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Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this short debate suggesting that the Government should set up a public inquiry into the operation and finances of the Millennium Dome. In doing so, I am supporting the Government's own supporters in the House of Commons. Forty-six Labour MPs have signed a Motion calling for a public judicial inquiry. Of course I know that Sir John Bourn of the National Audit Office is holding an inquiry, but only into the last loan made to the Millennium Dome. That inquiry will not be in public and will be restricted in scope.
The case for an inquiry is simple. The original budget was the astonishing figure of £758 million. But more than £600 million of public money from the lottery has been spent, which is considerably more than forecast. Where has all that money gone? As the Motion tabled by the Labour Members of Parliament recognises, £758 million in a public/private partnership could have been spent on many different things. The same sum of money could have bought 10 new hospitals; paid the salaries of 50,000 new nurses for a year; bought 35,000 kidney machines; or built four Royal Opera Houses.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is widely liked and respected in this House and it would be wrong to blame him for all that has gone wrong in the project. We know who is to blame--or if we did not know, we were informed in the Sunday Express on 26th May, when it was reported that no less than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a way to which we have grown used under this Government, blamed Peter Mandelson and his vanity and obsession about following in the footsteps of his grandfather. When Mr Mandelson experienced his Luciferian fall from grace, it was possibly the luckiest thing that every happened to him. But it was bad luck on the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, who stands before us tonight as the sole shareholder.
I have of course visited the Dome and I have to say that I was impressed at least by the beauty, scale and sweep of the building designed by the noble Lord, Lord Rogers. I admired it. As regards the inside, I kept remembering the Prime Minister's words:
The silliest remark ever made by the Prime Minister was that Britain is a young country. You can say many things about Britain--that it is an enterprising, innovative, forward-looking country--but the one thing you cannot say is that it is a young country. But in the Dome, Britain had to be rebranded so there is nothing in it that is historical. There is no English language zone about the contribution of the English language to civilisation. There is nothing about the great figures of English history. There is nothing about the fact that Britain invented almost all sports in the world other than basketball. New Labour wanted a monument to themselves and, disastrously, they have succeeded.
No amount of assertions by the noble and learned Lord that the Dome attracts more visitors than any other paying attraction in this country can disguise the fact that it has been a financial disaster. The noble and learned Lord's formulation is, with respect, rather facile as more and more non-paying visitors are being invited in school parties to the Dome, so that he can stand up in this House and say that more and more visitors are going there. It has almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Dome ought to have more visitors than any other paying attraction after £538 million of public money has been injected into it. The main point is that the budgets have been hopelessly wrong, visitor numbers have been miles below the original estimates, and the project has been bailed out three times by the Millennium Commission. But to the Government it remains a tremendous success.
The new chief executive, Mr Gerbeau, in an interview in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, said that he was told by the Government when he took over that the Dome was on budget. Two months later, according to the report, he discovered that it was £26 million adrift. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.
The Government continue to assert that everything is fine, but it is not. Chris Smith, acting not as Minister but as chairman of the Millennium Commission, had to give a direction to the commission's accounting officer, Mr Mike O'Connor, on the last loan of £29 million. The Secretary of State, in a letter dated 26th May, stated:
Will the Minister answer the question which he was repeatedly asked by the Select Committee this afternoon: will the last loan of £29 million mean that the New Opportunities Fund for education, environment and health projects will have £29 million less when it takes over the Millennium Commission's money?
What we would like to hear in the Minister's reply is realism about the project. On 12th January this year, I asked the Minister to confirm that the daily average of visitors to the Dome was around 10,000, reaching only 20,000 to 25,000 at the weekend, and was way below the target figures. At the time, he declined to confirm my figures and replied that,
As it turned out, the figure for January was extremely bad; 344,620 paying visitors. On an annual basis, that would have meant 4 million visitors instead of the 10 million to 12 million expected. The average number of paying visitors a day in January was about 11,000, which was well below the target of 27,000. That was January and of course it was difficult; it was early. However, my point relates to the lack of realism in replying to the question.
