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Thursday, 18 October, 2001, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
Treasury's 'family silver' up for sale
Gordon Brown
"What am I bid for these fine wick trimmers?"
"Selling off the family silver" is an accusation that those who recall the heady days of full-throttle 1980s Thatcherism remember well, as the Conservatives implemented privatisation after privatisation.

Now Gordon Brown - the first Labour chancellor since then - stands charged with the same crime, following the news that the Treasury is putting its antique silverware up for sale.

We are urging all departments to make better use of their assets and it would be unusual if the Treasury didn't seek to do the same

Treasury spokesman
The global economic downturn, exacerbated by 11 September, is being credited with moving Mr Brown to squeeze every penny from the national asset register - the "stocktaking" book of everything the state owns drawn up after the 1997 election.

Those concerned at the sale can take consolation in the fact that the loss of the objets being sold is unlikely to have any great impact on what goes on at 11 Downing Street.

For sale to the highest bidder are six lots of 17th century silver, comprising candlesticks, snuffers, wick trimmers, trays and meat skewers.

But Mr Brown will not be expecting profits to fill any "black holes" lately skewing his pre-September spending plans.

Drop in the ocean

The sale is expected to make at least 100,000 - a considerable amount to be sure, but a mere drop in the ocean of the 274bn in assets calculated to be owned by the nation, and enough only for something like a quarter share of a cruise missile.

Some MPs have wondered whether Mr Brown is not taking his famous - notorious, ministers in spending departments would say - prudence too far in selling off state-owned historical antiquities for a fairly low return.

Others hope the Treasury's forecasting skills prove better than they did regarding its controversial decision last year to sell off much of its gold reserves.

The price of gold has climbed steadily ever since.

Needless to say the Treasury itself has insisted the silver sale has absolutely nothing to do with seeking to balance the books following the terrorist attacks on the US.

'Surplus' assets for sale

A spokesman said the sell-off was just part of a long-term programme across government to dispose of assets considered surplus to the nation's requirements.

All government departments were taking part in the programme, and the national asset register was compiled with this very reason partly in mind: to identify what the nation had in its attic, so to speak, that it had no need for.

Under the stringent new rules, government departments are also penalised for assets that do not produce any return.

The result is to actively discourage by hitting where it hurts - their budgets - ministries from retaining holdings that may be of historic value but make no contribution to the accounts.

"It is part and parcel of the disposal of assets that was set out in the national asset register," the Treasury spokesman said of the silver sale.

"We are urging all departments to make better use of their assets and it would be unusual if the Treasury didn't seek to do the same."

The silverware will go under the hammer in London later this month, with the firm Bonhams and Brooks presiding over the auction.

See also:

16 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Blair looks to tax rises
16 Oct 01 | Business
Brown and the downturn
19 Jul 01 | UK Politics
Price tag put on Number 10
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