HL Deb 13 November 2000 vol 619 cc8-11

3 p.m.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will make a report to the House today on the National Audit Office report on the Millennium Dome.

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

My Lords, I welcome the publication of the National Audit Office report which gives a detailed account of events at the Dome. The NAO's report will be the subject of a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee on Wednesday, 15th November, where oral evidence will be taken from the accounting officers.

It is a convention, known as the Osmotherley Rules, that the Government should not pre-empt or prejudice their final and considered reply to the committee's recommendations, albeit the convention recognises the right of Ministers to respond robustly to media attacks.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as I have said previously, I should welcome the opportunity for a full debate, which should include the background and inception of the Millennium Dome, in this House as soon as parliamentary time can be found for it.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that his remark on the television last Thursday that the fact the Dome was a failure was in no way an indictment of the way it had been run will surely earn him immortality in the Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations?

But does the NAO report not show, first, that accounting officers did not want to put more money in; that as early as February Chris Smith was asking for a shake-up of corporate governance; as early as February the Dome was trading insolvently; and yet after February a further £179 million was put into the project? If that is not an indictment of the way it was run, what is?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it is not for me to draw conclusions from the NAO's report. However, I will say that the NAO report makes it clear that as the year went on, the options were either continuing to trade or closure. Continuing to trade was the cheaper of the two options so it was the sensible, albeit difficult, course to take.

The NAO report also identified specifically the number of visitors to the Dome, which is more than to any other pay-to-visit attraction in the country, the degrees of visitor satisfaction and the importance of regeneration.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, I suppose that I should declare an interest as a past chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. While the National Audit Office report is very good and well worth considering, does my noble and learned friend agree that it would be better for any debate to take place—and I see my noble friend the Chief Whip nodding—after we have the report from the Public Accounts Committee? We should then be better informed by a non party-political report rather than merely having the present personally offensive and party-political attacks on my noble and learned friend.

Many Ministers from past and present governments have been involved in the project. Indeed, many leading businessmen, with leisure industry interests, have been involved as well as senior civil servants. So the Public Accounts Committee will have the opportunity of questioning officials. I hope and believe that the report will be unanimous and non-party-political, as it always has been in the past. It would be a good time to debate the matter after the publication of that report.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, my noble friend accurately sets out the principle which has informed the approach of this Government and previous governments to NAO reports. It is a matter to be dealt with on a non-partisan basis. It should be debated properly in this House after the Public Accounts Committee has expressed its view. That is the approach that this Government have taken to the NAO report, albeit that from time to time I have felt obliged to respond to attacks on me.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, first, I thank the noble and learned Lord for the fact that after the question which I raised last week, a breathless messenger arrived in the House a few moments ago with a belated reply to my letter of 14th September. I am grateful for that.

In view of the fact that the Government have been deeply involved in all the decisions on the Dome since its major review two-and-a-half years before the Dome opened and the fact that the shareholder has attended 16 of the 22 board meetings and had a representative at the others, is there not an overwhelming case for Parliament and this House discussing the deplorable state of affairs revealed in the NAO report before Prorogation?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as I have indicated in my original Answer, I support the idea of a debate dealing with the issues. The usual channels will seek to fix a date as soon as possible. But the reason for the convention is that one should debate the NAO report only when the views of the PAC are available.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, perhaps I may revert to what happened on Thursday afternoon. Is the noble and learned Lord aware that some of us were very puzzled that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, decided to raise an issue on the Floor of the House without giving any advance warning that he proposed to do so? Is he further aware that when the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, was Leader of this House, he would have objected very strongly to anybody doing exactly the same?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not know the position in relation to what would have been the view of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I know that the Companion suggests that if such an issue is to be raised, notice should be given to the Leader of the House. I understand that no such notice was given. The Leader of the House was attending a longstanding engagement arranged previously with a well-respected Member of the Opposition Front Bench. That was why she was not present. Had notice been given, then, of course, she would have been there.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree with the following assessments from the NAO report that: Once the Dome had been constructed, and much of the project cost already incurred, the room for manoeuvre in the face of low visitor numbers was very restricted", and secondly that, closing the Dome and liquidating the Company … would not have made financial sense during the year of operation"?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, those are accurate quotes from the NAO report. As I indicated, it is not for me at this stage to draw any conclusions from what the report said.