HC Deb 28 January 1998 vol 305 cc261-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jon Owen Jones.]

9.34 am
Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

I begin by expressing my gratitude to you, Madam Speaker, for granting me this Adjournment debate.

At the time of the first session of questions to the Minister Without Portfolio, hon. Members on both sides were concerned about the high-handed way in which the House was being treated. Only five minutes were allowed for questions to the Minister, which allowed only one question tabled to be answered—a point I raised with you at the time, Madam Speaker. In eight months, the Minister has answered only four oral questions tabled.

The millennium dome is huge project of such significance to Britain that five minutes for questions was clearly pathetic, and I am glad to say that the time has now been doubled. If it continues to increase at the current rate, we might be closer to having a proper session for questions to the Minister by 2000.

Today's debate ensures that the Minister will be in the House for an hour and a half this morning. I am pleased to see that the hon. Gentleman has managed to find his way to the Chamber, even if he is not listening to me at this moment. It is truly a new experience for the Minister with responsibility for the millennium experience, and he may find that the House is capable of giving him a better ride than anything he found on his jolly to Disneyworld. I hope that he will enjoy his accountability experience this morning.

The debate is long overdue. As a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, I have spent much time examining the preparations for the millennium celebration at Greenwich. I and other Members from both sides of the Committee have become increasingly concerned about the level and detail of the preparations.

One comment in evidence to our Committee illustrates that point. Mr. Michael Grade, a director of the New Millennium Experience Company, was asked by the Committee to consider the millennium events, and, in his reply, used two sporting events to illustrate his point. He told us: the Olympic Games; it has been known that they were going to have an Olympic Games in the year 2000 for over 100 years. It is every four years, war excepted. Similarly, the World Soccer Cup is a very predictable event, six or eight years ahead. We are playing catch-up. Playing catch-up? Could Mr. Grade not have predicted that there would be a millennium? Are we to believe that it is easier to organise a world cup with six or eight years' notice than a millennium event with 2,000 years notice?

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fraser

No. I have a long speech to give, but I shall give way in a moment.

Why are we playing catch-up? We are doing so because the Labour party in opposition rubbished the project and cast doubt on its future. In such circumstances, the private sector was reluctant to commit any money before the election. When Labour came to power, the Government dithered and delayed, and now we are running out of time.

I trust that the Minister will not be insulted by what I am saying, and that he will not blame others for what has happened. Responsibility must rest on the Government Benches alone. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has pointed out, the Prime Minister and his colleagues played politics with the issue before the election—action my right hon. Friend described to the Select Committee as "unnecessary and unprincipled".

It might be useful to have a definition of the word "millennium". "Collins English Dictionary" offers the following: 1. … Christianity. the period of a thousand years of Christ's awaited reign upon earth. 2. a period or cycle of one thousand years. 3. a time of peace and happiness. esp. in the distant future. I am sure that it is the third definition that appeals overwhelmingly to the Minister, but peace and happiness are a long way off for him.

I am convinced that part of the reason the project has been dogged by confusion and disarray cannot simply be put down to the inexperience of the Minister Without Portfolio, although he must be a key factor in it. It most certainly comes down to the lack of an overriding theme. We are to mark the millennium, but the question "For what?" has not yet been answered; it has not yet been posed. When I asked Mr. Robert Ayling, the chairman, no less, of the New Millennium Experience Company, why other countries are not undertaking such a vast and mammoth project, he told me, "I do not know."

I believe that there is a case for a millennium experience to mark a significant date in the Christian calendar in a fitting and memorable way. It is also a good way to remind the Minister Without Portfolio that time did not begin on 1 May last year. Indeed, given that the event is to go ahead, we Conservatives would rather that it is a success than a disaster. For that reason, I hope that the Minister will take our concerns seriously and with good will.

We know of none of the contents of the dome, but, given the hon. Gentleman's record in his previous incarnation, it will not surprise the House to know that we have a slogan. It is strikingly familiar: It's time to make a difference. Someone should have told the hon. Gentleman that he is organising a millennium celebration, not running an election campaign.

When I heard the slogan, feeble though it is, I thought that it had been chosen to fit in with the contents; I began to believe that there must be a strategy after all. I fear that I was being optimistic, for we still have no details of the contents.

As someone who has a limited experience of the marketing business, I must say that it is unusual to design logos and slogans—a marketing campaign in embryo—without a product. It could be said that the dome preparations, like the Government themselves, are a triumph of style over substance. As the hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) told the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport:

It is a little like Cadbury's developing a wrapper without actually deciding what the chocolate bar is going to be. Does someone need a marketing degree to work out that, in order to attract visitors, it is a good idea to tell them what they might see? Yet, despite the scale of the challenge and the time scale we face—there are now fewer than 500 working days to go—we still know almost nothing. We can compare that to the preparations that the Australians have been making for the Sydney Olympics, where the schedule was completed in 1994. Mr. Keith Bales, a former senior Disney executive and an expert in developing visitor attraction projects, told the Select Committee that no one on the board has ever run, managed, designed or promoted in any way whatsoever a major international leisure attraction. This situation has all the makings of a Whitehall farce.

Does the Minister have a grip on what is happening? He says that the dome will not be a theme park, yet, at the taxpayer's expense, he visits Disneyworld for ideas. We are told that the project is to highlight the best of British, yet the Prime Minister jets off to Japan to beg for investment. The Minister needs to clarify the matter: who is telling the truth? Is it him when he tells The Daily Telegraph that the dome is to have a Christian theme? Is it him when he tells the Select Committee that it is for all faiths, and none"? Is it Sir Terence Conran, the Minister's new litmus test, who believes that it is "inappropriate" to mention Christ in the Christian millennium? Or does he need to ask his eight-year-old adviser from the newly appointed junior board—ironically called Christian—before he can tell the House?

The point may be becoming obvious: no one has a clue what is going on, least of all those in charge of the project.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

When is the hon. Gentleman going to get to the substance of his remarks? Everything he has said has been negative, and an attempt to diminish a bold experiment which many Labour Members have supported and which has all-party support. It is a bold, imaginative project that is good for this country. When will the hon. Gentleman stop carping and say something positive about a really good idea which has support from both sides of the House and throughout the country?

Mr. Fraser

The quicker the hon. Gentleman sits down, the quicker he will hear me make that point. My speech contains plenty of quotes from the Minister, who starts to hang himself. If the hon. Gentleman hangs around, he will find out.

