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National Audit Office to launch inquiry into Unboxed festival

NAO launches inquiry into "Festival of Brexit" (Illustration by Tracy Worrall)

2 min read

The National Audit Office has announced an inquiry into Unboxed, dubbed the “Festival of Brexit”, after The House magazine revealed it had cost the government £120m but seen just 238,000 visitors.

The costs and benefits, planning and management of the festival will all be scrutinised by the NAO, an independent parliamentary body that holds the government to account by carrying out value for money audits.

In a letter to Conservative MP Julian Knight, chair of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the watchdog revealed that it expects to publish a “short, focused” report on Unboxed by the end of 2022.

Gareth Davies, comptroller and auditor general of the NAO, told Knight: “I will be able to share further details of our proposed scope and timetable once we have completed planning work in the next few weeks.”

Knight asked the NAO to launch a probe in September, following the online publication of an investigation by The House magazine that led MPs to accuse the government of having “squandered” £120m.

Against an initial “stretch target” of 66 million, the committee chair described the actual visitor numbers of just 238,000 as “atrocious”. He called the project a “catastrophic failure” that “massively underperformed”.

Knight said: “At a time of serious financial pain for families, questions need answering on how much taxpayers’ money has been squandered on this fiasco.”

The DCMS Committee warned in March that Unboxed – previously called “Festival UK” – was a “recipe for failure” with aims that were “vague and ripe for misinterpretation”, after the government shifted the purpose of the festival away from the original intention of celebrating Brexit.

A committee report at the time concluded that the spending on the festival was "an irresponsible use of public money" given its unclear objectives and said it was "far from clear" it would deliver a return on investment.

The government maintained in response that Unboxed would be a success as it would "showcase the UK’s world-leading creativity and innovation in key markets and meaningfully contribute to our global positioning".

Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary, told The House: “£120m is a huge amount of public funds for a festival that fell flat. DCMS should learn lessons to ensure we don’t have more publicly funded festivals viewed, in some cases, by only 1,000 people.”

The full story of Unboxed by Stuart McGurk, “Carnival of Brexit: How The Government's £120m 'Festival Of Brexit' Went Rogue”, is published in the State of Play edition of The House magazine on 17 October.

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