Royal appetite for secrecy can only invite scandal

Royal appetite for secrecy can only invite scandal
By Heather Brooke
Guardian, 25 May 2010

The exemption from scrutiny under Freedom of Information shows the status gap between crown and public interest

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 claims by the royal family to distance themselves from these shady dealings are 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.

When MPs lost their legal fight on expenses, they twice tried to exempt themselves from the FOI law. Fortunately they failed otherwise we might never know what we do.

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.

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9 Responses to “Royal appetite for secrecy can only invite scandal”

  1. Peter Neal says:

    The Civil List was established in 1688 following the Glorious Revolution, with the aim to separate the expenses of the State and the private expenses of the Crown. William III & Mary II agreed to exchange the yearly income from the Crown Estates in return for Parliament granting the monarch a personal allowance from the Civil List in compensation for the loss of income the joint monarchs endured from the transfer.

    Obviously this was in a period where income tax was limited to times of national emergency so the State could only rely on duties it levied on trade to fund the expenses of the State, therefore, the additional income of the Royal Estates was significant. This is noted as an important stage of our constitutional development and the ascent of the sovereignty of parliament over that of the Crown.

    Times have however moved on and now the income of the Crown Estates is a mere drop in the ocean of the income of the State (£226.5m in 2009), however, it greatly exceeds the grant of the Civil List (£7.9m fixed since 1990). Even including additional costs estimated by Ms. Brooke of £65m (total of £72.9m) means we make a profit of £153.6m through this arrangement.

    Surely rather than forcing the Royal Family to be ?more transparent? we should abolish the Civil List and return the income of the Royal Estate to the Crown. We could then bill Her Majesty for the additional costs of her and her family?s protection and she could assume the cost of the palaces upkeep.

    This would be a win-win situation and resolve a redundant aspect of the constitution. Although we’d actually lose money from this arrangement, it would permanently put an end to the choir complaining vocally about the expense of maintaining the Royal family.

    Oh and for those people who think that the State owns the Royal Estates, think again. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2001 in the case of the former King of Greece vrs Greece that the Greek Royal Estate was in fact a private asset of the former King not public property.

  2. American Fan says:

    Heather, best of wishes as you do to the Windsor family what you did to MPs. I think they all need to reform now, not after you thump them really, truly good.

    George Washington must be beaming from above :-).

  3. Some Guy says:

    Well done Heather – keep fighting the good fight. Sunlight is the best disinfectant for these people.

  4. Kev Acott says:

    Thanks for this Heather- it’s easy to forget the way the establishment still protects the Royals. Amazing it was the Labour Party that slipped through this change to the FoI Act. Or maybe it’s more amazing I still hold onto the belief that the Party should have some leftist principles.

  5. Jasmine Edmonds says:

    “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”.

    Unfortunately not in the case of the Law Society!

  6. Michael says:

    We should be entitled to know this information, this is something i hope you achieve in FOI projects, i wish you luck with it.

  7. Charles Lockwood says:

    Hi Heather,
    Glad to see you looking at the costs of the monarchy. I met with privileged people when I was an undergraduate at Oxford many years ago, but in this climate of major economic cuts I fail to see why the monarchy should not prove to us
    that they can manage on less rather than more.
    The real solution is the abolition of inherited rights to jobs which bestow power and influence on the sons and
    daughters of those in high office. I thought nepotism was not appropriate in a fully democratic society.
    I think your “The Silent State” is a major contribution to British society, but I wonder whether all the MPs and peers have
    read it.

  8. Lee-Jon says:

    Hello Ms. Brooke,

    I enjoyed your piece on BBC radio 4 this week and thought you might be able to answer these following three questions;

    What laws give HRHs` right of succession legitimacy in the UK Democratic system 2010?

    How can only members of the Windsor family be eligible for the job of King/Queen of the UK after Elizabeth 2nd dies/retires?

    Will my democratic `human rights` be infringed by my not being able to apply for the post of HRH post Elizabeth? …if so what laws pertain to this infringement.

    Thank you…especially for revealing just how rampant the SITS (snouts in troughs syndrome) really was in the UK Parliament.

    Lee-Jon

  9. As part of a quest for freedom of information can we ascertain by what right the Windsors (Sax-Coburg) are actually in power in the first place?

    Since it’s an accepted fact in British education (being an intelligent nation) that evolution makes us all from the same original “stock” it doesn’t seem that the Windsors have any unique evolutionary advantage that earns them the position; nor have they presented any viable evidence of this “God” that apparently approves of their role.

    As such it’s a clear case of fraud unless they can produce some documentation/evidence to prove that they are there by merit or having earned the position other than by some accident of birth.

    Since traditionally a monarch achieved their position by killing another monarch we should re-institute this tradition for future monarchs that they can only be monarch by killing all other contenders or killing the current occupant. A monarch that hasn’t killed for the position is clearly inferior and shouldn’t be allowed the role. Killing a monarch would not be classified as murder but simply seeking a rapid promotion.

    Since the role is rather futile, and pointless, obviously I’m not interested in risking my life to go for it; nor am I advocating that we should do this; it’s just that if we are to have a monarchy we should respect the traditions.

    Or alternatively we should abolish the dumb institution and let them retire gracefully (with no more taxpayers money) into obscurity where they belong.

    Of course if the Royal Family have super-powers that justify their role then we really should be told.

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