Interview: 'I don't see myself as a party beast'

In the first of two articles on the Big Lottery Fund, its new chair, the former Conservative MP Peter Ainsworth, tells John Plummer he's approaching the job not as a politician but as somone who cares passionately about the lottery. Tomorrow: the big questions facing the BLF

Peter Ainsworth
Peter Ainsworth

At the time of last year's general election, a check on the Big Lottery Fund website would have shown that five of its 12 board members had political affiliations, all of them with the Labour Party.

So last month's appointment as BLF chair of Peter Ainsworth, a former Conservative MP and a friend of Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, marked a clear shift in party political terms.

Ainsworth, 54, is keen to downplay his political affiliations, which include 18 years as MP for East Surrey, during which he served on the standing committee that helped to create the National Lottery in 1994 during Sir John Major's government. But can he depoliticise the organisation, or will he inevitably end up adding another political layer?

"I don't really see myself as a party beast," says Ainsworth, who stood down at last year's election. "People will make their own judgements, but I'm approaching this not as a politician, but as somebody who cares passionately about the lottery."

He says he has "friends across the political divide" and doesn't envisage problems working alongside the board's four remaining Labour supporters. But politics and the lottery have become increasingly entwined in recent years.

Ainsworth's predecessor, Sir Clive Booth - a Labour supporter - was obliged to apologise to the Tories for saying they were hostile to the sector and needed a "lesson in elementary arithmetic".

In opposition, the Conservatives had become increasingly critical of the BLF's links to Labour and its allegedly high running costs. In 2004, Major had accused Labour of "grand larceny" by taking lottery money to fund what he saw as its pet projects in areas such as health and education.

Ainsworth agrees that the principle that lottery funding should be additional to government spending, rather than a substitute for it, was eroded during Labour's 13 years in power. "There has been a tendency in recent years for the lottery to be used almost like taxpayers' money," he says. "It isn't taxpayers' money; it's there to plug holes that the government would otherwise struggle to fill. Lottery money is additional."

He says the bill he helped draft to create the lottery was careful to protect this 'additionality'.

"Labour MPs in particular were anxious that the lottery should not be used as an arm of the Treasury, so safeguards were put in," he says. "It is mildly ironic that one of the first things the incoming Labour government did in 1997 was to reduce the strength of that additionality arrangement."

Ainsworth took up his new six-days-a-month post at the beginning of June, 11 months after he applied. Booth announced he was stepping down in March last year, 15 months before Ainsworth took over. "It's been a very lengthy and agonising process," he says. "I put other things on the back burner because I very much wanted to do it."

One reason for the delay was the decision to transfer responsibility for the BLF from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the Office for Civil Society. However, overall control of the lottery remains with the DCMS.

Ainsworth says he can see the logic of aligning the BLF, which gives the vast majority of its funds to the voluntary sector, to the OCS, the government department responsible for the sector.

Hurd, his new boss, was a member of the environmental audit select committee that Ainsworth chaired from 2003 to 2006. "I know Nick Hurd very well," he says. "I haven't seen him since my appointment, but we have always got on."

Two practical changes, not political ones, are causing most concern for charities. One is the decision to cap all lottery distributors' administrative costs at 5 per cent by 2014. The BLF now spends 7.4 per cent, or £58m a year, and there are fears it will make fewer, larger grants to cut costs.

Ainsworth says he wants to see the range of grants remain much as it is in terms of size and spread, but adds: "It's usual in any large organisation to find administrative savings if you look hard enough. But this is a long process - and saved money goes straight to good causes."

The other major concern is the DCMS decison to cut the share of money awarded to the BLF from 50 per cent to 40 per cent and raise the share given to each of the other good causes - arts, sport and heritage - from 16.7 per cent to 20 per cent each.

Ainsworth says this is fair and that he doesn't begrudge money going back to the other good causes, whose share of the lottery pot fell from 20 per cent each when the BLF was set up.

Ainsworth intends to maintain his voluntary chairing of the charity Plantlife alongside his role at the BLF, for which he will be paid £21,600 a year. His priority, he says, is to understand how the BLF works. "I didn't arrive with a big blueprint to change everything," he says. "It's a complicated machine, but a machine that's running well."

- Update: Since this article was written, Sanjay Dighe has stepped down from the Big Lottery Fund board, which now has three Labour Party supporters rather than four.


Peter Ainsworth

2010: Chair, Plantlife

2005: Shadow environment secretary

2003: Chair, Environmental Audit Select Committee

1995: Parliamentary private secretary to Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage

1994: Parliamentary private secretary to Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury

1992: Conservative MP for East Surrey


Tomorrow: John Plummer analyses the big questions facing the Big Lottery Fund

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