THE BLOG

Prince Charles Has Access to Government Secrets, and That's a Problem

16/12/2015 12:46 GMT | Updated 15/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Yesterday Republic revealed that Prince Charles is sent highly confidential Cabinet papers as a matter of routine, in contravention of the government's own rules.

Republic has called on the practice to stop, saying that the documents would give Charles a major advantage when lobbying ministers - something he is known to do frequently. He would also benefit from access to market sensitive information without any need to dislcose his financial interests.

The revelation came from the Cabinet Office 'Precedent Book' released to Republic's researchers under a Freedom of Information request - although only after three years of fighting for its disclosure. The research is part of a new Royal Secrets report to be launched this week.

This week I wrote to the Prime Minister to call on him to end the practice immediately. I've also been talking to the press, explaining why the disclosure of cabinet papers to Prince Charles is both extraordinary and completely unacceptable.

This isn't only because these papers would contain highly classified information but because it gives him considerable advantage in pressing his own agenda when lobbying ministers. That's a very real problem when we think back to the spider memos released to the Guardian at the start of the year.

That handful of letters - and revelations made in a BBC radio documentary in 2014 - show that Charles is determined to influence government policy whenever he can. Despite that limited release of letters it is now the case that Charles's lobbying is completely beyond the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.

Royal secrecy and unfettered access to ministers and Cabinet papers makes Charles the best connected and well-informed lobbyist in the country, beyond scrutiny, beyond accountability. Charles is essentially a minister not attending cabinet. He gets the paperwork and has private meetings with ministers about policy. He has every opportunity to influence policy before anyone else even knows that policy is on the agenda.

Despite the claims of some monarchists, Charles has no legitimate need to see Cabinet papers at all. His political and private interests and the high degree of secrecy surrounding his lobbying mean there is a real danger this information can be abused without any possibility of the public holding him to account. The claim that he needs to see all this information as part of his constitutional role just doesn't stack up. He is not the Head of State, he is heir in a constitutional monarchy, one where the monarch is supposed to remain outside of politics.

In my letter to David Cameron I said: "The fact that, in addition [to his right to secretly lobby ministers], Charles has privileged access to Cabinet papers is a further cause for concern as it means he is able to lobby ministers in secret at every stage of policy development process. It is plainly wrong that Charles can lobby on new policy proposals even before the public are aware of the existence of such proposals.

"Cabinet papers will include market sensitive information that would enable a person in possession of the information to use it to further their own financial interests."

On a simple point of principle the practice of sending Cabinet papers to Charles is in contravention of government policy, which states that information should only be shared on a 'need to know' basis. Yet Charles has greater access to Cabinet information than some Cabinet ministers.

This is part of a much wider problem with royal secrecy and power, set out in Republic's new Royal Secrets report. The royals have unique privileges within our freedom of information laws, they have unique access to ministers and they have the power and opportunity to directly influence government decisions, whether to further their own interests or their own political agenda. And that secrecy means we simple cannot make a serious judgement about what the impact of that influence is.

That's why Republic has set out nine recommendations for reform:

1. Reform the Freedom of Information Act. The FOI needs to include the monarchy as a public authority within its scope, so that the Royal Household is bound by the same rules as any other public body. The changes made in 2010 should also be repealed, re-introducing the public interest test to official communications between the government and Head of State. The general exemption for royals should be scrapped altogether.

2. Full disclosure of royal lobbying. The public has a right to know the extent, nature and impact of royal lobbying on public policy and legislation. So it is recommended that all correspondence held by public authorities received from the Royal Household should be disclosed. The usual exemptions under the Act should still apply, such as national security and legitimate confidentiality.

3. Full disclosure of the use of the Queen's and Prince's consent. All records regarding the granting of Queen's and Prince's consent should be published, to allow for a full assessment of the impact of the veto on legislation.

4. An end to the royal veto. The Queen's and Prince's consent rule should be scrapped. If the government wishes the Crown to be given privileged status within any law it will need to make the case in parliament.

5. An end to the practice of sending cabinet papers to Prince Charles. Prince Charles has no legitimate need to see cabinet papers. This practice should stop immediately.

6. Introduce financial reporting reforms so that royal finances are reported by an independent body. The palace should no longer be responsible for reporting royal finances. This task should fall to an independent body that must be required to publish the figures in full, to the same standards as are applied to other public bodies and without any accompanying spin.

7. Incorporate all royal costs into the central finance report. All costs met by local councils, police forces or any other body, plus the revenues and costs from the Duchies should be included in the official calculation of the annual cost of the monarchy.

8. Transfer royal archives to the national archives and place them under the same rules for disclosure and access. Official royal archives should be accessible under the same rules as cabinet papers and other official documents.

9. A full commitment to apply the 7 standards in public life to the Royal Household. An independent body should report annually to parliament on how the Royal Household measures up to the 7 standards in public life.