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I am happy to endorse the funding for science centres which, I very much hope, will create places of lasting educational value. It seems perverse to spend a quarter of the amount allocated to science centres on a single night's partying. This is an unhappy occasion and Ministers should be ashamed of themselves. They should be ashamed of the way in which they have handled the dome, of the waste and of creeping in here late at night to debate this sad order.
Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): I shall be brief, given the time and the hour. We are here to debate whether the House should breathe new life into the Millennium Commission, which is a creature of statute and unique in many ways. However, in legal terms, it is no better and no worse than trustees. We are therefore talking about a board of trustees. It is not the Government; indeed, several trustees who sit on the commission are not Government Members. The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) is here--I hope that he will speak later, perhaps in defence of the commission--and he is a member of the board.
We are here to consider whether the House is justified, given what has occurred over the past year, in placing its confidence in the same board of trustees as has held the stewardship of the Millennium Commission in that period. I suggest that it is not, and that the way the board of trustees has conducted its affairs in the past year should mean that it forfeits the confidence of the House.
When we vote on Wednesday, we will cling to nurse for fear of finding something worse. However, even if we vote to end the board's existence, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) can rest in peace about the project in his constituency. The answer that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave him was plumb wrong. Even if we got rid of the board, the money in the trust fund would continue to exist, the law would take its course, and other trustees would have the responsibility for administering it. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North can therefore relax.
An aggregate vote in early-day motions over the past year totals hundreds of hon. Members who, whatever their political complexion, have expressed time and again their abhorrence at the hundreds of millions of pounds that have been leached out of the Millennium Commission. It is a privilege to serve on the commission. There are few pleasures so great as giving away money. If it is not one's own money, the pleasure is lessened; none the less, it is a great privilege and pleasure to be charged with the stewardship of £2 billion to donate for the public good and according to the public will. However, it is not difficult. All one has to do is to examine a project and
I do not agree with the censure of the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had every right to come to the House and look happy and self-satisfied when he arrived. I could not see whether he did, but he was justified in doing so. Most of what has come from the Millennium Commission is a joy beyond telling. I sometimes drive past the new botanical gardens in Wales. They are a joy--in learning, scholarship and entertainment.
Although we have every right and duty to praise, we also have a right and duty to criticise and indict when it is clear that hundreds of millions of pounds have been used not for the public good, but to purchase the political and commercial debt of Government. That has happened in the case of the millennium dome. It is worth re-examining the dome's history to provide a short chronology.
It is clear from the auditor's report that, as we all knew, the dome was commercially unviable by the beginning of the year. By February, it was clear that it was trading insolvently, and thus illegally under insolvency legislation. My right hon. Friend wrote to Charles Falconer to tell him that the dome was trading insolvently. At that time, £60 million was donated to the company. It was difficult to criticise because there was reason to suppose that granting the extra money, on top of the £449 million, was just sustainable. However, that did not apply in May, when £29 million was given directly to the New Millennium Experience Company after the PricewaterhouseCoopers report.
That report is clear that, on 22 June, the NMEC directors went to the Government to demand an indemnity. They did so because they knew that they were trading illegally, and the Government gave it to them. I did not know that; the House did not know it. That was not revealed, to my knowledge, until we received the auditor's report. At that point, because of that indemnity, the Government, and nobody else, were liable for the company's debts. If the company, which had been trading since January 2000, had gone into liquidation, the Government would have been responsible the minute that indemnity was given.
Mr. Michael Heseltine (Henley): Do I understand the hon. and learned Gentleman to be saying that the Government gave the NMEC directors an indemnity that public money would be put behind their undertaking?
Mr. Marshall-Andrews: I have the letter here, because I asked for a copy and my hon. Friend the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting was good enough to give one to me. The right hon. Gentleman reacts with shock, but I am sure that he would have done the same had he seen this paragraph. I can tell him what it says:
From that point on, the Government, and nobody else, were liable for the trading of the NMEC. I am appalled that the right hon. Member for Henley did not know that, because when he, with other commissioners, voted £119 million of public funds in May, August and September, he should have known and, indeed, should have been told that what he was paying for--the debt that he was buying--was one owed not by the commission, but by the Government. That is the point that answers what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said.
That answers the point raised continually by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which says that we knew in May that the cost of closing the company would be greater than that of keeping it open and subsidising it. I have a question, which I hope will be answered, and I pose it to the right hon. Gentleman and to my right hon. Friend: cost to whom? The commission had no legal liability to bail out the Government--absolutely none at all. The commission is a board of trustees. Its only liability was to its beneficiaries--to the public, not to Government.
When the accounting officer went to the chairman of the commission and said, "I will require your personal signature before I endorse this," that is precisely what he was saying. He was saying that the commission was acting outside the ambit of its trust: it was buying Government debt and nothing else from May onwards. That is absolutely clear.