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Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid

Chris Green
Thursday 26 March 2015 18:00 GMT
A spokeswoman for the Prince said the release of the letters was now “a matter for the Government”
A spokeswoman for the Prince said the release of the letters was now “a matter for the Government” (Reuters)

Dozens of private letters written by Prince Charles to Government ministers containing the future king’s “most deeply held personal views and beliefs” are set to be published within weeks, in the wake of a landmark ruling by the UK’s highest court.

The 27 notes, dubbed the “black spider” memos due to the Prince’s unique style of handwriting, must be released within 30 days after the Supreme Court decided that the Government had no right to veto their publication.

The judgement, which experts said had “far-reaching” implications for ministers wanting to block the release of sensitive material, was met with dismay by both Clarence House and David Cameron, who said Freedom of Information laws may have to be tightened in response.

The case went to the Supreme Court after appeal judges unanimously ruled that the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, had “no good reason” for using his ministerial veto to prevent the disclosure of the letters. His decision, made in 2012, overrode that of an independent tribunal.

At the time, Mr Grieve argued that the notes – which had been requested under Freedom of Information laws – were “particularly frank” and that their release would undermine Prince Charles’s political neutrality when he becomes king.

But yesterday seven Supreme Court justices ruled by a majority of five to two that Mr Grieve’s use of the ministerial veto had been “invalid”, as it that the opinion of a single politician carried more weight than that of the courts.

Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger said Mr Grieve should not have been allowed to use the veto “merely because he, a member of the executive, considering the same facts and arguments, takes a different view from that taken by the tribunal or court”.

After the ruling, a spokeswoman for the Prince said the release of the letters was now “a matter for the Government”, adding that Clarence House was “disappointed the principle of privacy has not been upheld”.

Mr Cameron also described the judgement as “disappointing” and suggested that more restrictive Freedom of Information laws may be required to prevent similar disclosures in the future. “This is about the principle that senior members of the Royal Family are able to express their views to government confidentially. I think most people would agree this is fair enough,” the Prime Minister said.

“Our Freedom of Information laws specifically include the option of a governmental veto, which we exercised in this case for a reason. If the legislation does not make Parliament’s intentions for the veto clear enough, then we will need to make it clearer.”

His comments were immediately criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Maurice Frankel, the group’s director, said any strengthening of the veto would be “very unwelcome”, pointing out that the current system already provided “innumerable bites of the cherry” for ministers who wanted to make the case against publication.

“This is a critical decision which strengthens the Freedom of Information Act,” he added. “It says the courts, not ministers, normally have the last word. The veto is not a trump card to be slipped out of a minister’s sleeve to block any embarrassing disclosure.”

The Government now has 30 days to release the letters, which are likely to emerge in redacted form. A Downing Street spokeswoman said “preparatory work” would have to be completed before the correspondence, which dates back to 2004 and 2005 and involves seven different Government departments, could be published.

Prince Charles has long been accused of “bombarding” ministers with handwritten letters attacking government policies with which he personally disagreed, making liberal use of underlining and exclamation marks, but the details of his objections have remained secret.

Since the original request for the correspondence was made by a journalist at the Guardian newspaper, the Freedom of Information Act has been altered to exempt all material relating to Prince Charles – meaning that there will be no further disclosures about his dealings with ministers after the 27 letters are revealed.

But anti-monarchist group Republic said the 2010 change should be reversed. “Any risk to the monarchy must pale against a risk to democracy from having an activist prince acting in secret,” said chief executive Graham Smith. “We can’t have a situation where we don’t know what influence Charles is having on government policy.”

In their judgement, the Supreme Court justices also pointed out that the ministerial veto cannot apply to environmental information, which is governed by a different law stemming from a European Union directive. Disclosure of the letters was originally sought under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, said: “This is a welcome decision, offering greater clarity on a law that, just 10 years on from its implementation, is still in its relative infancy. The ICO will, of course, study the judgment very carefully and consider its implications, which appear to be far-reaching, particularly around environmental information.”

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