The Guardian – 4 June 2015
We all had a right to see Prince Charles's letters. But not any more, it seems
By Rob Evans
Whatever you made of the Prince of Wales’s lobbying, ministers have since restricted freedom of information: the shutters have come down
'Downing Street’s decision to publish the second batch of letters that Prince Charles had sent to ministers was unexpected. The government had been preparing to resist the publication of the latest batch, covering the years 2006 to 2009, even though a previous batch, covering 2004 and 2005, was released after a ten-year legal battle with the Guardian.
Lawyers had been hired by Cameron’s ministers and were due to go to a freedom of information tribunal later this year to argue in favour of keeping this batch of letters concealed. It looked as if the government was gearing up once again for a long battle over the prince’s correspondence. But then, all of a sudden, ministers threw in the towel.
Quite what has made the government change its mind was not explained. It was an abrupt U-turn from the days when ministers argued that publication of the letters would seriously damage the prince’s ability to be king.
It brings to 44 the total number of letters between the heir to the throne and ministers that have now been published. But there are unlikely to be any others.
The Guardian submitted two requests under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of the prince’s letters. Both requests were successful, but there are none outstanding.
The government has in any case closed off this route of enquiry. Five years ago, ministers tightened up the Freedom of Information Act to put an absolute block on any more letters of Charles’s letters being published.
The letters sent by Prince Charles to government ministers have traditionally been one of the deepest secrets of British public life. Supporters of the Freedom of Information Act will hold up the release of the letters as one of its successes, a sign that the legislation has teeth.
What the letters underlined was how the prince had been engaging in sustained lobbying campaigns at the highest levels of government.
The first set of letters – released last month – showed how the Prince of Wales had made direct and persistent policy demands over an eight-month period in 2004 and 2005 to the then prime minister, Tony Blair, and other senior Labour ministers.
He was revealed to have pressed for changes in government policy, ranging from improved equipment for British troops in Iraq to the implementation of a badger cull (whose opponents he criticised as being intellectually dishonest).
The latest set of letters, covering the period 2006 to 2009, shows the prince lobbying once again for pet causes. He wanted ministers to reverse spending cuts that were being lined up in homeopathic medicine, urged them to conduct a trial of complementary medicine in England, and demanded a say over the allocation of taxpayers’ money for community projects.
Charles has long been accused of meddling in matters of government, but, aside from a few leaks, the public knew little of what he had actually been doing. He was alleged to be sending to ministers a stream of letters, dubbed the black spider memos because of his scrawly handwriting, but the public were not allowed to read them, or even know how many he was writing.
And that ultimately what this long battle has been all about – to see what the heir to the throne has been telling ministers in private, and how those ministers have reacted.
Some greeted the publication of the batch of letters with a shrug – and even a yawn, suggesting that they were tedious. Others were less convinced that it was appropriate for an unelected royal to be seeking to alter the official policies of government.
Publication of the letters have helped the public to make up their own minds. In a democracy, the public should be able to see how policies are being made and altered, and who is influencing that process.
However the tightening-up of the Freedom of Information Act brings to an end this brief glimpse into Charles’s lobbying.
The shutters have come down, and the public will now be unable to find out, for instance, whether his letter-writing has waxed or waned as he gets closer to the throne.
Ten years ago, he wanted Blair to bring in a badger cull, but the Labour government resisted the idea. More recently, David Cameron’s government has implemented a cull. Did Charles, for example, lobby Cameron and his ministers over this policy change?
We don’t know, and – in the government’s eyes – have no right to know.'