Government spends £18,000 topping up wine cellar

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Indy Politics

Almost £18,000 has been spent topping up the Government wine cellar since the General Election, it has emerged - leading to calls today that the entire collection should be sold off to raise money.

Foreign Office minister Henry Bellingham revealed that Government Hospitality, which manages the cellar, had spent £17,698 on new stock since May 6 - bringing the total value to £864,000 - though he insisted the standard practice of buying wines young saved money for the taxpayer.

But with public sector pay and pensions set to be squeezed in Tuesday's Budget as ministers seek further cuts to deal with the £155 billion deficit, Labour former Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson called on the coalition to sell off its fine wines to prove "we're all in this together".

Mr Bellingham revealed the latest purchase in a written Commons answer to West Bromwich East MP Mr Watson.

"Government Hospitality (GH) in Protocol Directorate of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has responsibility for the management of the stock in the Government wine cellar," Mr Bellingham said. "Apart from beverage wines that are bought on an ad hoc basis, GH usually buys new stock on two or three occasions each year, as advised by the GH Advisory Committee for the Purchase of Wine.

"GH buys wines young, when first available in the retail market and relatively less expensive, and stores them until they are ready to use. It purchases throughout the year according to its requirements, market rates, availability and value for money. Since May 6, 2010 Government Hospitality has spent £17,698 on new stock for the cellar.

"None of these wines has yet been used. Careful management of the Government wine cellar enables GH to provide wine for high profile events at significantly below the current market rate, making substantial savings for the taxpayer."

The minister also said a total of £80,662 had been spent on new stock in 2009-10, adding: "This was itself a reduction on the 2008-09 figure of over 30%."

Using a series of parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information requests, Mr Watson was also told that the total value of the cellar is now £864,000 and features high-profile wines from the likes of Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

But attempts to find out exactly what vintages are held by the Government - and served up to VIP guests at departmental banquets- were blocked on commercial sensitivity grounds.

Asked to make the wine database public, Mr Bellingham said it "records details of usage, pricing, charging prices, market values and comments by the Government Hospitality Advisory Committee for the Purchase of Wine on individual products".

He went on: "The database is not released into the public domain because of the likely impact on GH's commercial interests and those of its suppliers and future ability to obtain value for money."

Mr Bellingham did say that wines from the cellar had only been served at one function since the coalition took office - a dinner for the British-American Business Council on May 13.

Mr Watson criticised the latest spending and the "arcane organisation" which advises on the cellar as he called for the stock to be sold off.

"Even under the Labour government, it proved difficult to establish where political and financial accountability lay for this tiny unit of the Foreign Office," he said.

"Every three months or so, a small group of former civil servants dip into the cellar to see if the burgundies are ready for ministers to entertain their foreign guests at sumptuous banquets at Lancaster House. It's considered a vital part of diplomacy to use only the very best wine from the very best vineyards.

"The coalition Government says we are all in this together. A one-litre Merlot wine box at Asda costs £10.

"They know what they have to do. They should sell the Government wine cellar."

While the exact vintages in the cellar are not known, Mr Watson highlighted that a 1998 Latour retails at around £285 a bottle and a 1996 Margaux at £650 a bottle.

"Of course it's not cheap, but it really is the best you can get," Mr Watson said.

And he joked: "These are the little details could clinch a big deal for the minister.

"There are some people to whom you just can't serve a cheap wine. Think of England. We're all in this together."