Prince Charles and FOI, Part II

The last time Prince Charles came under the spotlight for getting too close to Parliament, the news was we could get none. This month, the Guardian found a way around that.

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.

One thought on “Prince Charles and FOI, Part II

  1. Central government soulhd make policy and set the rules by which services are delivered. It is also very likely to deliver a large number of them (by virtue of trust, security or scale issues). I will not stray here into commentary on how it soulhd make policy that is more a matter of political style and judgement in my opinion.The mechanics of delivery will also be hugely complex, with public and private sector participation both playing significant roles. Again, there is no single, trite answer in a forum such as this to who does what’.I will however suggest a few tips: government needs to get better at assessing what can and cannot be achieve in practice using digital services. There is no end of theoretical modelling that will show us how x transaction can be reengineered in y ways to deliver z savings. But apply that theory to the reality of 60m citizens with an almost infinite variety of personal circumstances, motivations and behaviours and previous solid business cases start to crumble. It is extremely unlikely, in my view, that a mechanism can ever be constructed which will allow for single sign-on to a trusted relationship with lots of areas of government at the same time, such that meaningful and useful transactions can be carried out. The drawbacks and pitfalls scale much, much faster than the benefits. I can draw you a theoretical model of how a single identity and PIN could do the job, but I wouldn’t be able to implement it (even accounting for the fact that much of what we understand about rights and privacy would have to fundamentally change to do so). But that is a much deeper debate than suits this comment box.Rather than barking up the same old trees, government needs to improve in other disciplines I’ll offer two for consideration. 1. Smart service design whereby real-world cases, cutting across many departmental areas of responsibility, are used as a starting point for developing solutions. Strong leadership, to ensure that such smarter services can be pushed through to delivery, even where this means some flex in departmental ownership, or amendment to policy. And 2. Risk assessment simply replicating offline services online doesn’t work. We know this. Much is changed simply by the act of providing a service in a remote, anonymous, scalable and rapid channel, such as the web. Reliance on old forms of friction’, such as the filling in of complex forms, or the use of a physical signature, don’t have the same meaning in a digital channel. Risks, of fraud or error, need to be wholly reevaluated in light of the digital channel.Directgov’s flagship service, still after more than 5 years the car tax renewal, works so well because of decisions like this. There is no requirement to go through an elaborate identity-proving process every time you buy a tax disc. What’s the worst that could happen, really? You might buy a disc for someone else? Wow. And the car itself is oblivious to the fact that its details are being shared across MOT, insurance and DVLA databases. It’s a car. It doesn’t care. It’s because almost every other service is about a person that makes them so difficult, and the tax disc magic so hard to repeat. And although, generally, we need to be sure that someone is entitled to the services they claim and that appropriate data sharing safeguards are observed I still feel there is more that could be done in assessing service risk in a way appropriate to the channel being used.Full disclosure: as per Question 1.

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