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’

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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.

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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.

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