Gagging law to protect Prince Charles

The Sunday Times | March 21, 2010
By Chris Hastings and Chris Gourlay

THE government is trying to change the law to protect the Prince of Wales from scrutiny when he intervenes in public affairs.

Jack Straw, the justice secretary, has tabled an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to impose a blanket ban on anyone disclosing information about Prince Charles, the Queen and Prince William.

The move comes after a freedom of information (FoI) application revealed how Charles scuppered a £3 billion redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks. The property developers Christian and Nick Candy discovered that his aide met planning officials to discuss scrapping the scheme.

The Candy brothers have begun legal proceedings against their former Qatari partners. The court has ordered Clarence House to disclose relevant documents by the end of this week. If the information provided is inadequate, Charles could be called to testify.

The royal family is exempt from direct requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act. However, public bodies can be asked to release information that may include details about the royals.

Such requests are subject to a public interest test and, so far, only limited information has been released. Last December eight government departments admitted that their ministers had received correspondence from Charles but refused to release the letters.

The prince regularly contacts ministers and his attempts to influence government policy have annoyed many. His “black spider” memos — a reference to his handwriting — have covered issues ranging from the environment to architecture and education.

Last month Baroness Quin, a former minister for Europe, said his actions “verge on the grotesque” and would have to be curbed if “he is to undertake the duties of a monarch”.

Critics of Straw’s amendment say it would seriously undermine freedom of information laws. More than 60 MPs have signed an early day motion calling for it to be dropped. Clarence House said Charles had not lobbied for the changes.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “Obviously one would want to protect the confidential nature of the meetings between the monarch and the prime minister. But the FoI Act already provides this kind of protection.”

The Ministry of Justice said Charles had to be able to write to ministers in confidence to “ensure the heir to the throne could be schooled in the business of government”.