling, nor did they get it. I replied that I thought this a pity. For instance, I understood that there was not only the question of the trauma suffered by soldiers but also, at the end of the war, there had been widespread psychological reactions among housewives. Once the tension of the war was over, they tended to collapse or show symptoms of depression.

What counselling would attempt, in these circumstances, would be at least to try to explain to these women that there were others in the same condition, that the aftershock of the war might continue to be felt in ways that one might not have predicted, and so forth. It was better, I thought, to be counselled than to suffer alone.

My companion heard me out politely, and I could see he knew exactly what I was talking about. But in the end he reverted to his point: there was too much counselling going on.

There was a terrible story, not long ago, of a Vietnamese boy who had been adopted here by a very good family, had studied diligently and fulfilled his ambition, which was to become a soldier. But then, of a sudden, he shot himself. The trauma, I suppose, had proved too much for him.

I don't say that the Vietnamese Mental Health Project would have been able to help this young man. But it might, by telling others about such cases, help them to understand what is happening when depression hits them, when it hits them years after the event. So it would appear that among the groups receiving grants today there are people who give long- term psychological assistance to traumatised Vietnamese and people who, from a cramped upstairs room in Stockwell Road, give practical advice and support to Eritreans. I shall read the rest of the list with interest. It sounds as if it will furnish quite an insight into the world of the small charities.

One might add that these attacks are always framed as if, when lottery money is allocated, it is "taxpayers' money" that is being squandered. But the money spent on the lottery has nothing to do with taxes, however much members of the Government would like to turn it into a tax substitute. The sums that have been spent so far have gone only in the directions laid down when the lottery was founded. There was a deal: the nation would get the lottery, and the good causes would get the benefit. The criteria for spending lottery money are and should be different from Conservative Party expenditure priorities. Or those, of course, of the Tory tabloids.

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