Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 1 - 19)

THURSDAY 15 JUNE 2000

MS JENNIE PAGE CBE

  Chairman: Jennie Page, thank you very much for coming here this morning. You have always been a welcome visitor at our evidence sessions and you are a welcome visitor today. We shall be most interested to hear what you have to say and Mr Faber will start the questioning.

Mr Faber

  1. Good morning, Ms Page. We now know that when the Millennium Commission met on 22 May to consider the additional grant which NMEC had requested the Board of NMEC informed the Commission that if they did not have additional funds made available to them that day they would become insolvent that very day. How much responsibility do you feel you bear for the position that NMEC found themselves in at that time?

  (Ms Page) Of course, Mr Faber, you start by making reference to an event which was indeed many weeks after I had left the Dome. It might help if I just remind the Committee of my association with the Dome. Before doing so I would like to reply to the Chairman's comments about the welcome because of course it is an old acquaintance that we have. I think it was December 1997 when I first gave evidence before you and on that occasion I was of course accompanied by Bob Ayling and Michael Grade but not by Sam Chisholm whom you had rather hoped to see and whom indeed I do not think you have yet managed to see on the subject of the Dome. On that particular occasion the Committee members were very complimentary about the successes and achievements of myself and the team at NMEC, and indeed I could quote, Chairman, the references that you yourself made in saying that you had rarely, if ever, seen such a level of absolute competence as you had been able to observe during the last two years and that I personally had bestowed credibility and credit on public service of a kind which you wished others would emulate. It is indeed deeply ironic that within three months of that Committee hearing my association with the Dome was ended. I have not worked at the Dome since 4 February; I have not visited it since. Mr Faber, with justice, asks how at this stage one can look at the total history of the Dome. That is a very large and complex subject as you yourselves know very well. I was asked by the Millennium Commission to go and take over a project which had at the end of December 1996 failed to deliver a satisfactory business plan or management set-up which the Commission was prepared to back. Indeed, I was asked to go and run the Millennium Commission so in both cases I arrived somewhat after the beginning of the story.

Chairman

  2. Can you remind us of the actual date on which you took over?
  (Ms Page) There was an announcement in Parliament on either the 18 or 20 January 1997 which was made with the agreement of the then Opposition, which said that I would go across as Chief Executive designate of a company which was not yet then formed on the basis of an indicative budget, and it was not a fully worked up budget for a visitor experience, of £758 million. The company did not come into existence until the middle of February and of course the progress on the Millennium Experience in the first six to seven months was extremely difficult until such time as the new Government came and did its review and agreed that it would go forward.

Mr Faber

  3. So the answer to my question is that you do not feel any responsibility?
  (Ms Page) No, that is not my answer. Unfortunately, Mr Faber, the Chairman's intervention meant that I did not get to the end of my somewhat lengthy statement. As the Chairman knows, it is a rare thing to shut me up and only he has ever managed to do so. The company as a whole therefore does take responsibility for the budget to which it worked, but this is not a single person or a single company exercise. There is no doubt that the circumstances in which the company was required to deliver against the aspirations of the Millennium Commission and of the Government were unique in corporate governance terms, and in terms of the amount of part that other people had to play in the definition of both the costs and the likely income. As the Chief Executive of the company of course part of my job is to stand forward and defend the decisions that the company took during the time I was with them. I do believe that there are circumstances in connection with the revenue side which could have happened differently had there been more contingency on the costs side which had been kept back. We were unable to keep back as much contingency as we would have wished for a variety of reasons, some of them concerned with late decisions that changed the nature of the Experience and brought additional costs with them. All of the decisions that involved that were not mine but they were taken by the company.

  4. There is a whole range of issues there which I would like to follow up and come on to. Had the company ever been in that position before, of having to go and ask for money to stave off bankruptcy at a day's notice?
  (Ms Page) Certainly not. It was obvious in the last quarter of 1999 that the cash flow arrangements were always going to be extremely tight around the first quarter of 2000. All predictions right the way through the life of the project showed that there was very little leeway on the cash flow in the first quarter of 2000 and that if the take-up of tickets not only in quantum but in terms of purchases in advance of visits were not as predicted in the business plan then there would be problems which would have to be addressed.

