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Letters between the Prince of Wales and the British government will remain secret after the Attorney General intervened to block a court order mandating their release.
Last month, a panel of judges ruled that seven government departments had to disclose correspondence they had received from Prince Charles. But Section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives ministers a veto over such decisions. In a ten-page document that accompanied his decision , Dominic Grieve MP said that he was taking action to protect the political neutrality of the Crown.
One of the fundamental principles of Britain’s constitutional monarchy is that the sovereign must be politically neutral. By longstanding convention, the Queen only acts on the advice of the government of the day. However, she must be kept informed about the business of government, and she is free to share her views privately with ministers. The need to preserve the Crown’s neutrality is seen as so important that communications between the royal family and the government are treated as strictly confidential, although the Freedom of Information Act 2000 originally allowed certain documents to be disclosed if it was deemed to be in the public interest.
Throughout her sixty-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has shown herself to be a model of political circumspection. She does not give interviews, and on the few occasions when she does not speak on ministerial advice, her remarks are scrupulously apolitical. There was a brief furor in 1986 when the Sunday Times claimed that some of Margaret Thatcher’s policies were causing the Queen ‘dismay,’ but the assertion was swiftly rubbished by the Palace.
Prince Charles, on the other hand, has gained a reputation for being rather more outspoken than his mother. He has not shied away from public comment on topics such as architecture and organic farming, and he is known to share his views with ministers from time to time. While his critics claim that he is exerting undue influence on the government, his defenders argue that, as the future king, he is entitled to discuss his views with ministers.
The present tussle started back in 2005 when Rob Evans, a journalist from the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, sought to use the Freedom of Information Act to force the disclosure of Prince Charles’ correspondence with several government departments. His request was opposed by the government, and he ended up having to fight it all the way to the Upper Tribunal of the Administrative Appeals Chamber.
Last month, the Tribunal ruled that the disclosure of the documents was in the public interest. In their ruling, the judges sought to draw a distinction between correspondence that allows Prince Charles to prepare himself for kingship and correspondence that advocates certain positions. While the former should remain confidential, the latter could be disclosed to the public.
But the Attorney General disagreed. “In my view, it is of very considerable practical benefit to the Prince of Wales’ preparations for kingship that he should engage in correspondence and engage in dialogue with ministers about matters falling within the business of their departments, because such correspondence will assist him in fulfilling his duties…as king,” Grieve said.
Grieve also pointed out that, although the letters could be “frank,” they did not cross the lines of constitutional propriety. But at the same time, their disclosure could make it harder for people to accept his political neutrality when he becomes king.
“The ability of the monarch to engage with the government of the day, whatever its political colour, and maintain political neutrality is a cornerstone of the UK’s constitutional framework,” Grieve concluded.
Rob Evans, the journalist who originally asked for the letters to be disclosed, condemned the Attorney General’s decision, claiming that “the public has a right to see these letters” in order to gauge Prince Charles’ influence on government policy.
The anti-monarchy group Republic chimed in as well. “The Attorney General’s decision is all about protecting Charles and the Royal family from scrutiny, putting his demands above the rights of the British people,” said Graham Smith, the group’s chief executive.
“Dominic Grieve has made it clear today that no citizen should ever bother trying to find out what the royals are doing behind closed doors: the government will never let the light in.”
In the future, it will be impossible to use the Freedom of Information Act to sneak a peek at royal correspondence. Under changes to the law that took effect last year, the Queen, Prince Charles, and the Duke of Cambridge now enjoy a blanket exemption from the act.
Image Courtesy of The Great Photographicon