The Dome must be judged not by whether it is the most popular destination but whether it achieves the targets which have been set for it. The more the Government repeat that it is a great success, the stronger the case for an inquiry. It simply is not true that it is a great success. People are entitled to know why successive business plans have not been met.
I have given the Minister notice of specific questions that I would like him to answer. First, the simple question is: what, on reflection, does he think went wrong? Secondly, the commercial income is obviously much lower with only 6 million visitors now expected instead of 12 million. Is that gap in commercial income fully covered by the loans that have already been made from the Millennium Commission? Will the Minister guarantee that the loans made will be repaid and that there will be no further loans? Will he guarantee that there will be no further finance put in by the back door? In particular, will he guarantee that the money which would have gone to English Partnerships to regenerate urban wastelands will not be used to subsidise the Dome? A Minister was quoted as saying:
The Millennium Dome should have been a great inspiration. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a remarkable celebration of Britain's creativity, of the greatness of the arts, and of manufacturing and commerce in this country. No comparison between the Great Exhibition and the Millennium Dome is possible because no comparison would be appropriate. Sadly, the epitaph on the Millennium Dome will be the words of the Deputy Prime Minister:
Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this issue this evening. It is not a new issue for discussion in this House. However, in the context of his speech, I was interested to listen to what he said. One would not dream that the Administration of which he was at one time a Minister was the initiator of the Dome and of what happened on the peninsula.
I believe that it is wrong to take the Dome in isolation. One must consider that the whole peninsula on which it was built was polluted. Certainly, private sector funding alone would never have cleaned it up. The noble Lord said that he has visited the Dome. I wonder whether he went to the peninsula before any of the development took place. Now it has jobs and the Jubilee Line. I believe that it is questionable whether the nine stations on that line would ever have been built without the initiative of the Dome.
I declare an interest as chairman of a housing corporation. I am interested in housing in London, and London in particular has a serious problem with regard to affordability. There will be 3,000 mixed tenure houses on the peninsula, 1,400 of them in the Millennium Village and 20 per cent of them affordable houses for people in London who need homes. I believe that if one considers the jobs, the houses that have been built and the regeneration that has taken place, the whole project sits very comfortably with any kind of economic assessment.
However, the noble Lord is right when he talks about examining the taxpayers' money that has been spent. All noble Lords in this House, of whatever party or whether they are Cross-Benchers, must support accountability and questioning where public money has been spent. More than 1,000 questions on the Dome have been asked in both Houses. There have been five Select Committee appearances with regard to the Dome--that is, before independent committees in the other place. There have been three debates in this House and, I believe, two debates in the other place. The Houses of Parliament is where questioning of Ministers should take place. However, in my view, on this issue alone the level of questioning has almost reached overkill.
The noble Lord began by speaking specifically about a public inquiry into the issue. I should have been more convinced about the sincerity of a commitment to a public inquiry as the right way to achieve public accountability if the track record of the previous Administration had been better. There was no public inquiry into the "Marchioness" disaster, which had far more impact on the people of London and this nation than has the Dome in money terms. There was no public inquiry into the BSE scandal, and we are still paying for that in terms of money, of jobs and, indeed, of people losing their homes. There was no public inquiry--indeed, no inquiry of any note--into the Stephen Lawrence murder in London.
I question strongly whether there is a need for an inquiry into a matter on which Parliament--the elected body and, indeed, this place as a second Chamber--continually has placed Ministers under questioning on how the money has been spent.
The noble Lord was right to refer to the Select Committee which sat this morning. The Minister on the Front Bench this evening appeared before that committee, and that is the right way in which to deal with this matter. Politically, it may be easy to argue for an inquiry because it may attract much criticism of the present Administration. However, I believe that in the pecking order of priorities of people in the country, this matter is not a priority. The questions have been asked, the inquiries have taken place and Ministers have answered, as they should do. They should be accountable and I hope that they will continue to be accountable over this issue in the right and proper way.
