That piece in the Independent about special exemptions for the royals from the FOIA was four years old, but it’s all the more newsworthy because the exemptions are now part of the law, so I’ve been looking into the matter.
Index on Censorship covered it in March 2011, a couple of months after the Indy article.
There was some strengthening of the royals’ exemption in 2010.
But full FoI exemption for the Royal Family was sealed by the current government. On 16 January 2011, just a week after the Ministry of Justice trumpeted to extend the scope of FoI for increased transparency of public affairs, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced his commencement order to bring Royal Family exemption into full force:
The changes provide an absolute instead of a qualified exemption for information relating to communications with the sovereign, heir to the throne or second in line to the throne or those acting on their behalf.
So that’s that. Charles Windsor puts pressure on the government to fund homeopathy on the NHS? Secret. Charles meddles with planning permission in London and elsewhere? Secret. Charles demands friendlier treatment of his Saudi mates? Secret. Charles sends love letters to the pope? Secret. [your worst nightmare here]? Secret.
Whereas there was previously an exemption from the exemption, Freedom of Information enquiries about the Royal Family are no longer subject to a public interest test. There is no way to hold them under account under FoI.
They’re like the NSA, but with ermine and diamonds.
Republic, the British organisation campaigning for the end of a constitutional role for the monarchy, raised concerns ahead of the Bill’s assent.
“If passed, this amendment would mean that Charles’s attempts to influence government policy on health, architecture, education, agriculture, the environment, even war and peace, will remain secret – until years after his death. Far from protecting ‘impartiality’, this amendment gives Charles the green light to get even more stuck in.”
The light is now well and truly green since the Act became law. During the Parliamentary debate of the Bill Jack Straw told MPs that there was “no way members of the royal family can change public policy.” Unfortunately, with the Act’s amendment to FOIA we’re not allowed to see that for ourselves.
And there’s good reason to think it’s not true.
Republic this week, supported by Index on Censorship, has written to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, calling on him to use the Protection of Freedoms Bill to reverse this exemption and “to define the royal household for the first time as a public authority within the terms of the Act”.
“This is not simply about the royal household’s use of public funds – it is a serious issue of accountability and transparency that goes to the heart of government. It is well documented, and admitted by Clarence House, that the Prince of Wales routinely lobbies government ministers on a wide range of controversial and deeply political matters such as the environment, education and health.
“The current lack of scrutiny over such actions means that citizens have no means by which to judge if ministers are taking decisions according to the public interest or to suit the interests and agenda of the heir to the throne.”
Republic, along with cosignatories Heather Brooke, author and Freedom of information Campaigner; Professor Roy Greenslade, Department of Journalism, City University and former editor of the Mirror; Cllr. Mike Harris, Head of Public Affairs, Index on Censorship; Professor Stephen Haseler, Director, Reform Foundation; and Professor Adam Tomkins, John Millar Professor of Public Law, is inviting Clegg to discuss these issues and add to the Protection of Freedoms Bill “amendments that would bring the royal household and the monarchy fully within the scope of the Act”.
Did that happen? No.