Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)



  160. Given the decision in January 1997 to deliver this in the public sector because the private sector would not carry the risk, there was more than a reasonable expectation that additional grants would be forthcoming, that was the chosen route. To coin a phrase, there was really no turning back, was there?
  (Mr Young) I can agree with you about the chosen route but I am not sure about the other reference.

  161. Mr James, by the middle of last year the whole project was submerged in a torrent of negative publicity. What is the effect on ticket sales after a period of bad press?
  (Mr James) We can plot a very close correlation between bad press and a dip in the visitor numbers. It has gone on consistently through the year.

  162. Was there a similar effect on sponsorship?
  (Mr James) No, the sponsorship had really been fixed by the time we got to the outset of the year and there has been no noticeable drop in sponsorship enthusiasm since that time.

  163. I am interested in what you are saying about the effect on visitor numbers, which the Committee has heard before, because it struck me that there was a comparison here really with the complaint which was made about rail privatisation at the time, that the value of the shares at the time were affected by comments which were made by the then Shadow Transport Secretary. It seems to me that there is no share value in the Dome here, so the way in which the effect of negative publicity is measured is very clearly in visitor numbers.
  (Mr James) Correct.

Mr Faber

  164. Mr James, which is your favourite zone in the Dome?
  (Mr James) Probably the shared ground.

  165. A snip at £9 million. Do you think it was worth that?
  (Mr James) You can ask the same question about every one of the zones. I am talking of it as it is.

  166. The body zone was originally budgeted at £7.6 million and came in at £21.24 million. Is that an accurate figure?
  (Mr James) It was at least that figure.

  167. I think it is an accurate figure. The total original concept budget for the Dome for the zones was £73.1 million and came in at £114.763 million, an increase of over £40 million on the original concept.
  (Mr James) That is also correct, but you need to set that in the context of the change which is demonstrated—

  168. May I carry on? The question I wanted to ask was whether, when you took over the chairmanship, you went back and reviewed the way in which the tendering for the design and the build of the zones had been carried out.
  (Mr James) I am still very heavily engaged in that process. I have mounted my own forensic exercise on it.

  169. In that case I should like to ask you a little more about it. First of all, I should like to follow up questions on the content editors; I do so, having heard one or two gasps of disbelief around the table at Mr Burns' apparently party political line and I should just like to put on record that in the two and a half years I have tracked the Dome, I have had no interest in party politics whatsoever. Mr Ben Evans' party politics are of no interest to me. What are of interest to me are his qualifications to be one of three content editors for the Dome. You will recall that the content editors were the portal, they were the way in for new designers who wished to exhibit their wares in the Dome. If I may just refer you to Mr Ben Evans, who himself chose to go on Radio 4 on the Today programme. He was asked whether he had any experience of working on similar projects before the Dome. He said, "No, but who had?". He said he had a background in idea generation and some architectural knowledge. He said that when the Government gave the go-ahead Jennie Page thought it was wise to bring him in because he had knowledge of all the different parties and interests. His original job was to act as a kind of bridge builder. He finally really did it in for the Dome. He said that he had deliberately aimed for the lowest common denominator in designing the zones and that he was proud of that. This was a man who was responsible for a massive budget and largely responsible for what is now in the Dome. I wonder what your forensic investigation has thrown up.
  (Mr James) My forensic investigation is aimed at the costs of the exercise and not at its market application. I do not think we should lose track of the fact that whatever we may feel individually about the zones separately or as a whole, we are still clocking 87 per cent customer satisfaction. If you could witness the actions of the people who go round this Dome, they love it.

  170. The point is that we are here investigating why the Dome has cost such an exorbitant amount of money. It has cost a great deal of money because the ideas were continually changed, because there was no management in charge of who was putting them in. The three content editors reported to the litmus group, chaired by Michael Grade.
  (Mr James) Correct.

  171. What about the role of Ms Claire Sampson in all of this? What was her role in it?
  (Mr James) Ms Sampson was the director responsible for all the design work which was being bought in to produce the zones.

  172. You were reported in the newspapers and on Radio 4 recently as saying that when you came into the job, you would investigate the allegations of impropriety that were made in relation to Ms Sampson and the award of some of the contracts for the zones. Are you in the process of doing that?
  (Mr James) I do an investigation of every business I enter, regardless of whether I get allegations in the press or not and all I am doing in this particular case is addressing this issue now because I have a feeling that in a year or two years' time, somebody will set out to write the definitive history of the Dome and they will make statements which I think we should all be in a position to agree with or resist at that time. What I am doing now is providing the history.

  173. Since you have taken over have you had any access to notes of meetings which reputedly took place on Monday mornings, chaired by Lord Falconer, at which Mr Ayling was present, Mr Chisholm was present and Mr Grade was present and Mr Matthew Freud was present, but for some reason Ms Jennie Page was not invited to?
  (Mr James) I have sampled them but I have not read them all[17].

  174. Mr Young, did you have any conversations with Ms Page at the time about those meetings?
  (Mr Young) Yes, I think so.

  175. Could you tell me what she said to you about being left out of those meetings and what her view was of the meetings taking place?
  (Mr Young) As I remember it, though it is anecdotal, she was always told what went on.

  176. Either you had a conversation with her, or you did not. It is either accurate or not. It cannot be anecdotal if she spoke to you.
  (Mr Young) I beg your pardon. What I am saying is that I do not remember exactly what conversation took place when on this matter. I was about to tell you that she and I often talked about what had been discussed at those meetings and how to put them more formally through the processes of the company.

  177. She was unhappy that basically informal meetings about the content of the Dome were going on behind her back.
  (Mr Young) I do not think it was quite like that. I do not think we should forget the amount of noise and attention this project has always attracted. May I just give you the flavour? Every month there are about 800 printed articles, 300 TV reports and 1,200 radio reports. The noise and interest in this is extraordinary, so the idea that there would only be conversations within the tightly knit committee structure was never realistic.

  178. I am sorry, with the greatest respect for all the articles and everything, she was the Chief Executive, she was in charge.
  (Mr Young) Yes.

  179. She was being deliberately left out. Lord Falconer was holding meetings behind her back and he was instructing Mr Grade in particular what to do about the content of the Dome.
  (Mr Young) I do not know that to be the case.

17   Note by Witness: Mr James' misunderstood the question and confused two sets of meetings-those between the Shareholder and Chairman/Deputy Chairman, usually held on Monday mornings, and those between the Shareholder and the Chief Executive, usually held on Tuesday mornings. The former meetings were not minuted; the latter meetings were minuted. Mr James' answer refers to the latter meetings. Back

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