MP takes Defra hotel costs row to Commons

A Suffolk MP last night called on the government to reveal the true cost of accommodating Defra staff at a luxurious hotel during the height of the bird flu outbreak, after it was claimed that taxpayers had been spared a huge bill.

A Suffolk MP last night called on the government to reveal the true cost of accommodating Defra staff at a luxurious hotel during the height of the bird flu outbreak, after it was claimed that taxpayers had been spared a huge bill.

Farmers, politicians and local hoteliers spoke of their outrage last week after it was revealed that government officials had been staying at the extravagant Ickworth Hotel, near Bury St Edmunds, while tackling the H5N1 avian influenza virus at poultry farms near Diss.

A standard room at the picturesque country house, on the National Trust's Ickworth estate - 22 miles away from the original bird flu outbreak at Redgrave - normally costs from £310 a night.

But after Defra refused to disclose the cost of the accommodation last week, a government source yesterday said that a special discount had been struck between reservation company Expotel and the hotel for a significantly reduced tariff

of £95 per person per night, including bed and

breakfast.

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The EDP was also told that 30 animal health and Defra staff stayed at the exclusive hotel for an average of three nights, costing a total of £8,550 - an almost £20,000 discount - but had now moved to cheaper and more modest accommodation in the Bury St Edmunds area.

However, West Suffolk MP Richard Spring, who previously described the decision as a "grotesque extravagance", last night poured scorn on the suggestion that one of the most luxurious hotels in the country would offer such a rate and promised to raise the issue in the Commons.

"I do not believe it at all. I think it is most unlikely that a hotel like Ickworth would charge £95 per person per night, including bed and breakfast. I will put down a parliamentary question to the government to get to the bottom of it. If they had nothing to hide, why did they not announce it last week? As soon as the story broke, they were relocated," he said.

Mr Spring added that he believed that the Defra staff had been moved to the Ramada Hotel, in Bury St Edmunds, which charges from £50 a room.

A Defra spokesman yesterday said all the staff temporarily based at the local disease control centre at Bury and Redgrave Poultry outbreak had left the Ickworth Hotel by last Wednesday. She added that the tariff was "reasonable", but staff had been moved to save taxpayers' money.

"During a disease outbreak, our primary interest is to

get the staff down there as quickly as possible and close to the site. We work closely with an external service provider to ensure the most appropriate accommodation is found, and ensure that the accommodation provides the best value for money possible in the circumstances," she said.

Maureen Ling, owner of Rookery Farm bed and breakfast, in Wortham, near Diss, said she was "pleased" that Defra's accommodation bill was cheaper than feared. However, £95 a night was still "expensive", she said. Accommodation in the Diss area costs on average between £30 and £60.

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