When all is said and done, nothing but positive news has come from the peninsula. It has been good for London and it has certainly been good for Britain. Last week I was privileged to attend the 4th July party at the American Ambassador's house. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, may have been there, too. If he was, I wonder whether he read the brochure that we were given. The inside of the front page of that brochure opened with the words--I paraphrase:
However, that is simply a side benefit. The real benefits to be derived are the jobs, people's homes and the regeneration. The Dome is a lasting monument to the Millennium. I utterly reject the need for a public inquiry into the matter. I hope that the Minister will do the same, because the inquiry has been taking place continually and no doubt will continue to take place.
I know all about the Dome--or, at least, a great deal--but I still believe in it. Few public projects have come under such great scrutiny. The Channel 4 programme, for example, on the creation of the Dome and its zones was riveting. We have no shortage of figures on the Dome. I have a pile of press cuttings and, indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, made clear, 1,000 questions on this subject have been asked in the recent past, and we know what the Lottery money paid for.
As PY Gerbeau pointed out from his continental perspective, the Dome is the ultimate political football. Political passions have been permanently on the boil and often at variance within each party, not least in my own party. One would believe that this was as important an historical issue as whether we supported the Boer War or Suez.
Yet the irony is that it had strong all-party backing from prominent individuals at the time of its inception. Michael Heseltine in particular, to his credit, on the Tory side was one of the begetters of the Dome. Of course, there have been mistakes. Perhaps the greatest were: giving free tickets or discount packages to the core target audience of children of school age, whose parents happily would have paid; the New Year's Eve arrangements clearly stick in the minds of newspaper editors and prominent television executives; and the marketing budget allocated was probably insufficient at the time. Perhaps there should have been a guiding creative spirit or ringmaster, but that in itself is a very high risk.
However, a huge number of things about the Dome went right, not least completing the Jubilee Line on time, which the pessimists doubted would happen. A record amount of sponsorship was achieved in teeth of considerable scepticism. Above all, the Dome and its contents were completed on time.
This speech is not delivered with 20/20 hindsight in any form. I have backed the Dome as a concept from its inception and I believe that the benefits that it has brought far outweigh the drawbacks. I have lived in London all my working life and the one thing about which I am quite passionate as a politician is the regeneration of our inner city. In that respect the Dome has been a triumph in bringing major benefits in terms of new transport links, land reclamation and employment.
However, the Dome is also a triumph as an experience. When I visited it last summer, I was impressed by the work in progress and I was even more impressed when I went back this spring with my family. I was fortunate in being the guest of a sponsor, but I do not believe that my judgment or that of my family would have been any different had I been a paying visitor. I am in good company. Some 85 per cent of visitors surveyed said something similar.
PY Gerbeau yesterday challenged the public not to be put off by the adverse publicity and to see for themselves. I recommend that course of action. In a three-hour visit, my family and I saw the main show and the body, journey, work and learning zones. All were stimulating and great fun. The eating facilities were excellent and the architecture of the Dome was magnificent. The management of the queues was excellent, too.
I disagree with the distinguished architect, the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, who says that there is an element of dumbing down. The Tate Modern is an entirely different enterprise. The Dome has a serious underlying educational purpose that it achieves superbly. I look forward to going again soon. My message to those who have not been is to get there before the end of the year or they will regret it.
For those reasons and others, I fully support the injection of an additional £29 million grant from the Millennium Commission. It would have been folly to allow the Dome to fail. That could have led to the need to dispose of it at a knock-down price, had a major effect on the economy of south-east London and, above all, deprived 4 million people of the chance to experience the Dome. Massive compensation would have had to be paid to sponsors and others. It was far better to ensure that the Dome remained in operation in its current form until the end of the year and then have an orderly handover to whoever wins the right to take over.
It is unnecessary to call for an inquiry when the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is already conducting one and an inquiry has been initiated by Sir John Bourn and the National Audit Office into the finances of the Dome. How many inquiries do we need? That does not mean that the Minister should not answer a number of questions on the Dome. Indeed, a search of parliamentary Questions reveals that he has probably been doing little else since the beginning of the year.
