Is time up for all the Queen's men of the shires?

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Once they were a force to be reckoned with. Sent by Henry VIII to every county in the land to keep control of the population, the lord-lieutenants acted as the king's eyes and ears sending back information to a monarch keen to make war and quell the monasteries.

Once they were a force to be reckoned with. Sent by Henry VIII to every county in the land to keep control of the population, the lord-lieutenants acted as the king's eyes and ears sending back information to a monarch keen to make war and quell the monasteries.

But now dwindling powers and a falling budget mean that their position is under threat and things aren't what they were for the modern-day holders of an historically exalted office.

By the 19th century, the lord-lieutenants' traditional role as heads of local militia had been wiped out by the Victorians. Even the residual duty to "call on men of the county to fight" had been abolished by 1921.

Now that the Queen is rarely in need of a platoon of local mercenaries to protect her when she ventures outside her palace, the time may finally be up for Her Majesty's remaining 102 lord-lieutenants.

The Home Office is reviewing their £686,000 annual budget - described as "an extravagance" by the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker.

Mr Baker, MP for Lewes, has produced research on the lord-lieutenants showing that four out of 10 are old Etonians while a further three out of 10 went to other independent schools.

Of the 47 in England, 20 are members of either Brook's, White's, the Army and Navy or Boodle's gentlemen's clubs. In Northern Ireland, five out of eight are members of similar establishments, and in Scotland, 20 out of 31 belong to private clubs. There are 11 women among the group, and no members of ethnic minorities, according to parliamentary answers obtained by Mr Baker. Forty five are former military officers.

Although the Government continues to pay their travel, entertaining and secretarial expenses the bill has risen steeply over the last 10 years, fuelled by local government reform, which has placed an extra burden on the Home Office.

Today Viscount Ridley, who has been Lord-Lieutenant of Northumberland since 1984, will hand over to Sir John Riddell, his deputy for 10 years. Sir John said Downing Street had asked him to use the job to help raise people's expectations.

He agreed that a wider social mix among lord-lieutenants would be beneficial, but added: "I don't think there is very much merit in having people of such modesty that they don't actually want to go out and do things."

Lord Ridley said the best part of the job was seeing the excitement of onlookers when the Royal Family visited.

"All the members of thefamily are marvellous," hesaid. "Seeing how people react and how much they enjoy them coming is the best part."

Mr Baker believes the honorary officials are an élitist waste of public money. "They seem to be a throwback to another era," he said. "They are hardly representative of the public at large. They're largely upper class, public school educated white men. It is hard to see why so much public money is wasted in this area. It is extraordinary extravagance."

Representatives of the lord-lieutenants argued, however, that they offered extraordinarily good value for money. They helped Downing Street with the Honours List, the Department of Trade and Industry with the Queen's Awards for Industry, and the Lord Chancellor's Department with the appointment of magistrates.

In addition, they accompanied members of the Royal Family on their excursions around the country, presented honours on behalf of the Queen to those recipients who could not go to London, chaired local Territorial Army councils and encouraged voluntary work.

All that, they said, was done without pay. In fact, many lord-lieutenants had to cover some of their own expenses.

A spokesman for the Association of Lord-Lieutenants said the costs and amount of time involved varied widely between different areas of the country dependent on how often the Royals visited.

"There must be many people whose life circumstances just wouldn't permit them to do the job, however admirable they might be or however representative their appointment might make it," he said.

In England, where the Home Office took over the lord-lieutenants' costs from the metropolitan counties when they were abolished in the mid-1990s, the total bill rose from £249,000 in 1990 to £686,000 last year. In Scotland, it has gone up from £10,000 to £34,000, while in Wales and Northern Ireland the funding remained minimal and constant.

The lord-lieutenants in England now cost an average of £14,500 each per year; £2,445 in Wales; £1,096 in Scotland, and £512 in Northern Ireland.

A Buckingham Palace spokeswoman said it had no direct role in making decisions about the lord-lieutenants, though it retained an interest. She said: "As far as funding is concerned a review is currently going on between the Home Office, Number 10 and the Lord Lieutenants' association."

The Home Office seemed unclear about the arrangement. A spokesman first saida review had been called, then said the exercise was an annual one, then said the lord-lieutenants' budget was "continually reviewed."

The Association of Lord-Lieutenants said it was not aware of a review.

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