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Mr. Heseltine: I have not been given legal advice on this, but I understand that the Government would have said two things. First, all directors of such public bodies have such an underwritten assurance, which is within normal practice. Secondly, in any assurance that the Government gave about the underpinning of the organisation, they were merely resting upon the assurance that I had first given to the Millennium Commission that the Government would use their powers to extend the life of the commission and therefore its access to lottery funding. It was on that basis that the Government were able to give assurances about the cash flow requirements of the dome. That is how I would imagine the present Government would have seen the situation, because that is how I would have seen it had I been in that situation--knowing that the Chancellor of the Exchequer under the previous Government and this one had an iron rule that no public money was to flow.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth: If such a blanket cover existed on behalf of the directors, why does my right hon. Friend think that they went to the Government in May to seek personal indemnities against any action for unlawful trading?
Mr. Heseltine: I cannot know; I am not and never have been a director, and I did not talk to the directors about any anxieties that they may have had. I cannot answer that interesting question from my hon. Friend; it is not my responsibility to do so. However, a director in circumstances where hypothetical contingencies are becoming of greater concern every day is bound to ask such questions not only of his lawyers, but of the Government of the day. These questions are more for the Secretary of State than for me; this matter did not have to be addressed by the Millennium Commission.
Mr. Chris Smith: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the accounting officer of the Millennium Commission said to the commissioners, in terms, that although his precise advice was that the grant under consideration was not value for money, none the less there were other material factors that commissioners could and indeed should take into account in making any decision? Has not he subsequently confirmed that had he personally been a commissioner making that decision, he would have made the same decision as the commissioners?
Mr. Heseltine: The Secretary of State reinforces my point, which the hon. and learned Member for Medway sought to challenge. There is not the slightest doubt that on one of the earlier occasions when we gave additional funding to the dome project, the accounting officer gave us advice that the funding was not value for money in the narrow sense, but was totally justifiable in the wider sense
We all know that the dome project has not worked out in the way we hoped, or originally conceived and planned. However, I do not believe that there was a time when a responsible Millennium Commission would have closed the project down. If we had ever done so, no one knows what costs might have been incurred on the project. My experience in government tells me that it is as near unthinkable as any practical policy is for a Government organisation to close down and let the creditors and employees go hang. That would have been a wholly unacceptable decision, and I am delighted that the Millennium Commission refused to take it.
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): May I say how pleased we are to see the Secretary of State here tonight? On nights when the House no longer meets after 10 o'clock, it is refreshing to see a Secretary of State handling an order such as this. We are, unfortunately, used to important measures and Second Readings being dealt with by junior Ministers, and that is an insult to the House. On a motion that is reasonably important but not a mega-issue, to see the Secretary of State here as well as the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting says a lot for the right hon. Gentleman, and I congratulate him.
No one could accuse my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) of helping to write the Labour party manifesto, or of doing anything, as a Minister or a commissioner, designed to assist the Labour party. He will be as disappointed as everyone else about what happened to his marvellous vision of the dome. It was to be full of the best of British, showing the development of Britain as a nation over the past few hundred years and all the progress in science and technology that we can make in the next millennium. Unfortunately, after 1997, the project was hijacked by the Labour party and the dome was filled with cool Britannia pap. If that had not happened, more people might have been willing to visit it.
We all saw the press releases and comments in the press from those who inspected what the Government put in the dome. We read about the interference of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) when he was responsible for the project, and how he contradicted the New Millennium Experience Company and changed his mind. It was not surprising that the number of people going to the dome was drastically below expectation, with the resulting financial consequences for the company.
I am generally in sympathy with extending the time limit from 31 December, but I do not believe that 20 August is the right date. We need longer--the proposed period is too short for the Millennium Commission to deal with the necessary issues.
The Secretary of State rightly pointed out that some projects are behind schedule and new problems are arising daily, requiring the Millennium Commission to continue in existence for some time and allocate more funds to deal with those problems. He mentioned the Eden project
I am not making a blatantly political point, but the problem is that the previous Labour council--perhaps because of the constraints to get contracts signed in time and the pressures that it was put under by the Millennium Commission--signed agreements for various projects in Carlisle, one of which was a bridge across the River Eden.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the date of 20 August applies not to decisions taken by the Millennium Commission but only to the flow of funds into the Millennium Commission from the national lottery distribution fund. The flow of funds ceases on 20 August, but the commission stays very much in being.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's comments on Hadrian's bridge. There were problems: the previous Labour council let the contracts before the local government elections; there was pressure from the Millennium Commission; and the bids for the bridge proved grossly inaccurate, even though the structural engineers--with the best will in the world--thought that they were accurate. The new council faces the problem that the river is extremely sandy at that point, and the engineers suggest that the bill for installing deeper pilings to hold up the bridge will be at least £1 million.
I do not want to go into more detail on the matter, but I flag it up for Ministers and suggest that, when proposals are received from the Conservative council in Carlisle, they recognise that the council is wrestling with that inherited problem--that is as political as I shall be. The new costs are grossly in excess of the original estimates made by the previous Labour council and accepted by the Conservatives when they came into power. In those circumstances--the speed with which the Labour council felt that it had to move and the new costs that have been incurred--I hope that Ministers will consider the proposals carefully.
I am interested in the fact that the Millennium Commission concluded that it is legitimate for a trust fund to be set up to deal with the future refurbishment and repair of the science projects. If it is legitimate to set up a trust fund for the on-going maintenance of certain
Mr. Maclean: I take your criticism, Madam Deputy Speaker. It was the Secretary of State who raised the issue of trust funds for science projects--I see the right hon. Gentleman nodding. However, although he may have gone down the wrong route--I do not want to follow him and earn your wrath, Madam Deputy Speaker--my point is directly relevant to the date. If 20 August has been specified and if the Millennium Commission has decided to spend money on trust funds for science projects, I suggest that, on the same principle, it would be perfectly legitimate to set up trust funds for other projects. That would require additional money and the date of 20 August would need to be set back, so that additional money could go to the Millennium Commission to be allocated.
Similarly, if it is legitimate to spend £6 million not on a capital project, but on a big fireworks display for the millennium, surely it would be legitimate to pick up some of the running costs of some of the projects that have already been funded. I realise that, according to the original plan, only capital costs would be covered, but if we can have trust funds for future refurbishment, surely it is sensible to set up such funds to deal with the running costs of some of the millennium projects that are sitting empty--they are white elephants.
Is it not true that a pop music museum in Sheffield is a complete economic disaster? That is not the fault of the Government, nor of the Millennium Commission--probably--but the fault of over-optimistic financial guidelines.