Crown, not Crown; The Duke of Lancaster Is Not What He Seems!

DucyLancsThe Duchy of Lancaster is what is known as a Corporation Sole or a corporation with a single person as beneficiary. That person is the Duke of Lancaster, none other than Elizabeth Windsor; but gender is the least important ambiguity we shall encounter. The Duchy is also a County Palatine which means it can exercise powers normally reserved to the Government.  Herein lies the problem.

Where There’s No Will There’s a Way!

It is a fundamental of English law that all property must have an owner.  But occasionally it happens that no title can be established for property, for example when a person dies with no family and not having made a will. Then it is the duty of the Crown (Government) to dispose of the assets.  This normally means selling off the asset and passing the proceeds to the Treasury.  That is unless you die on land owned by the Duchy of Lancaster (or the Duchy of Cornwall, controlled by the Duke of Cornwall, Charles Windsor). Then your property becomes their property (known as Bona Vacantia). The Duchy’s own site describes it thus:

Whatever remains undistributed from a person’s estate is the property of The Queen in Right of Her Duchy. Gifts may be made, on the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s authority, to those who might reasonably have expected to benefit on a deceased’s death. 

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is someone I shall return to in due course! The proceeds of bona vacantia are then distributed to charity which sounds fine.  But remember that the Duchy of Cornwall has the same arrangement and Charles Windsor has been known to give money to his old school chums the exclusive Gordonstoun! Some charity!

Hedge Funds, Interest Swaps and Property Investment

I have blogged before about the disingenuous myth promoted by Buckingham Palace that Elizabeth Windsor is politically neutral. Most certainly this applies to the Duchy of Lancaster which feeds her personal wealth and is anything but neutral.  The public image of the Duchy is one of cosy tradition with picturesque images of such assets as castles, hillsides where smiling farmers tend their flocks and babbling brooks feeding placid lakes. But the reality is very different  and it is worth taking a look at just one aspect of the Duchy’s activities.  Along with an analysis of Hedge Funds and Interest Rate Swap dealings the 2016-17 Report and Accounts mentions:

The portfolio, acquired in September 2016 for £34.25m, comprises four distribution warehouses (Basingstoke, Harlow, Redditch, Alcester) and one industrial estate in Swindon. The Duchy of Lancaster has been steadily building its distribution warehouse network in recent years, acquiring Wardley Industrial Estate in Greater Manchester in 2015 and both Estuary Commerce Park in Speke, Liverpool and Units A and B at Walker Park, Blackburn in 2014.

Bear in mind that this is only one small part of a corporation with over £600 million of assets, But note that unlike a commercial investment and property company the Duchy is not subject to Corporation Tax. In an arrangement which is available to few other individuals Elizabeth Windsor is allowed to voluntarily pay (she has a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with the Treasury) income tax on her earnings from the Duchy, though how much she actually pays remains secret.  Moreover, it also means that changes in the laws governing warehouses and the employees are of direct interest to the Duchy and may affect its profits. Areas such as health and safety, customs, food storage regulation and planning permission are all relevant, to name but a few. Because of secrecy we are not allowed to discover whether these issues come up in conversation between Windsor and Prime Minister.

Throw in a Murky Chancellor, a spot of Tax Dodging and Secrecy!

The quasi public/private nature of the Duchy of Lancaster highlights much that is wrong with our system. The Duchy exists to provide a personal income for the Sovereign from which Elizabeth Windsor personally benefits.. Yet as a Palatine it takes on various rights and responsibilities of Government. For example, It has its own ‘Attorney General’  the law officer of ‘the Crown’

Continue reading “Crown, not Crown; The Duke of Lancaster Is Not What He Seems!”

BBC Salaries – The ‘Market Rate’ Argument Is Again Deployed To Defend Greed and Discrimination.

The grotesque salaries paid to BBC presenters including  more than £2.2m to Chris Evans who flopped as a Top Gear presenter (in an echo of banker-like huge rewards for failure) and Gary Lineker at over £1.75m has focussed attention on what is fair reward in an age of austerity.  The eye-catching issue is the gender pay gap which has, rightly, prompted a public outcry and a legal case. But I want to consider a broader aspect of this issue which necessarily impacts the gender inequality and illustrates a number of problems with our broken socio-economic model.

