Prince Charles’ private meetings with government ministers, and the fact that we cannot know what was said in them ,has become a small controversy buried under a scandal, namely the one about News of the World and its various mischiefs.
What seemed to be the beginning of an interesting debate was inevitably cut short. A small recap may be useful to bring the story back to the fore and continue with the discussion.
A week ago, the Mail on Sunday reported that prince Charles held at least 9 private meetings with senior ministers and also mentioned his notorious “black spider” letters to ministers – referring to the Prince’s lengthy notes on policy, inked in his spider-like handwriting.
This came after Alastair Campbell, who was former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s communications chief, revealed that Blair was frustrated with the Prince’s interventions on policy issues.
The monarchy no longer has any political power in the UK and Prince Charles’ constitutional role is to remain largely a symbolic head. Private meetings with ministers could be seen as pushing boundaries. But more important is that we can’t know for sure if Charles was, in fact, exceeding his position because the Royal Family’s communications with ministers became exempt under the Freedom of Information Act during the final days of the previous government.
In response, campaigners have called for a review to the changes in the law.
Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information told The Independent that the revelations of regular private meetings with ministers showed that the changes in the FOI Act were not sustainable and suggested the Prince could use the exemption to conceal his political involvement.
“There is a legitimate case to made, for example, in protecting discussions between the Queen and the Prime Minister. But this type of roving lobbying by Prince Charles is a different matter. There is a question as to whether any political role he might be taking is being concealed by the use of this exemption. It should be made subject to review and, in some circumstances, the release of that information is justified.”
When the changes were first announced, Ben Chu, commented in The Independent that though the royals are no longer political actors, their symbolic position representing the U.K. must also be kept in check. Their exemption from the FOI Act also eliminates the mechanism meant to scrutinise their actions.
“The Royal Family must be above politics and provide a focal point for respect from all Britons. But that does not undermine the argument for scrutiny and oversight of royal affairs. The monarchy needs to be seen as a dignified figurehead. Financial profligacy or improper behaviour by members of the Royal Family would bring the monarchy into disrepute and jeopardise its constitutional role. Statutory transparency (in the form of the Freedom of Information Act) would help to keep royals on the straight and narrow.”
The changes to the FOI Act came after Prince Charles was accused of intervening to halt a £3 billion redevelopment of the Chelsea Barracks by the Qatari royal family.
At the time, the Royal Family was exempt from direct requests for information under the FOI Act, but public bodies could be asked to disclose the information they held about them. The requests were subject to a public interest test.
The changes that took place in January rendered the Royal Family an absolute exemption from the release of details about his contacts with ministers and civil servants.
Here is what the Constitution Unit wrote about them in March.
“The absolute exception covers all communications of the monarch, her heir, and the second in line to the throne, while the correspondence of the rest of the Royal Household with public bodies remains subject to a qualified exemption. So… requests about finances would result in exactly the same outcome now as before the amendments. Similarly, if people are requesting records of Prince Andrew’s activities as the UK’s trade envoy, then the decision to release, at least under section 37, will be taken in light of a qualified exemption. The real change will be felt with respect to the third and more controversial example: letters allegedly sent between ministers and Prince Charles lobbying on political matters are now inaccessible to FOI requesters.“
With all this talk about Freedom of Information, Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s FOI specialist added another element to the mix: the FOI law may be only part of the issue here.
Because Prince Charles’ policy concerns has more to do with the environment than with any other policy issue, much of the information we want to know about is not covered by the FOI law at all, but rather the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).
The EIR do not have any specific provisions protecting the Royal Family, Rosenbaum said, so requesters can fire away. But there are exemptions.
“The letters written by Charles himself could be withheld on the basis that it would harm his interests, as someone not obliged to supply information to the public authority. And the Information Commissioner has ruled that replies to him from the government can be kept secret, because by revealing his views they would thus reveal his personal information in breach of the Data Protection Act.”
In all matters not related to the environment, however, the FOI exemption for the royals should be looked at. After all, the Prince Charles may be only a symbolic figurehead and a private person in his own right – but not every private individual enjoys such access to Members of Parliament. Isn’t it in the public’s interest to know what is being said to them?