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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, does the noble Baroness eschew the proposition that the figures first offered when the Conservatives were in power were between 15 million and 30 million visitors?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, that is an extraordinary question. Why should one dispute what is in the NAO report? I hope that, if ever the PAC comes to a united report, noble Lords on Opposition Benches will accept without question what is in that report. My point is that throughout all this the Government, when they took office, had the figures presented to them. There was a thorough review of those figures and they made a decision, but, as we understand from leaked matters in the press, perhaps the Prime Minister made the decision.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, like noble Lords on Benches opposite who are making such

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braying sounds, I too suspect what I read in the press and I take it with a pinch of salt. I can report only what I have read in the press.

On visitor numbers, the figures have to be set against the background that my noble friends Lord Crickhowell and Lady Noakes pointed out so well, that the Government made the really crucial decisions after that about what went into the Dome; about the ticket prices, as my noble friend Lord Attlee pointed out, and about the ban on car access. Those were all contributory factors to the low visitor numbers.

We have heard tonight that the management structure that the Government inherited was complex. It says so in the NAO report. Surely, just because a job is difficult to do, it does not mean that it has to be done badly. As far as I can see by watching what has happened within the Chamber--I refer strictly to ministerial accountability within this Chamber--the problem is that the work has been carried out with an element of secrecy. That is a word that at one point even the Minister used on the Floor of the House. I believe that has created many problems and much mistrust here and outside the Chamber.

As long ago as February 1999, my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked the Minister to,


    "undertake ... to produce a document which will make clear to members of the public the Government's plans ... for the cost of the project, its contents, access, parking and traffic".--[Official Report, 8/2/99; col. 2.]

My noble friend Lord Luke repeated that request. We got nowhere. We were led to believe that the New Millennium Experience Company was working well and that the finances were fine. We believed the Minister. The unfolding crisis was hidden from the view of the public and Parliament. On 12th January this year, when my noble friend Lord Elton asked what would be the shareholder's position if the Dome were sold at a loss, the Minister's reassuring responses gave no hint of the financial problems to which it now appears he had been alerted. I shall detail those. At that stage he implied that he could personally bear any financial consequences of a shortfall. I have a copy of Hansard with me and should be delighted to quote it to the Minister.

At Question Time on 10th February, the Minister joked about the fact that the Deputy Chief Whip was organising a whip-round behind him among Charlie's Angels to help him pay up if there were a shortfall. Despite all the good humour, the impression that was given was that there were no financial worries, and we were reassured. But we now know that what was happening was very different. We know that on 11th November 1999 the Minister was advised by the Dome company's accounting officer, and on 21st December 2000 by the department's accounting officer, of the probability that the Commission would need to provide further cash flow funding to the company. On 7th January 2000 the department informed the shareholder that there was no alternative but to go back to the Millennium Commission for more money. Having tried to explore other alternatives, they said "We shall have to go back to

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them". On 28th January the commissioners were advised by their own staff of a serious concern about the company's solvency. That was discussed with NMEC, a company whose board meetings the Minister attended, as he has told us in this House. While that was happening, we in this House believed that all was well. We were given no indication on the Floor of this House that it could be otherwise.

My noble friend Lord Crickhowell referred to the fact that in February the right honourable Chris Smith wrote to the Minister. He said:


    "Either the Board did not see or it chose to discount the warning signs of the cash flow difficulties. As a result, it seems possible that it failed to take decisive action until after a date when the company became technically insolvent".

They are his words, not mine. The right honourable Chris Smith continued:


    "Clearly it is for you and the Chairman to decide what needs to be done to improve corporate governance".

The Minister did not reply until 24th March.

In May the board of the company engaged solicitors to advise them on the directors' responsibilities because of the danger of insolvency. I should have thought that that was rather an important point for the shareholder to notice when he attended meetings.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting. The noble Baroness will, of course, confirm to the House that it was made public in February, when the first application was made to the Millennium Commission.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am pleased that the Minister has referred to that. Prior to that application to the Millennium Commission, the Minister had appeared on the Floor of the House on 12th January, knowing that at that stage an application would have to be made, and yet he chose not to make any mention of it to this House. When I later learned of that, I found it quite extraordinary and I felt let down.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness could answer the question.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I believe that I have answered the question.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the noble Baroness is trying to paint a picture of people not being kept informed. She has referred to the application that was made to the Millennium Commission at the beginning of February. Will she confirm that a public statement was made about that?

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: Unfortunately, a public statement was not made to this House. Furthermore, it appears that, until today, no Minister has come to this House of his own volition. Other so-called debates have taken place. One of my noble friends has asked an Unstarred Question; debates have

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been raised by my noble friends; statements and Private Notice Questions have been requested by the Opposition.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, those allegations are inaccurate; they are not based on fact. Let me take the example that Ministers have only come to this House when called. On 27th September I came here entirely of my own volition.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am delighted to hear that it was not in response to the letter sent by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition to the Leader of the House. I was simply aware that the week before, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde wrote to the Leader of the House and requested that there should be a Statement. I assumed that the Statement came as a result of that request.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, let me confirm what my noble and learned friend said. We offered a Statement on the first day the House returned. My noble and learned friend came to the Dispatch Box, as he has done on a regular basis throughout the year, to volunteer information.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for making that clear. To return to the matter, in February it was perhaps unfortunate that at that stage the Minister, after being made aware of the problems already accruing, was able still to joke about the fact, saying that his noble friends would have to have a whip-round to support any shortfall. It is unfortunate that the Minister joked about such matters, and that appears in Hansard.