There were many unforeseeable aspects of the Dome. That is showbusiness. Ask Sir Cameron Mackintosh or Harvey Goldsmith. Even the most brilliant impresario cannot guarantee that the public will file through the door. As the New Millennium Experience Company is at pains to point out, the Dome is still the attraction with the biggest paying audience in the country, with 3.2 million people having visited to date. It is second only to Disneyland Paris in Europe. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, that those are figures to be easily disparaged. The course on which the Dome now seems to be set is welcome and the undertakings that have been made not to go back to the Millennium Commission for more money and to put into effect £24 million of cost reductions are wholly welcome.
My favourite comment from a visitor to the Dome was that those who did not enjoy it needed to check their pulse. It may be that in the debate on the Dome we all need to check our pulse. There has been an attempt to turn disappointment and some ill luck into
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I am very pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. I shall speak in a similar vein. When the Government came to power and picked up the plans from their predecessors, I had no strong feelings for or against the project. The Government decided to go with it, so I felt that it was right that we should seek to make a success of it once we had made that decision.
There have been problems, as we are only too well aware. The number of visitors has disappointingly fallen short of the original targets, but there are some reasonable explanations for that. It is fascinating that we have an 85 per cent satisfaction level among those who have been, yet adverse publicity continues to deter others from going. That is the kind of issue that we should inquire into.
I was not surprised that the Dome ran into problems with public relations and media response. My wife was never in favour of the Dome--she felt that we should have been building hospitals instead--but she was aghast to see some of the media coverage during November and December last year, before it opened. I particularly recall "Watchdog" on BBC1 spending about 20 minutes attacking the Dome, claiming that people would have problems getting there because the Jubilee Line would not be finished on time and raising a host of other issues. Even though she was opposed to the project, my wife felt that that programme would significantly reduce the likelihood of the people who watched it going to the Dome.
I congratulate the Minister on the work that he has done in difficult circumstances. The Government are to be congratulated on delivering the Jubilee Line on time. I agree that without the Dome we would probably still be overspending on that project and it might well still not be completed. The overspend on the Jubilee Line is phenomenally higher than any overspend on the Dome. If we are going to have an inquiry into something that has been really expensive, I suggest that we look at the Jubilee Line well before we come to the Dome.
I also congratulate the Government on the regeneration that has been effected in the region, particularly the number of jobs that have been created. I particularly congratulate them on finishing the Dome on time. That was a marvellous achievement, given the relatively short time in which they had to work.
There have been problems from the beginning, but the events of New Year's Eve were the real killer. Many of our influential opinion formers suffered the indignity of having to queue--an unforgivable thing to require them to do--for two hours before they were
We are not going to have an inquiry. Given all the inquiries that have already been undertaken into the Dome, there is no case for another. We have not had public inquiries in the past on issues that have cost this country phenomenal amounts of money. How much did the poll tax and all the policies that went with it cost this country? What about Black Wednesday in 1992, when we had to withdraw from the exchange rate mechanism? How much did that cost? How much gold did we sell on that day? We had no inquiry and we will never know. The same is true of BSE.
There have been exhaustive inquiries on the Dome from a range of standpoints. Enough has been done. We should be seeking to encourage more people to go there and raise the visitor numbers. Happily, during the past few weeks the numbers going to the Dome have gone up significantly. If there is a fall-off in the autumn, I suggest that we might see what would have happened if the Dome had been open free of charge, in the same way as the Tate Modern is. Perhaps we could open it free of charge in November and December and see what the response is. We could learn some lessons from that. The French have not charged people for a variety of attractions to celebrate the millennium. There is often a case to be made for public service enterprises being offered for free. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will respond to that.
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I am grateful to my old friend, the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, for giving us an occasion to debate the Dome once again. It is a scandal that there is so little to show for £750 million of expenditure. It is a tragedy that there is no lasting legacy commensurate with the lasting legacy of 1851, which left us the South Kensington museum complex, the Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial. Successive generations have benefited enormously from that lasting legacy. I do not see such a lasting legacy from the Dome and that peninsula.
