Government wine cellar escapes cost-cutting axe

Henry Bellingham MP: Government cellar self-financing "a big saving"

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The government has ruled out shutting down its wine cellar to cut costs.

The cellar - containing about £2m worth of wine and spirits - is the most "cost effective" way to supply wine for state banquets and other events, it says.

But the purchase of wines will become "self-financing" - paid for by selling off some of the most expensive bottles.

The cost has been criticised by MPs from different parties - since the general election about £45,000 has been spent on new wine.

The future of the wine cellar, which is run by the Foreign Office, has been under review for almost 11 months to ensure it is "appropriate to the contemporary environment" - by providing value for money.

The review concluded that keeping the wine cellar was the cheapest way to supply wine for hospitality events, but that "substantial reform" was needed.

'Much more costly'

Foreign Office Minister Henry Bellingham told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme: "Don't forget this is a resource that's used by government for government hospitality, for business hospitality, for visiting heads of state.

"If we sold the cellar, we'd have to go out there and buy wine and ultimately that would be much, much more costly.

"We are going to be selling some of the fine, valuable wines. We're going to be getting about £50,000 in a year and the purchase of wine is going to be completely self-financing."

Start Quote

Obviously, when the French president comes over we've got to serve him wine at his dinner, so a limited collection is probably the right thing”

End Quote Tom Watson Labour MP

The government also says there will be an annual statement on the use of the wine cellar - including what has been bought, what has been drunk and its value for money.

Robin Alexander, the government's head of hospitality, told the BBC that the "vast majority" of his work was taken up with ministerial hospitality, rather than state banquets, which used the "reliable" stock rather than "top wines".

He said a bottle of Chateau Latour 1961 - which has a market value of between £4,000 and £10,000, depending on where it is being sold - had been bought for "51 shillings and 5p". The stock also includes a 1931 Quinto Do Noval, which he described as "probably one of the great ports of the 20th Century".

The Hospitality Advisory Committee for the Purchase of Wine was abolished last year - one of 192 quangos to be axed by the government. But its members have agreed to provide "expertise... on an ad hoc basis", the government says.

Labour's Tom Watson has previously used a series of parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information requests to discover that the cellar featured high-profile wines from the likes of Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

He told the BBC he believed the government had been prompted into action by a recent Information Commissioner's ruling that it should list the value of every bottle in the wine cellar.

"I didn't know there was a bottle of Latour 61 that was worth £10,000. I certainly don't know which minister would dare to drink it. It is simply unacceptable in a time of cuts that we can have these very expensive bottles of wine sitting around in government departments," he said.

"Obviously, when the French president comes over we've got to serve him wine at his dinner, so a limited collection is probably the right thing."

In opposition, Lib Dem MP Don Foster suggested the previous government was "living way beyond their means" after it was revealed the cellar contained 39,500 bottles of wine, spirits and liqueurs worth around £792,000.

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