Thursday, March 13, 2014

Freedom of information beats the monarchy

One of the ground rules underlying the UK's constitution (and our own) is that the monarchy is "politically neutral". But in the case of Prince Charles, its a myth - he lobbies government extensively, holding private meetings with Cabinet Ministers, vetoing legislation which threatens his economic interests, even having government websites critical of his pet quackery censored. One of his chief vehicles for such lobbying are the "black spider memos" - letters named for his spidery handwriting, sent regularly to Ministers. Back in 2012, the Information Tribunal ruled that they should be released under the Freedom of Information Act, but this was swiftly vetoed by the Attorney-General on the grounds that release would "undermined his position of political neutrality" (by exposing it as a lie). Now, that veto has been overturned by the courts:

Three senior judges have ruled that Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, acted unlawfully when he blocked the publication of letters written by Prince Charles to government ministers.

The ruling, led by Lord Dyson, the head of the civil judiciary in England and Wales, paves the way for the release of the letters which reveal how the prince lobbied government ministers to change official policies.


Dyson, the master of the rolls, said Grieve "did not have reasonable grounds" for issuing the veto "merely because he disagrees with the decision" of the tribunal.

Grieve "could point to no error of law or fact in the [tribunal's] decision, and the government departments concerned did not even seek permission to appeal it", he added.

Leave has been granted to appeal to the Supreme Court, so release could still be overturned. But in the meantime, its an important victory of transparency over secrecy, and law over monarchical privilege.

As for the wider issue: if the UK government is worried about the monarchy's political neutrality, maybe they should place the blame where it lies: on Charles Windsor. And start returning his letters unopened.

[The full judgement is here]