World·Royal Fascinator

Refurbishing Buckingham Palace helps push royal spending up 17%, cut into reserves

Money — along with how taxpayers' money is spent — can often be at the root of controversy and debate. So it came as no surprise when recent headlines focused on the Royal Family's finances, along with what some outside palace walls would consider, at the very least, an unusual scenario: that a royal charity might be the recipient of bags full of cash.

Royal finances under scrutiny with annual release of Sovereign Grant report

Gates in front of a large grey stone building.
Costs of an ongoing refurbishment project at Buckingham Palace contributed to an increase in royal spending over the past year. (Alastair Grant/The Associated Press)

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Money — along with how taxpayers' money is spent — can often be at the root of controversy and debate. So it came as no surprise when headlines in recent days focused again on the Royal Family's finances, along with what some outside palace walls would consider, at the very least, an unusual scenario: that a royal charity might be the recipient of bags full of cash.

Focus on the Royal Family's finances was sparked in part by the annual release of the report on the Sovereign Grant, the British taxpayer-funded payment made to the family each year. It comes from a percentage of the profits made by the Crown Estate, the independent commercial business that manages property owned by the Crown corporately (not the Queen personally), and covers spending on official travel and duties, property maintenance and operating costs for the Queen's household.

The Sovereign Grant came in at 86.3 million pounds for 2021-22, according to the report. But total spending for the year was 102.4 million pounds, an increase of 17 per cent over the previous year, spurred in large part by a 10-year refurbishment project going on at Buckingham Palace. (A Sovereign Grant reserve was tapped to help make up the shortfall.)

"At 54.6 million pounds, by far the largest item of expenditure — at almost half of all expenditure — is the reservicing of Buckingham Palace, which shows that this program is now in full swing," Craig Prescott, a constitutional expert at Bangor University in Wales, said via email.

But trying to fully understand how royal finances work can be extremely hard.

"It's inherently difficult, because there's different overlapping elements," Prescott said. "There's the Sovereign Grant, the Duchy of Lancaster [a private estate owned by the Queen], and for Prince Charles, the Duchy of Cornwall — from which the private offices of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are paid for. Some of the income from the Duchy of Lancaster goes towards some of the expenditure of the monarchy not covered from the Sovereign Grant."

Prince Charles attends a reception to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his chairmanship of the Duchy of Cornwall Prince's Council at the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery on July 16, 2019, in Lostwithiel, United Kingdom. (Ben Birchall/Getty Images)

No matter the source or complexity of the funding, the annual release of the report puts royal finances under public scrutiny. This year, it also comes against a public backdrop of fiscal strain and a cost-of-living crisis in the U.K. 

The report's release is "always not a particularly easy day for the Royal Family," ITV royal editor Chris Ship said on the network.

Ship said a royal official explained it like this: "There is always a tension between things like travel and demands for the Royal Family to be all over the country, indeed all over the world. And that tension is something they have to deal with every year, but particularly this year, because of the crisis lots of people are living through."

Michael Stevens, the keeper of the privy purse, said the year "was not without operational and financial challenges." 

But the year did reflect "some return to normality in many ways for the royal household," with in-person engagements, travel and visits from foreign heads of state, he said in a post on the Royal Family's website.

Travel costs, for example, increased from 1.3 million pounds in 2020-21 to 4.5 million pounds, with the most costly trip being the weeklong visit by Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, to the Caribbean in March, at 226,383 pounds.

Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince William depart from Belize City on March 22, during their weeklong visit to Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas as part of efforts to mark Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The pandemic continued to affect royal revenues, with paying visitors to the royal palaces restricted.

"While the reservicing program continued to be carefully managed to match projected funding, there was a significant increase in work against a hard deadline to enable Buckingham Palace to be at the centre of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations," Stevens said. "On all fronts we were pleased to deliver against our plans."

The numbers at the heart of the Sovereign Grant don't include some costs related to the royals, including security.

That is a significant point for Republic, a lobby group that wants to see the monarch as the British head of state replaced with an elected president.

In a media release ahead of the Sovereign Grant report, Republic CEO Graham Smith said the Palace needs to answer "a few serious questions."

"Can this expenditure be justified? Can we get a head of state that costs less than this, so we can spend that money elsewhere? Why is the monarchy not facing significant cuts, while essential public services have been cut time and again over the past decade? Is this an ethical use of public money? What else could we afford for that amount?"

From left, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth, Prince George, Prince William, Princess Charlotte, Prince Louis and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace during the Platinum Jubilee Pageant in London on June 5. Buckingham Palace was a focal point for events during the long Jubilee weekend in the U.K. (Jonathan Brady/The Associated Press)

Other questions around royal money arose recently with reports that Prince Charles had accepted a cash donation from a senior Qatari politician — of about 2.5 million pounds, in a suitcase and carrier bags — for his charity a few years ago.

That was quickly followed by reports that such a thing would not happen now.

"The concern is that is, or has it been, possible to 'buy' access to the heir to the throne by making a donation, and why would someone be interested in acquiring such access," Prescott wrote.

