The Big Question: Are 'grace and favour' homes for ministers justified any more?

Why are we asking this now?

The saga of MPs' expenses rumbles on, doing no good at all for the reputation of British politics. Geoff Hoon, the Transport Secretary, is among those who must be wishing these things could be kept secret, as they used to be. When he was Defence Secretary, he had three homes. It has now emerged that he claimed £50,000 in allowances for the cost of running one home in his Ashfield constituency in Nottinghamshire while he was letting out his London home to a private tenant and living rent free in a grace and favour apartment in Admiralty House. Alistair Darling and Margaret Beckett have also claimed housing allowance when they had grace and favour homes – all permissible under the much criticised House of Commons rules.

Why do ministers have grace and favour homes?

It is a long established practice that a few senior ministers are granted free homes so that they have a retreat from the cares of high office. Some of these places are also used to entertain foreign dignitaries or other important guests. Others are given ministers who might be terrorist targets. Some are just very nice perks for people who have got to the top of the greasy poll.

How long has this been going on?

The oldest grace and favour home in the country is also the most famous, at 10 Downing Street, which has been the official residence of every Prime Minister in British history. George II offered it in 1735 to Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister, (though he was not using the title at the time). He would not accept it as a personal gift, but agreed that it should be the official residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, who is always also Prime Minister. In 1828, the house next door, at No 11, became the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Both buildings have offices on the lower floors and living accommodation at the top. The flat above No 11 is the larger, so when Labour took office in 1997, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown swapped flats to create room for the Blair family.

Why should Gordon Brown have two grace and favour homes?

The former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin once claimed that: "There are three classes that need sanctuary more than any others – birds, wildflowers and prime ministers." Downing Street could hardly be classed as a sanctuary, when dozens of officials have offices there. Chequers, a Tudor mansion in Buckinghamshire, bequeathed in 1917 by Sir Arthur Lee, is more restful. Historically, it cost the taxpayer little because it really was a place of escape, with only one telephone, and the costs were born by the trust that owns it. Now it is much more expensive. In 2006 alone, it cost the taxpayer more than £1m. Current costs are estimated to be just over £1,700 a day. When he came to office, Gordon Brown announced that he would be the first Prime Minister for more than 80 years not to use Chequers as a regular weekend retreat, but would return to Scotland at weekends, and use Chequers for conferences and other formal business. The rumour is that he has since fallen in love with the old place.

And the Chancellor?

By tradition, the Chancellor also has a country residence, a beautiful 21-room Queen Anne house outside the Buckinghamshire village of Dorney, near Maidenhead. The Dorneywood estate was given to the National Trust by industrialist Lord Courtauld-Thomson in 1947 as a country home for a senior member of the government. Its upkeep is met by the Dorneywood Thomson Endowment Trust Fund but the government pays for official entertainment. Alistair Darling has use of it, as well as 11 Downing Street. He has recently been criticised for receiving funds to maintaining a second home in his Edinburgh constituency, for which he claimed £10,000.

Where was John Prescott spotted playing croquet?

There is no country residence that goes with the title of Deputy Prime Minister, as Sir Geoffrey Howe discovered, painfully, when he was "promoted" by Margaret Thatcher in 1989. Having enjoyed grace and favour residences for 10 years, as Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, he was left with a flat off the Old Kent Road. When Gordon Brown became Chancellor, he decided that he let the Prescotts have Dorneywood. They stayed until the combination of the scandal of his affair with Tracey Temple and those pictures of croquet on the lawn shamed him into leaving in June 2006.

But did not Prescott have a flat in Admiralty House?

Until the Tracey Temple affair, Prescott had not one, but two grace and favour homes. Admiralty House, off Whitehall, was built in 1786 as a home for the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Howe. It was used by Churchill from 1911 to 1915 and 1939 to 1940. It ceased to be the First Lord's home in 1964, and was divided into three apartments. Three years ago, the occupants were Prescott, Hoon, and Margaret Beckett – who also claimed an allowance on a second home. The upkeep of the flats was paid by the departments they headed. They lost their departments in 2006, though Prescott kept his apartment until the summer of 2007. Since his departure, only one apartment has been occupied, by Lord Malloch-Brown, the former diplomat who joined the government as a Foreign minister.

Any other nice grace and favour homes?

The person who most needs a grace and favour home, after the Prime Minister, is the Foreign Secretary, who has to entertain foreign guests. He is allocated Chevening, a 3,500 acre estate in Kent, left to the nation by the Earl of Stanhope in 1967, on condition that it is used either by a Cabinet minister or royalty. Prince Charles was offered it, but never lived there and renounced it in 1979, since when it has been used by foreign secretaries. The Northern Ireland Secretary also uses Hillsborough Castle when he is in the province.

Do you have to be a minister to get one of these houses?

One of the best free homes of all is in a courtyard right under Big Ben, overlooking the Thames, allocated to the Speaker, currently Michael Martin. Until recently, the Lord Chancellor had rooms the size of three tennis courts in the House of Lords. Since 2006, when that post was abolished, they have been allocated to the elected speaker of the House or Lords, Baroness Hayman.

Can't they sell these houses and spare the taxpayer?

The publicity about these homes is actually making ministers shy about moving into them. There are no MPs living in Admiralty House, only a peer who does not have to worry about the electorate. One Carlton Gardens in central London, acquired as London home for the Foreign Secretary, is uninhabited and MPs were told recently that the Government has not decided whether to renew the lease. There is also a six-bedroom house in Belgravia formerly allocated to the Home Secretary. Its last official occupant was David Blunkett. A few months ago, it went on sale for an asking price of £4m – which goes some way to explaining why Jacqui Smith says that her main residence is bedroom in her sister's house.

Should the Government hold on to its 'grace and favour' homes?

Yes...

* Some cabinet ministers need heavy security, which it may not be possible to provide at a private home

* It would be absurd to expect Gordon Brown, as Prime Minister, to live in the sort of house he could afford on a salary below £200,000

* There is no point in selling off these homes in a recession

No...

* Other people pay their housing costs from their salaries. Ministers should do the same

* The Hoon case has shown how this system invites abuse

* These perks are a method by which the Prime Minister controls the Cabinet: defy the boss and you're out of a house, like Geoffrey Howe

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