October 15, 2013 -- Queen Elizabeth's boiler needs fixing and her royal train's 1970s décor badly needs refreshing. These woes were just some of the details that came to light this week when the finances of Britain's royal family came under unprecedented scrutiny.
Sir Alan Reid, the Queen's treasurer and keeper of the royal purse, got a tongue-lashing on Monday about the royal family's spendthrift ways from the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons.
The committee noted that the royal family had been authorized by Parliament to spend 31 million pounds in the last fiscal year but spent 33.3 million, tapping into a reserve fund to make up the difference. Margaret Hodge, chair of the committee, asked why, in a time of public austerity, the royals were exceeding their budget.
"Given the state of public finances," she told Reid, "every service funded by the public purse has faced cuts. What I don't understand is why that didn't lead you to pull back your expenditure, so that you lived within your means?"
Reid explained that the royal family had been forced to contend with some extraordinary, one-time expenses, including for the Queen's 2012 Diamond Jubilee, a celebration of her 60th year on the throne.
Before 2012, Parliament lacked the authority to pry into the details of royal spending. But a law passed that year gave them oversight and also changed the way the family gets its funding. Buckingham Palace now gets a single yearly payment, based on a percentage of the income generated by so-called Crown Estates -- properties including farmland, mines and retail establishments. The money pays for royal travel, entertaining, home maintenance and other family expenses.
Reid explained that home upkeep costs had been unusually high. The Queen had to spend a million pounds, for example, to upgrade a home for newlyweds Will and Kate. And Buckingham Palace's 60-year old boiler, Reid warned, will need to be replaced in the next three to five years, at a cost of perhaps another million pounds.
Then, there is the issue of the royal train, which, he said, was reaching the end of its life and could continue to run at most another 10 years. "It would be a major decision to invest in a new royal train," he said. "I think the numbers would be quite staggering."
The Daily Express described Hodge as unimpressed by Reid's testimony and quoted her as saying she had expected a better performance from him. Of the royal family, the Express quoted her as saying, "I just think they have got to get a bit real."
James Gray, a spokesman for Republic.org, a group that wants to dispense with the monarchy, told ABC News that he agrees with Hodge. He said that thanks in part to pressure from his group, Hodge's committee recently questioned Prince Charles over what Gray calls the Prince's tax avoidance. Charles pays no tax at all on revenue he gets from land holdings in Cornwall, Gray said.
"We oppose the monarchy on principle," Gray explained, "but we also oppose it as impractical for its reckless spending. Finally, now, because of how the law has changed, they're getting a tiny bit more scrutiny."
Gray said he would like to see that financial oversight of the royal family intensified. "We want them to be funded like any other public body. As it is now, they spend whatever they like and occasionally have to justify it afterwards. To us, that's not acceptable," he said.
Asked what royal expenses could be cut, he immediately cited the royal train: "Every time it leaves the station, that's 20,000 pounds."
Gray said he was not sympathetic to the argument that the royals help earn some of their keep by attracting tourists to the U.K. It's not just what they spend, he said, but also what the family doesn't do. Buckingham Palace, he said, ought to be open to tourists all year, the same as the Tower of London, which pays its own way thanks to tourism. Buckingham Palace, open only a few weeks a year, does not, he noted. That's because the royal family mistakenly views it as their home and seeks to keep the public out, he said.