HC Deb 07 May 2002 vol 385 cc21-30
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if she will make a statement on Wembley stadium following the passing of the 30 April deadline that she set.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell)

I explained to the House on 19 December that the Government were willing to support the Football Association's national stadium project, provided that the Football Association and Wembley National Stadium Ltd. came forward with fully detailed and funded proposals within a reasonable time scale. In the light of the David James-Berwin Leighton Paisner report, I asked that they should deal with four points: first, to commission an independent value for money assessment of the proposed contracts with Multiplex; secondly, to make papers relating to the project available to the Comptroller and Auditor General; thirdly, to make corporate governance changes to produce a management structure capable of delivering a complex project with procedures acceptable to the public sector; and, finally, to confirm that financial support is adequate and fully committed. I also explained to the House that I had asked Sport England to commission a detailed technical evaluation of the new proposals for athletics in the stadium.

Since 19 December, the Football Association and Wembley National Stadium Ltd. have worked closely with stakeholders and banks to develop the stadium project at their preferred location—Wembley—and to address the issues that I have outlined. Significant progress has been made.

Wembley National Stadium Ltd. carried out my request to make available to the Comptroller and Auditor General papers relating to the project. WNSL also commissioned Cyril Sweett Ltd.—a company with no previous or known likely future involvement in the national stadium project—to undertake a value for money study. Cyril Sweett Ltd. concludes that the Multiplex contracts represent value for money. I have considered the company's report carefully and accept its conclusions. The full report necessarily contains much commercially sensitive information and therefore cannot be published. However, I have asked WNSL to commission a publishable study, which I shall place in the Library.

WNSL has committed itself to meeting the required standards of corporate governance, and I am pleased to be able to say that significant improvements have been made. The WNSL board has been strengthened with experience in construction, financing and marketing. The new chairman, Michael Jeffries, has construction and project management experience. The Government remain in discussion with the FA, WNSL and other stakeholders about these issues.

WNSL also invited the Office of Government Commerce to undertake a gateway review of the project, which recommended that the project should proceed to contractual completion and that it was well managed and viable.

Sport England has completed its athletics study, which was prepared in close co-operation with UK Athletics, the British Olympic Association, UK Sport and the International Association of Athletics Federations. My predecessor rightly drew attention to the extremely long time scale and exorbitant cost involved in the installation and removal of the original platform, and to the fact that there was no legacy for the sport from the project.

I am pleased to report that the new design conforms to the standards required by the IAAF, is considerably quicker to install and remove, and the costs associated with it have been substantially reduced. I have asked Sport England to publish its study. The matter of a legacy for athletics is the subject of separate discussions between my Department, Sport England and UK Athletics. I hope that they will be concluded in the next two weeks.

Although much of the necessary work to secure the financing of the stadium project has been completed, the Football Association has requested more time to enable it to conclude its discussions with the banks. In the light of the progress that the FA and WNSL made in fulfilling the conditions that I set out on 19 December, I have agreed to refrain from reaching my final decision on Government support for the national stadium project at Wembley at this point.

I understand that that decision will disappoint many people in the west midlands, and hon. Members who represent that region. However, it would be wrong for the Government to withdraw their support at such a crucial stage. The FA is closer than it has ever been to making Wembley the home of English football again. I do not believe that it would be right or reasonable to pull the plug on its project when the prospects of success look better than ever.

Subject to the successful conclusion of the continuing discussions with the FA and WNSL, final confirmation that the financing is adequate and fully committed, and the terms of Patrick Carter's final report, the Government will be pleased to support the national stadium project at Wembley. My decision will be taken after full consultation with Sport England and in the light of Patrick Carter's final report. I fully recognise the public and parliamentary pressure for an end to the process and the start of the construction of a world-class stadium. I will therefore make a further statement to the House before the Whitsun recess.

Mr. Kaufman

My right hon. Friend talked about parliamentary and other pressure to conclude the matter, but she gave the House a firm and unequivocal commitment to bring the matter to a conclusion before now. On 19 December she set out her "four fundamental points" and said that they "must be addressed first". They included confirmation that financial support is adequate and fully committed".—[Official Report, 19 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 292.]

