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House of Lords

Monday, 19th March 2001.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.

Millennium Dome: Sale

Baroness Noakes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the progress on the sale of the Millennium Dome.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, we are currently conducting market testing prior to launching a new competition. Details of the timetable and process for that competition will be announced as soon as possible after market testing is complete.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply. Can the noble and learned Lord clarify what he means by market testing being conducted "as soon as possible"? Perhaps I may also refer him to two Written Answers he has given; one around a month ago to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, and one last week to myself. Both of those Answers stated that the process would be announced "shortly". Can he explain to the House what "shortly" and "as soon as possible" mean in Dome-speak?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the process presently under way is that the Government have instructed professional experts to inquire of the market what would be the sensible course to take. Before we embark on another competitive process, it is right that we should be informed by the market's view. As soon as possible after that process has been completed, an announcement will be made.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, can I take it that my noble and learned friend has not ruled out the possibility of not selling the Dome at all if an inadequate response is received? Would it then be kept in public hands?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the process currently under way will determine what the market wants. Once we know the details of that, we shall take the appropriate course and set up a competition.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, just over three-and-a-half months have now passed since the noble and learned Lord described the Legacy bid as "innovative" and "regenerative". At the time, Mr James told us that the total cost of the project was £834 million. Can the noble and learned Lord tell the House the total cost today, including the cost of attempted disposal?

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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, in addition to the costs that have been provided to the New Millennium Experience Company by the lottery, some £7 million have been spent on the competition. That needs to be added to the figure. Apart from that, no additional costs have been incurred.

Lord Elton: My Lords, in view of the cost of the Dome and of the careful regulation of expenditure on election costs, can the Minister tell the House how much will be left in the Labour Party kitty for election expenses after the Prime Minister's undertaking to use the Dome as the first paragraph of his election address?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I did not quite understand that question; it meandered a little. However, as regards the suggestion that the Dome would form the first paragraph of the Labour Party manifesto, the only sighting of that comment has been in an article in the Daily Telegraph.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, will the final stages of this process or exercise be conducted with same level of professionalism that we have seen hitherto?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, at all stages the process by which the Dome has been marketed has been utterly professional. That means that at no stage has the process involved seeking merely a short-term gain. It has always had at its core the need to meet the long-term interests of regeneration in north Greenwich.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, what are the current running costs of the Dome per day?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the running costs of the Dome, including the pay of the people working in it, are something in excess of £1 million. I apologise; I should have said that those are the costs per month rather than per day. Once it is a question only of maintaining the site, the costs will fall to something in the region of £550,000 per month.

Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, when questions on this subject are raised, one feels increasingly that one is intruding into a matter of private grief. However, can the Minister say whether, even at this late stage, he can think of a theme for the Dome?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I do not think that the Dome project should be regarded as a matter for private grief. If the noble Lord were to visit Greenwich and Woolwich, he would see how much that part of London has been regenerated. The London Borough of Greenwich has estimated that, over seven years, some 30,000 new jobs will be created. Far from this being a matter of grief, it is a matter of regeneration. So far as concerns a theme for the Dome, I think that it should be regeneration and the bringing of hope where previously there was only despair.

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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will give me credit because, out of sympathy for him, I have refrained for a long time from asking any questions about the Dome. I intervene now in order to tender a brief word of advice which I hope that he will accept. Will the noble and learned Lord please give urgent consideration to getting rid of this appalling thing as quickly as possible? It represents a load of shame on almost everyone who has been involved in it.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I do not regard the Dome project as a "load of shame" as the noble Lord put it. It is something which has brought hope, jobs and regeneration to an area that was previously contaminated.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, does the Minister recollect that recently I tabled a Written Question asking whether the Government's advisers agreed with the statement made by certain property experts who said that the site would be worth more with the Dome demolished than with it still standing? Can he give me an answer to that today?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I can recall that Written Question and I believe that it has been answered.

Lord Tebbit: I have not had a reply.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the noble Lord has made his remarks from a sedentary position.

So far as the Government are concerned, we think that the right course is to keep the Dome. It is a project which has brought regeneration to the area of north Greenwich. In considering what should be done in the future, one should have regard to regeneration, value for money and what is best for the local area.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord said that a previously contaminated site has been regenerated. As the contamination was extremely serious before anything was done about it, can the Minister give an absolute assurance that, whether the Dome stays there or is demolished, there is no longer any contamination in the soil beneath?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the decontamination has been carried out to a standard commensurate with the expected use of the north Greenwich peninsula. Obviously, at some level there will be contamination, but for the uses envisaged in the planning, the site is safe.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that it is very easy to criticise a half-done business deal? Does he further agree that noble Lords opposite should save their criticisms for when the deal is completed rather than make them when it is half done?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I agree.

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British Culture: Promotion Overseas

2.43 p.m.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to promote British culture overseas.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the British Council is our principal agent for the promotion of British culture overseas. It projects the United Kingdom's creativity, cultural diversity and recent achievements and challenges outmoded stereotypes of the United Kingdom abroad. The council's funding will be increased by 10 per cent over the next three years.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Britain Abroad Task Force and the BBC World Service also promote British culture overseas.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply. Is she aware that the National Theatre, in which I declare an interest, recently visited Belgrade with a production of "Hamlet", which was supported by the British Council? This was the first visit by an international theatre company to Belgrade since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and many senior politicians attended the first performance. Does my noble friend agree that visits of this kind not only give great pleasure--which they obviously do--but can help to cement, build and sometimes heal international relationships? Does she further agree that government money spent on visits of this kind is money well spent?

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