"Regardless of the legalities of the situation (and it seems that no wrongdoing has occurred by simply accepting a cash donation which went straight to the relevant charity), the question is why did the donations take place in this way, and did the former prime minister of Qatar get anything in return?"

Much of this could have been avoided if charities with close links to the Royal Family made their donations public on websites or in an annual report, Prescott said.

"At the end of the day, the problem arises because in recent decades, the Royal Family's charitable activities have extended to doing more than simply being a patron of a charity."

They're now initiating or creating charities that do charitable work themselves, Prescott said.

"This brings them closer to fundraising, and questions then flow from this."

Still adding things up

Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, meet students during a visit on May 18 to Assumption Elementary School in Vanier, Ont. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

While royal finances were the focus of the Sovereign Grant report in the U.K. the other day, total costs in Canada for the royal visit by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, in May are still being added up.

Canadian Heritage, the federal department overseeing the visit, said just before Charles and Camilla arrived for the three-day tour that final costs would be made public once it was over.

That tally has not been completed "and this will still take some time," a Canadian Heritage spokesperson said via email on Thursday.

"Every royal tour is different, and costs covered by Canadian Heritage can vary; they may include travel, accommodation, meals, transportation from venue to venue, artist fees, rental of meeting rooms, rental of equipment, printing of documents, accreditation, translation, media centres and their operations, etc."

Those costs don't include security, which is covered by the RCMP.

An RCMP spokesperson said this week that it is still looking into a request for security costs for the visit by Charles and Camilla that took them to St. John's, Ottawa and the Northwest Territories.

We'll keep asking, and let you know when we hear more specifics on the trip costs.

A revised job description

Two people sit in chairs in front of a doorway.
Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth attend a parade in the gardens of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh on June 30. (Jane Barlow/Reuters)

Money may have been the main focus of the Sovereign Grant report, but the report also offered insight into other issues.

One element that attracted considerable attention was the rewriting of what some media outlets called "the Queen's job description," as the number of duties she "must fulfil" was scaled back.

"I think in general, the change in description reflects the more fluid way in which the Palace now operates, with functions being exercised on her behalf by other members of the Royal Family, while ensuring that the Queen unambiguously remains 'in charge,'" Prescott said.

A gradual transition has been playing out for a few years now as senior members of the Royal Family have been taking on more of the duties that had been carried out by the Queen, now 96 and dealing with mobility issues in recent months.

Prescott said the most important element in the revision is a reference to how the Queen, in carrying out her roles as Head of State and Head of Nation, is "supported by the Sovereign Grant, and by members of the Royal Family who undertake official duties on behalf of Her Majesty."

"This covers moments such as when Prince Charles and Prince William deputized for the Queen at the state opening of Parliament," Prescott said. 

Prince Charles reads the Queen's speech during the state opening of the British Parliament in London on May 10. (Ben Stansall/The Associated Press)

"Who knows what the future brings, but this will cover that type of thing happening in the future."

The Sovereign Grant report also included an environmental review and some information on human resources within the royal household.

As of March 31, 9.6 per cent of staff were ethnic-minority employees, up from 8.5 per cent last year. The target for this year is 10 per cent.

Royally quotable

"It's not easy to write about your husband. I bit through several pencils."

— Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, on what it was like to write about Prince Charles as she guest-edited a special commemorative edition of Country Life magazine, ahead of her 75th birthday later this month. Other members of the Royal Family, including Charles and Princess Anne, have also guest-edited the magazine. For Camilla's edition, she asked that the cover photo of her be taken by Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, whose photos of family members are often shared on social media to mark birthdays and other occasions.

Royal reads 

A woman wearing a hat smiles.
Queen Elizabeth attends a parade in the gardens of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh on June 28. (Jane Barlow/Reuters)
  1. Queen Elizabeth made three public appearances in four days during her annual early summer visit to Scotland. Public appearances have been less frequent for the Queen over the past few months as she deals with mobility issues. [BBC]

  2. A Scottish government memo obtained by the Guardian reveals that "it is almost certain" draft laws have been secretly changed to secure the Queen's approval, under an arcane mechanism known as Queen's consent. [The Guardian]

  3. Prince Harry faced "significant tensions" with a top aide to Queen Elizabeth involved in downgrading his security, a court has been told. And his libel claim against a newspaper has been boosted by a court ruling on Friday. [BBC, The Guardian]

  4. Buckingham Palace won't reveal the findings of an inquiry it carried out after allegations of bullying were made against Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. [ITV]

  5. Seven Holocaust survivors feature in paintings commissioned by Prince Charles. [ITV]

  6. In royal environmental news, floating wind farms could be built off the coasts of Cornwall and Wales after the Queen's property manager identified sites in the Celtic Sea that could host them. And the royal warrant for the cheesemaker to the Queen could be revoked over river pollution. Davidstow cheddar, understood to be the Queen's favourite cheddar, is made by Dairy Quest, which is now owned by the Canadian firm Saputo. [The Guardian]

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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