As the Duchy of Cornwall has only been going since 1337, it’s obviously a bit soon to have worked out what it is. So MPs on the Public Accounts Committee spent quite a lot of time on that very question on Monday as they struggled to understand the tax affairs of its owner, the Prince of Wales.
We established what it wasn’t. Despite superficial resemblances to a normal business, generating income, expanding turnover, making profits and investing in a super-green “anerobic digester” in a joint venture with JP Energen, not to mention a Waitrose warehouse in Milton Keynes, it certainly doesn’t have to pay corporation tax.
Even the PAC chair, Margaret Hodge, fresh from cutting through the waffle of Google, Amazon and Starbucks with the fiscal equivalent of a machete, was struggling a bit here. Didn’t it put Energen at a competitive advantage over other renewable companies that it didn’t pay corporation tax? William Nye, the polite, very slightly owlish top aide to the Prince, who, Nye kept repeating, voluntarily paid income tax, thought not. The issue “does not arise”, he explained helpfully “The Duchy of Cornwall is not subject to corporation tax.”
Ms Hodge tried to discover who was who in this non-corporation. Was Nye in effect the CEO? No. “I am the Prince of Wales’s Principal Private Secretary, and a member of the Prince’s Council.” The “closest thing” to a CEO, he supposed, was the “Secretary and Keeper of the Records”.
Of course. Silly us. And who took receipt of a Health And Safety Executive order when one was issued? Well that would be the “Attorney General to the Prince of Wales.”
Sadly, the Prince does not also have his personal Foreign Secretary.
Trying hard to be helpful – to the Palace – the Tory MP Stewart Jackson, after observing that the committee was used to “feudal power”, suggested that the Duchy was like a “housing association”.
Well, said Nye, the Prince used the Duchy to “generate income for him and to increase the value of its assets for his son”. But yes, there was also the “social good” of not having to turn over a quick profit and of doing a lot to help “communities and the environment”.
But he agreed the Duchy was “sui generis”. You can say that again. There aren’t many big landowners with the right to pocket the bequests of those unlucky enough to die intestate and without kin in the county of Cornwall (Though the Prince has waived that right, using the funds for one of his charities when it arises.).
There’s was something very 17th century about the whole thing. King and Commons! Though James I never got his £600,000 lump sum out of MPs, telling the hapless Lord Salisbury, the William Nye of his day, “Your greatest error hath been that ye ever expected to draw honey out of gall”. It’s no disrespect to the normally ferocious PAC, that on this issue, the MPs in 1610 were made of sterner stuff.