I want to focus on a tired old excuse that has been trotted out once again.  This time the culprit was Today presenter John Humphrys.  Now, to be fair to Mr Humphrys, he was prepared to be interviewed about the salary scandal, unlike some other presenters who mumbled incoherently as they pushed past journalists. Nevertheless the answer was depressingly familiar. ‘Its the market rate’! He said:

I cant explain it but I’ve been with the BBC a long time and its gone up and up and up. I’ve no idea whether I am worth it. However we operate in a market place and I think its difficult for the BBC, Society sets these rules.

But we must ask what is the market in this case?  White male radio presenters able to get up early and ask ill-informed and sometimes ill-judged questions (I heard the Konta interview)? The BBC must remember that it is entering the ‘market’ on our behalf while at the same time itself distorting the market by doing so. Moreover, who defines what ‘the market’ is and what constitutes good value in this market. Would it be white middle-class men?

The real problem is that Humphrys then goes on to contadict this ‘market rate’ defence by saying that, aside from two occasions when they actually cut his salary (so goodness knows what is was before!), the BBC have been simply pushing up his salary since he joined 50 years ago.  Start with £2k and after a while no one notices the gigantic payment. So less ‘market rates’ and more ‘mates rates’!. As with banking and other senior jobs the market place argument is an attempt to deceive, to imply a commercial rigour which simply does not exist! But Humphrys does have one point.  It is the senior managers of the BBC who must be held accountable for these salaries.

Once again market rates are justified in grossly inflating the salaries of the already wealthy and powerful while justifying oppressing those less well-off with little influence. The ‘market rate’ argument is curiously rejected for teachers and nurses who are leaving their profession in droves.  I am in favour of the BBC. I consider that there is a place for a medium which is not dependant upon commercial interests. But the needs to be a radical reform of the BBC, just as there needs to be a radical reform of private sector corporate governance.  What has been revealed at the BBC must also be revealed in the commercial world.

Harry Windsor, Contestability and the Problem of ‘Doing Good’

If the Windsors were quoted on the stock market then the past few weeks would have been what the analysts term a ‘rollercoater’  Firstly, Elizabeth Windsor visits the site of the Grenfell Tower disaster and the WinDaq rises rapidly as she is reported as ‘showing Theresa May how sympathy is done’.  But then it all spins hopelessly downwards.

In a series of interviews Harry Windsor paints the Royals as victims of a grotesque system ‘enduring’ privilege while not wanting the responsibility which comes with it.  In a twist of fate, that argument is actually similar to the one Republicans such as myself deploy, that the archaic monarchy really benefits no-one. So the WinDaq falls. Last week it hit rock bottom as it was revealed that the royals share of the Crown Estates profits will net them a very healthy revenue increase. This is in the same week as the Conservative/DUP deal highlights the dire state of public service funding.

But lets focus on one single moment, courtesy of Harry in an interview reported in the Daily Mail which actually reveals something fundamental. He muses on the point of the yoyals, concluding

‘We don’t want to be just a bunch of celebrities but instead use our role for good.’

It is difficult to see whether this comes from a place of ignorance or naivety. Harry seems blissfully unaware that what is ‘good’ has been the hottset of political hot potatoes for centuries (maybe millennia). He is effectively saying he wants the Windsors to be overtly involved in politics (as if they weren’t already). Straight away there is a problem. For me the monarchy is bad because it represents a fundamental inequality, a secretive and manipulative private interest which distorts the heart of our Government. So ‘good’ for me is a constitutional Head of State accountable to the people.

For centuries the battle lines over what is good has been framed in terms of the balance of individual and state. Libertarians would argue that what is good is few laws and low taxes with a small state since only the people themselves truly know what is best for them.  A socialist may argue that what is best is a larger state with higher taxes falling on the wealthiest in order that a redistribution of wealth gives even the poorest a better chance of the good life.  There are many other possibilities besides, especially involving the definition of freedom as I have argued elsewhere in my blog. Harry must appreciate he is in a most precarious of positions being afforded a huge level of personal privilege and freedom while being funded by the state. If he doubts this he just need to consider the freedom of action available to people using foodbanks!

It seems the approach Harry wants to take is that of Charles Windsor who pontificates on what is ‘good’ while suppressing debate and dodging accountability. He does this in a number of ways but most commonly by making interviewers sign a 15-page contract effectively handing editorial control to Clarence House. Nowhere is this more focused than on climate change.  Charles Windsor calls for allocation of resources to Green projects without the difficulty of saying where those resources will come from who will be the ‘losers’.

