Knights of Camelot

From every point of view, the National Lottery has proved more significant than most of us envisaged. Its turnover has been four or five times greater than anticipated, and every hope and fear has been proportionally inflated.

Much anxiety is expressed about the independence of the National Lotteries Charities Board (NLCB) and the degree to which the Government manipulates its grant programmes. As a member of the board, I can confirm that our independence on that score is real. The National Lottery Act 1993 gives the relevant minister (now Virginia Bottomley and the Department of National Heritage) power to give directions to the board, defined by section 26 as “the matters to be taken into account in determining the persons to whom, the purposes for which and the conditions subject to which” the NLCB and the other four distributing bodies make grants. While that seems to give the Secretary of State intrusive powers, the directions have been confined to non-policy matters such as financial regularity and the duties to be impartial and overt.

The most concerted attempt to influence our grant-making was from some of the medical charities who felt aggrieved that they were not prioritised during our first grant-giving rounds, which concentrated on poverty and the young – the rock upon which charity is built, after all, is relief of poverty. In fact, many medical charities received grants in those priority areas.

There were also concerns about the degree to which the lottery was, on one hand, siphoning off funds which would otherwise have gone to hard-pressed charities, and on the other over-enticing those who could least afford to buy tickets with high jackpots. While common sense suggests there is some truth in both these criticisms, research – by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations – is inconclusive. Those charities that relied on running their own small lotteries have felt the effects badly but everything else is still unclear.

When the NLCB was established it had no premises, no staff and no policy. It was over half a year before a chief executive could be engaged. Therefore, during the early months, board members had to create a a set of workable criteria for grant-giving and systems capable of doing a job of unknown magnitude. And we consulted widely, as we continue to do.

We got three policies spot on. First is what could be called a bias towards small charities. We were determined not to disadvantage the small applicants (often with unpaid staff) by the paperwork and procedures we have to adopt as a statutory body. This is being entrenched by a small grants programme.

The second policy was a commitment to decentralisation to allow us to tap into local knowledge of both the needs and effectiveness of applicant charities to the benefit of small applicants. In these aims we benefited from a board in which there were three members for each of the countries in the UK, plus five general members. In addition little consideration was given to party allegiances.

The third policy was to avoid playing safe for every grant and take calculated risks with creatively risky applications.

It only took us a few months to realise that the British pre-occupation with its National Lottery was, and remains, intense. Interest from the voluntary sector was predictable, and after initial concerns the relationship between it and the NLCB has settled down well.

There is a feeling that requiring every grant to be considered by board members, whether in country committees or via the UK committee, is not the best system. An idea to tackle this is to allow the nine regional advisory panels in England to award grants up to a certain level (perhaps £5,000) in priority areas and criteria set by the board.

But general opinion is that the board has made a reasonable fist of a difficult job. And with excellent staff and assessors in place there is reason to be hopeful for the future. Each grant-giving round receives about 15,000 applications and with £300 million a year to give away, the NLCB should be a source of good practice for grant-giving, as well as a facilitator of initiatives, both structural and programmatic.