The Royal Family’s communications with ministers became exempt under the Freedom of Information Act during the final days of the previous government, making it difficult for anyone to find out whether Prince Charles was stepping over his constitutional boundaries when meeting with ministers.
The same does not apply to communication between ministers and charities – and Charles is president of 20 of them.
The Guardian obtained 17 emails and letters between five of the prince’s charities and ministers and officials in four government departments and found evidence of what a few months ago were just a series of (arguably well founded) suspicions.
The charity Business in the Community, which Charles has presided over for 25 years,
“urged business secretary, Vince Cable, to rethink a decision to scrap the Northwest Regional Development Agency. The Prince’s Foundation for a Built Environment urged the local government minister, Grant Shapps, ‘to incorporate greater community engagement in planning and promoted its own planning work around the country as something for him to consider in the ‘national planning framework’.”
Urging may have also meant persuading. The Department for Communities and Local Government awarded a £800,000 grant to the Prince’s Foundation “to advise local groups on new developments.”
The Department denies any connection between Charles’ lobbying and the grant, but Paul Richards, special adviser to former secretaries of state for communities and health recalls how the prince’s letters seemed to sail smoothly into ministers’ hands.
“There was a frisson of excitement when a letter came in from Charles and there was easy, open-door access for his office and charities in a way I felt other organisations would struggle to match. My sense was that the charities were given a star status and that means they get priority and I would be astonished if that was any different under the current government.”
A letter from Charles’ office to the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, about planning issues in the city, is being withheld because disclosure could harm the prince’s “political neutrality.”
The Guardian obtained the correspondence between ministers and Prince Charles’ charities through the government – if it had attempted to obtain the information through his charities, they would have hit another obstacle: they are not covered by the Act and won’t be anytime soon.
The majority of charities are not subject to FOI (the ones that are, are listed under Schedule 1 of the Act). The scope of FOI will be extended to more organisations by the end of next year under the Protection of Freedoms Bill, but it’s uncertain whether the Princes’ charities will be considered therein.