Irvine's pounds 20,000 curtains draw criticism

LORD IRVINE'S new curtains were under a spotlight last night as the Tories homed in on new revelations about the pounds 650,000 refurbishment of his official residence.

The Opposition promised to dig deeper into revelations that the fabric for the Lord Chancellor's four-roomed apartment would cost pounds 200 per yard, bringing the total to at least pounds 20,000.

The lavish window-coverings will not rival the now-famous pounds 60,000 wallpaper ordered by the Prime Minister's friend and mentor, but they will lead to fresh claims that he has been a little profligate.

Hundreds of yards of damask, a mix of silk and wool, are being painstakingly produced on ancient looms by the Humphries Weaving Company in Essex. Carpets will cost pounds 100 per square yard from Hugh Mackay, a specialist firm in Durham, while a dining table for 10 people will cost pounds 25,000.

Lord Irvine, whose wife is an art historian, is reported to be a stickler for detail in his quest to reproduce the original style of Parliament's architect, Augustus Pugin.

Yesterday the Conservative trade and industry spokesman, John Redwood, said Parliament should investigate claims that contractors had been asked to sign the Official Secrets Act. "Now we know what his carpet cost, Tony Blair should give Lord Irvine a carpeting," he said.

The Lord Chancellor has defended his restoration as part of a 10-year rolling programme to renovate neglected areas of the Palace of Westminster, and says it will be open to the public after Easter.

Yesterday, a spokesman for his department said the work had been approved by an all-party committee. It was not clear whether the Official Secrets Act was mentioned in all contracts within the Palace of Westminster.

The Prime Minister is unlikely to take up Mr Redwood's suggestion that he should put a stop to Lord Irvine's renovations. The Blair family is currently enjoying the luxury of a new, state-of-the-art kitchen which has been installed at Number 11 Downing Street. The exact cost is not known, though a parliamentary answer suggested it could be as much as pounds 105,000.

Margaret Beckett, the President of the Board of Trade, has also been criticised for the cost of her official residence in Admiralty Arch, where she spent pounds 64,314. The flat also costs the taxpayer almost pounds 100,000 per year in service charges.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, have both been criticised for spending money on their official residences. The Admiralty House apartments cost about pounds 90,000 to bring up to their standards.

Some Labour ministers still prefer puritanism to Pugin, though. Robin Cook is reported to have cancelled a pounds 70,000 redecoration of his house at 1 Carlton Gardens, planned by his predecessor. The public finances were tight, he said.