2 Nov 2012

William Hague: snake charmer?

The Foreign Office spends £10,000 re-stuffing an old snake named Albert, deeming the dead anaconda “essential maintenance of a historical asset”. The Twitterati’s response? Get stuffed.

The Foreign Office spends £10,000 re-stuffing an old snake named Albert (FCO)

Twenty-foot-long snake Albert, who is thought to be at least 120-years-old, was a gift to the Colonial Secretary of what is now Guyana – but not much more is known about his life story.

Albert spends his life suspended from a bookcase in the Ansel library of what is now Foreign Secretary William Hague’s department. According to a Freedom of Information response to political blogger “Guido Fawkes”, he’s been hanging around for years.

Albert’s newfound celebrity status has sparked a raft of Twitter barbs today – mainly at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office(FCO)’s expense – and a few questions about the necessity of maintaining snakes in an era of austerity and cutbacks.

Snake oil

“My favourite so far today is that the government are going to discuss this at Cobra,” a spokesman for the National Audit Office (NAO) said, referring to the Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, which is used for crisis meetings.

While there may be many more Alberts slithering through the accounts of the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Prime Minister’s Office, unfortunately the NAO does not record the costs spent on maintaining gifts unless they comprise a notable part of the budget, the spokesman said.

It took five weeks to restore Albert and it appears the National History Museum (NHM), which did the work, left no scale unturned. The snake was initially moved to allow building work and the experts then decided he also required “conservation and restoration work”.

The Freedom of Information response read: “As nothing was known about previous work done on Albert, the conservation team at the NHM needed to use X-ray CT scanning, which is a costly procedure that required extensive data processing and a specialist to do the analysis.

“Also, the level of detailed, delicate work in the restoration involved an intensive amount of care and attention from highly trained staff.”

Albert: Foreign Office’s deep throat?

Foreign Office officials say they are obliged to maintain the department’s assets – and Albert is seen as one such asset. He appears in one of the department’s photo from circa 1892.

“As a gift to the FCO, Albert is therefore regarded as an FCO asset. As such, the FCO is obliged to maintain its assets, and the work on Albert was essential maintenance,” the FOI response said.

Albert may have been re-stuffed in the 1960s or 1970s, but there are no records of how much that may have cost, the FOI said, adding that no “significant maintenance” had been carried out on Albert in the past 40 to 50 years.

The restoration was carried out 21 May to 26 June 2012. There is no date set for Albert’s next check-up.