In reply to parliamentary questions on the matter on 10 April, my right hon. Friend said: I expect the FA's work to be completed in April. The Government will determine whether or not that work satisfies the conditions I set out on 19 December".—[Official Report, 10 April 2002; vol. 383,c. 309W. Is it not a fact that the work has not been completed by the FA and that it therefore does not satisfy the conditions that my right hon. Friend described as "fundamental points"? Is it not a fact that the money is not "adequate and fully committed"? Is it not therefore a fact that the undertakings that she gave the House on 19 December and 10 April have not been fulfilled?

How can the Government continue to embrace the tar baby? It is not simply a matter for the FA, because it involves £20 million of public subsidy, which my right hon. Friend promised the FA and £120 million of lottery money, which Sport England irresponsibly and disreputably gave the FA before planning permission had even been sought. It is time to put an end, one way or another, to this travesty of a process and settle the matter.

Tessa Jowell

I know that my right hon. Friend, for whom I have the highest regard, has never been the greatest fan of the national football stadium at Wembley. Let me deal however, with the serious points that he raised. First, he raised the question of the deadline set for the end of April. He is absolutely right to say that the Football Association set the end of April as the point by which it expected to have met the four tests that formed the condition for Government support for the project. As I have outlined to the House this afternoon, in my judgment, and on the basis of the evidence that has been made available to me, it is clear that the FA has made good progress on at least three of the tests. The outstanding matter relates to the financing of the project, on which—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members must allow the Secretary of State to be heard.

Tessa Jowell

Progress has been made on the financing of the project. Hon. Members will understand that the detail of that progress is shrouded in commercial confidentiality. This is a difficult matter of judgment, but, in my view, it would be unreasonable and unfair to fail to give the Football Association, which is now in negotiation with the bank, the opportunity to conclude those negotiations. To do so would be gratuitously to wreck a project on which good progress has been made. I do not think that that would be right or proper, and that is why I have agreed to allow more time to complete the negotiations on the financing.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Does the Secretary of State regret her original plan to try to sneak out this announcement on Wembley by means of a written parliamentary answer on a day when she was known to be making a major statement in Parliament on the Communications Bill? Is there ever going to be an end to her dithering on this subject? On top of the Government's inability to honour their commitment to staging the world athletics championships in London, does the Secretary of State recognise that Britain has now become a complete laughing stock in international sporting circles?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that her statement breaks the promise that she gave to the backers of the Birmingham bid? Is she willing to set any date after which Birmingham can have its proposals seriously considered? Will she confirm that describing the latest stadium design in oral questions before Easter as "athletics-capable" was just a device to allow Sport England to avoid asking for £120 million of lottery money back? Does she seriously believe that Wembley, given the geographical constraints surrounding it, could ever form the centrepiece of a British bid for the Olympic games?

When does the Secretary of State honestly think that work on building the national stadium might actually start? When will Wembley Park tube station be rebuilt? Is it not true that, five years after lottery money was provided for a national stadium, and 18 months after Wembley shut its doors, the Football Association has, in fact, delivered its side of the bargain, and that the real reason for this project now being stalled is ministerial dithering? While footballers, athletes, rugby league players and fans wait in frustration, Britain's international sporting humiliation continues.

Tessa Jowell

I hardly think that I sought to sneak out an answer on the national football stadium when this is the first day after local election purdah on which it has been possible to inform the House of this matter. Secondly, I took the trouble to telephone the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) this morning to draw his attention to this question. I also telephoned my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman).

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Your right hon. Friend forced you here.

Tessa Jowell

My right hon. Friend had made absolutely clear his disagreement with the position that I had taken. He has a robust view, and he is perfectly entitled to do what he did.

In relation to the status of athletics, I made it clear earlier that a working group involving Sport England and the key athletics governing bodies has been considering the position of athletics at Wembley. As I have told the House, the Sport England report will be published shortly, but it shows that the stadium is capable of taking a track that is cheaper and can be dismantled much more quickly than that in the original proposal. As the hon. Member for South Suffolk is also aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions made an announcement about financing the upgrading of Wembley Park tube station.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), as ever, does the House a great service. He has chronicled and pursued the trials and tribulations of the national stadium project for the past five years. Indeed, I have often fought in the trenches with him shoulder to shoulder in cataloguing the past failures of the Government and the FA. However, we part company on one fundamental issue, and west midlands Members would do well to take note of it. Although he may be their hero of the moment, it is clear that he wishes the project to fail completely. I wish it to succeed.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the four conditions that she set on 19 December have been substantially met and that, in the light of that progress, it would be foolish, wasteful and perverse to abandon the Wembley bid in the 89th minute? Will she also convey to the FA the House's frustration at the fact that it has not yet concluded its financial contract? Will she urge it with all speed so to do?

