|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Marshall-Andrews: I cannot answer for Lord Falconer. I can only express my surprise that anyone would not have known about the indemnities, so critical were they. Had they not been given, the entire board of NMEC would have resigned. The members of the board knew that they were personally liable, and--well heeled though most of them undoubtedly are--a liability of £200 million-odd would have been more than they would have wished to bear.
On those indemnities everything then hung. I hope very much that the right hon. Member for Henley will tell us whether he knew of them in May--as a commissioner--at the time he voted, as he must have, for £100 million- odd of public money. If he did not, there was a singular failure on someone's part.
My right hon. Friend well knows that it gives me no pleasure to speak in these terms. He also knows, as does every Member present--it is an open secret--that he was not in favour of the project at the outset. It landed on his desk, and he has weathered the storm--rightly or wrongly, but that is another matter. Anyway, that is what he has had to do, and storm it has undoubtedly been.
This has been a sad, sad tale of a lack of public accountability. I shall end my speech now, because the hour is late; but the tale is summed up by something that Charles Falconer said to me, not in private but in public, on a radio programme. When we were talking about the use of the Millennium Commission for payment of the money, he said, "What you must understand is that we treat the Millennium Commission as a bank."
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): The debate has taken a somewhat wider turn that might have been expected, although I suppose that Conservative Front Benchers will miss no opportunity to discuss the fate of the dome.
There have been extensive discussions, which will doubtless continue; but I think that this modest proposal to extend the life of the Millennium Commission until 20 August is entirely justifiable, in the terms advanced by the then Government when they anticipated that this might well have to happen. The then Secretary of State made it plain that contingencies would result if the life of the Millennium Commission and its funding were extended.
Notwithstanding what the Secretary of State said about the dome's indirect impact on the Millennium Commission's finances, there is considerable justification for allowing the work that the commission has begun on several other projects to be properly completed. If fault there is in the management of the dome project, it would
Mr. Michael Heseltine (Henley): I start by declaring an interest as a millennium commissioner. Indeed, I was one of the original millennium commissioners, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke).
When we came to deal with the problems of financing the dome and with the decision to set up a public body to organise the arrangements, NMEC's directors asked questions as to their liabilities. Without being specific about the date, which is secondary to the substantive issue, the hypothesis was put to me as the Minister most immediately responsible: what happens if we are faced with a serious financial situation? Self-evidently, no member of the public will accept Government-organised directorships if there is a risk that they personally would carry a liability if the project failed. We would never be able to recruit citizens to public bodies if they had to put their personal resources at stake.
At that time, it looked as though we had reached the point at which the project itself was at serious risk because the one absolutely clear decision that the previous Government took and that the present Government have maintained is that there would be no public money in the project; there would be no taxpayers' money ever in the project. Faced with that question by the NMEC directors, I personally devised the arrangement that the Secretary of State has outlined: in the event of the dome producing a negative financial situation, the life of the commission would be extended by order to finance any uncosted deficit that might arise.
Therefore, I know how it happened. I personally designed the arrangement. It was designed to deal with a contingency that none of us believed would arise, but that hypothetically had to be addressed. Sadly, as we have said in earlier debates, the financial position of the dome worked out very differently from the way we had hoped, but we had put in place the arrangements that we are discussing today.
As a millennium commissioner, it is incumbent on me to make it clear that I will vote for the extension of the order. How could I do anything other than that, having designed the arrangement to deal with the very contingency that we are now discussing?
I tell my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) that I have spent many years--although not many more now--in this place, but I have never yet been characterised as one who spends his time trying to make life easy for Labour Members and their activities. However, in that particular context, if I have failed in the high standards that I have set myself as a Conservative Member, I offer my profound apologies to my Front- Bench colleagues. I did not realise that, in the many months in which we have wrestled with the dome issue, particularly in recent years, I was writing the Labour party's next manifesto or bailing out the fortunes of this or that Minister in the current Government.
If that is the way in which the Millennium Commission's decision-making process is seen, I can only say that that is not how we interpreted the process. Without wishing in any way to trespass on the good will of my fellow commissioners, I think that one or two of them might find it marginally surprising to learn that the deliberations in which they have been conducting themselves were designed to help the Government's fortunes. I am thinking particularly of my noble Friend Lord Glentoran, who is a Conservative Front Bencher in the House of Lords and has been a distinguished commissioner for as long as I have. I think that he, too, would be marginally surprised if it were reported to him--I am sure that he will read the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey--that he was acting for the motives that have been suggested.
The circumstances were not those that we sought, but they had to be dealt with. I tell the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) that I do not think that, faced with the circumstances facing us, any hon. Member would have taken the simplistic decision to close the dome. We had invested hundreds of millions of pounds in a project that, at that time--I will be the first to say it--was beginning to show troubles. However, considerations in closing the dome would have included enormous potential debts and unquantified legal actions. None of us could have known where the matter would have ended, what the courts would have determined and what writs would have been issued.
I am not talking only about the simplistic issue of the creditors who would have queued up for their money. Presumably, the hon. and learned Member for Medway was implying in his speech that the creditors should go hang and that, if the dome had closed, all those who believed that it was in some way a public organisation would have been told that they had just got it wrong. It would have been explained to them, "Bad luck, old boy." The staff who would have had to be made redundant would not have been paid. Presumably that is what was in the mind of the hon. and learned Gentleman.
From the hon. and learned Gentleman's very erudite speech, I suspect that he knows that one cannot pick and choose which creditors one supports. One either stands behind a project or one does not. It is incalculable where the project would have ended up. It is perfectly true that the Millennium Commission's accounting officer did say to us that there were not value for money grounds on which we could justify the project's continuation. However, at the same time, he very clearly said that there were other grounds on which we could justify continued support for the project. One of those grounds--for me, the overwhelmingly most important one--was regeneration of the Greenwich peninsula.
Mr. Marshall-Andrews: The right hon. Gentleman has addressed various issues that I raised. Just now, he said that the accountant said that there were other grounds to support the project, such as rejuvenation of the Greenwich peninsula. However, he is simply wrong about that. He is totally, 100 per cent. wrong about that. The accountant said--I have read the report--that, in May, that justification was no longer tenable because all the benefit of rejuvenation had already been realised. That is what he said to the chairman. I would like the right hon. Gentleman to check that point because he is wrong.
The right hon. Member for Henley says that I have implied that the creditors should go hang. I am sure that that is not a deliberate misinterpretation of what I said, but it is certainly a clear one. I have said in the clearest possible terms that it was absolutely clear to anyone looking at this matter that the liability was the Government's, not the commissioners'. With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he had been, but was no longer, a member of the Government; he was a commissioner, with all the duties of a commissioner.