  5. Do you think that when you were removed from your job other directors of the company should have gone at the same time?
  (Ms Page) Are you talking about the directors who are executives?

  6. Should they have resigned at that stage rather than subsequently? Should Mr Grade have taken greater responsibility?
  (Ms Page) I think it would be invidious of me to comment on non-executive colleagues.

  7. You referred to evidence which you gave in 1997 and I have read through the entire evidence which you and Mr Grade and Mr Ayling gave on that day on 2 December 1997. The vast majority of it is, "Trust us. We know what we are doing. We are all experts". Mr Grade was an expert in television, Mr Chisholm an expert in television, Mr Ayling an expert in entertainment and in travel. "Trust us, we are experts." My colleague, Mr Fabricant, pressed you all repeatedly as to whether there was a contingency plan if the project went wrong and you all said, "No, we are the experts. We know what we are doing". Do you not think perhaps that the board should have taken greater responsibility now that it has turned into the fiasco that it has?
  (Ms Page) I think it would be invidious of me to comment on individual members of the board.

  8. Can we go back to the early days of the design of the Dome and the design of the content and the Zones? What was your understanding of the reasons for Stephen Bayley's resignation?
  (Ms Page) There were a number of different issues associated with the departure of Stephen Bayley before the events which hit the public had occurred. It had been clear that Stephen Bayley and the rest of the team in the company were finding it difficult to work with one another. Their styles were entirely different. The contribution that Stephen Bayley was able to make and wanted to make was not a full time one and it was quite clearly necessary to have a full time team, all of whom were pulling in the same direction. While I had discussed with Stephen Bayley the possibility of a reduced involvement which would have kept him associated with the Dome, a number of things occurred which included his own decision about the circumstances of working on the Dome that led to him going.

  9. Do you think with hindsight that he should have been replaced by a single person, a creative person, who would have pulled together the creative aspects of the Dome instead of by the succession of committees which effectively replaced him?
  (Ms Page) The committees were either in place or in concept before the departure of Stephen Bayley and it was always the intention that there would be a senior group of people who were experienced in a large range of visitor attractions, television, media, science and so on, who would look at the content, for two reasons. One is that it is very difficult to discover somebody who is as polymathic as you would have to be to be an expert in absolutely everything to do with the content of the Dome, who was both available and affordable by the company within a very tight budget. The second is that because the Dome was meant to encompass a lot of different views and attract a lot of different people there was a feeling among many people that it would be inappropriate to have too much unity over such a very large area and that the diversity that was provided by a lot of people was a very good thing. Finally, of course, it is fair to say that the pulls in different directions on the designers from both the team interpreting the Millennium Commission's desire for a worthy content, the sponsors' and the operations team's desire for something which is very attractive to the public, and the intervention of other people, not only the committees on the content but also Ministers, on the various aspects, all of those different pulls on the designers would have continued to exist had there been a single person masterminding it.

  10. What was the first process which a design had to go through to be approved? It went to two people called the creative editors, as I understand it.
  (Ms Page) Each of the Zones had a number of staff working on it. There was a content editor, there was usually an assistant who was responsible for making sure that all of the necessary paperwork was done, the right connections were made with the rest of the organisation, the cross-referencing was done. There was a project manager as we got closer to the actual realisation, and indeed even at the early stages of trying to work out how some of these buildings would work. There were a number of people inside the company who were associated with the designers, led by the content editor. They would also be expected to present to the sponsors where a Zone was sponsored. They were making presentations in advance of the sponsor having been identified, quite clearly in the early days to many different companies, and they were also on occasion required to present to government departments which had a significant interest in the topic covered by the Zone, individual government ministers, —

  11. So it was designed by committee?
  (Ms Page) It was design subjected to a lot of review.

  12. And these creative editors were if you like the portal, the entrance, to the rest of it?
  (Ms Page) Yes.

  13. And they were two people who were recruited how?
  (Ms Page) There were more than two of them because quite clearly two could not have handled all the 14 Zones. Some of the editors were on contract from other companies, some were freelance, one or two were employed directly by the company.

