IT IS a centuries-old tradition to honour the great and the good for their public service. But privately commissioned paintings of parliamentarians are in danger of becoming vanity projects, say critics, after it emerged £250,000 has been spent on them in recent years.
For centuries, portraits of prime ministers and Commons speakers have been commissioned to mark their time in office, but junior ministers and back-benchers are now among those being honoured at the taxpayer’s expense.
The “net is being cast increasingly wide” when it comes to identifying subjects to be captured in oils or bronzes to grace the parliamentary estate, according to the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Records released under Freedom of Information show a painting of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith cost £10,000, while minister without portfolio Kenneth Clarke’s came in at £8,000. A portrait of Foreign Secretary William Hague cost £4,000 – and a triptych featuring him, Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy – all party leaders at the time – cost £6,000.
Labour’s Diane Abbott has never served as a minister, but a painting of her cost £11,750, the same as was spent on a full-sized statue of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
There were also paintings of Labour back-bencher Dennis Skinner (£2,180), the party’s Tony Benn (£2,000), former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown (£2,000)and Fife MP Sir Menzies Campbell, another former Lib Dem leader (£10,346).
A painting of Speaker John Bercow cost £22,000, with an extra £15,000 spent on a frame and coat of arms, in keeping with other paintings in the Speaker’s House.
Decisions on commissioning art are made by the Speaker’s advisory committee on works of art, a cross-party group currently chaired by Aberdeen North MP Frank Doran.
So many portraits of MPs have been commissioned in recent years that paintings have spilled over from the House of Commons and now fill several corridors of the Portcullis House block, opposite Big Ben.
During the Labour years, there was a hike in spending on official portraits.
Only three MPs were captured in the five years from 1995, at an average cost of £3,375, but since 2000, 11 parliamentarians have been honoured at an average cost of £7,180. Between 2005 and 2010, there were ten commissions, averaging £9,300.
Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “While the public might expect former prime ministers or speakers to be afforded the honour of a painting or bust in parliament, it would certainly seem that the net is being cast increasingly wide when it comes to identifying subjects.
“Regularly splashing out four- or five-figure sums for these portraits has the whiff of an expensive vanity project, for which unwitting taxpayers are footing the bill. When photographs are so much cheaper than paintings, politicians need to think twice about spending our money immortalising themselves or their friends on canvas, or even in bronze.”
A Commons spokesman said: “The parliamentary art collection records those who have made a significant contribution to UK political life over the centuries and in each parliament the Speaker’s advisory committee on works of art endeavours to update this record by adding to the contemporary portrait collection.
“In recent years, the annual budget for acquiring works of art for the collection has been reduced to reflect the need for savings in the current economic downturn.
“This is part of the House’s drive to reduce its overall cost by 17 per cent by 2014-15.”