Leading Article: A closer look at the royal purse

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The Independent Online
NOW that there is little left to reveal about the heir to the throne, the veil should finally fall from the financial affairs of Britain's first family. Requiring the Royal Household to make its financial accounts available does not rank prominently among the historic battles between Parliament and the British monarchy. In earlier conflicts Charles I paid with his head and James II with his throne. But the most expected of Queen Elizabeth II is that she should be open about how she and her court spend taxpayers' money.

Public expenditure on the royal palaces and nearly 400 staff amounts to almost pounds 20m a year, according to a report published yesterday by the Commons Public Accounts Committee. At less than 50 pence per citizen, that figure may not seem excessive. It is still, probably, as Anthony Sampson once remarked, no more than the annual national expenditure on advertising for soap powder.

Yet, as other parts of the public sector are increasingly required to offer better value for money, there seems no reason why royalty should escape scrutiny. The hereditary principle may survive in the appointment of the Head of State, but an otherwise democratic society requires transparency from Britain's most senior public figure. The Queen has taken a first welcome step in that direction by agreeing to subject her income to taxation.

Many organisations - be they businesses or the Windsor family 'firm' - prefer an obfuscation of their affairs. But openness is a better way to win confidence and acceptability. The Royal Household should make available that part of its accounts that was not seen by the PAC.

The committee's report will lead to public debate and, possibly, protest about the level of royal expenditure. Once that has taken place, Parliament and the Royal Family may need to seek a new modus vivendi reflecting a different vision of what is required from the British monarchy. The House of Windsor need not assume that it would emerge at a disadvantage in any such debate.