LONDON – Time was when being queen (or king) meant having the power to make your enemies’ heads roll. Now it means being told by upstart lawmakers to cut your expenses and chop the number of people on staff. And could Your Majesty please do a better job of keeping your home in decent condition?
In a report released Tuesday on the finances of Britain’s royal household, members of Parliament criticized the state of disrepair of much of Queen Elizabeth II’s considerable estate, saying that nearly 40% of it was in subpar condition. The boiler in Buckingham Palace hasn’t been overhauled in 60 years and buckets catch water leaking from the roof inside a gallery where priceless artworks are kept, one lawmaker said.
Yet even as urgent home repairs were needed, the world’s most famous extended family spent $74.5 million in 2012-13, going over budget by $3.8 million. The number of people serving them remains unchanged from several years ago. And the household’s rainy-day reserve fund has dwindled to a decidedly less-than-princely sum of $1.7 million.
One way to help rectify that, Parliament’s spending watchdog committee said, would be for the queen’s financial advisors to show a little more business savvy – for example, by throwing open the doors of Buckingham Palace to ticket-buying lookie-loos for more of the year than just the summer months to which such visits are currently limited.
“I don’t think they’ve been rigorous enough or commercial enough in their approach to ensure that we really eke out best value for every pound of taxpayers’ money that is spent supporting the royal household and serving the queen,” the committee’s chairwoman, Margaret Hodge of the Labor Party, told Sky News. “We think a more commercial approach … could raise more income.”
As for staffing, lawmakers said the royal household should learn to live with fewer underlings, just as government agencies have been forced to lay off workers during five years of the most brutal austerity cuts Britain has seen in a generation.
“More could be done to reduce expenditure,” the report said. “In recent years, public-sector organizations have managed to reduce spending while being expected to maintain or improve the services they provide.”
At the same time, the committee urged the royal household to “get a much firmer grip” on the repairs that are needed to keep properties such as Windsor Castle in running order. Such a huge backlog has built up that no one knows how much it would cost to deal with all of it.
The royals are not alone in drawing criticism from Hodge's committee, which has also taken Google, Amazon and other multinational corporations to task, accusing them of pursuing tax-avoidance schemes.
A statement from the palace said that the royal household has undertaken important maintenance jobs.
“Recent examples of work include the renewal of a lead roof over the Royal Library at Windsor and the removal of asbestos from the basement of Buckingham Palace,” the statement said. “The need for property maintenance is continually assessed.”
Although most Britons support the monarchy, its cost to them as taxpayers sometimes comes in for critical scrutiny, particularly when times are tough. In 1992, with public anger rising over various royal scandals, Elizabeth, who is one of the world’s richest women, volunteered to pay tax on her enormous fortune for the first time.
A few years ago, as austerity began to kick in, the queen pinched pennies (which all have her face on them) by freezing some staff salaries and paring back on some official travel.
However, she still received a publicly funded “sovereign grant” of $51.5 million in 2012-13, an amount that is set to rise to $62.9 million in 2014-15.