The Minister has been responding to substantive issues with gimmicks. I am, however, happy to pay tribute to Greenwich council, which has fought so hard and so well for the location of the dome. If the project works, it will bring Greenwich huge benefits, including economic and social regeneration, employment, the Jubilee line extension, an extension to the Docklands light railway, the development of river bus service—something that I have long advocated-10,000 new homes; it will bring back into use 1,000 acres of derelict and contaminated land. All that is to be welcomed.

The overriding reason for choosing Greenwich is obvious: it sits on the prime meridian. But believe it or not, the dome itself will not. To stand on the prime meridian, one will have to leave the all-weather dome and brave the elements, for the meridian lies outside the dome.

I referred to the absence of content, but one part of the contents is known. It will astonish the House to know that guaranteed to be in the dome is the air vent of the Blackwall tunnel. Perhaps I am being unfair, for the commitment of the Minister and his leader, the Prime Minister, to hot air is well known; they have built their careers on it.

We are assured that all will soon become clear. Ms Page, chief executive of the New Millennium Experience Company, said in her evidence: We are going to start the marketing in the first quarter of 1998". We are now told that there is to be a launch on 24 February; perhaps all will be revealed, the veil will be lifted and light will be shone on the project. I certainly hope so, and I look forward to more details from the Minister this morning, for time is now short: there are, I repeat, fewer than 500 working days left.

What really concerns me is that the Minister should make his announcements about the millennium exhibition here in this Chamber, before any grand press launch. We in this House must be the first to hear the details that are apparently to be launched on 24 February. I look to the Minister to give the House and you, Madam Speaker, a concrete undertaking that that will be the case. In the absence of a satisfactory assurance from the Minister, it will be my intention to take the matter up with you. The Government have a poor record when it comes to announcements of that sort, as you have often said in the Chamber.

It might be useful to the House to be reminded of this Administration's record; it is a catalogue of muddled thinking, incompetence and double standards. The Government profess a profound concern over so-called fat cats, but one of the Minister's first acts on 26 June last year was to appoint Mark McCormack of the IMG group to attract sponsors; his commission could be as much as £15 million. Would he not be the fattest cat who ever walked? Does not that appointment reveal a certain hypocrisy?

Mr. Sheerman

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On the subject of hypocrisy, the fact is that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) did not declare an interest this morning. He is well known as a part-time Member of Parliament; he is actually a travel agent who is very much concerned with the millennium dome. He has not made any announcement to that effect, and if there is any hypocrisy in this Chamber, it comes from him.

Madam Speaker

I think the hon. Gentleman is showing a great deal of frustration, but is he saying to me that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) should be declaring an interest?

Mr. Sheerman


Madam Speaker

If that is the case, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will declare an interest now. Before he does so, may I make an appeal to the House? There is a great deal of demand to speak in this debate, and Members will be very disappointed if they cannot speak, so I ask for very short speeches. I return to the point about an interest. Would the hon. Gentleman declare an interest, if he has reason to do so?

Mr. Fraser

I am a director of a travel company which has absolutely nothing to do with the millennium dome and millennium experience.

After renaming the company in July, the Minister increased the pace in August. The signed contract with a German firm for the roof of the dome was cancelled, and a new one placed with an American company. Legal action for breach of contract may be about to follow. The irony that the dome is to promote the "best of British" will not be lost on the House.

Undeterred, the Minister pressed on. He dealt with an early-day motion, reported in the Evening Standard, tabled by his colleague the hon. Member for Hackney. North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), calling for greater accountability and publication of interim accounts. However, I am sure that the Minister is not talking to his hon. Friend the Paymaster General about setting up the New Millennium Experience Company offshore.

On this occasion, the Minister is using British company law to afford himself all the secrecy he needs. He is hiding behind a code of practice on access to Government information which was put in place to protect private contractors, not to be used as a smokescreen for Ministers' accountability to the House.

Perhaps this is one of the areas where the Minister could help the House today. Although he is legally correct in saying that he is not obliged to publish last year's accounts for the New Millennium Experience Company until September 1998, does he accept that, in the case of a project involving £780 million of so-called public money, there is a moral obligation to publish sooner? Or are the finances of the project in such a state that he is petrified of publication? I trust that the Minister will address those critical issues this morning.

In November, it got even better. The Independent reported that the Jubilee line will not be up to full capacity by the year 2000. Only 10 trains an hour may run—rather than 36 at full capacity—a view articulated when London Underground gave evidence to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. No wonder the Government are reported to be planning a privatisation of London Underground—perhaps to blame the private sector for their own failings.

In December, the Minister has a tremendous idea. He tells the House of his inspired idea of a "junior council" of children and teenagers to advise on what is "cool". Does it not seem odd that, given the amount of money being poured into consultancy fees in this £780 million project, with fewer than 500 working days to go before the millennium, all he can do is to turn to children for advice on the contents of the centrepiece—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]—the centrepiece of the nation's celebration for the millennium? Is it not a case of the boy maketh the man?

Then the poor Minister hits a spate of panic departures. Off goes Sir Cameron Mackintosh at Christmas. Off goes Stephen Bayley in January. The chief executive of the Millennium Commission, Eric Sorensen, is off, too. That is an interesting development for a job-creating project.

In his evidence to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, the Minister spoke of an interactive exhibit in the dome with the working title "Qualify for 20 jobs you never knew existed". It seems that the list of candidates for those jobs is already growing. In 500 days' time, there may well be more applicants than jobs. If any more people were to resign, the Minister may well have to build the dome on his own. Just imagine it: Lord Puttnam could make a film about it. It could be called "Dome Alone".

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

My hon. Friend mentioned one movie. I was just wondering whether the Minister Without Portfolio was getting his ideas from another film, called "Field of Dreams". I do not know whether he has seen it. It is about a fanner in Idaho who hears voices saying: "Build it. They will come." Although the farmer is threatened with bankruptcy, he removes one of his cash crops to build a baseball park. I shall not spoil the end of the movie for everyone, but does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister Without Portfolio may be hearing these voices, directing him? How much longer must we wait before he hears more voices, telling him what he needs to put in the dome?

Mr. Fraser

I suspect that, as we speak, many writers are lining up to put that film into production.

I shall now turn to the financial and contingency plans—or, rather, to the absence of contingency plans. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley said: If you cannot answer the question about the contents, you cannot get somebody to sign up for the money nor, I imagine, can you get people to visit the dome.