The tragedy arises from a confusion of objectives from the start. Michael Heseltine sold the idea and really believed that it was going to be a souped-up trade fair with lots of electronic wizardry. That was very much the concept and he persuaded industrialists to support it on that basis. Others, like the noble Baroness, looked on it as a measure for environmental recovery.
That confusion of purpose was intensified when Peter Mandelson came on the scene because he clearly wanted a pleasureDome. He wanted a souped-up Xanadu. That was until he went to Disneyland and realised that it takes three years to build a ride. That just could not be done in the time-scale and no one would put in that sort of investment for something which would exist for only a year.
Today we have the culture Secretary, Chris Smith, appearing before the Select Committee--I believe that the noble and learned Lord also appeared before it--saying that he was always against it and strongly opposed it. Such frankness could well lead to his imminent departure from the counsels of our nation.
But once again there has been confusion and difficulty at the very heart of government over this matter. There was some of that also in the Conservative Party. The trail goes back quite a long way. I do not deny that.
As a result, a committee of enlightenment was set up. Simon Jenkins, Michael Grade, Sam Chisholm from Sky, and Alan Yentob from the BBC were summoned to it. That committee was to devise what was to go into the Dome. It is not surprising that such a committee identified the intellectual emptiness at the centre of the Dome. There is a vacuum there. Therefore, it is not surprising that one has ended up with a vacuity surrounded by frivolous and shallow diversions.
Perhaps the greatest example of that is the Zone of British Identity. One would have thought that the Government would know what the British identity was. We had "Cool Britannia", a warmer version and then no Britannia. But they could not identify the British identity. So what did they do? They held a public opinion poll with focus groups asking people, "What is the British identity?"
Fortunately, the only person who never listened to those focus groups was Gerald Scarfe. I visited the Dome and I really tried to like it. The wonderful models by Gerald Scarfe were the best part of it. But they were totally unacceptable to the views of this Government. They were absolutely brilliant. They are the enduring elements of what I saw under the Dome.
I have had some dealings with the Dome because I am the chairman of the Museum of British History. Our objective is to build a museum in the centre of London which will tell the whole history of our country from Roman times to today--a very modern museum. We are still pursuing that objective. So I approached Jennie Page and the committee looking into all this and I said, "Don't you want to celebrate a little of our past 1,000 years?" because we should be proud of those thousand years. Never again in our history shall we have such an influence upon the
I thought that the Government would want to celebrate some of that. But no, my friends and officials went to a meeting and they were told very simply that a decree had come out from Caesar Augustus: no history under the Dome. We were told that there should be no history. The Government wanted nothing to do with the past. That is typical of them.
The Prime Minister has treated his own party in that way by cutting off the roots and he is now quite happy to extend that treatment to the rest of the nation and not worry about the past. The world started in May 1997. The Government are the victim of their own rhetoric in these matters.
As I have said before, this is a Government of adjectives. They are full of promise and low on performance. As regards the Prime Minister, it was all gong but no dinner. That was the real problem from the start. The Government had no real idea of what they were trying to achieve.
It is amazing that in the course of the past two or three days, some who are more natural supporters of the Labour Party than of the Conservative Party have expressed so explicitly their contempt for the Government's attitude, not only to the Dome but to culture in general. VS Naipaul, who is no Conservative by any stretch of the imagination, yesterday described the Prime Minister as a cultural vandal. Today, Doris Lessing referred to the very philistine nature of this Government. Being a Conservative, those are words which I should hesitate to use against this Government. But they strike home.
