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Nobody believes the Government on the subject of the dome: nobody believes them when they say that it is a success and nobody believes them when they try to blame us. What people see is a Government who are prepared to take the credit for everything and responsibility for nothing.
We know from the National Audit Office report that, after the election, the Government reviewed the entire project. We know that they reviewed the visitor number forecasts and that they ignored the advice of Deloitte Touche and of Millennium Commission officials. The Government decided on a forecast of 12 million visitors. The Government are responsible for the visitor forecast and they are responsible for the content, for the budget and for the decision by Lord Falconer to insist on 1 million free school visits against the advice of the board. That blew a huge hole in the dome's finances. The Government have also been responsible for the appalling media relations: both before and during this year, the dome has been a public relations nightmare.
We also know why the Government decided to go ahead with the project. The Prime Minister himself ordained that they should go ahead at the fateful Cabinet meeting on 19 June 1997. Despite the misgivings of a majority of the Cabinet, the Government went ahead with the project. Despite the Chancellor's rather ludicrous suggestion that the project should meet five key tests--we have heard that somewhere before--the Prime Minister announced the same day that the project would proceed. He said:
The future of the dome is yet again uncertain. Doubts have persisted over whether the proposed deal with Legacy will go ahead. The task facing the Government is to ensure that, by selling the dome, they achieve a maximum return to lottery players and a maximum national gain in terms of long-term jobs and regeneration on the site. It is not possible to understand how that will be achieved by engaging in a hole-in-the-corner discussion with a single bidder which happens to have donated large sums to the Labour party and the Secretary of State's constituency association.
The site's future should be thrown open to fresh competition. Retaining the dome itself should not be a condition of the sale. Most people would rather have some of their money back after this dreadful year than see the dome retained as a symbol of a Prime Minister's vanity. As it is, there is a real risk that in the coming months the dome will stand idle and empty, a mute but powerful reminder of the cynicism, cronyism, arrogance and wastefulness of an incompetent and discredited Government. The right hon. Member for Hartlepool said that the closing ceremony would
I was somewhat surprised that the Opposition decided to pre-empt the Public Accounts Committee hearing scheduled for Wednesday. I very much regret that they are effectively undermining the PAC deliberations by tabling a motion that asks the House to anticipate the PAC.
The Government have already welcomed the National Audit Office report, which gives a detailed and accurate account of the origins of the dome and of the events during its year of operation. We welcome the PAC's inquiry and we will work fully with it.
We recognise the problems that the dome has faced. In particular, it is a matter of great regret to all of us who had high hopes for the project that the original visitor target will not be met. That has been at the root of all the dome's problems this year. It has led to a 65 per cent. drop in visitor revenue and the consequent need for additional lottery funding. It has placed enormous strain on NMEC as it sought to attract visitors by introducing better marketing and developing the product on offer.
Mr. Redwood: When Ministers said at various times throughout the year that no more money would be available, were they misleading the House or was the company trading when it was insolvent? Which is it?
Mr. Smith: It is neither. When I informed the House of the comments made by Mr. P-Y Gerbeau in July--the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) referred to this--I was reporting exactly what Mr. Gerbeau had said about his intentions and hopes for future visitor numbers.
Mr. Smith: No, but that is the first sensible point that the Opposition have made this evening. There is a genuine issue about whether it is right for the Government to seek to run, or to be involved in the running of, a visitor attraction. We have recognised for some time that we got that wrong. We have accepted that. Bringing in Mr. Gerbeau in February this year was almost certainly bringing him in too late. We now know that. One lesson that we have to learn from the story of the dome is that, with a project of this size and scale, we need to ensure that the experts are brought in to run it from an early date.
Mr. Ainsworth: May I take the Secretary of State back to the inaccurate information that he says P-Y Gerbeau gave to him. If P-Y's information was wrong, are we to take it that the company was trading insolvently, albeit without P-Y Gerbeau's knowledge? If that is the case, what does it say about the competence of Lord Falconer, who is the shareholder and Minister responsible?