Closed curtains at the palace

James Gray looks at attempts to let the Freedom of Information Act shine a light on the royals

April 16, 2011
5 min read

‘The government believes that we need to throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account.’ So proclaimed the coalition agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems last June. But one door has remained firmly shut – and is now being bolted forever.

The Freedom of Information Act never applied directly to the monarchy, despite the royal household receiving at least £40 million of public funds each year. Moreover, any correspondence between the royals and government departments that were covered by the Act was also specifically exempted.

But that exemption was not absolute. Requests for correspondence between royals and ministers were subject to a ‘public interest test’. If a request passed the test then the documents could – in theory at least – be released.

The situation changed with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, brought in by the Labour government. It amended the Freedom of Information Act so that all correspondence from the monarch, the heir to the throne and second in line was added to the list of absolute exemptions, alongside information related to national security.

The effect was to remove all possibility of disclosure during the specified time limit – normally 20 years, or five years after the death of the member of the royal family concerned.

These amendments required a statutory instrument to be brought into effect, which justice secretary Kenneth Clarke duly issued in January this year.

One effect of the monarchy’s total exemption from the Freedom of Information Act is that the public is prevented from accessing detailed information on how the royal household spends public funds. Revelations about waste and greed at the palace would certainly be damaging to the monarchy – and the government – at a time of rising prices, drastically reduced public services and widespread unemployment.

But more significantly, the exemption conceals the extent to which members of the royal family, particularly Charles, influence government policy. And that is probably what it’s designed to do. The government’s official justification of the exemption is that it will ‘ensure the constitutional position and political impartiality of the monarchy is not undermined’. In other words – those of the Times – the exemption is a ‘gagging law to protect Prince Charles’.

From Walter Bagehot to Vernon Bogdanor, establishment constitutionalists have argued that the political impartiality of the monarchy is the glue that holds the parliamentary process together. The appearance of neutrality is so important, the argument goes, that it must be protected at all costs – and royals should be free to meddle in politics without fear of being exposed.

It’s an argument that has been comprehensively rebutted by Professor Adam Tomkins, legal adviser to the House of Lords select committee on the constitution. ‘You cannot preserve the reality of something that does not exist,’ he told a freedom of information tribunal last September, when the Guardian launched an appeal over the government’s refusal to release some of Charles’s correspondence. ‘If that political neutrality has already been surrendered, as is clearly (if regrettably) the case with regard to the Prince of Wales, the “good constitutional reason” for the rule disappears.’

Put simply, if our constitutional arrangements are threatened by greater transparency, then that is an argument for a new constitution – not more secrecy.

The fact that the exemption was introduced by Labour and brought into force by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats demonstrates clearly that this is not an issue that divides along party lines – it’s a case of the political establishment looking after itself. Anything that weakens the monarchy also jeopardises the great swathes of unaccountable powers exercised by the prime minister and cabinet on the monarch’s behalf.

The political class may disagree on the ends to which those powers should be used, but rarely questions their moral basis. ‘Openness and transparency has the potential to transform government,’ the Cabinet Office tells us – just as long as that transformation is on the establishment’s terms.

‘Ministers and royals alike believe that the interests of the royal family are above and beyond those of the public,’ explains Graham Smith, campaign manager of the pressure group Republic. ‘That is a contemptible attitude that demonstrates much of what is wrong with the monarchy.’

So as things stand, Charles’s attempts to influence government policy on health, architecture, education, agriculture, the environment, even war and peace, will now remain secret until years after his death.

But there is hope. Republican MPs, possibly including some recalcitrant Lib Dems, plan to table amendments to Nick Clegg’s Protection of Freedoms Bill – which, despite its grandiose title, is currently little more than a reaction to right-wing media scares – which would not only reverse the absolute exemption but also define the monarchy for the first time as a public authority.

Republicans may yet get their chance to let daylight in on the hidden operations of the monarchy’s influence on public policy.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility


3