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The problem with the National Lottery

The problem with the National Lottery

Paul Bickley reflects on whether the Lottery deserves the status of a national institution. 04/12/2019

In the 25 years since it launched, the National Lottery has become something of a national institution. It is true that it’s not quite the weekly fixture that it was (the draw isn’t even broadcast on TV any more), but beyond whatever entertainment value it has, it has become probably the most important source of funding in the cultural, sporting, heritage and charitable sectors. For instance, Lottery funding has been credited with improving the fortunes of British athletes (one gold in Athens, 27 in Rio). It is not at all hard to find charity leaders quite prepared to sing its praises. I would point to the work done by organisations like the Local Trust to empower and invest in ‘left behind’ communities. It would be churlish not to recognise all the good work.

Where the money goes, geographically speaking, has sometimes been a controversial issue. For legitimate reasons, lottery grants tend to concentrate on London, particularly when it comes to arts and culture. The BBC did some research a few years ago which implied that England (at least the parts of England that aren’t London) doesn’t see a lot of Lottery cash, while Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland don’t do too badly on per capita levels of grants. MPs from the English regions have often complained that their areas are not getting their fair share.

So much for the output, but what about the income? There’s surprisingly little debate around who exactly plays the National Lottery. Ten years ago, we published a report on exactly that. Although the data is probably passed its sell–by date, it’s worth reflecting on what we found and whether the Lottery deserves the status of a national institution.

At the time our data suggested that people on lower incomes play more frequently and spend more on the national lottery compared to their wealthier counterparts. As a proportion of income, the gap is even starker. This higher level of play was particularly marked for scratch cards (aka Instants), which are slightly more dangerous and more addictive (£10 scratch cards were recently withdrawn because of the frequency of play amongst problem gamblers). Camelot does not report any data it holds on who plays which games and argues that there is participation across the income spectrum. There is little reason, however, to believe that the average player profile has radically changed. Indeed, it is likely that the Lottery leans ever more on sales to lower income players.

Why? Fairly soon after launch, people got bored with the main draw–based games. Camelot – the National Lottery’s operator currently seeing through a much–criticised 14–year operator license – realised early on that they would have to drive sales through adding more opportunities and more ways to play. At first, this meant the addition of £1 scratch cards and an innocuous mid–week draw. Then, a plethora of new draws, higher value Instants, and now online and mobile play. In any given week, draws (other than EuroMillions) will shift just under £40 million worth of tickets, while Instants move £64.2 million. To repeat, scratch cards are worse than draw–based games when it comes to the disparity of play frequency and spend between higher and lower income groups. And there’s another catch: a greater percentage of the money raised from the draw–based game goes to good causes, compared to scratch and online play. So the shift away from the draw–based game means that while sales have grown, good cause income has stagnated (in the last year it actually decreased), and Camelot’s profits have rocketed.

The social and political context for the Lottery has changed too. The key principle governing the distribution of Lottery money is the concept of ‘additionality’. That means that good cause money should not be used to support services or activities that would ordinarily be funded through taxation. It’s exactly the right principle, but one that has proved hard to maintain in practice. Some funding areas – arts, heritage, and culture – always existed in the grey area between philanthropy and public provision. Since 2008, as public sector budgets have been drastically cut, voluntary sector groups – not least churches and faith–based organisations – have become ever more involved in the delivery and support of core public services. When these charities are supported by National Lottery funding in their admirable and important work, then ‘additionality’ becomes a dead letter. In a single line hidden in the middle of a recent Cabinet Office review of the Big Lottery Fund (one of the distributor bodies for good cause funding) the government admitted that “it is hard to strictly define ‘additionality’ in an environment where public sector investment is generally declining”. While Camelot boasts that the lottery represents “the biggest programme of civic and social regeneration since the 19th century”, we ought to ask ourselves if a decent society should rely on gambling receipts to fund so much public welfare. 

The introduction of the National Lottery was a watershed moment in other ways too. It brought gambling into the home and made it part of family life (some will remember light entertainment flavour of the first Saturday night draws, introduced by none other than Noel Edmonds). While hard data on gambling perceptions around the time of the Lottery’s launch is not easy to find, it’s hard to think that over the years it did anything other than normalise it. More than that, it looked to make gambling a virtue, a fun way to support good causes. Paradoxically, Gambling Commission data indicates that public attitudes toward gambling are not as liberal as you might think, and they’re hardening. More and more people think that there are too many opportunities to gamble or that gambling is dangerous to family life. Although younger groups are more positive about gambling than older cohorts, they too are becoming more hostile. Perhaps this is a signal that the public are hungry for firmer controls and greater social protection.

The National Lottery, for the main part, is not pernicious. But that doesn’t mean it should be free from scrutiny. Yes, it supports incredibly important good causes. Yes, some people’s lives have been changed when that big providential finger from the sky picked them out. But no, it definitely shouldn’t be burnished as a national institution. At the best it’s a clever system for leveraging public good out of need, greed, and hopelessness. 


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Image: Nando Machado/

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

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Posted 4 December 2019

Debt, Economy, Society


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