The workaholic Queen and I

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The Queen's tax adviser, Michael Peat, was given a soft ride on Thursday's evening news programmes, but then came up against John Humphrys on Friday's Today. Humphrys wanted to know why the Queen wasn't taxed on her perks like everyone else - why, for instance, part of her houses didn't count as being for private use. Sweet Peat, talking the sort of elocution English normally associated with Brian Sewell, offered the interesting theory that it was because the Queen is never not working. Even when she is at Sandringham for the whole of January or Balmoral for two months in the summer, she is not on holiday.

This is a concept I feel could be fruitfully extended to many other taxpayers. Let me pluck an example from the air - butcher, baker, candlestick- maker . . . how about newspaper columnist? That nasty Julie Burchill has been telling the world that she devotes just two hours a week to writing her column, so obviously none of the following will apply to her, but she, I do assure you, is a shameful exception to the profession. Most columnists, serious columnists like myself, say, or Neal Ascherson or even our droll quaffing- partner Wallace Arnold, spend the entire week thinking about our columns. Waking and sleeping, eating and drinking, at home, at work, on buses (in Neal's case), in the Groucho Club (mine), not a second goes by in which our columns are not in our thoughts. Ergo, every single thing we do is tax- deductible. My own little jaunts to New York, to Italy, to Yorkshire, might, to the uninitiated, appear to be 'holidays' but in fact they are accompanied by my red notebook just as the Queen's are accompanied by her red boxes.

I also pricked up my ears at Mr Peat's claim that Sandringham and Balmoral would not be liable to inheritance tax even if they did not belong to the Queen because they are open to the public. Really? I didn't even know that Balmoral was open and indeed it is not, much: the grounds and ballroom are open from April to July; the rest of the house, never. The rules on what makes a building 'conditionally exempt' from inheritance tax seem to be extraordinarily fluid, but Inland Revenue guidelines suggest that, for a large building, the interior is supposed to be open for 60-150 days a year. Whether the ballroom alone can count as the interior seems pretty arguable to me, but I am not the Queen's tax adviser.

It seems bad that the Palace briefing about the Queen's new tax arrangements has left so many questions unanswered. Is she 'HM the Tax Dodger', as the Mirror maintains? Obviously it is better that she pays some tax than no tax, and the decision to weed people like Prince Edward from the Civil List is entirely welcome. On the other hand, it is disappointing that, after all the public debate about the need for royal openness, we are left still not knowing what the Queen is worth or how much tax she will pay. It also seems strange that her pounds 7.9m Civil List income, unlike other people's car allowances, for example, will be exempt. However, since the Palace has made such a point of saying that the Civil List and upkeep of royal houses and transport is nothing to do with them, there seems no reason at all why it shouldn't come under the current government review of public expenditure.

Nobody wants the monarchy to be poor, or even to be cheap (I agree with Lord St John of Fawsley that a Royal Family without its carriages and footmen is not worth having); nevertheless, there are ways in which its pounds 75m a year maintenance bill could easily be pruned. The royal yacht Britannia ( pounds 11.5m) is the most glaring example, and the pounds 2.2m royal train another. They are so rarely seen that they would not be missed and it would save all the usual tabloid fuss every time the Duke of Edinburgh takes the yacht for a two- week private cruise as he is doing this Easter. The Queen's Flight could also probably shed the odd Andover without any loss either of prestige or convenience. At this point, it is traditional for fogeys to wail that we don't want our Royal Family riding round on bicycles, and indeed we don't, but in fact there is several million pounds' worth of leeway between riding bikes and maintaining a royal yacht and train. Come on, Mr Major, get stuck into those royal expenses: the Queen has made her gesture, now you make yours.

TALKING OF WAYS of saving money, I came across a rather sweet example the other day. It is in Highgate cemetery - a grave to two Polish airmen, Flying Officer Stefan M Podhajcer who died in 1972 and Wing Commander Joseph S Ostrowski OBE who died in 1982. The epitaph reads, 'To my beloved husbands / And my very best friends' but the 's' on both lines has obviously been carved later: Mr Pod hajcer had the grave to himself for 10 years till his widow thriftily opened it up again to pop in his replacement.

AND FINALLY, would you let your daughter go to a Buckingham Palace garden party? Now that the rules have been changed to allow guests of 'single status' to bring 'companions' of either sex, the medieval rules governing offspring look rather alarming. Married guests may still bring only spouses (no mistresses, thank you) and, as before, 'unmarried daughters aged between 18 and 25 years of age'. Why unmarried? Why not sons? Why only 18 to 25? Is this some sort of royal singles club? Surely things haven't come to such a pass. I'm surprised they don't specify virgins. Will Major Ron be there? In the unlikely event that I am invited to a Palace garden party, I shall certainly lock up my daughters.