UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked ministers to review gambling laws after attending a party with Conservative donor and lottery boss Richard Desmond, according to private letters revealed by The Times through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The correspondence shows that the PM wrote to Desmond about his campaign to raise jackpots to £1 million.
Desmond owns the Health Lottery, a group of 12 local society lotteries which donates 20 percent of proceeds to health-related causes. Society lotteries, those which are run for good causes, are limited to jackpots of £500,000. The government increased the cap from £400,000 in 2019, but Desmond has been calling for it to be increased to £1 million.
In a letter in January 2020, Johnson assured Desmond that he had tasked ministers with holding a review of the limit, calling the Health Lottery 'hugely impressive.'
"We have previously discussed your position that society lotteries should be able to offer a prize of £1 million irrespective of proceeds," the PM wrote. "I understand your disappointment that the planned increase to the prize limit does not go as far as you would have wished. However, this is not the end of the road on this issue. I have asked that the [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] formally reviews the changes and the case for a £1 million prize 12 months after implementation."
Johnson's letter made clear that the review would consult various different parties and there is no suggestion that his decision to order the review was improper or that it would be carried out improperly. The correspondence followed a Downing Street party three months earlier at which Desmond told The Sunday Times the Prime Minister had come "rushing up" to him to pledge an increase to £1 million.
In the letters obtained by the FOI request, Johnson told the lottery boss he couldn't commit to an immediate rise. In Desmond's reply, he referred to himself as having "long been an admirer" of Johnson, adding that he would "very much appreciate" a change in the gambling law.
In December, the government said it would conduct a review of the gambling law in August – just months after the rise to £500,000 was announced. A spokesman for the Health Lottery said: "We very much look forward to the government review in August 2021. We hope that the review's outcome will allow society lotteries to increase funding for health and inequality good causes. To date, the Health Lottery has raised over £118 million for over 3,000 local health and inequality charities, including those which work to help address isolation and loneliness."
A government source told The Times: "Richard Desmond did lobby for an increase but the facts bear out that he was unsuccessful."