Charles’s green genie is out of the bottle

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The Supreme Court decision that paves the way for the disclosure of certain correspondence from Prince Charles to UK government departments (your report, 27 March) is to be welcomed. There were two key issues at stake here. The first was the attempted arbitrary and unreasoned use of the veto by ministers to overturn a previous tribunal ruling with which it did not agree.

The other is to recognise that the prince does not act in a private capacity, and departs from convention when pressing for policy changes or action, often on matters on which he has taken a public stance.

The drawing of this distinction, between information exchanged with the heir to the throne in preparation for becoming King (which by convention remains confidential) and those exchanges which constitute advocacy, was already the basis of a decision I took as Scottish Information Commissioner more than four years ago.

It is notable in that case that the Scottish ministers, unlike their UK counterparts, neither sought to veto my decision nor appeal it to the Court of Session. (In fact Scottish ministers have never used their power of veto over an order to disclose information on any matter; by contrast, UK ministers have used their veto at least seven times.)

Public expectations of greater transparency and democratic accountability dictate better insight into how decisions have been taken and influenced on a range of issues, from public procurement to planning.

In that respect this Supreme Court decision could have profoundly changed the conventional relationship between the monarchy, government and the public, particularly if there was an “activist” king.

But it is not expected to uncork a flow of future such requests, as the UK Government changed the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act in 2010 to prevent the release of the monarch’s correspondence with a public authority (as well as that of the next two in line to the throne).

However, even that cannot guarantee an information black-out. While the Scottish Government intended to make the same amendment to FoI law in Scotland, it was persuaded not to do so.

As a consequence, while royal correspondence requested in England might be absolutely exempt from disclosure, a similar request to a Scottish public authority would still have to be considered, and disclosure could still occur if the public interest warranted it.

More significantly, when it comes to environmental information, EU rules give greater protection to the public right to know.

Government ministers cannot exercise a right of veto, nor can an absolute exemption be created to prevent certain types of information (eg relating to correspondence with members of the royal household) from being disclosed.

This is no small detail. Environmental information is broadly interpreted and can encompass agriculture, food, planning, climate change, emissions, state of human health and even the built environment – indeed many of the causes on which Prince Charles has been known to advocate.

So the green genie is still out of the bottle.

(Prof) Kevin Dunion

Centre for Freedom of
 Information

University of Dundee

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