The headline on page two of The Sun on Boxing Day screamed ‘POOR LOSE OUT IN LOTTO COVER-UP’.
Worse, the article – badged EXCLUSIVE – began with the sinister claim that ‘Ministers were yesterday accused of helping Lotto bosses cover up a grants scandal that penalises the poor.’ ‘How dare they?’ I inwardly screamed. For if there’s one thing I particularly dislike in public life it’s a scandal. Or a cover-up, come to that. And if both are directed in some way to ‘penalise the poor’, then my politician’s blood starts to boil and my parliamentarian’s pulse starts to race.
Racy and career-shortening
Hang on, though, I thought (after a nanosecond’s reflection). I’m the Lottery Minister in Government and I’m pretty sure I haven’t been involved in anything as racy and career-shortening as a scandal, nor a cover-up of one either. As for the bit about me having been ‘yesterday accused’, that didn’t quite have the ring of truth to it either (the ‘yesterday’ in question being Christmas Day). So what was going on? What had I done? And why had someone interrupted their mince pie munching by getting on the blower to The Sun ‘exclusively’ to have a pop about it?
In the event there was considerably less to this than met the eye. The gist was that Camelot, the highly-successful private sector consortium that runs the National Lottery on behalf of the Government, had turned down a request some months previously to publish stats on the distribution across the country – by constituency – of lottery ticket sales. They refused to do so, according to the paper, because of commercial considerations. Camelot – a private company, remember – reckoned releasing this data would give their competitors an advantage. If you’re in the business of selling buns nationwide and you let slip that you’re not selling as many buns in Bridlington as might be expected, then before you can say ‘tea cake’, some other fellow’s set up a bakery to fill the gap. It’s called ‘business’, and the company that tells competitors where it’s going wrong, may not be in it for long.
Weary Old Nonsense
So why are people so keen to get details of where tickets are actually sold? Well, the answer to that is that some critics of the way in which the Lottery is run think that there’s mischief to be made by trotting out the ‘fact’ that there is a mismatch between those parts of the country that receive the most money from lottery grants, and those areas where the most tickets are actually sold. This argument, of course, is a load of weary old nonsense, as a moment’s thought shows.
That’s because, first of all, not everyone buys their Lottery ticket from their local newsagent. Some buy it from the newsagent near their workplace, some buy it at their out-of-town supermarket as part of their weekly shop, some buy it online, and some hand their money over to the man or woman who runs their office or factory syndicate*, who then buys the actual ticket somewhere else entirely.
You see the same thing happening in other areas of household and luxury spending too. It’s not to be deplored, it’s simply a fact of modern life, but it makes any geographical breakdown of where tickets are bought pretty meaningless, I’d have thought. So meaningless in fact, that an experiment to test it out was abandoned after a couple of goes about 10 years ago.
April Showers and November Downpours
But inconsistencies at that end are just a gentle April shower compared to the torrential November downpour you battle through once you try to establish a ‘location’ or final destination for each grant. Easy enough when it’s money to help repair a church hall or create a sports facility for young people on a derelict site. Local building receives grant, and local people feel the benefit – what could be simpler? But what about when the money goes to an institution like the National Railway Museum in York or Tate Modern in London? The latter is the most visited modern art gallery in the world, pulling in five million visitors a year – and, of course, they’re not all Southwark council tax payers. It’s a national collection whose success benefits the whole country. But if we said that lottery proceeds should only be dished out pro rata to the tickets bought locally, you’d instantly kneecap the British Museum, Natural History Museum and, in short, any cultural institution which was successful enough to have a big national profile.
And what about the infrastructure supporting the 2012 Games, where LOCOG is based in Canary Wharf but the regeneration benefits are in Stratford? Or grants which help fund film productions? Or things like Sustrans, the national cycle network, the first 5,000 miles of which were largely funded by the Lottery? In each case the Headquarters of the organisation which receives the money is, for blindingly obvious reasons, NOT in the postcode or constituency where the final project is located.
Which means it isn’t just the ticket purchase figures which are geographically silly. The ones showing the destinations of the cash are pretty flawed too. So: a pointless exercise in creating dodgy figures, which, if it became the basis for a distribution structure, would take lottery funds away from some of our best and most loved cultural institutions.
So no scandal. And no cover-up. I cut myself a slice of Christmas Cake and went back to making the most of the bank holiday weekend, waiting to see if The Borrowers turned out to be as good as the pre-publicity promised.
*Some do both. My press officer, Jeremiah, runs the DCMS press office lottery syndicate and buys 22 lines for each draw, in five-weekly instalments. That’s north of £200 a month, and he does the whole thing online, he tells me. That’s also a pretty painless 56 or so quid a month to good causes, by the way. And when they win that elusive triple-rollover jackpot, he’s promised me that the ministerial team here will be the first to hear about it: via a postcard from Copacabana Beach, apparently.