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Thursday, 9 November, 2000, 13:29 GMT
Dome report sparks political row
The Millennium Dome
Dome was in trouble before it opened
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

The National Audit Office report into the Millennium Dome is one of the most damning indictments ever of a government-led project.

While it is written in traditionally dry and careful language, its criticisms of successive ministers and civil servants are nonetheless fierce.

It leaves the impression of a project running out of control with no one getting a proper grip on its organisation or finances.

The original estimate of visitor numbers was wildly optimistic and the financial and management structure was hugely complex and unwieldy.

With just weeks to go before the attraction finally closes its doors, and with its future hanging in the balance, the report will stand as its obituary.

Dome minister Lord Falconer
Lord Falconer under fire
Inevitably, opposition MPs are demanding blood, with growing calls for the minister responsible, Lord Falconer to quit.

Shadow culture secretary Peter Ainsworth led the attacks, claiming the report "shows beyond any doubt that Lord Falconer's position is untenable."

But Lord Falconer has insisted he is not about to go and Tony Blair has expressed his confidence in him.

Optimistic estimates

And the report does not single out Lord Falconer for particular criticism.

He only took over responsibility for the project in the last year and the criticisms of the management of the attraction go much further back than that.

While the NAO has not named individual ministers as responsible for the shambles, no one connected with it emerges unscathed.

The project was originally the brain child of Tory minister Michael Heseltine but, after great heart searching, Labour decided to go ahead with it after the election.

Crucially ministers, including Labour's first "Dome Secretary" Peter Mandelson, then accepted the optimistic visitor estimates and continued to predict it would be a huge success.

But while the report praises the fact that the Dome opened on time, it stumbled from crisis to crisis and by last February was probably insolvent.

Political row

The political row over the project has seen both sides blaming the other for the disaster.

During heated question time clashes, Tory leader William Hague challenged the prime minister over how much lottery cash had been poured into the project - and Mr Blair reminded him he had been on the original committee that approved the building in 1995.

Mr Blair has, however, declared that, in retrospect, the government should probably not have gone ahead with the attraction.

But he has stopped short of accepting blame for the failure. Meanwhile, the Tory chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, David Davis, has said that both parties had to accept some responsibility for the project's failure.

But he insisted that, since Labour has been in charge for three years, much of the blame for its troubles must now lie with the government.

He stopped short of calling for Lord Falconer's resignation and stressed that his committee would now examine the report next week and take evidence about its contents.

That is certain to stoke up the political row and pile further embarrassment on all those connected with the project.

It is at this time that the demands for blood may intensify and, as the man who happened to be holding the parcel when the music stopped, Lord Falconer is certain to again be in the firing line .

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See also:

09 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Falconer must go - Tories
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