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Friday, July 01, 2011

Speech of the week

A debate on the civil list in the House of Commons yesterday took on a surreal air following a speech by Conservative MP. Jacob Rees-Mogg. Mr. Rees-Mogg started off with an intervention that suggested that MPs secure the return of the royal yacht in time for the Diamond Jubilee and then launched into a full scale defence of the monarchy:

So far in the debate, we have missed a crucial point. We have just focused on the cost of the monarchy, but our sovereign represents the greatest institution in our land; it is that bit that makes us British, and we do not want a mean monarchy. We want a proper and well-funded monarchy, not a bicycling monarchy, even if riding the Mayor of London’s bicycles.

The subject of this debate encapsulates the connection the monarchy gives us to our history. What did the Commons spend its time debating in the 16th century? It spent its time debating that the King should live of his own: that the King—Henry VIII for much of that era—should be able to use his own resources to provide for all he needed to spend. This debate returns us to that same principle.

The Crown Estate provides an extraordinary link with our history. We could probably find some acre of the Crown Estate somewhere—probably in Somerset—that was the property of Alfred the Great, but we would certainly find that there was property in the Crown Estate that came with William the Conqueror and from the dissolution of the monasteries. St James’s palace started as a leper colony founded by Queen Margaret in, I think, 1118. It was then part of the endowment of Eton college, which was, very tactfully, given back to the Crown by Eton when Henry VIII said, “If you don’t give it back, I’m going to dissolve you.” [Interruption.] That was a missed opportunity, I think some on the Labour Benches are saying. The Crown Estate is an extraordinary link with our history, which is what makes us the country—the United Kingdom—that we are. Some attack that and say, “We want a good value monarchy.” That makes Her Majesty sound as though she is something to be bought off the top shelf at Tesco, and it really cannot be how we wish to approach our constitution. The Crown is an essential element of that constitution; everything of importance that happens is done in the name of the Crown.

Paul Flynn said that he wanted the royal family to be treated as any other family but, as my hon. Friend Michael Ellis pointed out, if they were any other family they would not be paying such a high tax rate. Given the 15% provision, Her Majesty will be expected to pay an 85% tax rate, which is more than the 50% tax rate that many of us hope will go over the course of this Parliament.

Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)

Over the years we were kept in ignorance of the royal tax rates and it was only as a result of a campaign in this House about 12 years ago that we were given any information at all about this. I would welcome it if the hon. Gentleman is asking for full transparency on the royal taxes, but I am not sure that that is part of the suggestion before us today.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset, Conservative)

I clearly have not asked for full transparency on the royal tax affairs. Indeed, I would argue for the precise opposite, because I do not think it is particularly sensible to be investigating in close detail how the royal family spend their money. I recall a line about motes and beams; we have had quite a problem with our own expenditure in this House and I am not sure that we have got things entirely right. Before we start criticising the monarchy and looking over every biscuit that the Queen buys, we should make sure that we have our own house in order.

Kevan Jones (North Durham, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman would not be suggesting that a way of controlling the royal household would be to have the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority running it, would he?

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset, Conservative)

I would most certainly not be recommending that IPSA comes anywhere near our sovereign.

When the Crown Estate was granted in 1760 by George III, at the same time as he gave up his claim as King of France, the monarchy was in deficit and it needed extra money to fulfil the functions that were being fulfilled. Some of those functions were greater than those now paid for by the civil list. That is all certainly true, although Parliament would vote excess resources to pay for things such as the Army, so my hon. and noble friend John Thurso was not entirely fair on the point about paying for the Army.

Now the Crown Estate is in substantial surplus and I think that the Chancellor, in his proposals, which in many ways are very good, may be being somewhat canny, because the next sovereign would be able to cancel this arrangement and say, “I should like £200 million a year, thank you very much.” There is no requirement on a new sovereign to agree to hand the Crown Estate over in return for a civil list. Mr Jones said that this is taxpayers’ money and not the Crown’s money, but it really is the Crown’s money because, on becoming King, the Prince of Wales or any other sovereign could simply rescind the agreement and claim it back. The Crown Estate is the sovereign’s property, which the sovereign gives to Parliament to help to pay for the costs of the nation; it is not taxpayers’ money that is being handed over.

As a result of what I have described the Queen is paying a higher rate of tax than anybody else. We should remember that and I hope that the Chancellor will be generous. I would like the 15% provision to be increased because we want to have a glamorous monarchy that befits the status of our nation. We are a great nation, a noble nation and a nation that has had power across the globe in the past. We have one of the finest histories of any country in the world. When I see the coronation coach being pulled through the streets of London, I want to see it being pulled by the finest horses that money can buy and I want to see it gilded with the finest gold that can be bought. I want Her Majesty to have as a jubilee present the finest window that can be funded by Members of Parliament. That is the status of monarchy that we want and I urge the Chancellor to remember that. Even though I know that we are in this time of austerity, that we are all in it together and that the Opposition spent all the money, maxed out the credit card and so on, we should look after Her Majesty.

Mr. Rees-Mogg is an institution in his own right!
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