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Former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko at the University College Hospital, in central London. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
The Justice Secretary has written to the coroner in the inquest of murdered Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko asking for cuts in the estimated £4 million bill.
Kenneth Clarke wrote to Dr Shirley Radcliffe, the deputy Inner North London coroner responsible for the inquest, outlining his concerns over the costs. He wrote the letter after it was agreed that central Government would cover the bill and not the four local boroughs that constitute the court’s jurisdiction.
Mr Clarke said the Government was watching the purse strings and asked for a more “refined” estimate of costs. He said he accepted the proposed costs were the worst case scenario but insisted the Government was under “severe financial constraints”.
Mr Litvinenko, 43, was killed in November 2006.
He was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 while drinking tea at a meeting, allegedly with two Russians - former KGB contacts Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun - at the Millennium Hotel in London’s Grosvenor Square.
Prosecutors named Lugovoy as the main suspect but he was later elected as a Russian MP and a diplomatic rift developed with Moscow which refused to send him to the UK for questioning.
Today, Prime Minister David Cameron said the issue - which he has discussed with President Vladimir Putin - stood between Britain and Russia. Mr Cameron told Sky News: “That situation hasn’t changed.
“The so-called Litvinenko measures, the measures we took, not cooperating with the Russian secret service, those continue and obviously the Litvinenko inquest is going to begin and that case remains open and we still think the Russians should be taking a series of steps to address that.
“So that hasn’t changed - there has been no softening in our stance on the Litvinenko case and I raised it with President (Dmitry) Medvedev when he was the president.
“I have raised it with President Putin and it stands between Britain and Russia but I don’t think it should mean we don’t try to get on with the rest of our relationship.”
St Pancras coroner Dr Andrew Reid, who is currently suspended but presided over earlier inquest hearings, said the former KGB agent’s inquest should have a broad scope and that the Metropolitan Police and intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6 should conduct further inquiries.
Without Government help, the inquest costs would have been shared between Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets councils. Councillor Abdul Hai, Cabinet member for community safety at Camden Council, said: “Following the tireless lobbying of the Ministry of Justice I am delighted that we now have a firm commitment to cover the estimated £4 million cost of the Alexander Litvinenko inquest.
”By making representations on behalf of the four inner North London boroughs we no longer face having to divert £1 million from Camden funds that are desperately needed to maintain frontline services at a time of continuing pressure.”