£16k bill for one year to host dignitaries in Northern Ireland
The cost to the public of entertaining royal visitors and heads of state at Hillsborough Castle has doubled in the last four years.
Expenditure by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) on VVIPs has been on a steep upward curve since 2013-14.
The castle has been a royal residence and the home of the Northern Ireland Secretary since the 1970s.
However, in 2014 the running of the castle was transferred from the NIO to Historic Royal Palaces (HRP). The move was aimed at developing the castle as a major visitor attraction.
But it now means the NIO must pay a charge to HRP for hospitality costs when a VVIP visitor is at the castle.
This cost was £7,709 in the financial year 2014/15, but just £561 the year before. It rose steadily to £9,246 in 2015/16 and then jumped to £16,173 in 2016/17.
The spend for the most recent financial year, 2017/18, has been estimated so far at £14,521.
The figures were revealed by the NIO in response to a Parliamentary Question from Labour MP Peter Dowd.
Mr Dowd told the Belfast Telegraph he had been alerted to the rise during the discussion of the annual Supply and Appropriation Bill, in which Parliament votes on how to share out money to each department.
In response to the question, Shailesh Vara, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Northern Ireland, said the sudden increase was down to hospitality costs following the new contractual arrangement between the NIO and HRP which took over the running of Hillsborough Castle in 2014.
Mr Vara also said that from 2015/16, the total includes contracted transport expenditure that in previous years was provided in-house.
Royal visits to Northern Ireland in 2017 included Prince Harry's first trip here in September and also the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall in May and Prince William in October.
Princess Anne and also the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh visited Northern Ireland in June 2016.
Previously, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh visited in 2014, during which Her Majesty made history by shaking the hand of former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Some of the other VVIPs to visit Northern Ireland in recent years include then US President Barack Obama in 2013.
Mr Dowd, who is Labour's Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, questioned the increased costs.
"Once again we have further evidence of the fallacy of this Conservative Government's short term thinking and double standards when it comes to the public purse," he said.
"Ministers claimed that handing the management of Hillsborough Castle to Historical Royal Palaces would save the Treasury money, yet the Northern Ireland Office is now spending an increasing amount of its budget on hospitality in a building the Government owns. Despite a time of austerity, this Government has found millions for the DUP and now thousands for VIPs."
John O'Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, also questioned the rise.
"Taxpayers in Northern Ireland will be angered that these costs have more than doubled over the last few years," he said.
"This money could have been better spent on improving public services."
A spokesperson for the NIO said in response: "Since 2014/15, the running of Hillsborough Castle has been the responsibility of Historic Royal Palaces.
"As part of these arrangements, the Northern Ireland Office pays an agreed charge to HRP to cover the costs of VVIP visits.
"These charges are not room hire fees, but cover staff, catering and similar costs."
The spokesperson added: "Prior to 2014/15 all such costs were included in the NIO budget as part of the overall running costs of Hillsborough Castle.
"As the costs were not separately identified as relating to VVIP visits, it was not possible to include them in the response."
Recent royal visits
2018: Duchess of Wessex in January
2017: Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall in May, Prince Harry in September, Prince William in October
2016: Princess Anne in April, Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in May, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh in June, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in June, Duke of Wessex in October, Duke of York in October
2015: Prince Edward in February, Prince Charles and Duchess of Cornwall in June
2014: Prince Andrew in March, Queen and Duke of Edinburgh visited in June, during which Her Majesty made history by shaking the hand of former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
2013: Prince Andrew in January
2012: Queen and Duke of Edinburgh in June
2011: Prince William and Kate Middleton in March