FoI and the monarchy: secrecy rules

The exemption from scrutiny under Freedom of Information shows the status gap between crown and public interest - by Heather Brooke.

Where there's secrecy, there's scandal. The two certainly go hand in hand in the picture painted by the weekend's News of the World video that shows Sarah Ferguson accepting a $40,000 briefcase of cash while promising that, for a £500,000 backhander, she would provide an introduction to trade envoy Prince Andrew.

Any effort by the royal family to sweep away any impression of secrecy is, however, undermined by their aversion to transparency. Among the laws rushed through in the "wash-up" of the last government was a change to the Freedom of Information Act granting an absolute ban on all communications with the royal family and royal household. Prior to this such information was still exempt but if there was a public interest in the material, it had to be disclosed.

That exemption meant, for example, one could argue that, as the billpayer, the public has a right to know the detail of how the £7.9m from the civil list is spent, about the additional £15m spent to maintain the royal palaces, and the estimated £50m spent on royal security.

July will see the announcement of a new civil list settlement. There are rumours the royals are asking to double the amount to more than £15m. In the information blackout, facts are few and far between. We will only know the deal when it is done. As Graham Smith, campaign manager of the pressure group Republic, says: "We have no idea if these rumours are true. We aren't allowed any information about what the palace is lobbying for, or on what grounds."

In a similar vein, there has been considerable speculation about Prince Charles's penchant for writing letters to ministers of state – be they about health, education or the environment. The Prince's health charity lobbied the NHS to provide homeopathy, and last year he scuppered a £3.6bn redevelopment project for Chelsea Barracks by lobbying the Emir of Qatar.

A high court case is finally revealing the extent of the emails, phone conversations and meetings between the prince, his private secretary – Sir Michael Peat – and the Qataris over a decision to abandon the project. The prince's approach prompted the Riba president to say: "If the evidence presented is correct, it appears the Prince of Wales has brought inappropriate pressure to bear on the democratic planning process … The Chelsea Barracks developers chose not to proceed with the original design, which had been through extensive consultation and design review, and that was their prerogative. However, behind the scenes influence would have been a huge hurdle to consider. No individual should use their position in public life to influence a democratic process such as planning."

Then there is Prince "air miles" Andrew, whose use of public funds for helicopter jaunts is well known. Less well known are the details of what he does as the UK's special representative for international trade and investment.

Last December the tide was turning on all this archaic secrecy. It looked as though the royals would have to follow MPs in adapting to the new age of open, accountable government. Freedom of information cases such as my own (on MPs' expenses) had shifted the default position from automatic secrecy for the powerful to the belief that power must be open and accountable to the people.

The Independent newspaper had just won a three-year battle for the disclosure of public subsidies paid for the upkeep of royal palaces. In 2009, that amount was £41.5m, up £1.5m on 2008. Government officials refused all requests because of the "well established constitutional convention that correspondence between the sovereign and government is confidential in nature".

When Republic tried to ascertain the number of letters government departments received from Prince Charles, even that was refused: "Whilst it is publicly known, and acknowledged by the Prince of Wales himself, that he corresponds on occasion with government, it is generally not known when, and with whom, he corresponds. This is entirely proper."

Proper according to whom? Not the information commissioner. In December 2009 he ruled in favour of the Independent, saying: "Disclosure … would enhance public awareness and understanding of the funding and accommodation arrangements of the royal household and this would be in the public interest." He went on: "The discussions relate to the spending of the Grant in Aid which is specifically in relation to the maintenance and upkeep of the Royal Household. In the commissioner's view, disclosure would not undermine the privacy of, nor the constitutional position of, the royal family."

When some of the information was finally released in March 2010 the nature of the correspondence was much like that of MPs' expenses – it showed the only "harm" was embarrassment. The palace was shown to be lobbying for more money while at the same time providing rent-free accommodation to a number of minor royals and courtiers.

The monarchy is a part of the state. It exists to serve the people. By granting the royals an absolute ban from FoI, the previous government made it clear that the interests of the royals were more important than that of the people. This is an extraordinary and undemocratic victory for secrecy, and one that can only invite scandal.
Royal appetite for secrecy can only invite scandal (Heather Brooke, The Guardian, 24 May 2010)


Anonymous said...

Well done, Heather, for bringing that to people's attention!!

I must say, in this connection, considering the state of the country's finances, there is one very, very obvious expense that could be cut down quite severely rather than expanded...