If Harry Windsor really wants to ‘do good’ as he says then as the campaign group Republic urges, he must, give up his royal status and argue for what he believes in.  But he will find the court of public contestability and accountability a harsher arena than the one to which he is accostomed.  Just as it should be!

Categorising the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’? Maybe the Expert-Bashers Were Correct After All!

Passing_of_the_Parliament_Bill,_1911_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_19609Occasionally a statement is made which is so far removed from reality it is rendered  meaningless. Such a moment occurred last week when The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its Democracy Index 2016 once again categorised the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’. In fact they regarded it as more of a democracy in 2016, rating it 8.36/10 than in 2015, when it scored 8.31/10, largely as a result of the EU referendum. This is enough to rate the UK at number 16 out of more than 160 countries examined and the anomaly is of such glaring proportions that it lends credence to the campaign tactics of populist movements around the world (most notably during the 2016 UK EU Referendum campaign by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson) of discrediting experts.

The full report can be accessed from The Economist website, but you have to sign your life away to get to it (they want to grab the details of as many professionals as they can, hence a telephone number etc). Alternatively, you can read a summary of the report on the World Economic Forum site.  Although the overall results are clear it is worth digging in a little to examine just how they came to this seemingly bizarre conclusion.  It is not necessary to sign up with the devil to do this as last year’s report for 2015 is freely available.

Stretching the definition of ‘Full Democracy’ beyond reasonable bounds!

For a start I am not sure what is meant by a ‘full democracy’ in the first place So here is the EIU definition:

Countries in which not only basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected, but also tend to be underpinned by a political culture conducive to the  nourishing of democracy. The functioning of government is satisfactory. Media are independent and diverse. There is an effective system of checks and balances. The judiciary is independent and judicial decisions are enforced. There are only limited problems in the functioning of democracies.

Part of this definition applies (e.g. an independent judiciary) but lets compare it with the obvious basic anti-democratic features of the UK.  Our constitution (unwritten) allows for an uncontestable Monarchy, a House of Lords (including 92 hereditary peers and 26 Church of England Bishops), an autocratic Privy Council and a Royal Prerogative through which the government can bypass Parliament and judiciary.  On top of this there is a first past the post electoral system which has handed power to representatives elected by only 37% of people who voted, a hugely biassed press and a sophisticated corporate lobbying industry.  Bearing in mind this list could have been many times longer and a democracy score of 83.1% is already absurd.

Continue reading “Categorising the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’? Maybe the Expert-Bashers Were Correct After All!”

Buckingham Palace Repairs; Contempt for the Taxpayer and a Dereliction of Duty

BuckPalRepairThey 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.

Continue reading “Buckingham Palace Repairs; Contempt for the Taxpayer and a Dereliction of Duty”

Fake News; Still Damaging Our Liberty After All These Years

fakenewsFake news is often presented to us as being a new development. but in fact the phenomenon has been around for a long time (so false information about fake news!). It is only the source and speed of media dissemination which has altered. So why is it a problem and why should we worry about it now?

A Very old Threat Wearing New Clothes

Looking back in history we can see many of the features of fake news familiar to us today. During the 17th Century printing technology had evolved to the point where news-sheets were published to bring information to an increasingly curious public.  During the English Civil Wars (ECW) of the 1640s fake news was a standard tool of highly partisan pamphlets with both Parliamentarian and Royalist armies employing officials to engage in what we would call today ‘spin doctoring’. Beyond the official sources any number of presses dodged legal restrictions to present the views of a myriad different groups. For example, The Moderate presented news and views from a Leveller perspective and frequently employed writers and editors from their ranks.  Beyond mere interpretation, some facts were simply made up and it was a regular occurrence for Charles Stuart to be pronounced dead by Parliament-biassed sheets. That is, of course, until January 30th 1649 when fake news became factual news! Some of the fake news was the result of poor communications and was published in good faith so should more properly be categorised as misinformation. Some, however, was deliberately fabricated as described in this this excellent article by Andrew Hopper of the University of Leicester.  As Hopper points out, this also included nationalist overtones with one 1643 pamphlet painting Prince Rupert of the Rhine, commander of the Royalist army, as a cruel German barbarian having committed any number of unspeakable atrocities.

