Opinion Articles

The Civil List: past and present

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The Civil List is an annual sum paid by the Government to the monarch to cover official expenses, in return for the surrender in perpetuity of the income of the Crown Estates by George III in 1760. The Crown Estates now produce an annual income of some £190 million, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has just announced that the Civil List will remain fixed at its 1992 figure of £7.9 million when its twenty-year renewal takes place in 2012. This represents an excellent long-term bargain for the Government!

Originally, the Civil List was set at the beginning of each reign, but in 1972, with inflation running at unprecedented levels, and Queen Elizabeth II a comparatively young woman, a decision was taken to set a new figure every twenty years. This is done on the basis that a surplus accruing in the early years will produce a reserve which can be utilised as the real value of the sum decreases over time. Various commentators have indicated that the reserve built up since 1992 is now severely depleted, in particular because of the costs of maintaining buildings such as Buckingham Palace.

Since 1760, the public role of the monarchy has vastly increased, most obviously in the form of frequent engagements at home and abroad. Most of George III's work took place in and around London - mainly receiving ministers, reviewing troops, and receiving visitors such as John Harrison, inventor of the chronometer. Today, the Government provides 'grants-in-aid' to cover the costs of royal transport, IT and communications and to maintain 'occupied royal palaces', such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. In practice, the bulk of the Civil List is used to cover the running expenses of the Royal Household - some 70% of which are salaries and pension contributions.

Apart from the Prince of Wales, whose official expenses are met from the income of the Duchy of Cornwall, the expenses of other members of the royal family in carrying out public duties are paid from the Privy Purse - the income after tax of the Duchy of Lancaster, which is due to the monarch as Duke. Although the Duke of York, Earl of Wessex, Princess Royal, Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and Duke of Duchess of Kent are in receipt of Parliamentary annuities intended to cover those expenses, all these are in fact reimbursed by the Queen from the Privy Purse. The only Parliamentary annuity which is not reimbursed in this fashion is that paid to the Duke of Edinburgh.

Certain members of the royal family - notably the Prince of Wales - are on occasions accused of extravagance and others of making use of 'official' transport for their private purposes - the Duke of York's tendency to combine official business with visits to golf clubs has been commented on! The cost of helicopter travel is also frequently remarked upon. However, it should be born in mind that a modern programme of engagements - several on the same day in different areas - would not be possible without helicopters, so the public must balance the 'accessibility' and cost of the monarchy.

A little research indicates that the royal family has been pursuing economies for many years. For example, members of the royal family who continue to live in Kensington Palace are now paying market rents for their accommodation, and Royal Household staff who receive accommodation with their jobs are increasingly expected to pay rents which cover the costs of providing that, rather than the previous relatively nominal rents. This change is of necessity a gradual process, as under the ordinary principles of employment law, it would be breach of contract to change a serving employee's terms and conditions so as to require him to pay a greatly increased rent, so the change can only be implemented in respect of new employees.

The most problematic issue, which can lead to accusations of extravagance and waste of public money, is the difficultly of separating expenditure on public duties from purely private costs. This problem is most obvious in relation to the Duchy of Cornwall income, which provides not only for the Prince of Wales' public life, but also his private expenditure, and provides for his sons, who currently perform limited public duties. This issue is not new: most of the great constitutional crises of the Middle Ages and after turned on the king's demands for money, at a time when there was no separation between the king's expenditure on government and his spending on hunting (most medieval monarchs), mistresses (Charles II in particular) or art collections (Charles I)!

The English Civil War is a prime example. After Parliament sought to limit his use of his prerogative powers, Charles I ruled without Parliament for eleven years, utilising prerogatives he claimed and his enemies disputed to raise revenues for both governmental and private purposes. Eventually, the pressure of war with Scotland caused him to recall Parliament in 1640 in order to gain a grant of revenues. Attempts to conclude a settlement between the King and Parliament failed, and civil war followed in the autumn of 1642. Much earlier, Magna Carta represents an attempt to reach a settlement with King John, who pushed his feudal perquisites to the limit in order to gain funds to finance his attempts to regain Normandy, lost to the French in 1204.

Recent monarchs have maintained a dignified silence in the face of public criticism of their spending. Not so their predecessors, who before 1688 considered the power to raise revenue a vital part of their prerogatives, and were, ultimately, prepared to resort to war. Richard II (1377-99) declared in 1386 that he would rather submit to the King of France than to his subjects, and would not dismiss even a scullery boy at Parliament's behest. However, since Victoria's reign the institution has transformed itself into a 'public service monarchy', treading a fine line between mystique and accessibility, seeking to share in the hardships of the British people (most notably during World War II) and, in times of economic difficulty especially, giving value for money.

In this context, the proposal that Civil List expenditure is to come under the same official scrutiny as other Government expenditure is to be welcomed, although it would be wrong to say that there is currently no scrutiny, as the twenty-year reviews must scrutinise current and planned spending in order to determine the appropriate new figure.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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