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Mr. Smith: The issue of trading insolvently is appropriate only if a company has no reasonable expectation of being able to trade itself out of insolvency. Each time Lord Falconer and others came to Parliament on this matter, there was every expectation either that the issue of inadequate funds was about to be resolved or that it had just been resolved. That is the point that the hon. Gentleman needs to take into account.

Mr. Redwood: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Smith: No, I must make some progress.

I agree with the Comptroller and Auditor General's conclusions. He is right to identify the reduction in visitor numbers as the main source of the dome's difficulties, although there were other issues, to which I shall come in a moment or two.

It is of course very disappointing that the dome will not meet its original visitor target of 12 million. Since the Millennium Commission set out its guidelines for a national exhibition in 1995, many Members on both sides of the House have shared its aspirations for an exhibition to rival those of 1851 and 1951. Those guidelines suggested that the millennium exhibition should attract between 15 million and 30 million people. That was a

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laudable ambition, but one which, with the benefit of hindsight, we know to have been seriously over- optimistic. We must all--on both sides of the House--put up our hands and admit that we got it wrong. I am happy to do so. Indeed, all of us on both sides of the House need to accept that there were things about the project, especially the visitor number projections, that we simply got wrong.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Smith: Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I remind him that, in 1995, the Millennium Commission, chaired by the then Secretary of State for National Heritage, the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), set an aim of 15 million visitors; that in July 1995, the aim had become between 15 million and 30 million visitors; that on 18 January 1996, the target was 10 million visitors; that in February of that year, the target was between 10.9 million and 16 million visitors; and that, by 11 December 1996, the target had become 13.5 million visitors. That is the story of expectations throughout that period, so we shall take no lessons from the Conservative party about the mistakes that were undoubtedly made. Members on both sides of the House were responsible for getting it wrong.

Mr. Gale: Having come from "We'll take the credit" to "Let's please share the blame", the Secretary of State should be referred to page 4 of the National Audit Office report, which we are in effect debating. Referring to May 1997, paragraph 16 states:

In other words, every major decision, other than the decision to have the spiked hut, was taken by this Government. If there were a shred of honour left in the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and for Culture, Media and Sport, or in Lord Falconer, all three would resign.

Mr. Smith: I hesitate to point out to the hon. Gentleman that the decision to build the dome was taken under the previous Government; that the decision to build it at Greenwich was taken under the previous Conservative Government; that the original chairman and chief executive of the dome company were appointed by the previous Government; that the corporate structure was decided by the previous Government; that the use of lottery money to support the project was decided under the previous Government; and that the role of the shareholder was created under the previous Government. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is simply unworthy of his usual high standards.

Mr. Maples: The long list of things that the Secretary of State said were decided by the previous Government omitted the content of the dome. I took my family, along with another family, to the dome very early in January. We all thought that we would have had a lot more fun at the local fair and learned a lot more at the science museum. The problem with the project is not the concept, the space or the wonderful tube ride to get there but the

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trite content. Nobody blames the Secretary of State for that; he is much too civilised to have passed off such rubbish as appropriate content. It is surely the fault of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and he ought to be answering this debate.

Mr. Smith: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is a fan of the science museum and that he can now take his children to it for free following our decision. His experience differs markedly from 88 per cent. of visitors to the dome, who come away saying that they have had a really enjoyable time and would recommend it to their friends.

In the context of the history of the project, I find the attitude of the hon. Member for East Surrey and his party leader pretty unedifying. One--the hon. Member for East Surrey--was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for National Heritage, and the other sat on the Cabinet Committee that decided to take forward the exhibition under the previous Government. When the previous Government set up that Committee, the then Secretary of State announced on 28 February 1996 that, in order to ensure that the Government's participation in that significant national event was well planned and co-ordinated, she had asked the First Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister to convene a ministerial group. The Leader of the Opposition was a member of that ministerial group from the outset; the public record confirms it. I do not think it unreasonable, in the light of the Opposition's comments in this debate, to point out that they were in it from the start.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Smith: No, I want to make some progress.

Now we have an Opposition, including the hon. Gentleman, who engage in what I would call not so much shuttle diplomacy as shuttle expediency: when something is going well, one goes ahead with it, giving it all one's support and praising it to the skies; but when it turns out three months later to be unpopular with the media, here are the Opposition going in the opposite direction, saying that the project is a complete disaster and was nothing whatever to do with them in the first place.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of what he said, not in 1995 or 1996 but in the middle of 1999:

Not to be outdone, the Leader of the Opposition said of the dome on 23 December 1999:

Perhaps most significant of all, the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey, said when presenting to the House in December 1996 the decision to go ahead with the dome:

Mr. Ainsworth: The Secretary of State is merely reiterating the point that the Conservatives had the original vision for the dome. He knows perfectly well that we did

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not want this thing to be the failure that it has become. We warned the Government that, if they went ahead as they were going, it might be such a failure. It is their fault that the project has become a failure. At least we can recognise that, now that it has.

Has the Secretary of State read the National Audit Office report? If he looks at paragraph 1.27, he will see that all his points fall away. It states clearly:

The figures were the Secretary of State's; it was the Government's decision.

Mr. Smith: Not only the original concept but the structure of the company, the decision to go ahead with it and the original visitor number expectations, which are at the heart of the NAO report, were put in place by the previous Government.

The hon. Member for East Surrey has spoken about my noble Friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton. The previous Government recognised the national significance of the project by appointing a Minister the sole shareholder in the operating company. We retained those arrangements because we believe that it was right that a national project of such scale should be subject to ministerial accountability. As an NMEC shareholder, Lord Falconer is accountable to Parliament through the other place for the Millennium Experience. That means that he needs to take an active interest in the project's development and progress along the critical path. However, that is very different from interfering in day-to-day management, which is the responsibility of NMEC's board.

I especially deplore the cheap political point scoring to which the Opposition have sunk--

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