Tessa Jowell

I thank my hon. Friend. It is important to remind the House that the four conditions in relation to Wembley that I set before Christmas are attached to the investment of a further £20 million of Government money and £21 million from the London Development Agency to contribute to infrastructure costs. Those conditions attach to the release of that money.

This is not a Government project but an FA project. It is led and financed by the FA, but it is dependent on further Government money, for the reasons that I have outlined. As those who have taken the trouble to read Patrick Carter's report will understand, the FA is also dependent on support from the Government to facilitate aspects of this complex project, such as the infrastructure issues. That is why the Government have a role, and it is my judgment in the context of the progress that has been made that the FA should be allowed further time to conclude negotiations on funding the project.

Nick Harvey (North Devon)

If the FA is expected to raise all the money for the project, what exactly is the Government support that the right hon. Lady has yet to decide whether to give to it? If the FA takes another month to raise the money, surely it would be perverse for her then to refuse to support the transport infrastructure to which she refers. As for the Sport England analysis of athletics, will she tell us categorically whether the revised design would be adequate for an Olympic tournament to be held in the new stadium'? Is it still the FA's intention that the new stadium should open in the spring or early summer of 2005, precisely when we were supposed to have held the world athletics championships in London?

Tessa Jowell

The further support from the Government is the £41 million to which I have just referred. In relation to the opening date and the hon. Gentleman's question about the status of the track for Olympic events, those judgments will have to wait until I have had time to study the Sport England report, which has not yet been submitted to me.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

This is, of course, a considerable problem for the whole of football, and I am afraid that my right hon. Friend will find it difficult to rebut accusations of muddle and. certainly, delay. The delay is no longer acceptable; we must soon have decisions. It would help if she could say today, clearly and without equivocation, whether a national football stadium that is worthy of the name will be built at all if it is not to be built at Wembley? In short, if Wembley cannot produce the goods, must we assume, as I fear we must, that there will be no national football stadium, simply because all the eggs have been put into one basket and— as I fear—too many have already been broken?

Tessa Jowell

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I recognise that he has advocated for a long time that the stadium be built in the west midlands. As Patrick Carter's report assessed, if Wembley fails—we hope that it will succeed, given the provision of additional time—Birmingham is an option, but it is a more expensive one. However, the decision on location—Birmingham as an alternative to Wembley—is a judgment not for the Government but for the Football Association, because it is the FA that will pay for the project.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

Does the right hon. Lady understand that her decision today will be regarded as enormously unfair to the west midlands and to the Birmingham bid? Does she also understand that she has not lived up to the solemn commitments that she gave to the House concerning the 30 April deadline, and which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) rightly described as firm and fundamental? Is it not true that the work has not been completed according to the terms that she described, that the money is not in place, and that the undertakings to this House have not been delivered? Does she accept that her decision today will be seen throughout Birmingham and the west midlands as an enormous breach of faith, and as yet another example of southern-based decision makers acting in the interest not of the country as a whole, but of the south?

Tessa Jowell

No, I do not accept the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's questions. I fully recognise the passion in Birmingham and the west midlands for trying to secure the national stadium for Birmingham. The negotiations will be conducted by the west midlands and the FA with full understanding and recognition of the costs involved—that is the beginning and end of the matter. This is a question not of letting anybody down but of taking a difficult decision and making a reasonable judgment, so that a project that has made progress can have every reasonable chance of succeeding at Wembley.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Does the Secretary of State know whether the value for money report, which she describes as satisfactory, took into account the £120 million of lottery money and the £20 million of public money? Surely the root of the problem is that, so far as Birmingham is concerned, there is not an even playing field. The £120 million was intended to provide a multi-sport national stadium. The FA has to decide whether it prefers Wembley or Birmingham, and in my view, if the stadium is to be used only for football, it should be in Birmingham. The reality is that football will get £120 million and there will be no multi-sport use. A football ground such as Millwall's s could be made athletics-capable, but who would pay for the necessary work, if ever it were needed? Are we not witnessing yet another example of the richest sport in the country getting money that it does not need and should not have? The whole £120 million should be ploughed back into community sport.

