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House of Lords

Thursday, 10th February 2000.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Millennium Dome Experience:

Ticket Sales

Lord Luke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the forward sale of tickets to the Millennium Dome Experience is adequate to ensure that the whole project will run at a profit by the end of the year.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, the New Millennium Experience Company never expected a full house in January--very few other visitor attraction sites are full at this time of year. NMEC is extremely encouraged by the continuing upward trend in visitor numbers and is confident that it will sell enough tickets to break even. Independent polls show that visitors have overwhelmingly enjoyed the Dome and would recommend it to their friends.

Lord Luke: My Lords, setting aside the merits and demerits of the Dome project and while thanking the Minister for that reply, I ask him whether he will accept how sorry I am about recent events. Will he say whether he considers that the chairman and board of directors of NMEC have been properly supportive of their erstwhile chief executive? If so, why have they not shouldered at least some of the responsibility for the present crisis and resigned? If they did not wish to support the former chief executive, why did they not take action earlier?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the former chief executive of the Dome company, Jennie Page, did a magnificent job. She delivered the Dome on time and on budget on 31st December 1999. I do not believe that any other person could have worked so well as she has done. However, the board of the company concluded that the Dome needed a different kind of management for the way forward; namely, running a visitor attraction. That was a matter for the board. The decision was taken earlier last month that that would be the way forward. I believe that it was the right decision to take.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, in the interests of bringing more young people to the Dome, can the Minister confirm whether there are plans to have Mickey Mouse shaking hands at the door?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the new management will not "Disneyfy" the Dome, but will manage it as efficiently as possible as a visitor attraction.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, may I ask the Minister a question that relates to one I put to him

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some time ago? He gave me a very reasonable answer at the time. The question I then asked was: what would happen if the projections in terms of turnover were not met and the sponsors became restive? I presume that they have agreed to the content, to which they have contributed money. However, now we are in the position of knowing that the projections have not quite come up to the original estimates and some sponsors have expressed concern. How does the Minister see the progress of the relationship between the company and individual sponsors, in particular those sponsors who have not yet put into the pot the full sums that they pledged?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, like everyone else, the sponsors had concerns about the first few weeks of the Dome's operation. Those concerns have been discussed with the management of the New Millennium Experience Company. While they have made clear their precise concerns, they have also all made it clear that they remain firmly behind the Dome. In addition, short-term finance has been made available by the Millennium Commission to deal in part with the fact that visitor numbers at the beginning of the year have not been as high as was expected. However, everyone--the sponsors, NMEC and the Millennium Commission--is satisfied that the Dome can continue and can be a success.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I speak as one who has visited the Dome. Does my noble friend agree that people would not recognise the experience from the one described in press reports? Would he further agree that if people go along to see for themselves, they are sure to enjoy it?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. A large number of polls have been carried out that show how much people have enjoyed their visits to the Dome. The polls--the majority of them produced by the media, which have not been altogether enthralled by the Dome--indicate levels of 80 to 90 per cent satisfaction and record 70 to 80 per cent of respondents as saying that they would recommend the Dome to a friend.

Lord Elton: My Lords, further to the question put to the Minister by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, does the Minister recall telling the House on 12th January that he was proud to say that he was the sole shareholder of the company and that no taxpayers' money of any kind would be used to make good a shortfall? Does he still stand by the comment he made, that he personally could afford to make good the result of any such shortfall?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, my noble friend the Deputy Chief Whip says that even now they are holding a whip-round behind me. I stand by the point I made on a previous occasion that not a penny of taxpayers' money will be used to make good any shortfall.

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Baroness Richardson of Calow: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most remarkable achievements of the Dome has been to get the Christian Churches to work together? That in itself is a remarkable achievement. However, leaders of the other faith communities also joined in with those consultations to produce the Faith Zone. Not only does it celebrate all that is good about Christianity and its contribution to society, but it also celebrates the other faith communities of this country. Does the Minister agree that this is a valuable contribution to the celebrations we are rightly enjoying that Britain is now a multi-faith and multi-cultural society?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I agree with all that the noble Baroness has said. The Faith Zone is a great tribute to the Christian Churches and other faiths all working together. When one visits the Dome, one sees significant numbers of people visiting the Faith Zone. They are entranced by what they see and are enjoying a useful and purposeful experience.

Lord Paul: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that no business can be run effectively if earlier projections do not materialise? Projections are made on the basis of a management team ensuring that those forecasts will be accurate.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I believe that all businesses start with sensible projections. Sometimes they become knocked off course, but usually they are able to get back on course and make a success of it.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, was it not the case that the sponsors took a view that attendances were disappointingly low? Is that not totally at odds with the statement with which the Minister first began?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the sponsors were concerned about a number of matters. The statement which I made at the beginning was that NMEC is extremely encouraged by the continuing upward trend in visitor numbers and is confident that it will sell enough tickets to break even. Nothing that I have said is inconsistent with the views that have been expressed by the sponsors.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, was the post to replace Jennie Page advertised, and were the Nolan procedures followed?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it was not advertised. It would not be appropriate to apply the Nolan procedures to a post such as this. It would have taken approximately five to six months to go through the procedures and, in any case, they do not apply.

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British Hallmarks: Status

3.14 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What will be the status of established British hallmarks following the possible implementation of a draft harmonisation directive of the European Union.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, the answer to this Question will depend upon the exact terms of EU harmonising legislation, if and when that is finally adopted. The wording of the current Commission proposal for a directive on the control and marking of articles of precious metals is ambiguous on the status of established hallmarks. However, it could be interpreted as prohibiting national hallmarks in favour of an "e" mark denoting compliance with the directive's requirements. The Government cannot accept the proposed directive in its current form.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am very pleased to hear his last sentence? Does he agree that for 700 years the British hallmark has been the earliest form of continuous consumer protection but is now seen as a barrier to trade? Furthermore, does he agree that, under new European legislation, the marks of many European countries will become valid here, thus creating consumer confusion?

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