HL Deb 24 May 2000 vol 613 cc772-5

3.17 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government a Question of which I have given private notice; namely, to ask Her Majesty's Government what was their role in the events leading to the emergency appointment this morning of Mr David Quarmby as chairman of the New Millennium Experience Company?

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, the Millennium Commission offered further funding to the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) on a number of conditions. It was for the NMEC board to determine whether to accept those conditions. The chairman of the board, Bob Ayling, decided to stand down, irrespective of the conditions laid down by the Millennium Commission. The board chose David Quarmby to succeed Bob Ayling.

While the Millennium Commission is chaired by the right honourable Chris Smith and includes among its members the right honourable Mo Mowlam, it is an independent body whose membership also includes the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Dalkeith, the right honourable Michael Heseltine, Floella Benjamin, Judith Donovan, Simon Jenkins and Heather Couper. It is an independent body which acted in accordance with its remit.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for answering this PNQ. However, would it not have been better if the Government had volunteered a Statement on these important developments? Does the noble and learned Lord recall the words of Oscar Wilde: To lose one parent … may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness"? Are the events at the Dome carelessness or incompetence? First, the chief executive, Jennie Page; now the Blair-blessed chairman, Bob Ayling; who is next? Does the buck ever stop at a Minister? And is it the case that Michael Connor, the accounting officer for the Millennium Commissioners, requested a formal letter of direction from the Minister, Chris Smith, before he would agree to release the latest tranche of £29 million, and that Chris Smith ordered his Permanent Secretary, Robin Young, to write such a letter? If that is true, is it not the case that this is a fiasco which is rapidly becoming a scandal?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, first, so far as concerns the question of a Statement, a PNQ was put down, to which we agreed. That means that we are able to answer any questions that your Lordships may have. With regard to the circumstances in which Mr Bob Ayling was replaced by Mr David Quarmby, it was necessary to prepare a new business plan as a result of the original estimates of the number of visitors to the Dome being too high. It is worth pointing out that at the moment the number of visitors to the Dome is higher than for any other paying visitor attraction in this country. However, in view of the experience of the past four months, it was necessary to rejig the plans.

An application was made to the Millennium Commission, and the commission dealt with it on its merits. It is an independent body which includes, as I pointed out, noble Lords on the other side of the House, including the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, who would, I believe, very much resent the suggestion that it is not an independent body. The commission reached the conclusion that the scheme was worth supporting. I have no idea about the detail of the circumstances in which the Millennium Commission came to that conclusion, save to say that it is an independent body which, I am quite sure, acted in accordance with its remit.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, has the Minister had time to look at the stinging criticism set out in a Motion in another place, signed by a former Labour Chief Whip and Deputy Chief Whip and by at least six former Labour Ministers and three chairmen of Select Committees in another place? Following the sacking of Mr Ayling, does he not believe that it would be wiser if he himself were to consider handing over responsibility for this major enterprise to someone who has experience of running such a thing?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the enterprise is run by a commercial corporation, chaired until yesterday by Bob Ayling, who, in running businesses, rightly commands the respect of many people. It is now chaired by Mr David Quarmby, who is also chairman of the British Tourist Authority and the Docklands Light Railway. He also commands respect in the commercial world. The arrangements that were made for the running of the Millennium Dome involved setting up a company, and that was done under the previous administration. It was the right way to proceed because it meant that the disciplines of the market-place determined how the Dome was run. We believe that that is the correct structure.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, the Minister is distancing himself totally from this matter. Can the Government really do that? Surely the reality is that the only rescuer likely to be available was the lottery fund, and no one could have relied totally on that. That board—commercial or not—must have had cash flow forecasts and figures which demonstrated that at some point it would run out of the ability to meet its liabilities. It went to the fund for assistance, knowing that it might not receive that assistance. Can the Minister tell us when the board knew that it was likely to run out of its ability to meet its liabilities, and what the date was when that would have happened? Is it possible that it might, at least technically, have been trading while insolvent?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, plainly it was a matter for the board to determine whether or not it was trading while insolvent. It is a board of responsible people who, I am quite sure, would come to the right and honourable decision in that respect. The National Lottery Fund was the funder, just as is a bank of such an operation. The NMEC company had to make a convincing case to the Millennium Commission in order to receive further funding, which it did.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, whatever their reaction to the basic concept of the Dome—and I confess that I myself had deep misgivings about it—many noble Lords and people outside the House felt that we needed to support what the noble and learned Lord was doing to make it a success. However, should we not now realise and recognise that the attendance figures have been disappointing, as has the reaction of large numbers of people who have visited the Dome, although some have enjoyed the experience?

It is also unlikely that at the end of the year this venture will be the success that we all hoped it would be. We are now in a situation where an additional sum of money has been committed. Whether that money was dependent on the removal of the chairman and whether he has been a scapegoat is open to argument. Undoubtedly, all that will come out in the books that will be written about this whole matter some years hence, or perhaps sooner.

However, as the spokesman on these Benches, I must say that we are concerned about the amount of lottery money that has been invested in this venture. Additional lottery money has now been committed and others will suffer as a result. Can the noble and learned Lord say what the future of the Dome will be if further setbacks are experienced? Will more money be put into it from lottery funds? It would be reassuring to hear his answer.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, with respect to the noble Viscount, I believe that he has understated the progress of the project so far. As independent polls have shown, it has received satisfaction ratings of between 80 per cent and 90 per cent. Yes, it has fewer visitors than were envisaged in the original projections, but as a business it still attracts more visitors than any other paying visitor attraction in this country. That it is perceived to be a commercial success can be seen from the fact that two highly expert commercial companies are keen to take it over from 1st January next year when the exhibition comes to an end.

So far as concerns lottery funding, the New Opportunities Fund has made it clear that the provision of more funding to the Dome will not affect any of its programmes.

Perhaps I may make one further point. When the Millennium Commission decided to go ahead with this project under the previous government, it believed that one reason for doing so was the legacy that it would leave for that part of London: 13,000 jobs in its construction; 25,000 jobs over the following seven years; and the fact that it would attract approximately £1 billion in tourism. That legacy is worth holding on for and questing for, and we believe that it is a worthwhile project.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, although I do not believe that there is any ground for rejoicing or for saying "I told you so", I believe that perhaps the noble and learned Lord would do well to offer some real thoughts about the future. How long will the Dome go on? Will any programme or timetable now be issued with regard to its performance on which it is possible for people to make a judgment?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, obviously the situation must be monitored closely, by the board, by myself as the shareholder and by the Millennium Commission. However, a competition has been running since March last year to determine who should take over the Dome at the end of December. The competition will be concluded at the end of June or the beginning of July. Whoever is selected will take over at the end of the year. That is the current timetable.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, before this Question began, the Chief Whip indicated to the House that it was not intended to take longer than 10 minutes. Of course, as the noble Viscount will be aware, when the clock shows 10 minutes, that means 11 minutes.

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