Millennial mishmash: Commissioners gang together to oust head of pounds 1.6bn fund to mark 2000

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S Millennium Commission, the body set up to spend pounds 1.6bn of national lottery profits on celebrating the year 2000, moves into its new offices in Little Smith Street, Westminster, tomorrow, with no permanent staff appointed and no one to run it.

The civil servants on secondment from government ministries who are minding the shop will be without Nicholas Hinton, the man who has built the Save the Children Fund into Britain's largest charity, and who tomorrow should have taken over the reins as the Commission's chief executive.

Last week, Stephen Dorrell, the National Heritage Secretary and the nine-strong Commission's chairman, summoned Mr Hinton to St James's, and with no warning, and with no reason given, sacked him.

His action led to Mr Hinton having to tell 150 astonished Save the Children Fund staff at his farewell party on Friday that he wasn't going anywhere. He has agreed to stay on at Save the Children until a successor is appointed.

It has also led to renewed concern that the Millenium Commission has the potential to become a huge public sector shambles. Its pounds 1.6bn funds - possibly more, depending on the National Lottery's performance - represent the biggest lump of artistic patronage ever available for disposal in Britain. The money is to be spent on 12 huge building projects to mark the millennium, and a host of smaller local schemes.

A survey of the commissioners by the Independent on Sunday last month made it clear, however, that they had no common view as to what was millennial. The public is invited to submit its own ideas by next Easter. 'Above all else,' Mr Hinton said yesterday, 'I wanted to make the organisation capable of doing what it is setting out to do, and that is respond efficiently, promptly and courteously to project applications from around the UK.

'The likelihood is that for every 100 applications, 99 are going to be disappointed. I thought the single most important factor was to get on with it and not let the thing drift or delay.' Mr Hinton had been seen as an inspired choice to head the Commission. At 52, he is the most celebrated administrator in Britain's voluntary sector, having run the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, and then the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, before taking over the Save the Children Fund in 1985, which he has turned from a charity with an income of pounds 16.6m to one whose income in 1993 was pounds 112.8m, with nearly 4,000 staff working on all aspects of children's welfare in 56 countries. A stocky, cheerful figure, he is widely known for his drive and ability to get things done.

Mr Hinton's sense of urgency about the millennium was not shared, however, by a powerful inner group of three commissioners who, after a series of clashes since the beginning of September, persuaded Mr Dorrell to fire him.

They comprise the Commission's recruitment committee and are the chairman, Michael Montague, a former chairman of the English Tourist Board and the National Consumer Council; Sir John Hall, the most celebrated businessman in the North-East and chairman of Newcastle United Football Club; and Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times and deputy chairman of English Heritage.

At the beginning of September, these three men took exception to the staff structure Mr Hinton had agreed with the Department of National Heritage and the Treasury: to have a director of projects, a director of finance and a director of public affairs in place quickly.

All three posts were due for newspaper advertisements on 4 September, but two days before the public affairs post was withdrawn from the advertisement at the insistence of the commissioners.

At a meeting with them on 5 September, Mr Hinton was told that the recruitment committee wanted more time to consider the public affairs post, and that his determination to press ahead with it was too hasty. They indicated they wanted a degree of executive control over every element of the Commission's work, vetting all appointments.

Mr Hinton took the view that he should be the person actually carrying out the commissioners' mandate.

'My job was to get on fulfilling the mandates laid down by the commissioners, and that included getting the show on the road now, not in six weeks' time,' he said.

After two further meetings, on 21 September and 3 October, during which there were frank exchanges, the question was still unresolved.

Last Monday, Mr Hinton was sacked from his pounds 75,000-a-year post, with pounds 19,000 in lieu of notice, later telling friends he was 'poleaxed' by the completely unexpected nature of the decision. Yesterday he was at pains to stress that the suggestion that he had wanted final say over how the Commission's money was spent was quite wrong.

He said: 'It is quite clear in the Act that set up the Millennium Commission that the commissioners have final say. I have never claimed or wished or suggested that I should remove that responsibility from the commissioners.'

(Photograph omitted)

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