Yet all the projections have been done on the calculation of 12 million visitors in 12 months. Mr. Bales, an ex-Disney senior executive, who has vast experience in these matters—certainly more than the Minister—was blunt with the Select Committee. He told us: I do not believe those numbers". Yet, when we ask for details of contingency plans, we are greeted with intransigence. We know only that there is to be a spurious contingency fund of £200 million of public money, to cover over-runs on the cost. Will the Minister tell us this morning whether it will also cover under-runs on income?

We have been told that 12 million people will visit the dome exhibition—more than 32,000 people a day, every day for the whole year—mostly, I hasten to say, in off-peak hours, because London Underground cannot meet the demand. What happens if the attendance does not meet expectations? How can the Minister say that 32,000 people will visit every day for the whole year when he cannot say what they will see when they get there? It is time for answers.

The Minister's assurance that the dome will be on time could cause a skip of the heart in the most collected of people. The Minister said: This has to open and it will open on New Year's Eve at the end of December 1999. We are ahead of our critical path at the moment, touch wood, cross fingers". How can the House be satisfied with such an answer?

We are talking about an event during which the eyes of the world will be on Britain and on Greenwich, and all the Minister can say is, "Touch wood, cross fingers." It would be hilarious, if it were not so serious. I am drawn to the conclusion that the only contingency plan that the Minister has in mind is to postpone the opening of the millennium exhibition to 31 December 2000 the date that many people believe to be the true eve of the next millennium.

Let us move on to matters of funding. In Committee, I pressed the Minister on this issue, and he told me: There are commitments. There are also indications of interest. I then asked the Minister: Can you give us any figures for each of those two categories? The Minister responded directly to me in a way that beggared belief: No. I am not able to do so. I asked: Not able to for what reason? He replied directly: Because an indication of interest, by its very nature, suggests that no firm commitment to a sum of money has been made. The farce continues.

As the Minister will not tell the Select Committee, perhaps he tell the House this morning. What level of commitment, in cash terms, does he have? It is a simple question, and I should like to know the answer.

I bring, for the edification of the House, another surreal experience. At the same meeting of the Committee, the Minister was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant): Can you now say, of that £150 million that is needed at this stage, as of today, how much has been committed? The Minister's reply was: Will I or can I? My hon. Friend asked: Would you? The Minister replied: No, I will not. Oh, to live in the age of open government.

The Minister gave the game away when he was pushed further. He told us: On occasions, I have wondered whether there is not going to be a mad scramble by private companies to get a presence in what is a unique event. I can almost picture the Minister late at night, dreaming of a mad scramble to put money into an empty dome—touch wood, cross fingers, as someone once said.

I entirely understand the Minister wishing to follow in his grandfather's footsteps. Herbert Morrison organised the festival of Britain in 1951. I know that the Minister enjoys the irony of that precedent. In this case, he clearly believes in the heredity principle.

We on the Conservative Benches are encouraged by that precedent, for, although the Minister's grandfather organised the festival of Britain in 1951, he also played a key role in leading his Government and party to defeat at the polls that same year. For the sake of the country, I hope that the hon. Gentleman stays close to his grandfather's path.

May I use this opportunity to ask the Minister for an update on the report of the Select Committee? Two important requests were made. The first was that a comprehensive contingency plan be completed by the New Millennium Experience Company as a matter of urgency. As the Minister is the sole shareholder in that company, I assume that he has some responsibility for seeing that that is done.

Secondly, it should be a matter of utmost priority for London Underground to work on the delivery of a signalling system to allow 24 trains per hour to use the North Greenwich station in the year 2000, to meet the capacity that the Minister has promised. My question is simple: what progress?

The Minister told the Committee:

I will come on any occasion to meet any of my colleagues in Parliament and provide them with any information on a public or confidential basis… in order to make sure that people like you are satisfied that we are acting in a proper and transparent way. You have that undertaking from me today. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to retain any credibility with the House, he has the opportunity today to make good those words and to answer the questions and concerns of the House about the matter. I urge him to come clean today.

10.1 am

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I shall follow Madam Speaker's advice to be brief, so I shall not take up the statements made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser).

I must, however, draw attention to the comments of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who told us the wonderful story of "Field of Dreams", about the voice that said, "They will come," when a baseball park was created out of nowhere, and they all came. It was a happy ending.

Mr. Evans

The main point, which I hope the Minister Without Portfolio will take on board, is that "Field of Dreams" is make-believe. The farmer was an actor. Things like that do not happen in real life. People will need a reason to come to the millennium dome: the Minister must give them a reason to come.

Mr. Bell

The film was a true story, and it was motivated by divine intervention. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish me, as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, to say that there is no such thing.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Bell

I shall make a few comments as the Second Church Estates Commissioner and speak on behalf of The Churches Together in England, which are working on plans for the millennium. My hon. Friend the Minister Without Portfolio is right to recognise that the millennium is, first and foremost, a Christian event. It marks the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. We have heard the comments of Sir Terence Conran, but it is right that this is an occasion on which our Christian faith, heritage and culture are celebrated.

The other faiths in our society recognise that, and accord deference to the birth of Jesus, as of course we accord deference to them in their beliefs. They recognise the significance of the millennium event in terms of the calendar and history of this country.

The Churches Together in England recognise that not only the Churches but the nation a whole wish to celebrate the millennium. The United Kingdom comprises a multicultural society of different faiths and beliefs, and the millennium celebrations must reach out and touch the lives of all our people, and reflect the diverse religious and cultural traditions that enrich our national life.

The Churches Together in England welcome the Government's commitment to reflect Christianity as a central theme in the millennium dome and to provide a chapel. They urge that the proposed spirit zone should include a strong Christian presence, as well as reflecting the United Kingdom's multi-faith culture.

The Churches Together in England welcome the opportunity to work collaboratively with those who are organising the Millennium Experience at Greenwich, as well as the wider national celebrations. They welcome, too, the opportunity to advise on the Christian input. The Churches look forward to continuing co-operation with the Government as the plans for the millennium proceed.

The Churches Together in England use the theme "a new start" as an agenda for the millennium—a message that is at the heart of the Christian Gospel and gives everyone the chance to make something special for the year 2000.

