Crown agency

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For modern crown agencies of Ontario, see Crown agency (Ontario). For The private development company from 1996, see Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations Ltd.

A crown agency was an administrative body of the British Empire, distinct from the Civil Service Commission of Great Britain or the government administration of the national entity in which it operated. These enterprises were overseen from 1833 to 1974 by the Office of the Crown Agents in London, thereafter named the Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administration. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations Ltd became a private Limited company providing development services in 1996.[1]

Today the term is also used to refer to state-controlled companies in some states of the British Commonwealth.

Office of the Crown Agencies[edit]


Crown agencies nominally reported directly to (and were wholly owned by) the Crown, but in practice, reported to the Crown Agency Office in London, thus independent of the Colonial Office. This office became, in the late 19th century, the sole official British commercial and financial agent of all British protectorates and Crown colonies. The Colonial Office enforced a policy of sole usage of crown agencies for all purchases of goods for government use, creating a virtual monopoly over government retail supply within the colonies of the British Empire. The Crown Agencies also became financial institutions, supplying capital, routes for investment, and pensions to all public works and government in British dependent colonies (excluding such Dominions as Canada or Australia). Crown Agencies were the bodies responsible for all large projects sucha as railway or harbour construction throughout British Africa, India, and the West Indies.[2]


Crown Agencies trace their founding to the time of the British Empire and in 1833 the British government, hived off from the Colonial Office as a financing, stores, transport, and development (to use a modern term) office. Historians have argued that crown agencies, whose organisations operated across the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were the de facto administrators of British colonies. Crown Agencies welded governmental powers through the maze of British, territories, protectorates, dependencies, Mandates, and Crown Colonies which de jure made up the British Empire of the late 19th century.[3] From 1833 to 1880, they also operated in areas with Dominion status. After this, their mandate was reduced to "dependent" colonies (most of British Africa, India, and the West Indies), but they were given near monopoly rights over finance and supply of non-local manufactures for any public or government use.[4]

With the dissolution of the British Empire, many of these agencies reverted to control by their respective governments, became parts of the British government, or became Non-governmental organisations. The central Crown Agency Office became involved in the secondary banking sector, but the Secondary banking crisis of 1973–1975 drove the Agency into a debt of over two million British pounds and the agency filed for bankruptcy in 1974. The British government at the time found the Agency useful for overseas development and, argues one writer, enabled aid to be channeled to British goods, while providing cover for unsavory expenditures such as arms sales.[5] This last function was carried out by what was originally a wholly owned subsidiary of the crown agency, Millbank Technical Services (1967–79, when it was transferred to the Ministry of Defence and renamed),[6] which has since been accused of Neocolonial involvement in former British colonies and covert arms sales.[7] The British government incorporated the Crown Agency as a government mandated corporation tied to the Minister of Overseas Development, called the Crown Agents for Overseas Governments and Administration.[8] In 1997, the Crown Agency was privatised.[9] As a private limited company, the CAOGA has a number of contracts to provide governmental or para-governmental services throughout the world, such as providing the customs services of the Government of Angola [10]

Contemporary usage[edit]

The legal category of crown agencies still exist in some nations of the former British Empire. In most places, these have been replaced by government agencies, state-controlled companies, and (in parts of the Commonwealth) Crown Corporations. Canada and New Zealand maintain the category of government managed or owned entities called Crown Agencies.


Where existing today, as in Canada[11] they report to the sovereign governments in the states where they operate. In Canada, the term may refer to any government agency, created by statute, which does not report to a government Ministry.[12] CN Rail and the Ontario Heritage Foundation, for instance, are under Canadian Law "Crown Agencies".

New Zealand[edit]

The term is also used under New Zealand law[13] to designate state owned enterprises which do not report directly to a single Ministry.

Crown bodies[edit]

In the United Kingdom, the term is sometimes used to refer to Crown Bodies: public bodies which have Crown status, meaning that material which they produce is subject to Crown copyright protection.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ David Sunderland. Principals and Agents: The Activities of the Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1880–1914. The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 52, No. 2 (May, 1999), pp. 284–306
  3. ^ David Sunderland (2004)
  4. ^ David Sunderland. 'Objectionable Parasites': The Crown Agents and the Purchase of Crown Colony Government Stores, 1880–1914. Business History, Volume 41, Issue 4 October 1999 , pages 21 – 47
  5. ^ Sunderland (2007)
  6. ^ Profile: Millbank Technical Services. David Leigh and Rob Evans,, Friday June 08 2007
  7. ^ Submission from the Campaign Against Arms Trade to the Quadripartite Committee on Strategic Export Controls February 2006.

    The DSO arranged for the use of a nationalised company, Millbank Technical Services (MTS), then a wholly owned subsidiary of the Crown Agents, to pay bribes on a proposed Government-to-Government arms deal. A senior DSO official Harold Hubert wrote in 1972 about a proposed sale to the Saudi Arabian National Guard: “MTS will have little hope of business unless we [UK government] invite them to sell on our behalf. ... Since, when the Ambassador sees the King, he will indicate our willingness to do business on a G-to-G (government-to-government) basis there might be advantages to MTS co-ordinating any British equipment business to provide the quasi- government oversight as well as passing on the douceurs” (FCO 8/1914).

  8. ^ Advisory Structures for Development Cooperation Policy in the United Kingdom: survey (1993–1994) carried out by ECDPM on behalf of the National Advisory Council for Development Cooperation (NAR) of the Netherlands. Published 1996.
  9. ^ Crown Agents Act 1996 (completed 21 March 1997),Hansard, 21 Mar 1997 : Column: 917
  10. ^ ANIP e-News Bulletins GOVERNMENT NEWS: Government Approves Customs Contract: Volume 3 Issue 21, 2 June 2006
  11. ^ Municipal Tax Assistance Act. R.S.O. 1990, CHAPTER M.59: "“Crown agency” means an agency of the Crown in right of Ontario, but does not include Ontario Hydro Financial Corporation; (“organisme de la Couronne”)"
  12. ^ Establishing a Crown Agency, Government of British Columbia, 26 August 2003.
  13. ^ Public Finance Act 1989: Crown Agencies: Legislation Advisory Committee Report No.7, LEGISLATION ADVISORY COMMITTEE, Parliament of New Zealand (1989).
  14. ^ UK Crown Bodies, Office of Public Sector Information (2008)

Further reading[edit]

  • Marjorie A. R. Laird. The Ontario Crown Agency Act, 1959. The University of Toronto Law Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2 (1960), pp. 281–284
  • Lillian M. Penson. The Origin of the Crown Agency Office. The English Historical Review, Vol. 40, No. 158 (Apr., 1925), pp. 196–206
  • David Sunderland. Managing the British Empire: The Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1833–1914. Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer (2004).
  • David Sunderland. Managing British Colonial and Post-Colonial Development: The Crown Agents, 1914–1974. Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer (2007) ISBN 978-1-84383-301-7
  • Arthur William Abbott. A Short History of the Crown Agents and Their Office. Eyre and Spottiswoode, H.M. Printers (1959) ASIN: B0007JAS74 (A privately published history by a former director, cited in a number of sources detailing the less savory involvement of the Crown Agency in the run up to decolonisation)

External links[edit]