Tessa Jowell

I know that my hon. Friend has strong feelings about the lottery grant, and I shall certainly let her know how the matter was dealt with in the context of the value for money report when I have further studied its detail. However, all the indications are that, if the stadium is funded to proceed, it will be multi-purpose, providing facilities for rugby league, football and athletics. In doing so, it will largely meet the terms of the lottery agreement on which the £120 million was originally awarded.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

When the Secretary of State sets a deadline, what does she mean?

Tessa Jowell

I am sorry, but I did not catch the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. McLoughlin

I was trying to oblige by asking a short question. When the Secretary of State sets a deadline, what does she mean by it?

Tessa Jowell

That is a very good question. As I have indicated to the House, the 30 April deadline was set by the FA in the expectation that it would have made progress in each of the four key areas, in order to release the outstanding Government money by that time. The hon. Gentleman is right; the deadline has passed, but I have had to judge whether it would be reasonable — given that the FA has met three of the four conditions and is making progress on the fourth — to deny it the opportunity to complete the negotiations on the funding package. As I hope I have made clear to the House, I have concluded that the FA should be allowed the additional time to conclude the financing with the bank with which it is in negotiations.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West)

Every time that I have heard a statement on this issue, it has been reported that the FA and WNSL have been making progress. Given the fact that we have already had two deadlines that were not so dead, it would have been reasonable for some sort of conclusion to have been reached. Will the Secretary of State talk to the FA and WNSL, assess the position and give them a non-negotiable deadline, with transparent criteria, for them to complete, with the exercise of due diligence, all financial and contractual matters?

Tessa Jowell

It is important to make it clear that the FA has secured an outline offer of finance from the financial institution with which it has been negotiating. However, the timetable for completing the negotiation is not wholly within the FA's control. The timetable is set by the financial institutions and, to a great extent, the FA simply has to comply with it. Therefore, it would not be reasonable to set an irrevocable date at this point, but I have already told the House that I will make a further statement on progress—and the status of Government support—before the House rises for the Whitsun recess.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

Does the Secretary of State agree that whatever transport improvements are made in and around Wembley they would still be inadequate for the purpose? Bearing in mind the success of playing international matches at stadiums around England, does not she agree that that might be a better way forward? Given the possibility that 30 football clubs might go out of existence because of their financial problems, would not the £600 million be better spent on retaining a nationwide network of professional football clubs?

Tessa Jowell

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman refers all those questions to the FA, whose proper responsibility it is to answer them.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)

I entirely support my right hon. Friend's decision. The English national stadium has to be at Wembley. It would be absolutely crazy of my right hon. Friend to pull the plug on a deal that looks as though it is almost complete. Let me say to my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in Birmingham and the west midlands that I am not opposed to Birmingham. My family comes from Birmingham; I used to go on holiday in Birmingham— [Laughter.] Well, it was because we were so poor. If we are ever to attract international events to this country, the stadium has to be in London because the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations will only go to London.

Finally, despite the talk about the lottery money that was used to purchase the old Wembley site, the majority of the money for building the new national stadium must be subject to the FA's decision, because the FA is raising £460 million on the money markets to do it. Therefore, it is a matter for the FA, and perhaps we should have less Government interference rather than more.

Tessa Jowell

I agree.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The right hon. Lady represents a south London seat, but I wonder whether she realises the adverse effect that this sorry saga has on the economy of north London. We lost Picketts Lock as the national athletics stadium; there will be no football at Wembley for at least five years, probably seven, which will affect the local economy; and the need to take infrastructure decisions is now urgent. It seems obvious that we must have a world-class multi-sports stadium at Wembley, and we should get on with it as soon as possible.

Tessa Jowell

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support.

Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston)

As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I have been as frustrated as anyone else over the past two or three years. However, is it not true that the decision is very simple? It is a question not of where the stadium should be but of whether my right hon. Friend will allow a few more weeks so that the right decision is reached rather than blowing the project out of the water straight away. Anyone who has ever worked in the private sector knows about flexibility. I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that she is being flexible today for the very best reason.