In the wider context, the Churches are planning to give special millennium candles to every household, and to encourage people to take the candles with them wherever they go on millennium eve. Madam Speaker, along with the Lord Chancellor, has given permission for an ecumenical service of thanksgiving and commemoration to be held at St. Margaret's when the House returns from the Christmas recess in January 2000. The special millennium candle will come with the text of a millennium affirmation, which the Churches hope can be included in the official programme for the celebrations on 31 December 1999.

With reference to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser), on millennium evening the eyes of the world will be on Greenwich. The choice that faced the previous Government and faces the present Government is whether the eyes of the world should focus on a derelict site in the middle of London, or on a dome that has risen from the ground, created by imagination and vision. What image of our country do we want to give the world, as the world contemplates Greenwich mean time and turns its eyes on the great event on 1 January 2000?

The Government are to be congratulated. My hon. Friend will no doubt suffer

the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". He will not mind me quoting the words of Robert Browning: his reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?

10.7 am

Mr. Michael Heseltine (Henley)

I am grateful for the opportunity to add a few words to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser).

The House will be aware that the dome and the millennium festival were the inspiration of the Millennium Commission, which was set up by the previous Government on a non-partisan basis. A representative of the Labour party was invited to take part. The noble Lord Montague—Michael Montague, as he then was—sat with my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, and me on the Millennium Commission.

It was always our intention that the distribution of funds of the Millennium Commission should be a non-party process. My hon. Friend was fair to make the point that that degree of commitment remains part of his purpose, and I welcome that.

As a representative of the Conservative party on the Millennium Commission at the invitation of my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister after the election, I am privy to all the information that is available, to the best of my knowledge. If I want extra information, I can get it.

The issue of partisan controversy raised its head only once—during the difficulties that arose at the time of the election. I was critical of the Select Committee over what the present Prime Minister did, because Michael Montague had all the information all the way through the Millennium Commission's life, and was clearly supportive of the decisions we took. There was no question about that whatever. It was not until the questions became controversial that the matter was drawn into the office of the then Leader of the Opposition, and the commitments that Michael Montague had made in private were as nothing. I was deeply critical of that process, and remain so to this day.

Having said that, after the election, when responsibility shifted to the new Government, I was invited to remain a member of the commission. The Minister Without Portfolio has continued to conduct the process of government in a way that I set up when the Conservatives were the Government of the day. Indeed, I hope that he will not mind my saying that it was my suggestion that he play the role that he now plays, because, when the original arrangements were made, the commission was to be wholly responsible for the dispersal of funds, but, as we moved into the process of organising the festival, it became apparent that there were a range of issues in which the Government would have to become involved, the most obvious one being transport infrastructure, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned. That is not something that the commission could in any way influence, but it is a critical aspect of the delivery of the festival experience. It became clear to me as Deputy Prime Minister that co-ordination at ministerial level was required.

The second big change that took place was that the original statute passed by this place imposed on the commission a restriction that we could not initiate projects. We had to wait for people to come to us with ideas, which we could then decide to fund, or not. That process was not compatible with organising such a major festival, so it was necessary to set up the New Millennium Experience Company to bring together the private and public sectors and to have co-ordinated ministerial activity to deal with any issues that were difficult in the context of what we were trying to achieve. That having happened, the commitment remained absolute.

My hon. Friend asked: "What is the purpose? What is the message?" It has not changed: to celebrate the millennium with a great national occasion that shows pride in our past and confidence in the future. It is perfectly true that nobody has tried in public to create a more detailed blueprint of what we are trying to achieve.

My hon. Friend, with his experience in the travel industry, will know as clearly as the rest of us that, if one is launching a project, one has to be sure that it is subject to detailed criticism and questioning before it is launched. Take a new car, for example. Motor manufacturers go to huge trouble to stop the press getting photographs of cars as they are tested, because they want to have conducted all the tests to destruction until the launch.

We face the same dilemma with the festival. There is a huge, prodigious weight of work and detail about the contents of the dome. Some of it has leaked—as it does in this day and age—in the national press. There are a vast range of working models, specifications and details, and within a short time-1 know that the Minister will say something about this later this morning—we will be part of the unveiling of the project. I believe that it will be extremely exciting. It will undoubtedly arouse a great deal of interest and controversy. There is no escape from that. One cannot have something like this without everybody having their own ideas about what it should be.

Those of us who are close to the process have to take decisions. It cannot be done by public consultation. One cannot have 10,000 different views on the dome. Someone has to be in charge and take a decision. That is why we invited Robert Ayling, the chief executive of one of Britain's most successful companies in the international travel business, to become the lead figure in deciding the details and masterminding the execution of the project. He has done that with great diligence.

I hope that this debate will not concentrate on the weaknesses, difficulties and delays. Now that it is clear that the money will be spent, that the project will happen, our task must surely be to avoid the mistake that our predecessors in 1851 made, which nearly destroyed the great exhibition of that year before it ever took place. Our task is to maximise the national gain and recognise that this is a non-party-controversial issue; it is an all-party endeavour.

If my hon. Friend ever wants to consult me on these matters, I shall do my best to give him any information he wants. The appointment of Mark McCormack was my responsibility, if I remember correctly. The contract was not signed by the previous Government, but the negotiations with Mr. McCormack certainly began under the previous Government. One can argue whether one wants such a fund raiser. That is a perfectly good argument. I was responsible for raising a great deal of the money that has been raised, with Lord Levene.

It would be the nicest thing in the world to produce a list of the companies that have contributed £150 million-worth, but it does not work like that. Anyone who has ever launched a project knows how the world works. One goes to see the people concerned, at a senior level, because there is no point in going to No. 10 or 15 in the company on an issue such as this. One has to go to the top, and say, "Are you going to back this project?" They say, "What's it all about?" They are told what it is about, and they say, "That's interesting. I think we can play a part in that. Come back when you've got some detail."

Until one has the most precise detail and can answer every detailed question, they will not sign; but, until they sign, the list cannot be produced. If one gives indicative figures, one can be absolutely sure that the British press, being what they are, will be off to the companies concerned, asking, "Have you signed?", to which the companies will say, "No, we haven't yet signed," so the press will ask, "Well, who is going to do the signing?", to which the companies will say, "The chairman is talking to somebody, but we don't know anything about this."

That is what goes on in the real world. Then the great British press, conducting themselves as they do, will write, "There are no commitments." Technically, that could be the case, but my own judgment is that the money that I was promised when doing this exercise is on the table today, as it was then.

