`Cover-up' over expenditure on royal apartments

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Indy Politics

Westminster Correspondent

The Government was accused yesterday of engaging in a cover-up of the true cost to the taxpayer of fitting out accommodation for senior officials in the Royal Household.

A recent Parliamentary answer revealed that £819,000 was spent on furnishings, fixtures and decorations in apartments for four senior members of the Royal Household since April 1991. The Government said figures could not be provided before that date because of the disproportionate cost of obtaining the information.

Alan Williams, MP for Swansea West, who asked the question, told a session of the Commons Public Accounts Committee which looked into the maintenance of accommodation within the royal palaces, that £800,000 was "the tip of the iceberg". He accused Hayden Phillips, Permanent Secretary at the Department of National Heritage, of "not wanting us to see the iceberg".

In a tense exchange, Mr Phillips replied that the Government was "not in the business of avoiding giving information". Digging out the figures would not be easy, it would involve trawling through files which were stored in bulk, away from Whitehall.

Mr Williams, who has campaigned vigorously for greater disclosure of royal finances, said that in December he had written to the National Audit Office, the public expenditure watchdog, asking that it provide basic information to MPs: the job description of each official living within the palaces; whether they were full-time or part-time; and why the accommodation was necessary.

The NAO wrote to the National Heritage department for the answer and was told by Mr Phillips the details were not available. Some of the staff concerned were not paid from the Civil List so fell outside the public finance remit, and deciding who received accommodation was not a matter for the Government, but for the Queen.

This, said Mr Williams, was not accurate. The cost of maintaining the accommodation came from the public purse. It was disingenuous to claim that because the staff concerned had their salaries paid privately, the question of their living quarters was not a public matter.

At an unusually tense session of the accounts committee - Mr Williams's interest is not shared by Tory members, who made their distaste for his line of inquiry evident - he said senior staff were paying maximum rents of £200 per week for four, five and six-bedroomed apartments. He claimed that this was "an astonishing figure", especially as it covered properties in some of the most sought-after parts of London.

Mr Williams said proof that the committee was justified in looking into accommodation in the royal palaces was contained in the recent decision to reduce the number of staff apartments available - from 265 to 205.