Residents of the Ritz become the new poor

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The affluent tourists who pay pounds 190 a night for a single room at the Ritz are classified as the fourth most deprived group of residents in England, it emerged last night.

Labour revealed that the Government is paying pounds 24m a year in deprivation allowances to the Conservative-run borough of Westminster, which is home to both Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament.

And the money is not just paid on behalf of such well-heeled sight-seers. It also covers commuters who work in the area but who live elsewhere, including MPs and members of the House of Lords.

The extra grants are meant in part to cover the possibility that these needy groups of people might need to claim housing benefit. It also pays for their use of parks and leisure facilities and for the demands they make on the street-cleaning and refuse-collection services.

Ministers decided last month to continue the practice despite considering a plan which would have given councils a flat-rate sum to help them provide services to commuters and tourists.

Opposition spokesmen have long complained that whileWestminster is classified as the fourth most deprived borough in Britain for grant purposes, Labour Barnsley is still 326th after 18 pit closures. The revelation that these extra grants are paid on behalf of about 800,000 visitors as well as 190,000 residents will cause further outrage.

Frank Dobson, Labour's environment spokesman, called the revelation a "fiddle". Because 12 per cent of Westminster residents lived in overcrowded accommodation, 12 per cent of Ritz visitors earned overcrowding allowances for the borough, he said. "The Government says Westminster is the fourth most deprived place, whereas Barnsley is 326th. But there's no Belgravia in Barnsley.

"And when these self-same visitors visit Brighton, the Government assumes they are the 32nd most deprived people. It's the same story all over the country."

Councillor Nick Markham, deputy leader of Westminster council, said the attack was simply an attempt by Labour to smear the borough because it was efficient and its council taxes, which stood at pounds 295 per head, were less than half the national average of pounds 600.

"I could get into a `lies, damn lies and statistics' debate and say that for every rich tourist there is a poor asylum-seeker. We have far more of those than we have visitors to the Ritz."