They say that memory starts to dim with age. So it is ironic that one of the oldest members of the House of Commons, Dennis Skinner, seems to possess his in full. The same is true of SNP MPs, maybe something to do with the invigorating Scottish landscape! But most MPs seem to be suffering from amnesia. The reason for this conclusion? The huge majority (by 408) in the Commons for increasing the Sovereign Grant for 10 years to a massive 25% of Crown Estate profit, effectively handing the Windsors and their courtiers over a third of a billion pounds extra for the repair of Buckingham Palace.
The Sovereign Grant Act makes clear who is responsible…
Why is this shameful? In 2011 the Sovereign Grant Act was passed allocating Elizabeth Windsor 15% of the revenue from the Crown Estates. Clause 11 of this Act, which can be viewed here states:
11. Maintenance of Royal Palaces and related land
The Secretary of State has no [my emphasis] duties under section 21 of the Crown Lands Act 1851 in relation to the maintenance of Royal Palaces and related land so far as they are maintained by Her Majesty out of the Sovereign Grant.
For avoidance of doubt Clause 13 (8) of the Act makes the situation perfectly clear:
Any reference to the support of Her Majesty’s official duties includes the maintenance of Royal Palaces and related land.
So why has the House of Commons forgotten this provision in the intervening 6 years? Clause 11 makes it clear that the Secretary of State has no business maintaining Buckingham Palace and Elizabeth Windsor is the de facto budget holder. There is no ambiguity here, she is responsible and must be held accountable for not doing so. She is in the same position as any other public body which has wilfully neglected to maintain its property. If a Town Hall falls down or a Hospital collapses it may be in the public interest to allocate emergency repair funds but you can be sure that the Chief Executive and his/her staff would be held accountable. If Elizabeth Windsor has misused the money we have already given her, what safeguards are there that she will not misuse the extra allocation. So at the very least MPs should have refused the support until an investigation was made and arrangements were put in place for the Government itself to have organised the works. As it stands the Government will be virtually reduced to an monitoring role.
…so why is there no accountability?
Now consider the attitude of the November 2016 Report of the Royal Trustees on the Sovereign Grant. Section 4 specifically claims that there is an element of forward planning in Royal Household finances, up to 10 years ahead. So it is surprising that there was no mention whatsoever in the Report for 2012-13 the first year of the Sovereign Grant. The current report states:
The works needed for the reservicing of Buckingham Palace have been considered as a separate, discrete element of the property maintenance 10 year plan due to the programme scope being substantially different to the other priorities for property maintenance investment in the period 2016-21.
Since there has been no major refurbishment since 1945(!) why was the appalling state of Buckingham Palace not mentioned as it must have been known? Instead there is a complacent statement about future increases in the Sovereign Grant being used to make inroads on the backlog of repairs.
Back to the 2016 report and nowhere in the document are alternative possibilities presented for funding the work. For example there is no consideration of the potential for redirecting part of the revenue of the Duchy of Lancaster to help offset costs or even assistance from the investments of the Windsors themselves. The only option presented is the additional cost being borne by us, the taxpayer, starving money from vital public services. The lack of alternatives is surprising considering one of the three Trustees of the Sovereign Grant is the Keeper of the Privy Purse (currently Sir Alan Reid), who is also Treasurer of the Duchy of Lancaster! It is a reminder that despite electing the other two Trustees of the Sovereign Grant, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, their titles of ‘Her Majesty’s Ministers’ have real meaning with the result that they are unlikely to challenge these privileged elitist unaccountable parasites on our society.
Elizabeth Windsor Does Not Own The Crown Estates!
At this point two common arguments must be debunked. Firstly it is claimed that as a combined home and office, Buckingham Palace is similar to 10 Downing Street, But there is no suggestion that the sitting Prime Minister should contribute to the repair. But Downing Street is not a permanent residence and the PM can in fact be hauled out of there at short notice – as has happened in the past. Buckingham Palace is officially described as a permanent home, so we are entirely justified in expecting Elizabeth Windsor to contribute to its repair. The second argument sometimes advanced is that the Queen is already paying, as if somehow the revenue of the Crown Estates is given to the Treasury as a benevolence of the monarch. Apart from the fact that the handing over of revenue in exchange for state funding has been a matter of record since 1760 (starting with George III) proponents forget a significant fact. The Crown Estates is technically a ‘Corporation Sole’, with the monarch (but not the specific King or Queen of the time, which is why they do not possess it as such) as the legal ‘owner’. In this situation the monarch is regarded as the ‘personification of the state’ so we all have an interest in the Crown Estates. Consequently Elizabeth Windsor as an individual has not paid and will not be paying for the Sovereign Grant. But as an individual she certainly enjoys the benefits of the Sovereign Grant!
Why the Government should allocate funds is not hard to discern. Avoiding a position where they come into conflict with the monarchy deflects awkward questions about its use of the autocratic Royal Prerogative which has already come under scrutiny as a result of Brexit. But I expected more of MPs in an era when all public organisations are experiencing significant cuts to their budgets. With no challenge to the complacent attitude of the Windsor Household, much more of our money is likely to go to waste. So full credit to Dennis Skinner, the Scottish National Party and their allies such as Caroline Lucas and Paid Cymru amongst others. Sadly the attitude of most Labour and Conservative MPs including the avowed republican Richard Burgon has let down everyone who believes in fairness, competence and accountability. Ultimately the fact that the Windsors themselves should not offer to make at least a token gesture to help with repairs in a time of austerity and deep cuts to vital services shows just how contemptuous they are of us!