That does not mean that there are contracts. I think that there will be contracts, but it does not mean that they have been signed. I think that we are close to the point at which they will start to be signed. I remain as confident as I can be today, as I was at the beginning, that we will raise the money that we intended to raise.

I have seen suggestions that the project is behind schedule and is out of budget. Yesterday I asked the chief executive of the millennium experience what the position is. The answer was absolutely clear: the project is to time, the critical path is being maintained and the project is within the initial budget.

My hon. Friend raised an important question: what about the contingency fund? What if the numbers do not come? Will the contingency fund cover it? Of course it will. I made that arrangement. It was my idea to extend the funding of the Millennium Commission to be sure that there was a contingency back-up. What else could one conceivably have done? I personally believe that, if anything, more people will come than we have envisaged.

I remember vividly my only experience of such a project, the Liverpool garden festival. I can tell my hon. Friends, as not many of them would have been in the House at the time, that, until we opened the Liverpool garden festival, it was aggro all the way. "Give us jobs, not flowers," was the great Liverpool phrase at the time. Once we opened the festival, it became a huge source of pride to the people of Liverpool—so much so that they kept the festival.

The festival is still there. I wanted to use the land for the building of houses, offices, factories or whatever, but the people of Liverpool became so pleased with the reclamation that they still effectively have the shadow of the festival on the banks of the Mersey. We talked about 3 million people corning to the festival in Liverpool, and they came. I remember vividly that the experts who calculate these things, who look at what is happening at Madame Tussaud' s, Alton Towers, and other great places, gave us the figure of 3 million.

As a Minister with no such experience, but a certain caution about this place, I was not prepared to say that we would get 3 million people, so I gave the classic ministerial reply: "I am advised that we will get 3 million people". Actually, I was too cautious, because we did, and today 6 million visitors a year visit the banks of the Mersey, the Tate and Albert dock. Thus, we are talking about only double the number of people who go to the Albert dock every year.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, the contingency covers all contingencies and has had to do so. Without it, we would never have got the festival off the ground.

I hope that the House appreciates the fact that the die is cast. This festival will happen. It has the capacity to attract dramatically large numbers of people. It will be very expensive, and we hope to pay significant sums from the private sector. However, the country will gain far more in revenue than the cost of the festival. One has only to calculate the number of people who will come, and the travel, hotel and disbursement costs, to see that the revenue will exceed even the likely outlay of £750 million on the festival experience. Much more important is the symbolism of this country turning the millennium, proud of its past and confident in its future.

10.20 am
Mr. John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead)

As a former leader of Greenwich council and a former mayor, I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) for the plaudits that he gave Greenwich council for its vision and determination.

The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) spoke about the genesis of the dome project. The idea of a millennium celebration came from Greenwich council long before the Millennium Commission was ever established, and it is right to praise it for its determination. Delays in planning have been caused by both the previous and the present Governments. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Henley for his appreciation of the regeneration potential of the millennium celebration.

Many people envisage Greenwich as a leafy London suburb full of heritage buildings and fine Georgian terraces, but that is not a true picture of the borough or the area of south London in which Greenwich is situated. Greenwich is the right location to celebrate the millennium, because of its association with time, its position on the meridian and its heritage buildings, not just those immediately around the site—the royal naval college, the royal observatory and Hawksmoor church—but the royal arsenal, which sits on 75 acres of derelict industrial land in my former constituency of Woolwich. I doubt whether anywhere else in Britain has such a fine collection of heritage buildings.

The history of the British empire is in that area. Whenever the British Army went to war, to build the empire or to invade, the troops camped on Woolwich common, went down to the arsenal and boarded the boats. The legacy of that history is the richness of the cultural diversity in Britain today.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), the Church Commissioner representative, said, a specific aspect of the millennium is important to the Christian community. It is also important to the Muslim community, because the birth of Jesus is a significant event in the Muslim calendar. Nevertheless, I hope that the celebration will reflect the multi-faith and multicultural diversity of today's society.

I have discussed the regeneration of the area; let me now put it into context. In the borough of Greenwich as a whole, for a long time unemployment has been much higher than the average for outer-London boroughs. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions' index of deprivation shows that Greenwich is 14th of all local authority districts in England. Some parts of my constituency are among the most deprived areas in the country.

The millennium experience is important in terms of regeneration potential, not only for Greenwich but for the whole of the Thames gateway, east London and south-east London, which has lost more jobs in recent years than almost any other part of the United Kingdom. In its heyday, the royal arsenal employed 80,000 people in munitions manufacture, and was the largest factory on one site in western Europe. Today, it is a derelict site that employs no one. Its regeneration depends on the regeneration potential of the millennium site on the peninsula in Greenwich.

When I first came to Greenwich in 1966, there were scores of manufacturing industries along the river front: foundries, Stones, Vickers, AEI, the Siemens factory. Within a few months of my arrival in Greenwich, GEC took over AEI and announced the closure of that factory, with the loss of 5,000 jobs at a stroke. GEC relocated to Hartlepool, so it is gratifying that the Minister Without Portfolio, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), can give us more jobs back—and with interest.

We have had years of unemployment and severe skills shortages, but I pay tribute to the local training and enterprise council, Greenwich council and local business, which are building on their skills for the millennium project. The section 106 agreement that has now been reached between Greenwich council and the New Millennium Experience Company will fund the development of local labour and training schemes.

The millennium exhibition and the dome will be the catalyst for change, breathing new life not only into Greenwich and the Thames gateway, but into London as a whole. The site is one of the most derelict in the country. British Gas has dealt with the problem of decontamination, and English Partnerships, the Government's regeneration agency, has put in the infrastructure. It will be an area not just for the dome but for parks, riverside walks, offices and housing. It is a barren brown-field site, on which 3,000 homes will be built. Given the subject of yesterday's debate, I should have thought that Opposition Members would welcome that housing development on an inner city brown-field site.

A further 7,000 homes will be built in the area, creating 2,000 construction jobs, 5,000 operational jobs and 3,000 jobs in secondary employment. That will generate an extra £500 million in tourist revenue and probably an extra £1 billion in revenue to the economy as a whole, as the right hon. Member for Henley said.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

In the light of my hon. Friend's comments and the comments of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) about Mr. McCormack's role in marketing the millennium dome, about employment generated by the millennium dome and the important role that the right hon. Member for Henley played in terms of the whole structure and idea, will my hon. Friend allow the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) to rise to apologise for, or to qualify or retract, the criticisms of the Minister Without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Henley and the national celebration of our millennium?

