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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Duncan Hames

Royals cashing in on gifts – surely that’s unseemly for a modern monarchy?

The first stamps featuring King Charles revealed in London on 12 April, 2023.
The first stamps featuring King Charles revealed in London on 12 April, 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Revelations that members of the royal family may have personally benefited from gifts made to them because of their official public roles raise some serious ethical issues.

The Guardian’s latest report shows that stamps that were given to the royal family as state gifts appear to have been subsumed into the “privately owned” royal philatelic collection, which is worth an estimated £100m. That certain items today in that collection were, in fact, the product of a “gift” from a former colonial administration less than a century ago, is most unseemly for a modern monarchy. Surely King Charles will want to put this right?

Whether those in public office should be accepting gifts and hospitality is something that crops up regularly in anti-corruption work. Valuable items or all-expenses-paid trips pose a considerable risk, as those offering them are typically hoping for something in return, be they introductions to others in high office, recognition, or outright influence over public policy. The more exorbitant the gift or hospitality, the higher the risk. Hence the importance of clear rules on whether gifts are accepted, how this should be recorded and when the information is made publicly available.

Unlike the guidance for other high offices, the royal gifts policy is more a collection of best practices than a set of hard and fast rules. A closer examination reveals it is long overdue a refresh. Some heavy caveats in the text could provide undue barriers to the press or public accessing information about what gifts have been received. Convenient exceptions so as to avoid offence by turning down gifts could make it easy to argue that almost all of them should be accepted. And a reference to accepting cheques on behalf of charities betrays that the current policy belongs to a now-forgotten era.

While details of gifts to ministers, MPs and peers are publicly available and free of charge to view, the current guidelines allow details of gifts to the royal family to be kept behind a paywall. The new king’s desire to modernise the royal household provides an opportunity to address this inconsistency. Importantly, for the royal family to be open and transparent about the gifts or favours they receive would set a valuable example to all those who hold public office under the crown.

Boris Johnson gives evidence to the Privileges Committee during the Partygate enquiry in March.
Boris Johnson gives evidence to the Privileges Committee during the Partygate enquiry in March. Photograph: Parliament TV

This year, Transparency International revealed that UK had fallen down the rankings in its Corruption Perceptions Index, achieving its worst result yet. The annual survey of perceived levels of public sector corruption has, in recent years, seen the UK plummet from a position once in the top 10 cleanest countries globally. The underlying data clearly shows that business executives and other experts are concerned about insufficient controls on the abuse of public office and increasingly see corruption and bribery as a real issue in Britain.

Recent examples of MPs and peers blurring the lines between their public duty and private interests fuel fears that some parliamentarians appear more interested in how to make a quick buck than serving the public. A firm linked to a Conservative peer is under police investigation, having been awarded lucrative PPE contracts without public tender after being referred via the government’s “VIP lane”. Former ministers were recently filmed offering their services for £10,000 a day in an entirely self-serving manner (but apparently all within the rules). Just last week, an MP lost the Conservative whip after being filmed offering to lobby ministers on behalf of the gambling industry.

There is no longer the absence of leadership on probity and integrity in public life from Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister; Rishi Sunak claims to be taking these issues more seriously. But while the new prime minister has made certain steps towards upholding his pledge to lead a government of integrity, professionalism and accountability, far more needs to be done before this commitment can be considered fulfilled.

What needs to be done? A ban on parliamentarians taking overseas trips funded by other governments would reduce the risk of foreign interference in our democracy. A truly independent watchdog on ministerial misconduct would help address concerns that senior politicians play by a different set of rules. A recent survey conducted by UCL’s Constitution Unit found that a majority of the public (52%) think a genuinely independent regulator is best placed to investigate. Perhaps unavoidably, tighter controls on second jobs for MPs are called for to reassure the public that their representatives in Westminster are focused on serving them.

Voters are appalled by repeated cases of self-serving public servants, and their patience is wearing thin as they endure a cost of living crisis. Deserving their trust will require a new era of integrity: restoring the Nolan principles of public life, drafted nearly 30 years ago when our politicians were last drowning in scandal and sleaze. Acknowledgment of the royal household’s own need for transparency and good governance and timely reforms by the new king could be the signal our politicians need that they ought to put their house in order too.

  • Duncan Hames is director of policy at Transparency International UK

  • Guardian Newsroom: Cost of the crown. Join Paul Lewis and David Pegg in a special panel discussion about the Guardian’s investigation into the royal family’s extraordinary wealth. On Tuesday 2 May 2023, 8pm-9pm BST. Book tickets here. Or book tickets at

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