Leading Article: The Queen narrows the gap

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THE Queen's future tax arrangements, announced yesterday, are not as tough as they should be. But they will do a good deal to assuage the public criticism to which she bowed last year in agreeing to pay tax and to have all other members of the Royal Family except herself, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mother dropped from the Civil List.

She was forced into these two major concessions first by the growing tide of indignation at the behaviour of her state-subsidised children and their spouses; and second by the mismatch between her own great personal wealth and lavish lifestyle and the reduced means and status of this country. That imbalance became particularly obvious last November, when the Government somewhat precipitately decided to pay for repairs to the fabric of Windsor Castle following the disastrous fire. The cost was put as high as pounds 60m by some experts: not a vast sum, but psychologically hard to accept when tens of thousands of the Queen's subjects were having their homes repossessed because they could not meet the cost of their mortgages.

There are those who found the Queen's exemption from income tax, achieved in a series of shabby deals from the time of George V onwards, just as shocking as the antics of some members of her family. The new arrangements still fail to place the monarch on a par with her subjects in significant respects. It is right that such inalienable assets as the royal pictures and jewels should not be included in assessment of inheritance tax: if they were, they might have to be progressively sold to raise the necessary funds, or handed over to public galleries in lieu. But why, as John Smith, the Labour leader, asked the Prime Minister, should all her private wealth be exempted from inheritance tax? Mr Major replied that to tax the passing-on of such wealth would involve a salami-slicing process that would progressively detract from the monarchy's independence. His logic is hard to follow, unless he equates huge wealth with independence. Children who have to sell the family home to satisfy the Inland Revenue's demands when their parents die will not be sympathetic.

There will also be ample scope for sniping if the Queen is not taxed for the private use of publicly provided services such as the royal yacht, plane and train. These are funded by individual government departments, at a total annual expense of around pounds 20m. The Queen should be charged for using them when, say, going on holiday to Balmoral or combining private pleasure with an official visit.

The larger question still to be addressed is whether the Royal Family's lifestyle, with its expensive peregrinations between Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Sandringham and Balmoral, its endless officials, functionaries, courtiers and costumes, is not excessively lavish and Ruritanian. The Royal Family has become a worldwide public spectacle in part because of this anachronistic backdrop. The Queen herself continues to enjoy respect, but that cannot be said for many other members of her family. Yesterday's announcement represents a small but welcome step in bringing the House of Windsor into line with the late 20th century - as do the news plans for making the royal picture collection more accessible to the public. But there is a long way still to go.