LONDON // For once, Her Majesty's timing could scarcely have been worse. At the very moment that millions of British public-sector workers, from cabinet ministers on down, are bracing themselves for salary freezes and job cuts, Queen Elizabeth is seeking a pay rise.
In less than two weeks' time, the annual civil list payment - the money the government gives for the running costs of the royal household - is due for renewal, as it is every 10 years. The problem for Buckingham Palace officials, who are reported to want a 75-per-cent increase from the current £7.9 million (Dh42m) a year, is that the settlement is expected to be announced the day after the country's coalition government delivers an emergency budget designed to tackle the record deficit - £156 billion - with huge cuts in public spending.
Ian Davidson, a senior Labour member of parliament and former member of the public accounts committee, said yesterday: "These are difficult economic times. The government has said we're all in this together and I think it would be inappropriate in these circumstances for the Queen to be handed vast sums of additional money. "I think the price of any consideration of the royals getting more money should be that they have to be open about where the money goes; about the link between the Queen's private fortune and the public purse, because there's a deliberate blurring of the edges between what is private and what is public."
Palace officials say that last year they had to take £6.4 million out of reserves to top up the civil list money and that at the current rate those reserves will run out in 2012 - the Queen's diamond jubilee year. They also point out that the civil list money comes from revenues from the Crown Estate, which, last year, boosted the government's coffers to the tune of £220m. On the other side of the coin, critics point out that the Queen is the country's richest woman, with an estimated personal fortune of £290 million and that all the civil list does is pay the salaries of her almost 300-strong staff and entertaining costs (which includes garden parties attended by about 50,000 people a year).
The prime minister, David Cameron, has a dilemma, not least because he has enforced a five-per-cent pay cut on himself and other ministers to show "we are all in this together". Treasury officials and political advisers are understood to be telling him that a hefty increase in the civil list would send out completely the wrong signal at a time of economic austerity, but Sir Gus O'Donnell, the cabinet secretary, is believed to support the royal household's arguments for a rise.
The civil list, though, represents only about one-fifth of the annual cost of the royals to the British taxpayer. The rest, for such things as travel and the upkeep of palaces, comes from a variety of government grants. Mr Davidson said that in the current economic climate "we can't have money just being sloshed out to the royal family". He added: "Let's see whether or not there are economies that can be made, whether or not we could get rid of some of the flunkies that surround the monarchy, whether or not everything is being done in the most cost effective way."
However, Edward Leigh, a senior Conservative backbencher and previous chairman of the public accounts committee, told the Daily Telegraph: "The Queen, without any shadow of a doubt, needs substantially more money to carry out her duties and responsibilities. There is a lot of catching up to do. The Queen and the royal family do a fantastic job considering their very small resources. The boost to tourism, to tradition and to the country is enormous.
"They should be given a lot more money so they can do their job properly. "The Queen's operations and the royal palaces are, compared with the rest of the public sector, exceptionally well run." But the Queen's case has not been helped by last week's adverse publicity surrounding the disclosure that Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, had demanded half a million pounds from an undercover reporter posing as a businessman, to arrange a meeting with her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, the UK's trade envoy.
"With the Fergie 'cash for access' scandal still hanging around like a bad smell," commented the mass circulation Daily Mirror, "Her Majesty could hardly have picked a worse time to go cap in hand to her people." The tabloid added that the economic situation is "about as dire as it can get in peacetime, yet, without any apparent forethought, the Queen's advisers tell us she can no longer make ends meet.
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