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Points of Order

Mr. Hawkins: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that you and Madam Speaker--indeed, all occupants of the Chair--have always been careful to ensure that the needs of Members and their constituents are dealt with properly in ministerial correspondence. I therefore thought it right to draw to your attention an example of a letter that I received today about a constituency case. So that you are aware that this is not a minor matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker, let me tell you that the letter came from something called the parliamentary correspondence ministerial section--it is not a question of a junior clerk's having got something wrong.

The letter starts off well enough in referring to me correctly, but then begins "Dear Mr. Pickthall". As I am sure you will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my constituents would be slightly puzzled by my being confused with the hon. Member for West Lancashire. The letter then refers to my constituents. In my initial letter, I made it clear that I was writing on behalf of both of them. The wife, sadly, suffers from multiple sclerosis. The reply from the ministerial section of the Benefits Agency says, "We cannot tell you anything about the wife's case, because you need a Data Protection Act order authority to refer to the husband." The two are, of course, living together as husband and wife.

The reply finally states, "We cannot disclose any information the agency hold on Mr. Smith." Mr. Smith is not connected in any way with the case, so where he came from is as much a mystery as the reference to the hon. Member for West Lancashire.

From that catalogue of errors in a letter about a constituency case, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will understand the crucial importance of Ministers' supervising correspondence themselves. Would you be prepared to draw the matter to the attention of Ministers at the Department of Social Security, to ensure that, in future, letters containing three serious errors are not sent to Members when they concern constituents' urgent cases?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order, but I am sure that someone in the Department will read Hansard.

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Millennium Dome

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.44 pm

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): I beg to move,

It is nice to see the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport for the second time today, but I regret that, because of the time taken during our first encounter, there is so little time left to debate the dome. It is also a pity that the Minister responsible for it, Lord Falconer, is safely ensconced elsewhere. He, not the Secretary of State, answers for the Government on dome matters.

Let me begin by making what may be a slightly embarrassing confession. From the outset, I was a supporter of the dome and an enthusiast for the Greenwich site. I know that there are domophobes on both sides of the House--people who think that the whole project was destined to be a failure and a waste of money. I am not one of those people. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), whom I am delighted to see in the Chamber and who is often credited with having inspired the project and enabled it to happen at all. Back in 1997, in evidence to the Select Committee, he said:

I entirely endorse those sentiments. I wish that that aspiration had been fulfilled, but no one visiting the dome today could say with honesty that it has been.

The problems at the dome have resulted directly from the meddling and interference of Ministers. In fact, the problems began before the last general election, with the refusal of the Labour Opposition to make up their mind about whether, if elected, they would continue with the project. As a result of that prevarication, a valuable nine months--at least--were lost. Partly as a consequence of that, time, instead of being a theme for the dome, became an enemy.

Following the decision to proceed with the project, the Government made their next big mistake. They appointed the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), Labour's archspin doctor, to be the sole shareholder in the project. The warnings were there: the only other project that the right hon. Gentleman had masterminded was shallow, confused, all things to all people, long on height and bereft of vision. It was the monstrous blancmange of Labour's general election victory--a monstrous blancmange that is now going squishy at the edges, past its sell-by date and liable to give voters the runs.

Not surprisingly, the right hon. Gentleman's appointment was seen as harnessing the dome--and, indeed, all millennium projects, whether they originated from religious faith or from a sense of community spirit--to Labour's campaign to win the next general election. I am happy to say that most of the other projects,

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especially the smaller ones, have been reclaimed by the people up and down the country, but for the dome there was no escape. The arrival of the right hon. Gentleman began a process of obsessive secrecy, which has been one of the abiding characteristics of the way in which the project has been handled and of its public relations--obsessive secrecy illumined occasionally by flashes of the absurd or surreal.

I wonder, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you recall the trip to Disneyworld, and the photo-call with the world's most famous mouse. In view of recent events, it was a somewhat ironic trip. Do you recall the birth of "Baby Dome"? Whatever became of "Baby Dome"? [Interruption.] No doubt it was the victim of a ruthless infanticide, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring)--to whose contributions to our debates on the dome I pay tribute--so admirably points out.

Do you remember "surfball", the exciting new game, Mr. Deputy Speaker? "Surfball" turned out to be a figment: it turned out to be "surfballs". Then there was the tantalising glimpse of the body zone, which involved first a giant man, and then a man, a woman and a baby--another baby that disappeared. Finally, there was an androgenous figure; at that stage, no one knew that, sadly, it was infected with pubic lice.

Not surprisingly, the dome became the butt of jokes. According to The Times:

[Interruption.] Hon. Members should go and have a look.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I will, but I shall not do so very often, because we are short of time.

Mr. Plaskitt: If the dome is a joke, as the hon. Gentleman says, can he explain why it is now the most popular tourist attraction in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman will have to do better than that. I was quoting The Times, which pointed out that the dome had become the butt of the nation's humour.

There is a lack of candour in financial matters. That was regretted by the Select Committee on more than one occasion, but not addressed by the Ministers concerned. At one point last year, several different figures for the amount of sponsorship that had been received were spun simultaneously. That is par for the course perhaps from a press office that has been heavily infiltrated by Millbank implants and described by one former insider as "really rather nasty". The handling of the press office and its bullying approach to journalists over time might have done more to undermine the dome's reputation than even the shenanigans on new year's eve, of which I should record that my family and I were beneficiaries. [Hon. Members: "Ah."] I use the term "beneficiaries" advisedly.

With the demise, albeit temporary, of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool, there was a golden opportunity for a fresh start on the project. We argued then for the appointment of a person with relevant business and tourism skills and knowledge to head the project.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has announced that he went on a free trip

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because, previously, he had announced to everyone in the Chamber that he had paid to go in the dome. Perhaps now we have had the clarification that we expected.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is silly and is wasting time. I went to the dome on new year's eve. I went back to the dome after the opening and paid for my own ticket. I understand that that is one more time than the Secretary of State, who has been there only on new years's eve, according a recent parliamentary answer.

The impression of control by the political image doctors was only reinforced by the appointment of Lord Falconer--not just any old crony but the apogee of cronydom, the Prime Minister's trusted former flatmate. Although less prone to surfballing and more convivial than his saturnine predecessor, Lord Falconer did nothing to stem the tide of bad publicity. The project was characterised by exactly the same lack of candour and blithe reassurances to genuine questions from hon. Members on both sides of the House. As things got worse, the Government decided on a new tack: anyone criticising the dome, or the way in which it was managed was suddenly unpatriotic or a whinger.

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