Who the Real Scroungers Are: Should Austerity Britain continue to subsidise the Royals?

Considering the insignificance of the Royals in the lives of ordinary people, does the role of the sovereign constitute an essential public service in this day and age?

The Queen and Prince Philip.
The Queen and Prince Philip.

Even before the UK existed as a unified entity, the monarchy’s powers were reduced to a constitutional capacity. This means that the monarch and the members of her immediate family could only undertake official, ceremonial, diplomatic and representational duties. So, is the monarchy just an expensive relic?

Whilst the poor are saddled with austerity (leading to the current demand for food banks, increasing levels of homelessness, an underfunded NHS and the social cleansing which recently culminated in the Grenfell disaster) can we plebs afford to prop up the already super rich?

The recent revelations of the Paradise Papers expose riches stashed offshore, hoarding of wealth, and tax avoidance. Our skewed taxation system continues to disproportionately penalise the poorer members of society whilst the rich grow ever richer. These days ‘we’re all in this together’ is only ever wheeled out as a punchline.

Political systems which favour the wealthy do little to deal with inequality or economic stability. With the myth of the ‘trickle down effect’ now entirely discredited, such wealth disparity borne of politically ideological choices prompts questions of spending priorities.

With an estimated annual bill to the treasury of £334 million, the Queen and her family cost over 100 times more than the Irish president. Each “working royal” costs the public purse £18.5 million apiece. But to simplify the cost in this way would be misleading and would neglect many other important factors.

In 2011, Kate Middleton and Prince William were married. This was at a time when ordinary citizens were struggling under the crippling burden of austerity (as they indeed still are). In solidarity with their subjects, the royals promised it would be a ‘subdued’ affair, an affair which was in fact estimated to have cost a mere £53m.

Police officer on duty outside Buckingham Palace, London.
Police officer on duty outside Buckingham Palace, London.

Whilst it is reported that the costs of the wedding itself were borne by the royal family and the Middletons, the bill for security, policing and street cleaning set the public purse back somewhere in the region of £7m.

Additionally, it was estimated that the the additional bank holiday celebration cost the economy a further £6bn in loss of earnings due to lost productivity.

Many people were understandably upset as the Treasury funds could (and should) have been spent on worthier causes.

In defence of the royals’ actions, Ultra-Conservative MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, thought it “bizarre” that such paltry sums should be brought into question when public spending could always be cut further before asking the royals to tighten their belts.

But worry not, Mr Rees-Mogg. It didn’t appear that the royals had any plans to tighten their belts.

Jacob William Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset.
Jacob William Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset.

In 2012, whilst the public suffered £1bn in spending cuts, the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations were estimated to cost between £1.3bn and £3bn. Private donations and sponsorship assisted in financing the event, though, as ever, the policing and security was covered by the public purse.

Factor in additional costs of a further two royal christenings, and the money haemorrhaging from the treasury becomes eye-watering. Meanwhile, the money amassed by the elite just keeps on growing.

Such dizzying event costs cannot be dismissed as occasional luxuries. Even local visits from the royals incur a range of expenses which include staff planning time, policing, road closures, renovation, cleaning, food and drink, photography, floral decorations and flags.

Take the Queen’s visit to Leicester in 2012, which landed the city council with a hefty bill of around £85,000.

Whilst the royals are considered “always on duty”, their travel expenses to and from official royal engagements are paid for by the public. With their notoriously expensive tastes, the royals routinely clock up public expenses on their private trips under the guise of “duty”.

In 2011, Prince Charles charged the public £30,000 for a return flight from Clarence House to Balmoral for a four day break on which no public engagements were undertaken. When asked why Charles had not paid for his own private travel, Clarence House stated that he was “always on duty”.

So, why can’t the royals pay for these things themselves?

It is almost impossible to put a figure on the assets of the Queen. Not only is the Queen above the law and exempt from tax, she does not have to disclose financial information under the Freedom of Information Act. We do know, however, that the Queen benefits from three main sources of income: private income, The Privy Purse (Duchy of Lancaster) and the Sovereign Grant:

The Duchy of Lancaster, or Privy Purse, consists of land, property and other assets of about 18,000 hectares in England and Wales. Its main purpose is to provide an income for the sovereign and has existed since 1399. Technically, this property portfolio does not belong to her and is, in fact, held by the state. Nonetheless, the Queen can avoid such technicalities which limit her from spending the profits that it generates. The Queen receives rent from the land and is free to do with it as she pleases. This money, running into tens of millions, is even managed for her.

