A strong contender for Lobbyist of the Year must be a 64 year-old businessman, philanthropist and new grandfather, with a rather smart address close to Victoria Station. This man has diverse interests in everything from global warming to mutton farming, from Islamic ceramics to the teaching of English in schools, from youth unemployment to homeopathy. And despite the eclectic, at times eccentric, nature of his businesses, charities and foundations, he enjoys seemingly unlimited access to the most powerful politicians in the land. Doors swing open when he comes to call.
Since the 2010 general election Prince Charles has had 53 private meetings with government ministers. He has seen Cabinet ministers 36 times, the Prime Minister seven times, and Ed Miliband three times. He has met with ministers from the departments for health, business, environment and climate change, defence, treasury, communities and the home office. If you were a business, and hired one of the big lobbying firms to get you in to see this many ministers, it would cost you millions of pounds (and be unlikely to succeed).
The latest revelations add to a pattern stretching back over three decades of secret meetings, and hand-written memoranda, with ministers to bend their ears on the Prince’s concerns. The Guardian newspaper attempted to make a small selection of these memoranda and letters, sent between 2004 and 2005, public under freedom of information legislation. The FOI request was turned down, but overturned on appeal at a FOI tribunal to which I presented evidence. The decision of the FOI tribunal was then vetoed by Dominic Grieve MP, the attorney general, on behalf of our government.
In July this year three High Court judges, including the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, decreed that Dominic Grieve MP was within his rights to veto the publication of the Prince’s correspondence. So we are back were we started, unable to read the memoranda and letters sent to ministers, and unable to judge whether they had any impact on public policy and the decisions of our governments.
Does any of this matter? You might say that many of Charles’ campaigns and causes are laudable (the Prince’s Trust), or prescient (climate change, organic food), or harmless (mutton farming), or just right (his opposition to modernist architecture, for example). And I’d probably agree with you. The point for me is not the causes. I’m with the Prince on tackling youth unemployment; I’m opposed on all the ‘alternative medicine’ nonsense. I’m indifferent on sheep. It is more the secrecy that shrouds all of this lobbying activity.
Take homeopathy, the treatment of medical conditions with water containing statistically insignificant amounts of added chemicals. The NHS website says ‘there are several NHS homeopathic hospitals’. I know of ones in London, Bristol and Glasgow. The British Homeopathic Association says around £4m of NHS spending goes on ‘treatments’, described by the outgoing chief scientific adviser Professor Sir John Beddington as ‘mad’, and by the BMA as ‘witchcraft’. The Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee also declared in 2010 that the ‘government should stop allowing the funding of homoeopathy on the NHS.’
So why, in the face of all the evidence and advice, do governments insist on spending our money on homeopathic treatments on the NHS? One possible reason might be the pressure brought to bear by the country’s leading advocate for ‘alternative medicines’ Prince Charles. The health secretary Jeremy Hunt, a believer in the efficacy of homeopathy, met with Prince Charles on 1st July. What did they chat about? Payment by results? The NHS IT projects? The names of decent old people’s homes? I don’t know, and neither do you, because of the secrecy in which these meetings take place.
Walter Bagehot, in his English Constitution of 1867, famously said that the monarch had the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. But even in the reign of Victoria, there was no ‘right to lobby ministers’. Clarence House put out a statement this week that the Prince has a ‘duty’, as the heir to the throne, to meet with ministers. So be it. Then make the minutes public, and liberate the letters from their Whitehall filing cabinets, and let us, his future ‘subjects’, see what he’s been up to.
A final thought: when Charles becomes King, as head of state, all this campaigning and lobbying must come to an end. It represents his life’s work, so the wrench will no doubt be hard. But that must be the price of becoming King.