Policy and Politics: Lottery Bill provokes a mixed reaction

Mathew Little

Despite the promises of public involvement, funding concerns remain.

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell promised the public a "far greater say" in future about where lottery money is spent, as the National Lottery Bill was reintroduced to Parliament last week.

A casualty of the pre-election dissolution, the Bill would formally merge the Community Fund and the New Opportunities Fund into the Big Lottery Fund, a merger that actually took place a year ago.

At the launch of the Bill, Jowell emphasised plans for a plethora of ways to involve the public in funding decisions. "They will be able to get involved via public opinion polls, citizens' juries, focus groups, internet surveys, telephone, internet, text or television voting for individual projects or by joining a local or regional awards panel," she said.

But the Bill itself was far less specific than Jowell's prescriptive shopping list, merely permitting lottery distributors to "consult any person" and "take account of opinions expressed to it" in deciding how to allocate funds.

A spokesperson at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said the Bill did not lay down "hard and fast rules" and the exact means of consulting the public would be for the distributors themselves.

The NCVO's director of public policy, Campbell Robb, was ambivalent about the new democratic direction for the lottery. "Plans to involve the public more in the distribution of lottery funding should be applauded," he said, "as long as a more populist approach does not lead to the erosion of funding to good causes working in less well-known or understood areas."

But he said the NCVO was concerned about the control over lottery funding that the Bill would give the Government. For example, it would grant the Secretary of State power to specify the "persons" and "purposes" to which the Big Lottery Fund may or may not make grants.

Former lottery minister Estelle Morris said last year that these powers would not be used to stop grants being given to particular groups, such as refugees, but admitted that she could not prove they wouldn't.

Robb added: "There also remains no requirement for the Secretary of State to consult anyone outside government before making orders, issuing directions or defining expenditure. Although we have received assurances that 60-70 per cent of funding from the Big Lottery Fund will go to the voluntary sector, we would like to see this commitment on the face of the Bill."

The Bill also addresses the issue of excess balances in the National Lottery Distribution Fund. Last year, a National Audit Office report recommended distributors set targets to cut balances and immediately commit an extra £450m to good causes. Under the new system proposed in by the Bill, distributors that are slow in spending their balances would have some of the allocation diverted to other distributors.

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