Mr. Austin

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is clear from the hon. Gentleman's sedentary position that he does not wish to comment on that.

One of the essences of the exhibition is that it will be green; it will be a sustainable development in a car-free zone, with the possible exception of disabled people. The Jubilee line extension will have the largest underground station in western Europe and the capacity to bring 22,000 people an hour to the site. The Deputy Prime Minister has shown his determination to open up the River Thames, which for so long has been a barrier between the north and south of London. It is the least used highway in the capital, and, with its new piers and riverboat services, has the potential to be a vibrant part of the transport system of London. I welcome the opportunity that the millennium exhibition will give.

There is local concern about residual parking on the periphery of the area. The intention is to have "park-and-sail" and park-and-ride facilities and peripheral car parks. I understand the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) about a park-and-ride facility at Falconwood Field. Will the Minister consider a possible alternative at Dartford Heath, which would enable traffic coming off the M25, M20 and M2 to disgorge into a car park? Public transport could then bring people to the millennium site on motorway standard roads without any incursion into residential areas.

On the possible car park in Thamesmead, I hope that the Minister will give further consideration to the provision of another pier, so that we can have a park-and-sail rather than a park-and-ride facility.

Mr. Fraser

Although you are coming to the end of your speech—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman should remember that "you" refers to the Chair.

Mr. Fraser

Although the hon. Gentleman is coming to the end of his speech, may I ask him a question? I accept his comments about Greenwich, which I also made in my speech, so it is nice to hear someone else agreeing with me. However, the purpose of the debate is to put an end to the excessive secrecy on this project.

Does he agree that there should be more accountability to the House for this project, which is purported to be using £780 million of public money?

Mr. Austin

I do not share the hon. Gentleman's concerns. I hope that the Minister will give answers to many of his questions when he winds up the debate. It is not just Greenwich or even south-east London that will benefit from the dome and the millennium experience. Of the 30 contracts that have already been let, 25 have gone to United Kingdom companies. Contracts for the steel work and the cabling have benefited Bristol, Bolton and other parts of the country where the project has generated jobs.

The right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), the former Secretary of State for National Heritage, said that the Greenwich area could be the Versailles of London. I think that, given its heritage, it has more to offer than Versailles.

The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) told the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport: I feel that it is right in the conduct of the nation's affairs every so often for nations to make a great statement of confidence, of great optimism for the future. There could be no more obvious moment to do that than on the anniversary of the millennium itself. I hope that all hon. Members agree with that. There were critics of Paxton at the time of the 1851 exhibition. Some people criticised the Minister's grandfather over the Festival of Britain. Those exhibitions were resounding successes, and I believe that the millennium experience will also be a success. When the clock strikes on that midnight hour, all the eyes of the world will be looking jealously at Greenwich and at what we have achieved.

10.33 am
Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I shall try to be quick, because I want to leave the Minister Without Portfolio time to respond to the points that have been made. This debate will have provided 85 minutes of discussion on the millennium dome, which is almost six times as long as we have had in this Parliament so far, and I hope that the Minister recognises that there is an appetite for more.

My party wants the millennium dome to succeed. We are not against the idea of a grand project for the millennium. However, in the spirit of constructive opposition, I want to put some points to the Minister to which I hope he will respond.

Irrespective of what hon. Members may feel about the project, many people are sceptical, because the Government have failed to sell the message of the millennium dome to the public at large. Many people think that it is a total waste of money, and that £780 million could have been better spent on other projects. Many think that it has been badly handled, and has failed to capture the public's imagination. If the Minister wants the project to succeed, it is up to him to deal with those shortcomings. Many of my constituents would have preferred to celebrate the millennium by having third-world debt repaid or the homeless housed, and I am sorry that that is not part of the Government's plans.

I have considerable concerns about accountability. Notwithstanding the comments of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), for whom I have great respect, it is incredible that we know so little about the project, given that £780 million is a huge sum of public money. When was the last time that that amount of public money was allocated to a project without the House knowing the details? Was it the Chevaline project under the Callaghan Government? The Minister shakes his head. I draw his attention to the Select Committee report, which says that the distinction between lottery money and public money is a distinction without a difference.

The dome's former creative director, Stephen Bayley, who resigned so publicly, said that he could have constructed something stunning for £100 million. That seems reasonable to me: £40 million for the building; £40 million for the content; and £20 million for the infrastructure. Why do we need to spend £780 million on this project? No justification or explanation has been given as to why such a huge sum is required for a project that most people support, but not to that extent.

Where is the strategic thinking? If there has been some, it has not been shared with us. The Minister has attempted to keep information from the media whenever possible. We cannot be confident that there has been any strategic direction to the concept of the dome. That is Mr. Bayley's view in his pieces in The Spectator and in the national press. [Interruption.] The Labour party now considers Mr. Bayley persona non grata: he has been written out of new Labour's history books.

We should listen to him, because he was involved in the project. He argues that it has been the subject of focus groups that come up with different answers on different occasions— bobbing and weaving to intercept public opinion. As he puts it: You are on message or you are off the job.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Baker

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way, but the two Front-Bench spokesmen must have time to finish the debate.

What will be inside the dome? The right hon. Member for Henley said that we should not expect to know, but the details that have emerged have varied. One week it is to be a Christian festival, then there was Japan and Walt Disney.

I am not clear that there has been any strategic thinking about the project. Even now, the plans for the inside have not been properly sorted out. It is a bit late in the day to go to Disneyland to scratch around for ideas while the millennium clock is ticking away. Perhaps the Minister could arrange to have a countdown clock erected on one of the pins in his pin cushion to remind everyone, and especially him, just how few days are left until 31 December 1999.

The Minister may remember the words of Bob Ayling from the New Millennium Experience Company, who told the Select Committee that he "could not guarantee" that the timetable would not slip. I have no doubt that it will be met, but things may have to be botched for the dome to open on time. It should be a first-rate project, not a second-rate one, which is how it appears at the moment.

The Select Committee concluded that a comprehensive contingency plan has not yet reached its final form. That is extraordinary, given that we are so near the final date. It recommended that such a plan should be completed as a matter of urgency. Moreover, no accounts have yet been published.

The Minister must recognise that we need greater public accountability. We want not just 10 minutes' worth once a month from the Minister, and not just written answers, but substantive replies.

The millennium dome is a bright idea that has been sadly mismanaged by the Minister Without Portfolio. Constant changes of direction have prevented it from commanding the public support that it could have commanded.

