Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal):
Before I call the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) to move the Opposition motion, I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey):
I beg to move,
That this House deplores the financial mismanagement of the New Millennium Experience Company; notes with concern that the cost to Lottery funds has exceeded the budget by £229 million; believes that this represents a serious waste of public funds; and regrets that Ministers have neither apologised nor accepted responsibility for the failure of this national project.
The House last had an opportunity to debate the dome on 21 February. On that occasion, the House approved a Government amendment that expressed the view that the millennium experience represented
an excellent celebration for the people of this country and a tangible and enduring legacy for future generations.
The Government majority also welcomed
the announcement that the New Millennium Experience Company team will be introducing improvements which deliver even greater value for money both to the paying visitor and to the Millennium Commission.--[Official Report, 21 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 1348.]
That is what the Government required Labour Members to support, and they duly did so, making themselves look absurd.
Tonight, we are offering those Members the chance to redeem themselves by supporting our motion, which reflects both the facts and the vast body of public opinion.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham):
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I suppose so.
The hon. Gentleman--so gracious and courteous--was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the former dome Minister, Virginia Bottomley--[Interruption.]
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that he should refrain from using the name of any Member to whom he refers.
When pulchritude and the name go together, I dare make a mistake, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) is a former Secretary of State for National Heritage. The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) was her PPS at the time when she promoted the dome and when the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)--now Leader of the Opposition--crawled on his knees to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister--then Leader of the Opposition--to ask for our support. If the hon. Member for East Surrey has problems with the dome, will he confess his own involvement in it and apologise for it?
That was hardly worth giving way for, but I am delighted to have the pivotal role that I played in the past Conservative Administration recognised at last.
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One of my proudest memories is that I had the honour to serve as Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley). If the hon. Gentleman has followed matters at all, he will know that I was indeed--I confess it freely--an enthusiast for the dome project at that time. Unlike Labour Members, however, I am quite prepared to admit that the whole thing has been an unmitigated failure and to express my regrets about that.
Some £628 million of lottery money has been wasted. The Ministers responsible have, at least in the eyes of the public, been disgraced. A lot of water has flowed under the closed millennium bridge since we last debated the dome, and hundreds of millions of pounds worth of lottery money with it.
The original lottery funding was £399 million; about a year ago, the project received an extra draw-down facility--repayable--of £50 million; it received £60 million in February; £29 million in May; £43 million in August; and an extra £47 million in September. That is the shameful record of the dome's miserable year.
Getting to the truth about what went wrong with the project has been a slow and painful process.
Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)
The hon. Gentleman rises on cue.
The hon. Gentleman tells us that he is convinced that the dome has been an unmitigated disaster. Did he support his former boss, the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), when she extended the life of the Millennium Commission in order to cover the funding because the Conservatives knew that their financial projections would not hold up?
That is a good question.
It is a very silly question, because no one in their right mind could have imagined that, under Labour, the project would have cost an extra £239 million.
Getting to the truth about the project has been slow and painful, but one by one, like rotten teeth, the facts are beginning to be extracted. It was not the fault of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport but an indictment of Ministers that, after numerous inquiries, last summer the Committee was forced to admit that
it has been virtually impossible to ascertain the precise budgetary position of the New Millennium Experience Company.
We have pointed out previously that the whole scheme was characterised by a lack of candour that ill befits a major public project. The problem began with the appointment of the man who is now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), as sole shareholder--[Hon. Members: "Where is he?"] We should have realised that trouble was coming because, when the right hon. Gentleman was appointed, he complained to the Select Committee about the "excessive accountability" of the dome. The Government do not like accountability. But the public will hold them accountable.
The report of the National Audit Office, which was published last week and which is to be the subject of detailed consideration by the Public Accounts Committee
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on Wednesday, at last revealed something of the truth. In clinical prose, it charted the decline and fall of new Labour's flagship project and shed light on a sordid tale of expediency, vanity, half-truths and evasions.
The Minister who has been responsible for the dome for the past 23 months is not in this House--indeed, Lord Falconer is not accountable to this House. When the right hon. Member for Hartlepool was forced to resign his former ministerial position--in short-lived disgrace--we urged the Government to appoint a non-controversial figure in his place: someone with relevant operational skills, who knew something about running a visitor attraction. Instead, we got a man whose only previous claim to fame was that he once shared a flat with the Prime Minister and had apparently had something to do with a May ball at Cambridge.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North):
Does the hon. Gentleman recall the comments of his right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), who, in the most offensive terms, castigated Labour Front-Bench spokesmen in opposition for rubbishing the dome for cynical political gain? Is that not exactly what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do?
Absolutely not; I am trying to give the House an opportunity to express a verdict on the dome. No doubt it will do so later.
Lord Falconer's responsibilities for the dome are helpfully set out in the NAO report. Those responsibilities include
setting the strategic direction of the company and monitoring it in terms of cost.
That failed. Lord Falconer had responsibility for content--failed; for national impact--failed; for legacy--failing; and for effective management--pull the other one.
The report makes it clear that, since August last year, Lord Falconer attended 16 of the 22 board meetings and was represented at two. He must have known what was going on, but when PricewaterhouseCoopers produced its report on the dome in September, with damning evidence of the sorry state of the project's finances, he wrote--on 21 September--that he was "shocked" by its findings. Despite his assiduous attendance record as a shadow director, was he the only person who did not know how bad things had become?
On 20 February, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport wrote to Lord Falconer stating that
It seems possible that the board failed to take decisive action until after a date when the company became technically insolvent.
What did Lord Falconer think about that? On 25 May this year, after the dome had been granted a further £29 million of lottery money, why did he think that the directors had lined up to ask for indemnities for any wrongful trading actions brought against them by creditors? Did he think they were making that application for fun?
How did Lord Falconer respond to the letter from the chairman of NMEC of 14 July informing him that the finances had further deteriorated, or to the information that the commission's view was that the company might run out of money within two weeks and might require an additional £45 million? Did he think that it was all a storm in a Chianti bottle?
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In the light of what Lord Falconer must have known, how truthful was it of him to tell the House of Lords on 17 July that the company was trading solvently? Six days after the warnings about the need for additional funds, he told Parliament:
I repeat: the National Millennium Experience Company is confident that it will deliver the project within its lifetime budget of £758 million.--[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 July 2000; Vol. 615, c. 1162.]
How truthful was that?
How did the Secretary of State feel about those bland reassurances? What action did he take to the set the record straight? As chairman of the Millennium Commission, he has acted as banker to the project for the past three and a half years. Twice, his accounting officers advised that granting the dome extra money would not represent a proper or prudent use of public funds. Twice, the Secretary of State has been party to overruling that advice.
The Government claimed that it was in the national interest to bail out the dome. It was not. It was in the interest of the Labour party and, in particular, of the Prime Minister in whose image the whole project was fashioned by his cronies the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Lord Falconer.
What use are reassurances from the Secretary of State in any case? When he replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who had rightly inquired about the additional grant of £60 million that had just been made, the Secretary of State said:
I strongly point out to the hon. Gentleman that such funding will and must be repaid.--[Official Report, 31 January 2000; Vol. 343, c. 764.]
Will the right hon. Gentleman repeat that clear assurance? Will the money be repaid? The right hon. Gentleman will not answer because--like the remainder of the £230 million overspend--the money will not be repaid.