Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Government's wine and the Lord Mayor's Car - image, entertainment and the taxpayer's cash

A year or two ago Bradford Council replaced the Lord Mayor’s car. At the time there was a little debate – not about whether the Lord Mayor should have a car but which car. The Greens wanted the council to replace it with a Toyota Prius limo as part of Bradford’s contribution to saving the planet. In another camp were those of us who took the view that Bradford’s first citizen should ride in a rather better vehicle.

As a result on this debate, the council’s officers went out and bought a BMW which means the Lord Mayor rides around in a grey beemer more suited to the sales director of a mid-sized textile company (if we had any left). The argument was that this vehicle best suited the brief – it was a good price, would hold its value well, had a lower carbon footprint and was economical to run.

It still seems to me that, if we are to have a ‘first citizen’ (perhaps a debate for another time), then people expect him to be splendid – all the rigmarole, the silly hat, the ermine trimmed robes, the fancy car, the chain of office and the big mace are essential to the point and purpose of the role. The Lord Mayor isn’t Cllr Peter Hill but a personification of the city and its people.

But I appreciate that others take a more prosaic view of such indulgence – especially in these straightened times. After all this is taxpayers money and why should the taxes from some bloke with an eight year old Ford Mondeo and a mortgage he can barely afford be used for such luxury and indulgence?

Which, of course, brings us to the matter of entertainment and its necessary accompaniment – wine. Former cabinet office minister, Tom Watson, is in a right froth about the government’s wine cellar:

“Every three months or so, a small group of former civil servants dip into the cellar to see if the burgundies are ready for ministers to entertain their foreign guests at sumptuous banquets at Lancaster House. The coalition government says we are all in this together. A one-litre Merlot wine box at Asda costs £10. They know what they have to do. They should sell the government wine cellar."

Now I see Tom’s point (although it worries me that former senior ministers can’t make out the difference between capital and revenue costs – or between accruing investments and costs) but wonder whether taking this action might prove a false economy? The point is whether it’s right to spend those taxes on fine wine (and presumably on the excellent grub) served to visiting dignitaries. Personally I think it right – if we accept the need to entertain those who visit, then it is right to give them a decent glass of red wine. Giving then some hideous boxed merlot would be an insult (and it says a fair amount about Tom Watson’s tastes, I guess).

So don’t sell off the cellar but make it more transparent. Look to exploit the influence of government to get gifts. And, above all get some wine that isn’t bloody French – a few SuperTuscans, some top Spanish vintages and a few of the wonderful new world wines. Oh, and here’s a radical suggestion – with the right dinner serve Taylor’s Landlord or Thatcher’s cider. Let’s take this chance to promote great English produce rather than feeding Frenchmen with French food and wine.

Treating the nation’s guests well is a proper role of government – just as it is proper that Bradford’s Lord Mayor looks the part. I guess we could offer a bag of chips and a can of lager or drive the Mayor round in an old Transit van but I’m not sure that’s what taxpayers want either.


1 comment:

The Sediment Blog said...

Well, want to see what ordinary punters like us get to drink at a 10 Downing Street reception? Read