Government must head off new Dome criticism

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A long-awaited report on the management failures which plunged the Millennium Dome into crisis is due to be published today by a government financial watchdog.

A long-awaited report on the management failures which plunged the Millennium Dome into crisis is due to be published today by a government financial watchdog.

The National Audit Office report is expected to criticise the roles played by government ministers as well as highlighting problems in the way the attraction was managed and in the role of the Millennium Commission.

The report is expected to highlight who was to blame for the grossly over-estimated visitor numbers to the troubled south London attraction but is unlikely to focus blame on individuals, instead concentrating on institutions.

It followed a bitter exchange between during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday between Tony Blair and Opposition leader William Hague.

Mr Hague raised the matter of how much Lottery money had gone into the Dome to an angry response from Mr Blair who reminded him he was on the committee that had approved the building of the project in 1995.

Both party leaders sought to blame the other for the Dome's ill-fortune, with Mr Blair saying he was prepared to accept criticism from the public on the Dome but not from Mr Hague.

Today's NAO report is also likely to reveal the month-by-month concerns expressed by various interested parties as to the financial viability of the Greenwich building.

Originally, the Dome's finances were based on 12 million visitors coming to the attraction in the year 2000 but disappointing attendances early on caused a series of downward revisions of this total to the present target of around six million.

The report was expected to examine the rationale behind the over-estimation as well as the constant calls on National Lottery funds that Dome operator the New Millennium Experience Company has had to make during the year.

When the Dome opened, NMEC had received £449 million worth of Lottery funds from the Millennium Commission. Since then - amid much criticism from anti-Dome factions - a further £179 million of Lottery money has been poured into the Dome.

The continuing crisis has cost the jobs of former NMEC chief executive Jennie Page and chairman Bob Ayling. This autumn - as the financial situation worsened - Japanese finance group Nomura pulled out of a deal to buy the Dome and turn it into a giant leisure park.

There have been repeated calls for the resignation of Lord Falconer, the Government minister with responsibility for the Dome.

Earlier this week, the Government rejected Tory calls for Lord Falconer to go, with Culture Minister Janet Anderson insisting he was "doing an extremely good job".

Mr Hague also asked yesterday if there would be resignations, to which Mr Blair replied: "Let's see what the report says."

Nevertheless, whatever the tone of today's report, the findings were likely to be extremely embarrassing for the Government in general and Lord Falconer in particular.

Shadow culture secretary Peter Ainsworth this morning denied the Conservatives were responsible for the Dome's underlying problems, saying its failure was down to bad management by Labour ministers.

"It's absolute rubbish, this," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "It would be laughable if it was not so contemptible, and Tony Blair's attempt yesterday to shift the blame for the Government's mishandling of the Dome on to the Conservative Party was not just pathetic, it was cowardly."

He blamed ministerial meddling in the contents, mishandling of finances and projected figures since the last election for the problems.

Mr Ainsworth admitted Tory ministers had expected even more visitors than the unrealistic projections accepted by Labour.

But he added: "None of that explains the seriousness of the financial mismanagement.

"It is all very well for Tony Blair to try to shift the blame but he was the guy trying to claim the credit when they thought it was going to be a rip-roaring success."

However, Labour's former Cabinet "enforcer" Jack Cunningham insisted the Opposition must share responsibility for the Dome's failure.

William Hague had personally played a part in drawing up plans for the attraction as a member of the Cabinet committee overseeing the project, Dr Cunningham said.

Labour had been savaged by Tory ministers and the press for their initial reluctance to continue with the project, with Mr Hague and his colleagues part of that "bandwagon", Dr Cunningham said.

"Now when it is all going to come out they are saying 'Oh no, not me guv, it's nothing to do with us'," he added.