Tessa Jowell

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's assessment. In these circumstances, flexibility and reasonableness are the only way forward.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

The site of the proposed alternative bid is in my constituency. Does the Secretary of State accept that her description of "disappointment" as characterising the feelings in the west midlands is a serious understatement? We await this decision because of the related key strategic decisions on expanding the airport and widening the M42. It is not so much disappointment as hair-tearing frustration that is felt at this endless prevarication.

Tessa Jowell

I am very surprised by the hon. Lady's newly discovered support for the alternative site, as the correspondence that I have seen suggests that she opposed at every turn the prospect of a national stadium in Birmingham.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will know that I have always supported the case for Wembley, so I support the extra time that she is asking for today. As well as the transport and infrastructure improvements, which are crucial, does she accept that the fans who pay to go through the turnstiles week after week are concerned that sufficient seats will be available for the ordinary spectator at the new stadium, as opposed to the snobs with their hospitality suites?

Tessa Jowell

The answer to my hon. Friend's first question is that the investment in infrastructure will obviously improve access to the stadium and will offer regeneration to a part of north-west London that badly needs it. Secondly, the FA's proposal is for a 90,000-seater stadium; 18,000 will be so-called corporate seats, but 15 per cent. of the seats will generate 75 per cent. of the money for the stadium's ongoing funding. So there will be more space in Wembley for ordinary fans paying ordinary prices than in any other stadium in the country.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

The right hon. Lady will be very aware of the anger and disappointment in the west midlands about her statement today of her failure to make the FA stick to its 30 April deadline. A few moments ago, she said that she was not prepared to give an irreversible deadline, but surely she owes that to the people of the west midlands—at some point she must be prepared to pull the plug on Wembley. What is the point of her office if she is not prepared to take executive decisions?

Tessa Jowell

The fact is that the FA is currently in negotiations and I believe that those negotiations need to be allowed reasonable time to run their course. That is why I indicated to the House that I shall provide further information—a further report on progress—before the Whitsun recess.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Is the Secretary of State aware that Wembley holds a special place in the hearts and minds of football fans internationally? Does she agree that it is only too appropriate that the Government should bring the national football station—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Stadium!"]—the national football stadium home to Wembley and that that decision will be welcomed not just by many millions of people internationally and in London, but by people all over the country who love football and love the traditions that Wembley represents?

Tessa Jowell

Yes, I do, and I thank my hon. Friend for that point. The national football station, as well as stadium, would also be better upgraded with the money that the Government will provide if the deal goes ahead.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Does the Secretary of State not recognise that the whole history of this project has been one fiasco after another? Every time there is another problem, another Minister from this sorry Government pops up, with further reports being commissioned, further excuses and further delays. The real problem for those of us in this place and outside who care about sport is that, at every stage, the Government have completely failed to get a grip of this project and bring it to a conclusion. From the City pages of the papers, one sees that banks are walking away from the project as soon as they get close enough to realise the mess that the Government and all around them have made of it. Is not the real problem that what we need is not further delays and reports but a new Government who will get a grip of the project?

Tessa Jowell

I do not think anybody thinks that. The bile that the hon. Gentleman has just tipped over this issue is the easy bit. The hard bit is to do what we have done: work with the FA to get the project to a point where it has achieved more progress than ever before in its history, and make the judgment that it would not be right to pull the plug when there is a possibility—not a certainty, but a real possibility—of success.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

If the stadium is to be for football first, with athletics afterwards, how many seats will be lost when the athletics part is put in? The opening of the Olympics requires at least 80,000, so if the stadium is to be used for Olympics we need to be certain that we can provide that many.

Tessa Jowell

Those are precisely the kind of questions that I hope to be able to answer, and on which hon. Members can form their own view, when Sport England publishes its report on athletics at Wembley. The report will be prepared in conjunction with the athletics governing bodies.

Several hon.


Mr. Speaker

Order: The House will have heard the Secretary of State say that she will make another statement on this matter. I will take note of hon. Members who have been disappointed today when the right hon. Lady comes back to the House.

We now come to the statement on the draft Communications Bill. I call the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.