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Tuesday, January 5, 1999 Published at 08:43 GMT

UK Politics

'Time will tell' says new dome boss

Lord Falconer surveys what could become a familiar site

Lord Falconer, the minister who has responsibility for the Millennium Dome, has made his first visit to the Greenwich site.

BBC Media Correspondent Nick Higham: Lord Falcon assumes role of chief political fixer on Dome project
The Minister of State for the Cabinet Office went to the dome on Tuesday, the day after he replaced Peter Mandelson, who gave up responsibility for the project alongside his trade and industry portfolio two weeks ago.

Lord Falconer earlier told BBC Radio 4's The World At One he was "learning every day more and more about the dome".

[ image: Preparations for the dome are on track, the government insists]
Preparations for the dome are on track, the government insists
He said: "I feel I've got the right experience - time will tell whether I can deliver the job."

The addition of the dome to his responsibilities follows a row over the fact he sits on 14 Cabinet committees - more than any other government member, elected or appointed.

This was seized upon by those who allege cronyism and control freakery are hallmarks of the Blair government.

Lord Falconer, who shared a flat with Prime Minister Tony Blair when the pair were young barristers, was previously solicitor general before moving to the Cabinet Office.

Lord Falconer: "The prime minister thought I was the right man"
He denied the allegations of cronyism, saying: "I've been a member of the party for 20 years, I've been involved in government now since we were elected on the 1 May.

"I've got an experience of not this precise sort of project but projects of this difficult nature.

[ image: Lord Falconer: Sits on 14 Cabinet committees]
Lord Falconer: Sits on 14 Cabinet committees
"The prime minister thought I was the right man for the job, time will tell if he was right."

Lord Falconer said his relevant experience included "working across departments and with a large number of different sorts of disciplines, trying to bring together both creativity and also the need to get a building site together, getting to the end of it, that sort of thing".

Speaking at the site of the dome itself, Lord Falconer added that he was certain a use would be found for the structure once the 2000 celebrations had ended.

He also said he hoped the Underground line being constructed to take people to the dome would be finished on time.

Chris Smith: "Lord Falconer is absolutly the right man"
Under the new arrangement, Culture Secretary Chris Smith - who temporarily took charge of the dome following Mr Mandelson's resignation - will still take dome questions in the House of Commons.

Mr Smith insisted Lord Falconer had been selected because he had the ability to ensure the dome was ready on time.

"I believe he's going to be absolutely the right man both to be the public front for the dome and to drive the project forward," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

[ image: Chris Smith: Will still answers dome questions in the Commons]
Chris Smith: Will still answers dome questions in the Commons
"What the dome is about is the whole nation, and that includes the business community but it includes the rest of us as well.

"The dome has to be an entertaining day out for the family but it must also be about something more serious than that - about looking to the future and the challenges that face us in the new millennium."

But Shadow Culture Secretary Peter Ainsworth described the new formula as a failed opportunity.

"The appointment of Lord Falconer to take responsibility of the dome is yet another example of the cronyism that pervades this government," he said.

"It was important that the person appointed had vision, flair and the appropriate business skills to take the project forward, give it credibility and engage national enthusiasm.

"In what way is Lord Falconer qualified to take on the task, other than the fact he is a close friend of Tony Blair?"

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