By Chris Cook
Correspondence between Prince Charles and government ministers must remain secret, the government has decided.
Dominic Grieve, the attorney-general, is using a ministerial veto that has been deployed only four times, to block publication of the documents.
The letters had been requested by the Guardian newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act. This veto overturns a ruling by the upper tribunal, a higher court, that ruled in favour of disclosure. Ministers have used the veto in three other cases, to block disclosures relating to the Iraq war, Scottish devolution and NHS reform. The Prince has caused controversy in the past with his advocacy of causes from homeopathy, a reversion to “traditional” teaching methods to his dislike for modern architecture.
His most controversial recent intervention was an attack on a proposed redevelopment of Chelsea barracks in London. He described the plans, later withdrawn, as a “gigantic experiment with the very soul of our capital city”. Mr Grieve decided to use the veto because, he said, the letters were part of Prince Charles’s “preparation for becoming King. The Prince of Wales engaged in this correspondence with ministers with the expectation that it would be confidential”.
“Disclosure of the correspondence could damage The Prince of Wales’ ability to perform his duties when he becomes King,” he said.
This was, he argued, because he must be a “politically neutral” figure able “to engage in confidence with the government of the day, whatever its political colour”.
But Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said:
“The Tribunal has given good cogent reasons for its decisions, having heard from constitutional experts on both sides of the argument. It is not attempting to intrude on the convention that the Prince of Wales needs a safe space to educate himself.”
The upper tribunal judgment had ordered the release of “advocacy correspondence” only – letters in which the prince was advancing a cause from his current role, rather than in preparation for taking the throne. Its ruling said: “The public interest in knowing what views have been urged upon government, and what interests of charitable enterprises have been promoted, is likely to be at least as great as it would be in a commercial context.”
Today’s veto has particular significance because, as Mr Frankel noted: “It is the first veto of the upper tribunal, which is equivalent to vetoing a decision of the high court.”
Previous vetoes have overturned the verdicts of lower courts only. Mr Frankel added: “If ministers had confidence in their arguments, they could have gone up to the Court of Appeal.”