Unwrapped: the official presents the Blairs bought

The PM was so taken with some of the tokens of other leaders' esteem that he snapped them up. But was the price right? Marie Woolf reports
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Indy Politics

In his nine years in office, Mr Blair has been presented, in his official capacity, with a range of rather exclusive items as a token of other leaders' esteem - the full list of which The Independent on Sunday has obtained for the first time. Although he has returned from trips abroad with trinkets, he has never been questioned before about the prices at which he has taken personal possession of his holiday presents. This could land him in trouble. For he has so far failed to provide a clear answer to the question of whether he has paid any duty or tax on his swag. If not, he could have broken the ministerial code.

His haul includes a 12-piece dinner service from the government of Bangladesh (bought for £177), a 12-piece Russian tea and coffee set from President Putin; and a £175 porcelain dish presented to him by the Turkish Prime Minister during an Ankara summit in May 2004.

The Tories have, for months, been trying to get answers from Mr Blair on whether, as well as paying for the gifts he was presented with overseas, he has paid VAT and import duty, as the code require. The Prime Minister has resolutely refused to co-operate with the requests for answers, saying only that the Prime Minister's tax affairs are "confidential".

His hazy reaction has provoked alarm and suspicion among Opposition politicians. Yesterday, Lord Hanningfield, a Tory frontbencher in the Lords who has been pursuing the matter, decided to write to Sir Alistair Graham, the head of the standards watchdog, to ask him investigate.

"I have been trying for months to ascertain whether Tony Blair has abided by the obligations of office and paid the required duty and tax on each of theses gifts," hesaid,"but the Prime Minister has resolutely refused to confirm that he has abided by the ministerial code."

The rule concerning gifts presented to the Prime Minister is that those worth more than £140 remain the property of the British state and are held by Downing Street, as protocol demands. If Mr Blair wants to keep them, he must pay from his own pocket. Many of these items are not likely to appeal even to such a jackdaw-like couple as the Blairs, and gifts left in the official backroom include archaeological artefacts from the government of Israel, a guitar from the President of Mexico and a Segway Transporter scooter from the King of Jordan.

These are not part of the present row, and neither are his purchases of the items with which he was presented in London by visiting dignitaries: a £275 camera, a gift from the Prime Minister of Japan during a summit meeting in London in July 2001; two tennis rackets worth £267, given to him by the sports goods manufacturer Head; menu holders worth £375 given by President Arroyo of the Philippines, and a photo frame worth £175 presented by Giancarlo Cerutti, an Italian businessman

The Tories say that if Mr Blair has not paid VAT and duty on all the gifts he has bought he has broken the ministerial code - potentially a resigning matter.

Chris Grayling MP, a Shadow Cabinet member, called on Downing Street to confirm if and when tax and duty was paid. "The Government should be open as to whether the Prime Minister has paid the necessary taxes and duties. If they aren't, people will suspect the worst," he said.

Ministers, like other travellers, are allowed to bring in shopping worth £145. They are then liable for VAT and duty on goods brought in from outside the EU's free-trade zone. Among gifts given to but not bought by Mr Blair are a dagger from Yemen, a bronze fox from Belgium, an electric car from the president of Ferrari and a musical box and gold coins from the King of Bahrain.

The Cabinet Office said that gifts which are retained by government departments would not be liable for duty. But gifts bought by a minister for personal use would be liable for assessment by customs. According to Customs and Excise, a ceramic coffee service from the Russian Federation would be liable for 12 per cent duty.

A Downing Street spokes- man refused yesterday, to say whether the Prime Minister had abided by the rules. "The Prime Minister's personal tax affairs are confidential," she said.

Thank you, you shouldn't have

1 Two watches, bought for £350, presented by Italian government, July 2004

2 Fountain pen, £500, presented by President Chirac, September 2001

3 Italian clock, £250, presented by the government of Italy, May 2002

4 Russian tea/coffee set, £300, presented by President Putin, October 2002

5 Camera, £275, presented by Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan, July 2001

6 12-piece dinner service, £177, presented by the government of Bangladesh, January 2002