I am sorry that I have no time to elaborate on the points I have made. The public are not committed to the project; hon. Members may be, but I hope that the Minister will recognise that there is a lot of work to be done if it is to meet its deadline.

10.40 am
Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

I am delighted that, at long last, we have an opportunity to debate this important issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) on choosing the topic, and on his success in the ballot.

No one questions that the millennium should be celebrated in a uniquely memorable way. It will be a date, and a year, of extraordinary resonance for everyone—a Christian celebration above all, of course, but not just that. The last Government were right to commit themselves and the nation to a splendid exhibition, and we certainly do not resile from that original vision. I pay warm tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), whose vision it was, and without whom the project would not be possible today. I know how much passion and commitment he has put into it, and we are all delighted that he is still involved and committed to making it work.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maude

Let me at least get started.

If my right hon. Friend were not there with his experience, wisdom and weight, we shudder to think what state the project would now be in.

Ms Ward

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maude

I have very little time, and I do not want to impinge on the Minister's time.

When it was unveiled, the project had remarkable—almost universal—support. Its majestic scope and vision commanded respect, even awe. How is it, then, that, in a few short months, the dome has become an object of ridicule—a laughing stock; a music hall joke—so that no cartoon is complete without a gibe at it, and no stand-up comedian's routine ends without a jeer at it? How could a project that carried such high hopes, and on whose success so much national prestige rides, have been allowed to fall so low?

The Minister Without Portfolio is someone whom Conservative Members, at any rate, admire—even respect. He is perhaps the foremost master of the art of presentation in this century—[Laughter.]—and possibly in the next millennium as well: who can say?—if he lasts that long, of course. How is it, then, that he has failed so signally to mobilise any sense of national purpose and ownership in relation to this, our most eminent national project?

Ms Ward

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maude

I really do not want to. I have very little time.

The aim was that the British people should genuinely unite in an upsurge of rejoicing and national celebration; but—I say this with melancholy—the dream has turned sour. The Minister could not resist turning a great national project into a new Labour stunt. In short, he hijacked it: he appropriated it to his hubristic scheme to "rebrand Britain". In some mysterious way, the millennium experience—as it was now to be named—was to be a symbol of new Labour. In its current state, it is an unhappily apt emblem: it is all packaging and no content.

Since the Minister took charge in June, there has been an unbroken history of error, disorder and ridicule. No sooner has one embarrassment been swept away than another emerges to humiliate the hon. Gentleman, to the ill-concealed glee of his right hon. and hon. Friends.

There has been the dithering over whether to continue with the project at all, the Front-Bench team having rubbished it in the most offensive terms when in opposition, for cynical political gain. There has been the back-tracking over the covering, with the Deputy Prime Minister—taking time off from baiting the Minister Without Portfolio casually insulting British contractors, and the subsequent threats of legal action by the rejected firm. There has been the disclosure that the Jubilee line extension may be able to carry only a fraction of the number of visitors that the Minister predicts.

There have been the rows and resignations involving Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Eric Sorensen, and the anxieties recently expressed by Michael Grade. There has been the departure of Stephen Bayley, lambasting the Minister for his management and decisions. There has been the dispute with Sir Terence Conran over whether Christianity should have a place at all—Sir Terence believing, to general astonishment, that it should have none, and the Minister, in a desperate bid to please everyone, saying first that the Christian faith will be central, and then that the dome will be for "all faiths and none". There has been the stinging criticism by the Labour-packed Select Committee, whose report stated:

From what we know so far, the Millennium Experience is not so much a journey through time as, at any rate for those of us not made privy to the plans, a journey into the unknown. There have been the pleas from a growing number of the Minister's own Back Benchers that he should come clean and account to the House for how the money is being spent. There has been the decision to more than double the commitment of lottery money to the project—to the detriment of deserving community projects up and down the land—to fill the private-sector funding gap caused by the Minister's own party's cynical rubbishing of the project when it was in opposition.

There are the continuing question marks over whether the decontamination work on the site is being undertaken thoroughly and deeply enough, and whether the rush to save the Minister's reputation means that corners are being cut. There has recently been serious concern about the safety of construction workers on the site, and fears have been expressed that there is so much pressure on them to work quickly that precautions are being neglected.

I am sure that the Minister saw that story in the Sunday newspapers. One quotes a worker as saying:

there seemed to be a drive to complete the Dome in time for the Millennium". [Laughter.] Hon. Members who claim to be concerned about workers' rights may want to hear how the report continues. The worker said:

there seemed to be a drive to complete the Dome in time for the Millennium, whatever the potential risk. 'Some abseilers are working 12-hour shifts with only a short break for lunch when the law requires a break of 10 minutes every four hours. 'It's all part of the pressure put on people around the Dome. We're told that only good publicity must be heard about the project.' I hope that the Minister will allay our fears about that.

Then there were the Minister's portentous announcements on his visits to the House that the project would be marked by a park-and-sail scheme, and that he proposed to appoint a junior board to provide him with much-needed inspiration. I predict that his response today will be marked by some announcement of comparable bathos, for all the world as if the House of Commons should be treated like the Red Lion at lunchtime.

There was the Minister's visit to Florida. "It will not be a theme park," he tells us—so he jets off at the taxpayer's expense to gain inspiration from Disneyworld, that well-known non-theme park. Are we to have a transatlantic cousin of Mickey Mouse on the Thames—Mandy Mouse, perhaps?

There has been the Prime Minister's trawl of Tokyo for sponsors. It really is time for the Minister to come clean. He can no longer hide behind a code that was designed to protect companies, not Ministers.

Ms Ward

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maude

I have no time to give way, much as I admire the hon. Lady's fierce criticism and questioning of witnesses—including her hon. Friend the Minister—on the Committee. We all read it with interest and admiration.

Ms Ward

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maude

No, I simply have no time.

As I have said, the Minister should no longer seek to hide behind a code of conduct on disclosure that was designed not to protect Ministers, as he seems to think, but to protect companies. Why can he not now publish interim accounts? What is the money actually being spent on? What will be the entrance fee? The Minister points at his watch; I shall give him as much time as I have had. I am confident that, as—we are told—the second most powerful man in the Government, and with his influence in the Government, the Minister could arrange extra time to hold himself accountable if he chose to; but we know that he does not choose to.

