The government’s so-called “festival of Brexit” will be probed amid concerns that £120 million of taxpayers’ cash was “frittered away” on a project that brought “so little in return”.
MPs in a cross-party parliamentary committee have approached the National Audit Office (NAO) to ask it to look into how the project was managed and whether political pressures kept it going.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee had found that the number of visitors to the event – called ‘Unboxed: Creativity in the UK’ – was just 0.36 per cent of early targets.
Then, last month, the committee asked the NAO to “help get to the bottom” of the “irresponsible use of public money”.
Organisers of the festival had an initial “stretch target” of 66 million visitors, almost as much as the UK’s 69m population. But just 238,000 people visited the festival, The House magazine reported in August.
Conservative MP Julian Knight, chairman of the DCMS committee, said: “That such an exorbitant amount of public cash has been spent on a so-called celebration of creativity that has barely failed to register in the public consciousness raises serious red flags about how the project has been managed from conception through to delivery.
“The NAO’s investigation will bring welcome and thorough scrutiny and help get to the bottom of how so much taxpayer money could be frittered away for so little return.”
Mr Knight said the festival’s design and execution “has been an unadulterated shambles”, adding: “The paltry numbers attracted to the festival – despite such a hefty investment – highlight just what an excessive waste of money the whole project has been.”
In response, the NAO’s comptroller and auditor general Gareth Davies has proposed a “short, focused report on Unboxed which could act as the basis for future questioning during a committee session with DCMS”.
He said the inquiry could be completed and his report published by the end of this year with the scope and exact timetable yet to be announced.
In response to criticism, the organisers have said that the figures “misrepresent the public engagement” and reflect attendance at only eight of 107 physical locations within the event’s programme.
According to the committee’s highly-critical report published in March, the organisers rejected its characterisation as a festival of Brexit and have preferred to promote it as a celebration of British arts and culture.
In 2018, the project was announced by Theresa May and it was known as ‘Festival UK* 2022’. It was planned to be a nationwide festival of creativity following the UK’s departure from the European Union.
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was then minister for Brexit opportunities, had dubbed it the ‘Festival of Brexit’. The event – which has run from March to October – was rebranded as the ‘Unboxed’ festival when Boris Johnson was prime minister.
A DCMS spokesperson said: “We do not agree with the select committee’s views.
“Unboxed has helped open up access to arts and culture across the country with an inclusive and groundbreaking programme of live and digital events, designed to bring people together and delivered in partnership with the devolved nations of the UK.
“More than four million people have engaged in Unboxed programming so far and these numbers are set to rise further.”