Perhaps I can progress to other matters. I referred to the letter written by the right honourable Chris Smith to the Minister, and the fact that after the company engaged solicitors to advise them on the directors' responsibilities and the danger of insolvency, we heard nothing about that from the Minister. By 25th May the fear of insolvency was so great that the directors of the NMEC sought and obtained from the Government, on 21st June, indemnities against actions brought against them for wrongful trading.

Dispute across the Chamber arose earlier on that matter. All I can say is that when I read in an NAO report the full account, I could understand what the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, was trying to achieve by his cross-examination. But he did not quite get the right result. Certainly when one reads the full report, one sees the legal points the noble Lord was trying to make. But this House did not know that any application had been made or granted about anything to do with indemnities. When indemnities are mentioned, people get worried about things like insolvency.

Then the Minister appeared on 12th July in front of the Select Committee. Questions were asked at that time about indemnities. I shall not go into a detailed examination of that because, quite frankly, I do not have the noble and learned Lord's legal expertise. I am

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sure that he will be able to show me that in some way what he said was technically correct. But if one is being an accountable, open, frank Minister, and one is asked by a Select Committee of the Commons a range of questions about indemnities, why does one not say in detail what had been granted by the Government to the directors, giving a full explanation? Why not say what happened on 21st June? Why leave the committee in the dark?

On 17th July the Minister wrote to my noble friend Lady Blatch saying,


    "I am confident that NMEC will continue to trade solvently until 31st December 2000".

On 27th July he wrote to me saying,


    "the New Millennium Experience Company was trading solvently on Monday 17th July".

That was a statement he later admitted was "technically incorrect".

The noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, was kind enough to remind the House that on 14th July the company's chairman had indeed sent the Minister a letter to advise him of the further deterioration in the Dome's finances and that more money would be needed, and soon. It said,


    "[The] Company might run out of money within two weeks and might require an additional £45 million".

Unlike the noble and learned Lord, I am not a successful commercial barrister. But even I might have noticed that something was seriously wrong after all those warnings. But, as we have already been told tonight, on 21st September the Minister wrote to Lord Dalkeith at the Millennium Commission, saying,


    "I was shocked by what the PWC report implied about NMEC's financial management and corporate governance".

After being warned by his right honourable friend Chris Smith at the beginning of the year, that is extraordinary.

There has been much comment about the budget. It certainly does seem to be a case of, "pick your date and pick your budget". The latest is that we are told by David James that the cost of the Dome may be at least £839 million. I shall be interested to know whether the Minister can comment on Mr James' estimate.

The point is that Parliament was repeatedly led to believe that each extra grant and draw-down would be the last. Can the Minister tonight give the House an assurance that the draw-down in September was the last amount of money that will go from the lottery to the Dome company, either directly or indirectly? We have heard tonight about parliamentary Answers. I have had a Question tabled for six weeks which has not yet been answered. Perhaps now I shall get an answer.

Our experience of the handling of the Dome project by the Government so far means that we must ask whether we can expect better guardianship of it as it winds down and is sold off. I was interested to hear the proposals of my noble friends Lord Trefgarne and Lord Marlesford for the future of the Dome. Whatever is done, there is public concern, expressed recently on the radio by the Minister's honourable friend Diane Abbott--perhaps the Minister does not regard her as

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his friend--that in their anxiety to offload the Dome as soon as possible the Government might not have achieved the best deal either for the public or Greenwich by naming Mr Robert Bourne's company as the preferred bidder.

Why has the Minister overruled warnings and advice about the risks involved in Legacy's plans from independent accountants appointed by Ministers to monitor the bid? Will the Government publish the risk assessments that they have made? What are the outstanding issues that need to be resolved with regard to Legacy? How much will be given to the Millennium Commission by the NMEC, and when? How much will go to English Partnerships, and when?

I have trespassed on the time of this House for more than the 15 minutes which are normally allowed, simply because I have given way to other noble Lords on several occasions. However, I should like to make one or two further points. I was intrigued that on 4th March 1999 the Minister wrote to his noble friend Lord Burlison, who I am delighted to see is on the Front Bench:


    "The Government will wish to achieve good value for money from the disposal of the Dome and related land, and will have regard to whether the proposal would generate receipts which at least match those which could have been achieved if the site were clear and disposed of for ordinary commercial development".

Tonight the noble and learned Lord tells the House that that deal will deliver only reasonable value for money. Does that mean he no longer seeks good value for money, because earlier he used the word "reasonable"?


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