Prince Charles has been accused of hiding behind stringent new Freedom of Information restrictions to conceal lobbying of the Government for changes to policy after it was revealed that he met at least eight ministers in a 10-month period.
Campaigners called for an urgent review of changes to the Freedom of Information Act ushered in during the final days of the last Labour government which granted the heir to the throne – who is obliged to be politically neutral – an absolute exemption from the release of details about his contacts with ministers and senior civil servants.
The amendments mean that the prince, who has been accused of exceeding his constitutional powers – notably last year when he intervened to halt a £3bn property development by the Qatari royal family – is no longer the subject of a public interest test to decide whether the content of his communications with the Government should be published.
Suspicions that Prince Charles is straying into political territory were increased yesterday with the revelation that he had held nine private meetings with ministers, including the Chancellor, George Osborne, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, between May 2010 and March this year to discuss policy areas including some of his own favoured issues such as global warming and "tree health".
Most ministers refused to reveal the nature of their discussions due to the FOI exemption, which came into force in January.
The disclosure by the Mail on Sunday came after Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former communications chief, revealed this weekend that the former prime minister had become increasingly frustrated with the Prince's interventions on policy issues from foxhunting to GM foods and may have raised the issue with the Queen.
Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for the Freedom of Information, said evidence that the Prince was maintaining a regular dialogue with ministers rendered unsustainable the changes to Section 37 of the FOI Act.
Mr Frankel said: "There is a legitimate case to made, for example, in protecting discussions between the Queen and the Prime Minister. But this type of roving lobbying by Prince Charles is a different matter. There is a question as to whether any political role he might be taking is being concealed by the use of this exemption. It should be made subject to review and, in some circumstances, the release of that information is justified."
Prince Charles has frequently hit the headlines for his habit of taking ministers and officials to task on subjects close to his heart, sending handwritten letters which became known as "black spider memos" among ministers because of his distinctively sprawling handwriting style.
Royal sources said that, although private, the Prince's meetings with ministers were published in the Court Circular and he had a constitutional obligation to be "instructed in the business of government". It is understood that several of his meetings up until this March were at the instigation of ministers.
Clarence House issued a statement which said: "In his role as heir, the Prince of Wales has a duty to meet and communicate regularly with Government ministers."