The practice of Queen’s consent, on which the Guardian has shone a welcome light in recent days, is a constitutional outrage. It gives an unelected person the opportunity to require changes to draft legislation in order to benefit herself financially, or to exempt herself from laws she does not like, and to do so in secret without any public accountability.
If an MP or peer sought to secretly influence a draft bill to advantage themselves in this way, it would be called corruption. It could lead to a criminal charge.
The palace likes to pretend that the practice of Queen’s consent is all ceremonial, somehow rather quaint. “Any assertion that the sovereign has blocked legislation is simply incorrect,” they say. This is both accurate and entirely misleading. The Queen does not block legislation because she does not need to. The draft bill is sent to the palace and to her legal advisers. If they have objections, they will ring the Cabinet Office and relay these. Nothing is normally put in writing these days, to avoid a written record. The bill is then altered to meet the Queen’s wishes and the revised version is then sent back and gains her consent. You see? Nothing has been “blocked”.
The palace also says the process is “purely formal”. So why is the Queen given two weeks or more to comment? And why are her legal advisers involved? Royal assent, which is indeed purely formal and brings a bill passed by parliament into law, is given in less than five minutes.
The Guardian has identified more than 1,000 instances when the Queen has been given an opportunity to shape draft legislation to suit her private wishes – far more occasions than had been previously imagined.
We do not know for certain what changes have been asked for by the palace for recent legislation. The palace prefers to operate in darkness, away from the prying eyes of those who pay the royal bills. But I would bet good money that the impact of new agricultural legislation on the Queen’s vast, private Sandringham estate will have been considered carefully.
You might think the Freedom of Information Act would help establish the facts. But, in a very British catch-22, that also required Queen’s consent, and the upshot of that is that the ability to extract information about the royals is subject to exemptions and restrictions that apply to no other part of the public sector. And they are part of the public sector. They carry out public duties (well, some of them do) and are lavishly funded by the public purse.
The original terms of the Act as they applied to the royals were more than tight, but they were tightened further in response to pressure from the palace after the Guardian published details of Prince Charles’s “spider letters”, which demonstrated that the heir to the throne had been improperly applying pressure to ministers in political matters.
But then the response from the royal family to embarrassing facts is not to change behaviour to prevent a recurrence but always to paint over rotten wood. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to money.
As I set out in my recent book, And What Do You Do?, the House of Windsor less than 20 years ago secured a court ruling in secret that all royal wills should henceforth be closed to the public. The reason is clear: it would be very embarrassing to have to reveal just how much money they have accumulated thanks to the largesse of the British public. And how much they are not paying in death duties, thanks to another unique tax exemption.
Back in the 1970s, Queen’s consent was used to arm-twist the government into exempting the Queen from having to reveal the nature and extent of her investments. The convoluted creation of an artificial structure called the Bank Of England Nominees had as its sole raison d’etre a method to keep the truth from the public.
We got a glimpse into the nature of these investments from the emergence in 2017 of the Paradise Papers, which showed that a great deal had been invested in offshore tax havens, including the notorious Cayman Islands. One beneficiary was BrightHouse, a retailer accused of exploiting thousands of poor and vulnerable individuals.
But it is the fear that the Queen might have to reveal the enormous extent of her wealth that really worries the palace. I estimate that the Queen has a private wealth of well in excess of £1bn.
The Sovereign Grant Act 2011, which replaced the old civil list, will naturally have required Queen’s consent. It is called marking your own homework. The 2011 Act has immeasurably increased the wealth of the Queen, who for example now gains a windfall of many millions from the use of the seabed for offshore wind, money that before 2011 would have gone in its entirety to the Treasury. The civil list provided her with £7.9m in 2010/11. The Sovereign Grant in 2018/19 gave her £82.8m. She is ripping off the nation.
The concept of Queen’s consent began in the 18th century. It was highly questionable even then. Now, in the 21st century, it is a gross affront to democracy. Other European monarchs see it as their duty to serve their country. Our monarch sees it as the country’s duty to serve her. Uniquely, we are still officially subjects, not citizens. This royal arrogance and sense of entitlement is suffocating.
Yet Queen’s consent is simply a convention. It is in fact simply a matter of parliamentary procedure and could very easily be abolished by an Address to the Crown and resolutions from the Commons and the Lords. It would not even require legislation. Parliament could end it in a day if it chose to do so. It must do.
Many parliamentarians will argue that they were unaware of the process. Well, they are not unaware now. It’s time to clean out the Queen’s Augean stables.
— to www.theguardian.com