Grace and favours: Lord Chancellor may open refurbished doors to the public tours

Public tours of Lord Irvine of Lairg's lavish grace and favour apartment at the House of Lords could be started in April, Downing Street said yesterday as the Government fought to damp down the latest controversy over the Lord Chancellor's loan of over 80 paintings for the walls of his rooms.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said there were no plans to charge the public for touring the Lord Chancellor's rooms, although the continuing controversy over the pounds 650,000 refurbishment must make them one of the top tourist attractions in the capital.

His latest acquisitions of paintings from four galleries - the Royal Academy, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, the Imperial War Museum, and the National Gallery of Scotland - are likely to enhance interest in the most controversial interior redesign in London, in spite of the works being dismissed by Downing Street as "not of the top rank".

The spokesman for Tony Blaire denied reports that the artwork which will adorn the walls, themselves to be covered in expensive wallpaper, has been "looted" from Scottish galleries. "One newspaper said they had been removed; it gave the impression they are being taken away. They have come from their reserve collections. In other words, they are all in cellars. They are not on display. None of them is on a wall anywhere. The galleries are extremely happy they will in due course be on display in the Lord Chancellor's residence which is going to be open to the public."

But that failed to impress the Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, who said: "Derry Irvine is displaying a breathtaking arrogance which is entirely in character. His looting and pillaging of Scottish art works will cause great anger both in the artist and academic worlds.

"Taking them down to Derry Irvine's house in London is nothing to do with access but everything to do with self aggrandisement."

Francis Maude, the Tory spokesman on culture, said: "Power has gone to his head. Not to mention his furniture. It is not surprising his colleagues are getting fed up with it all. He has already had a carpeting and now he is on the canvas. Is it going to be curtains for Lord Irvine?"

The Downing Street spokesman said the Lord Chancellor's department was working out access arrangements with House of Lords authorities, though these might take the form of organised access for groups. However, the intention was to secure "significant public access".

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