The ECW was in reality no different from more recent wars where, as the saying goes, the first casualty is truth.  The fact that official Government sources disseminate fake news, not only during wartime, is generally accepted and it is the reason why a free press is regarded as a central requirement of an open society. But in 2017 fake news can arise out of any number of sources and, as this New York Times article illustrates, can have a complex history from generation to dissemination.

Continue reading “Fake News; Still Damaging Our Liberty After All These Years”

In a World of Peer-to-Peer Collaboration the End of Monarchy is Inevitable

Digital communications has changed the world profoundly and will continue to do so in the future.  An unconscious recognition of this fact lies partly behind the triumph of Donald Trump in the Presidential election and as I pointed out in an earlier blog, could spell long term disaster for many in the United States. The fear and rejection of a fundamentally changing economic landscape can be laid partly at the door of politicians who either do not understand the problems themselves or choose to ignore the issues.

Increasingly, authors (such as Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens in their book Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy) are pointing to the urgent choices we face in how we view intellectual property on the internet.  Many problems of a deeply complex nature such as climate change may only be amenable to solution by collaborative effort involving freely available information.  Essentially we can either let large corporations dominate with their highly protective store of information about almost every aspect of our lives or we can start to move towards a collective approach to the ownership of  knowledge.  This peer-to-peer interaction  with established relationships  (Commons) allows for free interaction between every member of society who wishes to participate. Understandably most of the emphasis is on the economic system and whether capitalism can be tamed to live with the new reality, or, conversely, whether it will be destroyed by it.

But in the UK we have our own anachronistic and regressive arm of Government.  The Royal Family have absolutely no interest in engaging in such a collaborative future. The interaction is all one way and instinctively secretive. Whether it is tightly controlled media interviews with no independent editorial control or confidential ‘black spider’ memos from Charles to Government Ministers. the Windsors are clearly not interested in collaboration, only lecturing us.  They speak but do not listen and as a consequence peer-to-peer interaction which relies on a flexible attitude of equal privilege cannot take place. At the beginning of the 20th Century the Russian Romanov’s found that being perceived as remote from their people was, surprisingly, more deadly to their future prospects than vast wealth inequality. The rapid technological; advances of the 21st Century are inevitably doing the same for their Windsor cousins. Considering the nature of the monarchy precludes such interaction it would be easier if we accept the inevitable and start the transition now to a modern and accountable Head of State.

Banker Mark Carney; Secret Plans Show an Instinctive Avoidance of Accountability.

During World War II, much to the annoyance of his leader Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan insisted on holding Prime Minister Winston Churchill accountable for his actions. His reason was twofold; firstly believing that it was absurd to fight an authoritarian regime to simply abandon it at home and secondly, the belief that no matter how effective Churchill appeared to be, mistakes and inefficiencies were possible. I think Bevan was right

So the recent reports of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney holding confidential dinners with investment bankers and finance directors should ring alarm bells. The rumours of ‘secret deals’ as reported by The Independent newspaper is unacceptable. But as a banker, Mark Carney is naturally inclined to avoid accountability. Take two of the international groups which Carney is a senior member (for now),  the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB) and the G20 Financial Stability Board. Neither of these bodies have any form of democratic accountability. Incredibly, the ESRB which has responsibility for avoiding another 2008-style crash is run by the European Central Bank (ECB) along with individual National Central Banks, the very people who failed to see the disaster in the first place. The ESRB, of which Carney is a Vice-Chairman, makes politically sensitive decisions and the fact that it that merely reports to the European Parliament is dangerously misrepresented as accountability. Lack of proper control means these bankers cannot practically be fired, demoted, reprimanded or subjected to a pay cut!

Make no mistake, Carney is either being disingenuous or simply naive in  claiming he is not behaving politically. The idea of an independent Bank of England is a fiction and the role of Governor in particular is highly political. But in any case the demand that banks and regulatory authorities should be independent has somehow come to imply that these bodies are unaccountable. For all the populist nonsense about him being a ‘rock star banker’ he is a public servant paid by you and me and we have a right to know what he is telling these financial special interest groups. This is especially so when his audience wield considerable influence as donors of the Conservative Party. Irrespective of the issue of Brexit the stench of oligarchy is strong and inevitably provides more fuel for extreme right wing advocates . Carney tries to dodge accountability under the guise of acting in the best interests of the nation but as Bevan would clearly have understood, this must be demonstrated openly.