Fire-risk inquiry at 'taxpayer palaces'

AN INDEPENDENT inquiry has been ordered into fire precautions at all the royal palaces for which the Government is financially responsible.

Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, told the Commons of the decision yesterday amid questions about the adequacy of the one and a half page report of the Royal Berkshire Fire Brigade into the blaze at Windsor Castle.

The inquiry is expected to take several months and assess fire prevention measures at Windsor, Buckingham Palace, Clarence House, Kensington Palace, St James's Palace, Hampton Court, Kew Palace, the Tower of London and Banqueting House. The head of the inquiry is likely to be announced later this week.

Clarence House is the official residence of the Queen Mother and Kensington Palace the official residence of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Hampton, Kew, the Tower and Banqueting House are administered by the Historic Royal Palaces Agency.

The inquiry will only cover palaces where the taxpayer stands to pick up the bill for fire damage and not the royal family's private homes, such as Sandringham.

A report released last Friday by Buckingham Palace concluded that the Windsor fire was caused by a spotlight overheating a curtain and that no individual was to blame. But at question time yesterday, Ann Clwyd, Labour's heritage spokeswoman, pointed to the brevity of the report.

'The public believe that the report has been doctored and that the real report lies elsewhere,' she said. 'Why doesn't Mr Brooke publish the truth about this fire and not simply expect the public to foot a bill of up to pounds 60m without actually having its questions answered?'

Mr Brooke said the fire report, produced by a five-strong team of fire officers, police and forensic experts, was unanimous in its conclusions. He said no estimate could be made of the cost of restoration until the damaged areas had been surveyed and a decision taken on the form of the restoration. The pounds 60m figure had been 'generated by the media'.

Avoiding being drawn into the debate over whether the gutted state rooms should be restored or make way for a contemporary design, Mr Brooke told MPs: 'I hope that out of the fire and the scar which it leaves will emerge a reconstruction which commends widespread admiration and a sense of national achievement.'

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