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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, in April 1997 the business plan was approved by the board of the New Millennium Experience Company. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, is shaking his head. The facts are that in April 1997 the business plan was approved by the New Millennium Experience Company. If the noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne and Lord Crickhowell, have any evidence to the contrary, I should be glad to hear it.
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, all I can do is read from paragraph 1.31 of the NAO report, where the company's May 1997 business plan is referred to. The month is May, not April, by which time a different party had come into government.
It is the case that when in power both parties have given a degree of approval to the estimate of 12 million. Sadly, it has proved to be an overestimate. But it is no good the noble and learned Lord saying that it was entirely the construction of his predecessors that caused the plan to be agreed. That is not so. The noble and learned Lord is just as much in it up to his neck, as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said, as anyone else.
I turn to my second point. Another area of disappointment was the creation of all the internal attractions. I have been to the Dome on three or four occasions and I must say that they are really very, very disappointing. I am told that the gentleman who was principally responsible for them has a name which will be familiar to noble Lords because his mother sits on the Government Front Bench in your Lordships' House. So perhaps he will take the view that his career has not been advanced by the project.
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, I am glad to hear that he was not exclusively to blame for all the problems that have emanated from those attractions. But I do not think that anyone seriously claims that, taken together, the attractions have not been a considerable disappointment.
The next point that needs to be dealt with is that the noble and learned Lord has not sufficiently answered the questions raised, particularly those put to him by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell both in the form of parliamentary Questions, letters and in his speech today. I refer to the noble and learned Lord's
I have to accept that the legal position in these matters is almost certainly not as simple as many people would have us believe. I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord had received some assurances from sources other than the Lottery Fund--for example, from the Government-- that they would stand by the debts if the need arose. That would not be a disreputable thing for the Government to do, but they must tell us whether that was the case. I do not know whether it was or not and perhaps the noble and learned Lord will say whether he received at the time any assurances from the Government in that regard.
I have addressed these questions to the noble and learned Lord as the principal shareholder in the project. Like my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, I am puzzled that questions were not more frequently asked and answered by the board of the company itself. Although we know that the noble and learned Lord attended many of the board meetings, it was the duty of the directors of the company, presided over by the chairman, to address these matters and to answer these questions. But they seem to have been extraordinarily silent leaving the noble and learned Lord to take the criticism and the flak.
I come to what I consider to be the most serious allegation; namely, that it is clear that there has been almost a complete failure by the New Millennium Experience Company to keep proper books of account. The plain fact is that throughout the time it has been conducting this programme, not only after the disastrous opening at the turn of the millennium, but also in the run up to that time, it is clear that it has not kept proper books and records of the money received and going out and also of the various contractual arrangements that have been put in place. I am not saying that there has been misappropriation of funds; I am not aware of any evidence of that. But it really is a disgrace that this vast sum of public money approaching, we are told, £800 million, has not been properly accounted for--not yet, anyway--and was being spent with gay abandon at a time when--
Lord Grabiner: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. It would be very interesting to see any passage in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General which supports the proposition that the company did not keep proper books, which I believe is the allegation that the noble Lord makes.
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, the allegation has been made quite widely, not only in this report, but elsewhere. If the noble Lord would like to study that document and others with a little more care, I believe he will find the difficulties to which I have referred.
I turn now to the final matter that I wish to address; namely, the future use of the Dome itself. Nobody doubts that it is a great building. I readily accept that. As I have said, I have visited it on several occasions and I am easily persuaded that that is the case. I am sorry that it is to be something modest in the form of a business park. Perhaps that is not modest. No doubt the noble and learned Lord would welcome any financially sound proposal that is put to him or anyone with a cheque for £100 million or more. I wonder whether the Dome could not be better used as a centre for international trade fairs. London is singularly lacking in such facility. We have Earls Court and Olympia, but they are both very old and in many ways unsatisfactory by modern standards. I believe that the Millennium Dome would be an admirable venue for activity of that kind.
I am glad to hear from the noble and learned Lord that the books of account at least are now being put in order. It is about time, too. I am sorry that the noble and learned Lord has suffered so much criticism and attack during the time he has held responsibility in this matter. Let us hope that it can all now be brought to a glorious conclusion as the noble learned Lord hopes.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I shall be brief because I believe that virtually all the points that could be made have already been made. The original concept of the Dome under the previous government embodied vision. It was exciting and it has led to important regeneration. It has resulted in a project which has attracted in one year 6 million visitors. Even Manchester United would be envious of that number of visitors in a year. It is possible that if the life of the Dome were extended for, say, two or three years, the project would become financially viable. Other projects, such as Disney, took well over a year before becoming viable. There was a great deal of ambition in trying to accomplish so much within 12 months.
Mistakes were made by both Governments, although listening to some of the speeches from the Benches opposite it seems as though only the present Government made mistakes. That is simply not the case. Mistakes were made on all sides. Under the previous government the decision was taken to build the Dome; to choose Greenwich; to appoint the chief executive and the chairman; to develop the corporate structure; to use Lottery money; to develop the Dome's structure; to split job responsibilities between different Government departments; and to develop the forecast of 12 million visitors. All those decisions were made under the previous government and they were inherited by this Government. In those circumstances, it would have been difficult for this Government to say that, despite all the excitement and enthusiasm generated by the previous government, the project should have been dropped. That is difficult to do except with the wisdom of hindsight.
However, I believe that over the years the Dome will be seen as a more successful venture than some of the speeches from the Benches opposite suggest. In a few years time when we see Greenwich regenerated and the
I regret that this debate is becoming a series of attacks, verging on the very personal, against my noble friend the Minister. I do not believe that that is called for. It is not appropriate given the previous government's record. The noble Lord is waving his hand at me. Does he want to intervene or is he simply gesturing?
Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, the noble Lord said that this debate was becoming rather personal. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is the Minister responsible for this matter and naturally we are addressing our questions and criticisms to him.
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