Recent revelations, unearthed by the Paradise Papers, show that the Queen invested millions in offshore arrangements in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda between 2004 and 2005. These documents also outlined investments in the controversial rent-to-buy firm BrightHouse – a company that has previously been forced to pay back £14.8m after the City watchdog found that it had ‘failed to act responsibly’ in its lending to customers, many of whom reside in low income households.

A further source of income for the Queen comes in the form of the Sovereign Grant; a hefty hand-out courtesy of her loyal subjects and gifted to her each year in order that she may carry out her ‘official duties’. These include the upkeep of occupied official residences such as Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace, royal travel, investitures, garden parties, and so on.

Last year, in the midst of the housing crisis, and against the backdrop of soaring levels of homelessness, exorbitant rents and benefits cuts, the Queen was awarded a 66% pay rise to fund a £369m 10-year refit of Buckingham Palace.

The Prince of Wales taken at Buckingham Palace, London 1972
The Prince of Wales taken at Buckingham Palace, London 1972

But the hand-outs don’t stop with the Queen. Enter: the Duchy of Cornwall.

As the heir to the throne, Prince Charles’ duties are funded separately to the Queen, through the Duchy of Cornwall. The Duchy of Cornwall is a private estate consisting of around 53,000 hectares of land in 23 different countries. The main purpose of the duchy is to generate income for the Prince of Wales. It is a major business with interests in commercial and residential property and farmland. The latest accounts show it had assets of £913m in April, upon which Charles made a £19m profit.

The duchy has never had to pay any UK tax on its income or gains from investments, though Charles pays a very modest voluntary tax contribution.

Labour MP Austin Mitchell commented:

“It looks to me that Prince Charles pays a smaller proportion in tax than any of his domestic servants.”

The Paradise Papers exposed a number of the Prince of Wales’ financial interests; some of them rather surprising. Despite the Prince’s ‘Rainforest Project’ and his vociferous concerns over deforestation and climate change, his private estate held a stake in forestry firms.

The papers also show the duchy committed to invest £1m in a private equity fund based in the Cayman Islands which became a partner in Coller International Partners IV-D.

But aren’t the royals good for tourism?

Not particularly. Chester Zoo, Stonehenge and the Roman Baths are all far more profitable tourist attractions than Windsor Castle (the only occupied royal residence which can claim to attract visitors in any significant number). In fact, if Windsor Castle was ranked in the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), it would only reach number 24.

With such a meagre ranking, claims that the royals generate more in tourist revenues for the country than they cost do not hold up to scrutiny. There are no figures to back these claims. In fact, through research, it would seem that tourists appear more interested in museums, scenery, shopping and history.

Without a monarchy, royal properties could be opened all year round and generate increased revenue from tourists inclined to visit such places.

Isn’t it our patriotic duty to love the Queen?

Patriotism cannot be defined as the preservation of an unelected elite. Nor can it support the ideology that birthright determines the value of one citizen over another. And given the choice, would we want this as the backbone of our nation?

Patriotic pride does not require us to relinquish our hard-earned cash for a folly, whilst witnessing our services and communities crumble due to dire underinvestment. It is no coincidence that those who most fervently advocate this notion tend to be those who also stock-pile their spoils offshore.

A little known fact about the monarch is that when a person dies without leaving their estate to any living relative, under the rules of intestacy, the entire estate passes to the Crown.

The sovereign will not pine your passing, in fact, she’ll do quite nicely from it.

Over the last thirty years, as the practice of tax avoidance has increased, and the laws which allow it to go unchecked remain in place, we are left with a gap between rich and poor which is greater than it was in Victorian times. It is morally reprehensible that our nation’s figurehead should partake in the same practice.

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Lyndsey Jameson

Lyndsey is an active member of the Labour Party, in the north of England. She is also an artist and currently works as a teacher.