The Dome has cost £750 million, £600 million of which was public money. Hospitals have been mentioned. The Government are launching a new type of school, city academies based on the city technology colleges which I launched in 1986. They hope to establish 500 of them. The Dome money could have been used to establish those 500 city academies. Would not that have been a better lasting legacy by which to remember the millennium? Would not that have been a better legacy to deal with the problems of our inner cities rather than having that extravagant and frivolous waste of money?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is customary on these occasions to thank the noble Lord who introduced the debate and I do so because we have had a very interesting debate thus far. But there is one aspect in relation to which I regret this debate. I feel that it is yet another of that drip-feed of constant criticism and nagging about the Dome during a period when we are not talking in retrospect about its past; we are talking about its working present, when we are still seeking to ensure that as many of our fellow citizens
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, indicated that there is no history in the Dome. But there is an obvious question. Could it have been the case that Britain would not mark the millennium with a significant project? On one site we could have built 30 hospitals and on another the 500 city academies, or whatever. But would that really have marked the millennium? Of course, those are desirable projects. But we all know that when it came to the question of marking the millennium something distinctive had to be created which represented a looking forward towards the future, towards the new millennium.
In some respects, the Dome fulfils that position admirably: first, in terms of its architecture. Is it conceivable that the Britain of my noble friend Lord Rogers and the noble Lord, Lord Foster, in an age of significant architectural achievement would make no effort to construct a building of significance in this year? The Dome is exceedingly attractive. I regret the decision not to leave it open in the evening late enough for people to appreciate just how beautiful it is at night, because there is no doubt at all that one of the advantages of visiting the Dome in the winter months has been to see it in its full glory. From October onwards, I look forward to that being possible.
As regards the question of cost, do noble Lords opposite suggest that the grand projects of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Sydney Opera House were not beset by complaints about the costs involved? Of course they were. But are those buildings now looked upon as great extravagances and a waste of money because there were critics at the time who regarded that as the appropriate way to respond?
I was one who had hoped that the millennium project would be sited in the Midlands, which would have been convenient for the towns that I represented in the north-west. I believed that there were good arguments for increasing participatory attendance from that dimension.
However, I recognise that siting the Dome at Greenwich has provided a tremendous opportunity for regeneration of one of the poorest boroughs in the country. We should look upon it as a permanent development and an improvement of an area which in many respects was a declining and a depressed area of London.
We all recognise that the Dome was seen as the acceleration of the Tube extension project. Over the years people have returned from abroad and commented on Tube systems elsewhere, particularly the 50 year-old Moscow metro. They have talked about their glories compared with the poor London Transport extensions and architecture. I delight in the
I also appreciate the decision to prevent access to the Dome by car, which I understand has caused difficulties for some. I believe that that is a step towards the future. With the congestion that we can all see in terms of private transport, we must accustom ourselves to investment in public transport. If people are to enjoy themselves in our cities, they have to be able to use public transport, as I believe that they do increasingly.
One inescapable fact that critics of the Dome cannot deny is the overall approval rating of its visitors. A figure of 85 per cent is an approval rating in which most entertainments would delight. I believe that there is an element of intellectual snobbery associated with this issue. There is a sector of London's patrician class that feels that if the Dome does not sell a message that reads well in the Spectator, somehow it falls short of expectations and desires.
The Dome is meant to be for mass participation. The whole of our nation is meant to benefit from the Dome. Already millions have attended and we expect many more. We recognise that there is over-hype with regard to the original expectations of attendance. Surely the point is that the vast majority of our fellow citizens who visit the Dome show that approval and in those terms the Dome is successful. Intellectually it is vastly superior to the only project that remotely matches it in terms of attendance, namely Disney, which is entertainment and does not have the intellectual dimension of the Dome.
I visited the Dome with people from Oldham and large numbers of schoolchildren from Oldham. As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, indicated, some areas are less stimulating than others. Of course, there was criticism, but sufficient numbers of visitors had sufficient entertainment and stimulation in the Dome to make the whole day a great success. That is the story of this project. I believe that by talking it down we do the nation a disservice.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lamont for giving me my first opportunity to debate the issues surrounding the Millennium Dome. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree that it was important for the Dome to succeed. That was important for tourism, for the regeneration of the Greenwich Peninsula as a whole, and for the reputation of this country. There is nothing wrong with the original concept, but I take note of what my noble friend Lord Baker said, that he is disappointed with the content.
