By a Newsnet reporter
Prince Charles has found himself at the centre of a controversy over his alleged influence on UK government policy after the Attorney General Dominic Grieve announced that he would block a freedom of information request seeking the release of 27 letters written by the Prince to UK ministers in seven Whitehall departments during the previous Labour government.
The Guardian newspaper, which made the freedom of information request, has said it intends to take the UK government to the High Court to challenge the veto.
According to Mr Grieve, the content of the letters was “particularly frank”. In a statement Mr Grieve said: “Much of the correspondence does indeed reflect the Prince of Wales’ most deeply held personal views and beliefs.”
Mr Grieve said that the letters “contain remarks about public affairs which would in my view, if revealed, have had a material effect upon the willingness of the government to engage in correspondence with the Prince of Wales, and would potentially have undermined his position of political neutrality.”
He added: “If he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king.”
The information commissioner denied the original request from the Guardian, which appealed to the Administrative Appeals Chamber. The Chamber overturned the denial, saying that 27 of the 30 letters covered in the original request should be released, ruling that the commissioner had given “insufficient weight to the public interest”.
However the Attorney General has now used his power to veto publication. Mr Grieve said he had decided to block release of the letters after taking “account of the views of the cabinet, former ministers and the information commissioner”.
Mr Grieve added: “In my view it is of very considerable practical benefit to the Prince of Wales’ preparations for kingship that he should engage in correspondence and engage in dialogue with ministers about matters falling within the business of their departments.”
“Discussing matters of policy with ministers and urging views upon them falls within the ambit of ‘advising’ or ‘warning’ about the government’s actions.”
The Prince is known for his contentious views on a number of topics, including alternative medicine, architecture, and the armed services. He is a prolific writer of letters to government ministers. Officials in Whitehall refer to the correspondence as the “black spider letters”, from the Prince’s spidery handwriting.
In an editorial, the Guardian strongly criticised the government’s decision to veto the release of the correspondence, saying:
“There is no dispute that the prince has been bombarding ministers with his self-interested and often reactionary views for years. In his attempt to justify the unjustifiable, Mr Grieve has clutched at a fragile constitutional doctrine and adopted a deeply dubious legal course.”
The editorial added: “Ministers pretend their concern is to protect the proper training of a good and useful prince, when in fact it is primarily to cover up for the constitutionally dubious blunderings of an indulged and even dangerous dauphin.”
Unlike ordinary private individuals, Prince Charles has direct access to the top levels of government and other institutions, and it is reasonable to assume that the personal, and occasionally eccentric, views contained in his correspondence are taken seriously by the recipients. It is not known what policies or practices may have been changed as a result of the Prince’s secret interventions.
It is not widely reported that the Royal family have a right to veto any government legislation which directly affects their private interests. In the past two parliamentary sessions the consent of the Prince has been requested on at least 12 draft bills dealing with subjects as diverse as wreck removals and co-operative societies. According to the Guardian, between 2007 and 2009 the Prince of Wales was consulted on bills relating to coroners, economic development and construction, marine and coastal access, housing and regeneration, energy and planning.
The UK government is resisting attempts to release an internal Whitehall guide to the way senior royals are consulted.
As well as regular missives to UK government ministers, the Telegraph newspaper today revealed that the Prince has also been in regular contact with senior executives at the BBC, making frequent complaints about programming. The Prince has written numerous letters to former BBC Director General Mark Thompson commenting on the organisation’s programmes.
However the BBC has refused to release the letters, claiming that “audience feedback, including complaints, criticisms and discussion, regarding BBC output” is exempt under the Freedom of Information Act. In a statement the BBC said it wished to “maintain a safe space for public bodies to debate issues with the Royal Household away from public scrutiny.”
Graham Smith, chief executive of Republic, which campaigns to abolish the monarchy, commented: “It’s an open secret that Prince Charles lobbies the government. What the public has a right to know is what he is lobbying for and whether he is actually influencing policy. This decision is a serious affront to British democracy and must be challenged.”
MEANWHILE, A rattled David Cameron today point blank refused to answer a question on whether he would publish emails between himself and disgraced former News International chief exec Rebekah Brooks.
Mr Cameron faced questions in the House of Commons following revelations that correspondence between the Prime Minister and Ms Brooks has been withheld from the Leveson Inquiry after Mr Cameron sought private legal advice.
According to the Independent newspaper, “a cache of documents, which runs to dozens of emails thought to include messages sent to Andy Coulson while he was still a Rupert Murdoch employee, was not disclosed after a Government lawyer advised that it was not ‘relevant’ to the inquiry into press standards.
The contents of the private emails are described by sources as containing ‘embarrassing’ exchanges.”
They could shine a light into the close personal relationship between the Prime Minister and two of Rupert Murdoch’s most senior executives.