Accessing royal documents using the Freedom of Information Act has always been very difficult, but the government plans to make it impossible. New rules planned by Gordon Brown will make the royals' exemption from FOI rules absolute.
The royal family is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, but some documents may be released if they pass a 'public interest test'. In June 2009 the government announced that it intended to remove this test, effectively introducing a blanket ban on access to all royal documents for at least 20 years.
Republic believes that government transparency is fundamental to a fully-functioning democracy. Many of the myths that help shore up the monarchy could be quickly demolished if the public had unfettered access to information about the monarchy and the royals' activities.
The government has said our constitutional arrangements are threatened by greater transparency. We say this is an argument for a new constitution - not more secrecy.
What is the Freedom of Information Act?
There are actually two Freedom of Information Acts, one for the whole of the UK except Scotland and another for Scotland. Both came into force in 2005, giving the general public the right to access data held by public authorities. In 2007 responsibility for freedom of information passed from the Department for Constitutional Affairs to the Ministry of Justice.
Is the monarchy covered by the Act?
The monarchy is currently exempt from the Freedom of Information Act as it is not regarded as a public authority. Although some non-public bodies can be included within the scope of the Act if they appear "to exercise functions of a public nature", the monarchy had not been designated as such. The exclusion is remarkable given the centrality of the monarchy to our system of government and its vast public expense.
Although the monarchy itself is exempt, the various public authorities that hold information relating to the royal family's function and activities (e.g. those that provide financial or logistical support) are covered by the Act. This means that some information about the monarchy can be accessed by campaigners like Republic.
Does the monarchy release information voluntarily?
The website of the British Monarchy simply states that:
"Despite its exemption from the FOI Acts, the Royal Household's policy is to provide information as freely as possible in other areas, and to account openly for its use of public money"
The effect of this is that only information unlikely to be damaging to the monarchy is released voluntarily.
Can I access correspondence between the royal family and public authorities?
Communications between the royal household and public authorities are potentially within the scope of the Act, and therefore accessible to the public. However, current government guidance makes it very unlikely that public authorities will release such communications.
Correspondence between the royal family and public authorities, along with information that relates to the conferring of honours, is subject to a 'public interest test'. This means that it can be disclosed if the public authority finds that the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the public interest in maintaining secrecy.
The following government guidance makes it quite clear that such correspondence is unlikely to pass the public interest test:
"It is a fundamental constitutional principle that communications between The Queen and her Ministers and other public bodies should remain confidential, and that the political neutrality of The Queen and the Royal Family, and the Royal Household acting on their behalf, should be maintained."
"Communications between the heir to the throne and Government Ministers, including those between their respective private secretaries, where such views are not already in the public domain are, like those of the Sovereign, likely to remain sensitive because they could, at a later date, be taken to show a lack of political neutrality. It is therefore likely that the public interest test in respect of such communications will continue to be determined in favour of withholding the information."
Currently, campaigners such as Republic can appeal against a decision taken by a public authority not to disclose information. The case can be referred to the Information Commissioner and, ultimately, to the High Court.
What changes does the government want to introduce?
In June 2009, Gordon Brown announced to Parliament that he intends to make the monarchy's current exemption from the Freedom of Information Act 'absolute', i.e. the public interest test would be removed. This would effectively introduce a total ban on access to royal documents.
Documents would still be released after 20 years unless the member of the royal family relevant to the correspondence is still alive after this period, in which case the exemption will continue to apply until five years after their death.
Why does the government want to ban access to royal documents?
The Ministry of Justice has stated that the present safeguards within the Freedom of Information Act are "insufficiently robust to protect our current constitutional arrangements". The proposed ban on access to royal documents is designed "to ensure that our information access arrangements allow essential constitutional relationships and conventions to be preserved".
We cannot know the government's exact reasons for proposing the ban, or whether it has been specifically prompted by the royal household. It seems likely, however, that the proposals have been designed to prevent the public discovering the true extent of Prince Charles's political lobbying.