plans to let the Royal Family escape the glare of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws in Scotland have been rejected by MSPs who say they should face the same scrutiny as other public bodies.
New laws have been rushed through south of the Border to protect the Royals, and the Scottish Government wants to follow suit. The move comes after a judge ruled that dozens of letters written by Prince Charles to “lobby” the coalition government on various policy areas should be released.
But the SNP Government’s proposals have suffered a setback in a report published by the Nationalist-dominated finance committee at Holyrood today which calls for the royal FOI “exemption” to be ditched.
“While the finance committee recognises the broad overall support for the bill and its intentions, we have listened to the evidence and invite the Scottish Government to remove the provision relating to a Royal exemption,” SNP committee convenor Kenneth Gibson said.
Scotland’s information commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, and the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland warned that the “absolute” exemption being proposed for the royals goes too far. Instead there should be a provision allowing information relating to the Royals to be released if there is a “public interest” in doing so.
“There is already adequate provision for the Royal Family and discussions that any public authority may need to have that are confidential are covered by other rights or are a matter of national security,” Ms Agnew said in evidence to the committee.
She said that the proposed Royal get-out would create the “most wide-ranging absolute exemption” in Scotland if it was passed.
The Scottish Government wants the same rules in place for communications between the Monarch and the First Minister as exist with Downing Street.
Earlier this year, three judges ruled that it was in the public interest to release 27 letters written by the Prince of Wales, as they reasoned that while he had a right to be “instructed in the business of government” in total confidence, any letters in which he was effectively lobbying the government did not deserve exemption under FOI laws.
But Attorney General Dominic Grieve reversed that decision, claiming that lobbying by the prince fell under the definition of “preparation for kingship”.
The Scottish Government also has come under pressure in the committee report to strengthen the country’s FOI framework, amid recent concerns from Ms Agnew that the legislation is weaker than it was a decade ago when first introduced.
Mr Gibson called on ministers to “detail how and when” they will extend the laws. This could include coverage of arms-length quangos set up by councils to manage sports and leisure facilities, as well as social landlords and PFI contractors.
The power to extend FOI coverage already exists through the 2002 Act which allows Scottish ministers to designate public authorities.
This could include a person providing, under contract, a service on behalf of a local council.