I, with my husband, have visited the Dome as a paying customer. I have always encouraged others to visit it; those whom I have encouraged have remained my friends. Whatever they thought of their visit, they are still talking to me. I believe that one should encourage others to go there and make up their own minds about it. I do not need sheep to bleat at me to tell me that much.
The debate initiated by my noble friend is not about consumer surveys; it is not about opinion polls. It is about the proper matter of the financial control and corporate management of the project, and whether they have been exercised in the right way having regard to the public. Many millions of the public's money have been expended on it.
Over the past three years my concern has been that the finances of the Dome have been marked by a lack of transparency. It may be completely unintentional but, at times, what has being going on has left me mystified. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, referred to the vast number of questions that have been asked. I shall carry on asking, because sometimes the answers are so vague that one has to continue to draw teeth.
In relation to some of the confusion surrounding the figures, noble Lords have quoted the amount of the millennium grant. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, told us on 2nd November last year in this House, that the Millennium Commission grant was £399 million. That is fine. He said that there was not a penny of overspend in relation to that. This week the Minister for Tourism in another place, Mrs Anderson, in a Written Answer, said that the Millennium Commission grant is £525 million. That does not appear to square with the extra drawdowns, loans, grants and whatever that have been made between November and now, so I am confused.
If we take this week's figure of £525 million as a grant, what happens to what we were told about loans along the way? If there is a loan, will it all be repaid? How much will be repaid? How much will go to English Partnerships and how much will go back to the Millennium Commission? As my noble friend Lord Lamont said earlier, the amount that will go to English Partnerships will determine whether taxpayers will, in the end, pay something towards the running of the Dome. If English Partnerships does not receive its full due, in some way the taxpayers will subsidise the Dome peninsula as a whole.
If the Millennium Commission does not receive its full due, in the long term the New Opportunities Fund will be the loser. Of course, I accept that current projects do not lose out, but there has to be the possibility that future applicants which may have expected to benefit will not. In other words, who do the Government intend to be the losers, the taxpayers or the New Opportunities Fund, or both?
Recently there has been concern about the extent of political intervention. My noble friend Lord Lamont mentioned the issue of a million free tickets for school children. I am the last person to say that children should not receive free tickets to visit something like the Dome as a millennium experience. But I am the first person, as someone who talks to the tourism industry, to say that if a political decision is to be taken to ask the NMEC to give out a million free tickets, that should be part of the business plan.
What is the Minister's estimate? This morning in the Select Committee, I believe he referred--I stress, if the report is correct--to a £41 million revenue contingency fund that was used to pay for that political decision. Can he tell the House how much of that £41 million contingency fund was used to subsidise the results of giving a million free entries to school children?
My noble friend has asked questions with regard to the National Audit Office and its investigation into the £29 million grant. The investigation kicked in as a result of a letter of direction being issued. I would be interested to know if the NAO is also dealing with previous grants and loans made to NMEC.
These are all serious questions that deserve an answer. This is the first time a request has been made for a committee of inquiry to be set up. In view of the confusing and confused answers that have come from the Government over the past year, I am not at all surprised that my noble friend has asked for that.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, I join noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, for raising this matter and giving us an opportunity to debate the Dome, and I thank noble Lords who participated in this short but interesting debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, also for writing to me and giving me advance warning of the questions that he intended asking at the end of his speech, for which I am grateful.
To put the debate in context, perhaps I may say that the period of the Dome's life has been a period during which it has encountered storms and difficulties. All those who have been involved with the Dome throughout the whole of its life have made mistakes. In a project of this size, complexity and uniqueness, it would be inconceivable for that not to be so. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, put his finger on it when he referred to similar projects and said that it was inevitable with a new and unique project that people would think one thing and then change their mind and think another.
The Dome has consistently received high visitor satisfaction ratings. The figures speak for themselves. Independent polling consistently revealed that 85 per cent of visitors were satisfied with their visits; 91 per cent rated the customer service as excellent and nearly four out of five said that they would recommend the Dome to their friends. I am genuinely sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, is one of the 15 per cent who did not enjoy it, and genuinely glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, recommends it to her friends.
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