What basis is there for predicting that 12 million people will visit the dome, when the British museum—currently the most popular attraction for visitors—has half that number each year with no charges, and when the biggest paid-for attraction has a sixth of that number? What guarantee is there that the Jubilee line will be able to carry even a fraction of that number?

Who will pick up the bill if there are fewer visitors than expected? How many commitments of sponsorship has the Minister received? Can he assure the House that men's lives are not being placed at risk because of the mad rush to save his reputation? Does he understand the depth of concern about the contents? Some 20 unheard-of jobs, surtball, the 21st century game. and food from around the world will seem a little flat unless more can be added.

Will the Minister give a firm undertaking that the announcement about the dome's contents on 24 February will be made openly in a statement in the House, and not in some glitzy multi-media press conference elsewhere? The stark reality facing the Minister is that secrecy and arrogance carry their own penalties. If he had been open in answering the questions that we have been asking for months, he would not face reports such as that which appears in a national publication under the heading "Jobs for the Boys": Eight months since his appointment, it is clear that the most feared member of Tony Blair's inner circle has used those powers of patronage to put business the way of a close associate of a major party backer. I cannot say whether that story is true, but such allegations are the harvest of secrecy and arrogance.

We wish the project well, but we fear for it. If the Minister cannot come clean and reassure the millions of people who are concerned that public money is being wasted, the project may be doomed.

10.50 am
The Minister Without Portfolio (Mr. Peter Mandelson)

If the speech by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) was to wish the project well, I shudder to think what he would sound like if he were attacking the millennium experience and what we are doing. He attacked the health and safety record. There have been three accidents on the site. One was a minor cut on an elbow on 1 August last year, and there were two examples of bruising: one when a dumper moved forward while someone was standing next to the wheel, and another when a person was standing beside a wheel that entered a rut. There is no health and safety problem at the site, and we are proud of that record.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) on initiating the debate. He said that I would be hanged, but he is a little premature, because I do not feel so much lynched as liberated by his speech. The debate gives me the opportunity to file an encouraging progress report.

Construction is on time. If anything, it is ahead of time. Spending is within budget, costs are firmly under control, and the creative development of the dome's contents has leaped ahead. Arrangements for the national programme are well in hand. The millennium company is performing highly competently. It is doing a job of the utmost importance to the country, and it thoroughly deserves our support.

I am pleased to say that, of 99 construction contracts that have been let to date, 90 have been awarded to British companies or to the British arm of major international firms. That is a great tribute to British engineering and construction genius, and represents an enormous return and benefit to many people and communities throughout the country.

Much has been said about alleged secrecy and lack of accountability—I notice the lack of time that I have been given to reply to the debate. The New Millennium Experience Company is accountable to Parliament in the same way as any other non-departmental public body. Unlike any other such body that I can think of, its affairs have been the subject of nearly 150 parliamentary questions since the summer. It has been subjected to a thorough inquiry by a Select Committee, to which I pay tribute. As the company's shareholder, I answer questions for 10 minutes a month.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)


Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)


Mr. Mandelson

Perhaps my hon. Friends will forgive me if I do not give way.

It is worth taking a minute to remember where the project stood this time last year. In January 1997, the project did not even have planning permission. Work had not begun to clear the site of 150 years' worth of polluting chemicals. The company had a small board and an energetic chief executive, but little else—no staff, no money, no offices and no business plan.

It was courageous of the Conservative Government to take on such a bold and complex project. When we reviewed it in May, I make no apologies for saying that we thought hard about whether it could be delivered. We decided that it could be, and that it should be. I think that that was the right decision, as did the Select Committee of which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole is a member.

That is enough of history: the debate should be about the future, and in addressing it I shall comment on the Opposition's role. The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the Opposition representative, who spoke eloquently in the debate, has played a full, helpful and thoroughly constructive role. I pay tribute to his wisdom and vigour throughout, without which we would not be where we are. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not mind me quoting what he said recently about my role. He said: I think that the Minister Without Portfolio is doing his job as well as it can be done. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. I travel in hope that good will of that kind will extend to all wings of the Conservative party.

It is prudent for us all, and especially for Opposition Members, to remember that the millennium dome being constructed is exactly the same as the one that was conceived by the Conservative party. It is to the same plan; it has the same goals; the same company is building it; it has the same system of accountability, the same Mark McCormack, the same budget and costs, and the same revenue projections and halo effect for the national economy. There is just more progress in delivering it.

I accept that the Conservative party has nothing to thank me for, but I hope that Conservative Members can find it in themselves on this issue to put country before party, and restore the bipartisan basis of the millennium celebration. I told the Select Committee: if we fail to deliver it, we shall never be forgiven. If it succeeds, as I am confident it will, it will never be forgotten. I want everyone, including those in the Conservative party to share in its success. I hope that they will not remove themselves from it.

The site at Greenwich is now clear, the dome is growing before our eyes, designers are working on the content, and, under the excellent management of the board and chief executive, the project is on time and on budget. The right hon. Member for Henley has testified to that.

When we decided in June to back the previous Government's decision on the millennium experience, it was on the basis of five clear commitments. They were, first, that it would cost no more to the taxpayer than the sum that had already been committed to prepare the site. We will stand by that commitment. The second commitment was that the contents would entertain and inspire, and they will.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Mandelson

In view of the time, I am sure that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not give way.

Our third commitment was that it would be a truly national event. It will be. Our fourth was that it will provide a lasting legacy—and it will—and the fifth was that the management structure of the company would be strengthened by the best creative and business talent that was available. It has been so strengthened. Those commitments set a challenging agenda for the Government and the company, and in many ways the questions and issues that have been raised in debate focus on that agenda.

We have been asked about cost. The project is developing well within the set budget of £758 million. That is not all public or lottery money. Only about half that amount is lottery grant from the Millennium Commission.

As for content, it is true that "Guess what will be in the dome" has become something of a national sport. Much as I hate to spoil the nation's fun, we will be giving away yet more of the secrets, in February, when we unveil some of the designers' working models.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) rightly stressed the millennium's importance as a Christian anniversary. I assure the House that that will be reflected in the dome's contents and in the national programme.

In June, when I became shareholder, I felt that our greatest challenge was the national impact—how to engage and involve individuals and communities in a project whose physical focus was in Greenwich. We have been working very hard on that, and I should like to express my grateful thanks to my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Culture, Media and Sport, for Education and Employment, for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland for their help and support in developing the national programme.

As every day passes, not only job creation is becoming clearer but—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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