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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 June 2006, 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK
What are grace-and-favour homes?
By Ollie Stone-Lee
Political reporter, BBC News

Dorneywood
Mr Prescott kept Dorneywood and his flat at Admiralty House
John Prescott has given up his grace-and-favour country pile, Dorneywood. BBC News looks at the range of rent-free homes which can be doled out to senior ministers.

They are meant to provide a retreat from the toils of office but grace-and-favour homes have brought nothing but trouble for successive ministers.

Bad headlines might as well be on the property spec for these plush, rent-free apartments and country piles - whether it is John Prescott's croquet, Lord Irvine's 200-a-roll wallpaper or the periodic stories about alleged ministerial squabbles over who gets the perks.

Council tax troubles

The prime minister has some of the classiest accommodation in England to share out between senior ministers - some owned by the taxpayers, others by charitable trusts.

Despite giving up Dorneywood, Mr Prescott has kept his grace-and-favour apartment in Admiralty House, near Trafalgar Square, London.

Earlier this year he had to apologise when it emerged the taxpayers had been paying his council tax bills on the property - he said it was a mistake and reimbursed the money.

Officially, ministers only pay council tax on their official residences if they are their primary homes - otherwise the costs are met by the state.

Most of the properties are also taxed as a "benefit in kind". Downing Street is exempt, as are homes where ministers, such as Northern Ireland secretaries, have to live for security reasons.

'Away from the hubbub'

Former Chancellor Ken Clarke said Dorneywood had a real purpose as a venue for talks with foreign dignitaries and departmental away days - although ministers also enjoyed using it.

Geoffrey Howe, former deputy prime minister and chancellor, said the current fuss about Dorneywood was "rather sad".

"Provided government is sensibly run and sensibly managed, official residences are useful places," Lord Howe told the BBC News website.

Lord Howe said he had not used Dorneywood as much as he had his previous residence, Chevening, when he was foreign secretary.

At Chevening, he held talks with French ministers about Britain's budget rebate and unpublicised discussions with members of the ANC.

"You can get away from the hubbub and you can have confidential meetings there," he said.

But what about the homes themselves?

10 DOWNING STREET

10 Downing Street
The best known grace-and-favour home, traditionally reserved for the prime minister.

In fact, Tony Blair lives next door at No 11 because he has a larger family and Chancellor Gordon Brown uses the flat in No 10.

Sir Robert Walpole was the first prime minister (although he did not officially take the title) to live in No 10 when he moved there in 1735.

The house was offered as a personal gift by George II - Walpole rejected the offer but accepted the house as the official residence for holders of the post of first lord of the Treasury.

No 11 Downing Street has been the official home of the chancellor of the Exchequer since 1828.

The two houses, including the offices below the apartments, are valued at 23.6m.

CHEQUERS

Chequers
The prime minister's official country retreat is in Buckinghamshire and under Tony Blair has played host to foreign leaders and celebrities such as Sir Elton John, Bryan Adams, David Bowie and daytime TV duo Richard and Judy.

It was bequeathed to the nation in 1917 by Sir Arthur Lee, an MP and director-general of food production.

The house is maintained through a trust but also gets money from the government to meet upkeep and staff costs, which totalled 393,000 in 2001/2.

DORNEYWOOD

Dorneywood
The 21-room Queen Anne-style house in Buckinghamshire was built in 1920 and is set in 200 acres of parkland.

It boasts paintings and furniture from the government art collection.

The 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.

The upkeep is met by the Dorneywood Thomson Endowment Trust Fund but the government pays the cost of official entertainment.

It is unclear which minister will become Dorneywood's next official resident.

ADMIRALTY HOUSE

Admiralty House
Mr Prescott holds one of the three apartments in Admiralty House, which together are valued at 7m.

Admiralty House was built in the 18th century as a home for the First Lord of the Admiralty, it was used for that purpose until 1964. Winston Churchill lived there when he held the post from 1911 to 1915 and again from 1939 to 1940.

The upkeep costs are paid by the departments whose ministers have run of the apartments.

Lately, Mr Prescott's neighbours have been Margaret Beckett and Geoff Hoon, but the recent reshuffle means they are both moving out.

Defence Secretary Des Browne and Chief Whip Jacqui Smith are both tipped to be offered one of the flats.

CHEVENING

Chevening
Margaret Beckett has followed previous foreign secretaries in taking up the 3,500 estate in Kent.

It was left to the nation in 1967 by the seventh Earl of Stanhope on condition that it was used by the prime minister, a Cabinet minister or a descendant of King George VI.

The Prince of Wales initially accepted the offer in 1974 but later declined. Lord Carrington became the first foreign secretary to occupy the house in 1979.

Like Dorneywood, Chevening is maintained by a trust, with the government only paying for official entertainment costs.

ONE CARLTON GARDENS

One Carlton Terrace
Mrs Beckett has moved into this flat, another traditional residence of the foreign secretary. It was built by John Nash in 1830-3 and was briefly home to the exiled Louis Napoleon (later Napoleon III of France).

The flat was acquired on lease from the crown estates for Ernest Bevin when he served as foreign secretary in the 1945 Attlee government.

BELGRAVIA

Traditionally the home secretary, who needs special security protection, has lived in a grace-and-favour home in Belgravia.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett moved out of South Eaton Place earlier this year, four months after his resignation.

The 3m house is reportedly being sold. The Home Office says it is vacant but no decision has been made about its future. Officials say new Home Secretary John Reid does not have an official residence.

LORD CHANCELLOR'S APARTMENTS

Former Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine caused outrage when he spent 650,000 on Pugin wallpaper in his official apartments in the House of Lords.

The running costs have been met by the House of Lords, rather than by the government.

But the soon-to-be elected new speaker of the Lords will take over part of the residence for meeting visiting parliamentarians. There will be overnight accommodation but it will not be an official residence.

HILLSBOROUGH CASTLE

Hillsborough Castle
The late 18th-century mansion plays home to Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain while he is in the province.

In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed at Hillsborough Castle by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
See the home that John Prescott has given up



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