MEMBERS of Parliament have spent £250,000 of taxpayers' cash on portraits that campaigners claim appear to be little more than expensive vanity projects.
The "net is being cast increasingly wide" when it comes to identifying subjects for the honour of being captured for posterity in the oils or bronzes that then grace the parliamentary estate, according to the TaxPayers' Alliance.
Records released under the Freedom of Information Act show the bill for a painting of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith came in at £10,000, £8,000 for Minister Without Portfolio Kenneth Clarke and £4,000 for Foreign Secretary William Hague, according to the London Evening Standard.
Labour's Diane Abbott cost £11,750 to capture, the same amount as was spent on a full-sized statue of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. A painting of long-serving backbencher Dennis Skinner cost £2,180 while Labour's Tony Benn and former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown both cost £2,000 and another of the party's former leaders, Sir Menzies Campbell, cost £10,346.
A portrait of Commons Speaker John Bercow cost £22,000 to commission, 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 and buying art are made by the Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art, a cross-party group that is currently chaired by Labour's Frank Doran.
During the Labour years there was a hike in spending on official portraits as a result of an increase in commissions and higher fees paid to the artists, according to the London Evening Standard.
It found that only three MPs were captured in the five years from 1995 at an average cost of £3,375 but from 2000, three years into the Tony Blair government, 11 parliamentarians were honoured at an average of £7,180. Between 2005 and 2010 there 10 commissions at an average of £9,300 each.
Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, told the newspaper: "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 House of Commons spokesman said: "The Parliamentary Art Collection at the House of Commons 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% by 2014/15."