Amid tight budget, queen is pinching pennies along with rest of Britain
Thursday, July 8, 2010
LONDON -- With historic budget cuts about to change the way the British live -- slashing children's benefits, freezing public salaries and trimming welfare rolls -- one must do one's part: Even the queen is cutting back.
Financially ailing Britain is dramatically shifting away from an era of big government, entering a new age of austerity to fend off the same kind of fiscal crisis now gripping Greece. With her subjects facing a bare-bones budget and a bevy of higher taxes, Queen Elizabeth II has launched what some here describe as a preemptive strike against those who say this deeply indebted nation can no longer afford the gilded trappings of its monarchy.
The queen is freezing salaries for royal servants and aides earning more than $73,500 and reviewing all vacant slots with an eye to reducing her staff of 1,400 -- which includes a royal piper who plays under her window in the mornings and an official counter of swans. For the first time in her 58-year reign, the queen has also agreed to regular audits of royal expenditures by the same national agency that reviews education, defense and other types of government spending.
The queen's household is reportedly making plans to cut back on official engagements and reduce spending by 25 percent or more in the coming years, preparing for the possibility that government financing of the monarchy will be scaled back. Palace officials say that roof leaks at Buckingham Palace will be temporarily patched instead of pristinely repaired. Plans to remove asbestos and replace Victorian-era lead water pipes at the palace will be put off, possibly for years, as will the refurbishment of Queen Victoria's dilapidated mausoleum at Windsor Castle, the royal family's weekend retreat.
After a fit of public outrage at the cost of providing security to minor royals, Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, the queen's granddaughters, are also set to lose their 24-hour bodyguards, which have reportedly cost taxpayers here upwards of $700,000 a year.
As a result of steps already taken, the cost of the monarchy to British taxpayers fell by roughly $4 million over the past year, the palace proudly disclosed this week. Overall, the queen spent about $56 million in government funds in 2009-2010 -- or 94 cents per British citizen -- down from about $61 million a year earlier. That figure, however, does not include the massive and jealously guarded cost of providing security to the major royals, including the 84-year-old queen and her 89-year-old husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
"The royal household is acutely aware of the difficult economic climate and took early action to reduce its expenditures in 2009," Sir Alan Reid, keeper of the Privy Purse -- the queen's top accountant -- said in a statement this week. He himself agreed to a $20,000 pay cut, to $264,000 a year. "We are implementing a head-count freeze and reviewing every vacancy to see if we can avoid replacement."
To be sure, the queen still lives like a queen. This year, the palace is budgeting $1.18 million, an increase of $150,000 over last year, just for its summer garden parties (a series of extremely popular events attended by thousands of people). Though cutting back on travel will save a pretty penny, when the queen does hit the road, it is in rarefied style. Her four-day royal visit to Bermuda last November with Prince Philip, for instance, set British taxpayers back no less than $550,000.
Fortunately for Britain, the cost of those trips has sometimes been borne by the citizens of its former colonies. The queen's trip to New York on Wednesday to address the United Nations for the first time since 1957 was underwritten by Canada, where she is still the official head of state.
Yet the queen, some royal watchers insist, is holding fast to the legacy of her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who abided by the same food and electricity rations that their subjects faced during World War II. Though she remains one of the wealthiest women in the world by the grace of inherited estates, masterpieces of art and magnificent jewels, the queen is also famously frugal.
"She is said to wander the halls of Buckingham Palace at night, turning off lights," said Robert Lacey, the well-known royal biographer. "Yes, she is a person of enormous wealth, but she does not waste money or spend it loosely."
Though the vast majority of Britons still strongly support the monarchy, a poll released in June showed 87 percent favored a freeze on public funds provided to the royal family. Some cuts have already come down the pike, with the government slashing next year's allocation to a maintenance fund for royal estates by $750,000.
Nevertheless, some critics have been intensifying their opposition, arguing that the monarchy is a luxury Britain can no longer afford at a time when the national budget is so strained that schools cannot be repaired and basic services are being cut. That is particularly true, they say, because government spending on the monarchy will actually be temporarily ramped up in 2012 to cover the cost of celebrating the queen's Diamond Jubilee, her 60th year on the throne.
The queen, critics say, might also be trying to build goodwill with the new coalition government as it conducts a major review over the next 12 months of how the royal family receives public money. Additionally, although the monarchy did take less money from the British Treasury last year, skeptics note that at the same time, the queen's household dipped into a reserve fund of previously unused taxpayer money earmarked for the royals to cover other expenses.
"She's not saving any money because it's not her money to be begin with -- it's the money of the British taxpayers," said Graham Smith, campaign manager of Republic, an anti-monarchy group. "This is the most expensive monarchy in Europe, and the truth is, we just can't afford it anymore."
Special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi contributed to this report.