An affront to democracy, and to transparency

Prince Charles is a lobbyist. He has the right to lobby ministers, as do you or I. The issue is whether this lobbying should be secret or not.  A panel of judges decided that the Prince’s letters should be covered under the Freedom of Information Act, following an appeal by the Guardian’s Rob Evans. I appeared as a witness, an especially unpleasant experience (and I’ve been in front of a select committee). Now, at the last minute, the attorney general Dominic Grieve, the Tory MP for Beaconsfield, has blocked the release of a narrow tranche of the Prince’s letters to ministers.

This is an affront to democracy, and to transparency. By this decision, the government is saying that Britain is still a secret state, and the powerful can twist the arms of ministers without the public being allowed to know anything about it. After the expenses scandal, after Hillsborough, after Jimmy Savile, there are those who still believe cover-up is preferable to disclosure. How wrong they are.

The attorney general’s line is that all of Charles’s letters are part of his ‘preparations to be King’ and are therefore not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. How does lobbying ministers for more homeopathy on the NHS, or against modernist building design prepare an heir to the throne to be a better monarch? These things are Charles’s life’s work. His charities and campaigns are an admirable attempt to lead a productive life whilst waiting to become king. He has certainly filled the time better than every other Prince of Wales.

For over twenty-five years, he has been promoting causes and campaigns. None has been for personal gain. He doesn’t need the money, let’s face it. But his wide interests are reflected in a panoply of charities and organisations which promote everything from Islamic ceramics to the promotion of mutton-farming. These groups advocating homeopathy, traditional architecture, second-chances for inner-city youth, drawing as an art form and high standards in the teaching of English demonstrate Prince Charles eclectic and catholic tastes.

As a man of such passions, it would be unusual for him to bite his tongue when issues arise which concern him. In public, we know he has, from time to time, shared his views on architecture and horticulture. In private, though, the picture is more murky. There is evidence of a cottage industry of lobbying government ministers and civil servants, usually in the form of letters, some hand-written on headed paper.

As a special adviser to last government, I witnessed one such letter arrive in a minister’s private office and be treated with reverence and preference over the business of the day. On another occasion, as a special adviser at the Department of Health I was lobbied about the efficacy of ‘alternative treatments’ including homeopathy.

Yet the letters will remain secret, and the lobbying will continue. We will never know what influence Charles has had over public policy since the 1970s, which ministers were susceptible to his missives, what public money was spent on the causes dear to his heart. Unless Charles does the decent thing, and releases the letters himself. They’d make a rather good coffee-table book. They’d certainly become a best-seller, raising cash for whatever cause Charles wanted. Until then, a dark cloak of secrecy hangs over Whitehall, and the public, yet again, will be the last to know.

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