  14. And they were all experienced people in the world of visitor attractions and designs of attractions?
  (Ms Page) Many of them have been used to working in the events and visitor attraction world and some in the museum world, not all of them.

  15. One came, as I understand it, straight over from Millbank.
  (Ms Page) One of them had not got that background experience. He had done a postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Art, he had been accustomed to working in the conceptual side with David Puttnam, he had actually of course also previously worked for me at English Heritage, but he was not recruited by open competition.

Derek Wyatt

  16. I must declare an interest apparently. I went to the opening on New Year's Eve with my family and children. We had a wonderful time, we loved it, we loved the opening event, we will be going again, we cannot thank you for what you have done, despite the publicity subsequently.
  (Ms Page) Thank you.

  17. Can I just start on that evening? Before Christmas when I had not got any tickets it occurred to me that perhaps I should phone up and find out where the tickets were, which I did and I was told to come and collect them or arrange for them to be collected. Presumably quite a lot of people were thinking that, or not. What happened in that week after Christmas with the ticketing fiasco for the opening night?
  (Ms Page) The time to direct your attention to is in actual fact in advance of the last two weeks. What undoubtedly happened was that the process of producing the tickets was delayed at several stages during the year 1999. It was an extraordinarily difficult process because it was necessary to identify the guests and while the Committee were fairly obvious invitees, there were many other people who were not. Many of our guests were guests who had been nominated by our sponsors, some of them through competitions with their own customers, and that whole process took a long time for a lot of the names to come through. Similarly, the members of the general public who were invited were, most of them, invited by competition through newspapers, and those invited by the Millennium Commission were selected from among the staff of Millennium Commission grant awardees. The whole process of identifying people took much longer than everyone expected. I must briefly remind you that there were immense concerns about security in relation to 31 December which meant that the police were approaching it with very great care and attention and were requiring a lot of security checks in many different ways which in fact at the end of the day were one of the problems we encountered. The security checks which the police suggested we used involved asking those people who were invited to complete security forms the like of which are completed for party political conferences. There is a great deal of difference between asking the 2,000, however many it is, people who go to a party political conference and do it on a fairly regular basis to fill in a complicated form, and asking about 14,000 people to do so, which is what of course we did. Therefore many of those forms came back late. We then found grave difficulties in terms of the computer work to get those tickets issued, and I think it is fair to say that not sufficient senior management time was addressed to that mechanical issue early enough in the month of late November and early December. I know myself that I lost sight of what the progress was on the particular tickets and simply relied on being told it was going ahead all right rather than looking myself. I was down on the site. The ticket unit was up in Victoria. It did have a senior manager. I just think everybody was so overworked on everything else that we did not provide sufficient senior management assistance to the people who were doing it. When we discovered that things had gone wrong the company —

  18. When were you first told, "Jennie, I am sorry, we have got serious problems"? The 15th December?
  (Ms Page) The 21st.

  19. Wow!
  (Ms Page) We worked for five nights without stopping in order to rectify it. The company was devastated by `flu. We were trying to finish the Dome. We had the rehearsals of 900 performers for the opening show, and no spare staff. Nonetheless the staff worked through the night. Everybody from all different parts of the company pulled together and the actual problem was recouped. Unfortunately, the publicity about it had created an atmosphere inside which many people were very worried about whether they were going to get their tickets and that created a circumstance in which for that reason and because everybody worried about the transport, and the transport opportunities for getting to the Dome that night were very limited, again because of the security we were required to put in place, a lot of people came a lot earlier than they otherwise would have done to Stratford and part of the physical problems at Stratford were undoubtedly the result of concerns about the tickets.


 
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