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23 Oct 2002 : Column 285—continued

Andy Burnham (Leigh): The hon. Gentleman says that he supports the arm's-length principle, but the Conservative motion calls for Government intervention. Does he agree that there is a contradiction in those two positions? If so, what would he do to resolve the problem?

Mr. Whittingdale: I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no contradiction. I will explain what the Government are responsible for and what they should do. It is not fair to place the blame for the crisis in the lottery on Lady Brittan and the board of the community fund. Although it is correct that the Government do not decide individual applications, they do set the guidelines under which the fund operates. Ministers changed the guidelines in 1999 and the emphasis was shifted. The community fund recently published a new strategic plan, from which it becomes clear that the focus will be on causes that are more politically correct. Ministers have been involved in that decision. Lady Brittan and her colleagues are simply following orders.

Matthew Green (Ludlow): Was the Daily Mail right to encourage its readers to Xvent their justifiable anger" on Lady Brittan? Was it right to give the address of the community fund, to which people sent hate mail?

Mr. Whittingdale: I have no hesitation in condemning without reservation the letters sent to Lady Brittan. The Daily Mail has made it clear that it, too, condemns the letters, and it has told its readers to write not to Lady Brittan, but to the newspaper. It has since received

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about 40,000 letters. That is a serious indication of the level of public concern. No one would hesitate in condemning racists who send hate mail, but there is genuine public concern, which we need to address to return to the original principles of the lottery.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury): Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the changes to ministerial guidelines in 1999 involved the following: that the lottery distributors should take account of the needs of areas of particular social deprivation; that they should pay particular attention to the needs of children and young people; that they should pay attention to the needs of environmental sustainability; and that they should pay attention to the fairness of geographical spread of lottery grants? With which of those changes does he disagree?

Mr. Whittingdale: I do not disagree with any of those objectives, but the right hon. Gentleman confirms that the community fund operates under ministerial guidance. If we have, as I believe, reached the point at which some of its grants are being given to causes a long way removed from the national lottery's original purpose, it is the responsibility of the Ministers who operate the guidelines to ensure that the community fund concentrates its attention on causes that command widespread public support.

Mr. Smith: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman misses the point entirely. Ministers do not operate the guidelines but put them in place, and under the legislation they have of necessity to be broad. Our Conservative predecessors established most of the guidelines, and we made the changes that I have just described. It is up to the lottery distributors independently to operate the guidelines. What problem does the hon. Gentleman have with them?

Mr. Whittingdale: I am saying that because Ministers set the guidelines they have a broad responsibility for the way in which the community fund operates. The degree of public concern is evidence of the widespread view that the community fund is not operating as it should, so Ministers should revisit the guidelines to ensure that the fund returns to supporting causes that command universal support. That is the way to restore public confidence in the national lottery, as hon. Members on both sides of the House wish.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): I was interested by the contribution of the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). Although we want a geographical spread to ensure that every community feels that it has gained something from the national lottery, it is not obvious to me why young people should be singled out for support when a great many deserving old people and military personnel may feel that they should benefit in accordance with the guidelines set by those distributing the funds, not by Ministers. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Mr. Whittingdale: I do. The community fund might take account of the widespread public view that the lottery has not given sufficient priority to deserving

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causes such as veterans and former military personnel, and Ministers might suggest, in their guidelines, that the fund should focus on those causes in future.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): Will the hon. Gentleman recognise the fact that he is filling with dismay people in my community who have benefited from the largesse of the community fund? He is right to say that the guidelines are broad and that the operational detail is down to the distributor.

Mr. Whittingdale: I entirely agree. I have already made it clear that I welcome the vast majority of grants made by the community fund. However, it is necessary to deal with the problem of public perception, and, through issuing guidelines, Ministers have some control over that matter.

Claire Ward: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Whittingdale: If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I should move on.

The point at issue is what has happened to lottery sales. Having already been in decline, they are now plummeting. In July, it was reported that public disenchantment with the good causes has led to a slump in sales that could lead to proceeds being over #1 billion below forecasts. Sales have fallen by 12 per cent since the peak in 1997–98, just before the Government set up the new opportunities fund. Last weekend, takings hit a record low for a weekend rollover draw. Previously, rollovers could be expected to lead to ticket sales of more than #70 million. On Saturday, the figure was barely over #40 million.

In July, the Secretary of State announced a review of lottery funding. I welcome her recognition of the fact that action needs to be taken. Some of the suggestions that she has made, such as establishing micro grants to be delivered at local level with the minimum of red tape, are sensible; others, such as the merger of the distributing bodies, are not. The suggestion that purchasers might tick a box to indicate the type of good cause that they want to support also raises serious difficulties. However, nothing in the Secretary of State's consultation paper addresses the real problem. Public confidence in the merits of the good causes has been undermined. People resent the fact that their money is being used to finance projects for which the Government should pay, and that it is being given to organisations that they do not support.

The Secretary of State must act now to restore public trust. She should issue new guidelines.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): As my hon. Friend said, the Government have commented on micro-grants in local areas. Does he agree that it would be better if the money for the community fund and the new opportunities fund, which accounts for a substantial proportion of good cause funding, were genuinely delegated to local areas? Spending the moneys raised for good causes on local causes that attract local support might restore confidence in the distribution and encourage people to play the lottery.

Mr. Whittingdale: That is an interesting suggestion. My hon. Friend is right that the priority is restoring

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people's confidence that the money raised through purchasing tickets will go to worthy causes, especially those in local communities that they want to support. If there were a way in which to achieve that without the bureaucracy of ticking boxes, it would be worth examining.

The priority is to restore public trust. The Secretary of State should issue new guidelines to the community fund to ensure that the charities to which it gives money command widespread public support. She should also stop raiding the till to pay for Government programmes that the Chancellor is unwilling to finance.

The national lottery has been an enormous success but it is under threat. Unless action is taken quickly, the original good causes, which we all support, will be the losers.

4.21 pm

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell) : I beg to move, To leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I welcome the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) to his new position as Front-Bench spokesman. However, I am surprised that the Conservative party has chosen to ask for a debate on the national lottery today. Conservative Members did not ask for such a debate when the Baltic Mill in Gateshead opened to international acclaim, or when the lottery-funded Commonwealth games put Manchester and the United Kingdom on the world map for sporting excellence. They did not request it in March when I announced that #169 million of lottery money would be targeted at the deprived areas that fared least well from the lottery, or in July when I announced the most fundamental review since the lottery's inception.

Conservative Members chose this week simply because they have read a lot in the papers about a specific grant by the community fund, which is funded by the lottery. That is not profound, but it is a good example of the bandwagon tendency in the Conservative party. It tends to hang around, wait for a passing issue of public anxiety and leap aboard. Conservative Members did not care about the national lottery previously, and they will not in future, once the bandwagon has moved on.

Perhaps the Conservative party wants to be considered the nice party, but the timing of the debate shows that it is still the nasty party. Moreover, to connoisseurs and historians, it remains the stupid party. Although Conservative Members have called for the

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debate for all the wrong reasons, I am glad that they did so. It gives Members of all parties a chance to condemn the vile campaign of racist hatred and abuse against the chair and staff of the community fund. Human excrement and needles sent through the post, threats of physical violence: all in all, that is the disgusting face of racial thuggery masquerading as concern for the lottery. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman eventually condemned those racist attacks in his opening remarks, and I hope that he and his colleagues will do so without reservation.

Before moving on, I would like to dwell a little longer on the individual case of the community fund.

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