Prince Charles has once again been thrown into the spotlight thanks to Freedom of Information. Following an investigation by the Guardian which made full use of FOI, “a secretive constitutional loophole” was discovered which gives Prince Charles the right to veto legislation that might affect his private interests in relation to his role as Duke of Cornwall. The Guardian claims that since 2005 Prince Charles’ consent has been sought for bills on up to seventeen occasions. Funnily enough, neither the government nor Clarence House has revealed what real impact the veto has had.
The Prince’s veto is intrinsically linked to the Duchy of Cornwall, created in 1337 by Edward III to provide an income for the Monarch’s eldest son and heir. The Duke of Cornwall must consent to laws which might affect his estate. The reason behind this parliamentary procedure is that, if no heir existed, the Duchy would revert to the monarch and is therefore subject to royal prerogative. Whilst the veto seems archaic and out of place in our modern representative democracy, its recent exposure has not prompted any moves to decrease the Prince’s influence. According to Downing Street, there are no plans to change the 700 year old convention.
The FOI request
In stark comparison, a request for environmental information (EIR) has instigated a groundbreaking change for the Duchy with regard to FOI. In 2008 Michael Bruton requested information from the Duchy regarding the introduction of non-native oysters to the Port Navas Oyster Farm, a designated conservation area. Bruton wished to know which environmental assessments had been carried out to ensure that introducing the non-native oysters would not have a detrimental effect. The Duchy, claiming itself to be a private estate, refused to give the information.
In October 2011, three years after the initial request for information, an information tribunal ruled that the Duchy of Cornwall should in fact be classed as a Public Authority, thus becoming subject to FOI and finally allowing Bruton to acces the information he requested. The Duchy had in fact failed to carry out an environmental assessment of the oyster farm.
The ruling by the information tribunal is not however just a personal victory for Bruton. In classifying the Duchy of Cornwall as a Public Authority, the estate has been completely redefined. Primarily because much of the Duchy’s actions impact on the environment, they will no longer be considered confidential, as has been the case for the past 700 years. The decision therefore makes the Duchy generally more open to public scrutiny and challenges. The past couple of weeks have therefore seen Prince Charles’ role as Duke of Cornwall both upheld (with his right to veto remaining intact) and undermined (being no longer exempt from FOI/EIR). Whilst he considers whether to appeal the tribunal’s decision, perhaps he should be reminded that, as the saying goes: you win some, you lose some.