Fury over Defra spending

GOVERNMENT officials sent to contain the avian flu outbreak have enjoyed the luxuries of some of Suffolk's most prestigious and expensive hotels it has been revealed.

GOVERNMENT officials sent to contain the avian flu outbreak have enjoyed the luxuries of some of Suffolk's most prestigious and expensive hotels it has been revealed.

Critics have rounded on the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for spending thousands of pounds housing staff at The Ickworth, describing the move as a “grotesque extravagance”.

Although Defra does not dispute it paid for staff to stay at the plush hotel, which is part of the Ickworth estate and dozens of miles from the outbreak's epicentre, it refused to state how many had stayed there, for how long or at what cost to the taxpayer.

Standard double rooms for bed, breakfast and dinner at The Ickworth, near Bury St Edmunds, cost £310 with interconnecting rooms fetching more than £600 a night. Defra said its accommodation needs had been handled by a private company called Expotel.

Defra refused to state which other hotels were being used, though a spokeswoman did reveal staff had checked into the four-star Angel Hotel in the heart of Bury.

Farmers in the area spoke of their shock at learning where Defra staff had been staying and criticised the Government department for not supporting the local economy in the area most directly affected by the outbreak.

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Maureen Ling, who runs a farm and a bed and breakfast in Wortham, near Diss, said “I am quite shocked that they have booked places at those sorts of prices particularly when there are places more locally which offer excellent accommodation.”

West Suffolk MP Richard Spring said: “It is just shocking and appalling. This is a grotesque extravagance. These are wonderful hotels which are very luxurious and appropriately expensive. These are also more than 20 miles from the site of the outbreak and the officials should be nearer the outbreak and staying in much more modest accommodation at a time when farmers are under real financial stress. This is spending by Government bureaucracy on a totally inappropriate and offensive scale.”

However, the National Union of Farmers said the most important thing was that enough staff were in the region to get the job done. Brian Finnerty, spokesman for the National Farmers' Union in the eastern region, said: “Where they accommodate their staff is obviously a matter for Defra.”

A spokeswoman for Defra said:”During a disease outbreak, it is important that officials from Defra and Animal Health are accommodated, at very short notice, close to the sites they are working on.

“We work closely with an external service provider to ensure the most appropriate accommodation is found at the time, and ensure that the accommodation provides the best value for money possible in the circumstances.”

Nobody from either hotel was available for comment.

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