Royal access to official secrets must stop

In recent days it has been revealed that Prince Charles and Prince William have access to UK official secrets. Charles “routinely receives” secret documents including Cabinet papers. It is not clear whether access stops at the two of them.

This is entirely inappropriate and should cease.

In a democracy, control of the state rests, or should rest, with the elected government. A monarch’s role is purely ceremonial and should entail no real control over any part of the state. The Queen (or William, Charles, George or another person who may succeed her) is unqualified to exercise power, has not been chosen by the people to do so, is subject to few checks and balances and is not accountable to the electorate.

Ministers, officials and others sometimes need access to official secrets to do their work, although almost none have unfettered access. An individual can see secret material relevant to their duties. As members of the Royal Family, William and Charles have no public duties to which secret material could be relevant.

The Royal Family receive more than £300m per year of taxpayers’ funds and, it is argued, perform certain services for the public good. Whether they do or not, whether they are value for money, whether £300m is excessive are separate debates. But it is hard to see how any of their services, any of the ways in which these funds are spent, create a need to see secret material.

The Royal Family are also private citizens. They are billionaires who own businesses and invest in many types of asset. I do not write to decry billionaires, business owners or investors. Some individuals I admire, like Bill Gates, are those things. But no other billionaire, business owner or investor has wide access to secret material and if they did there would be strong safeguards to ensure they could not use the material for private gain.

On the face of what we know, there is no safeguard in place against any present or future member of the Royal Family using knowledge from secret material for their private advantage. As Thomas Jefferson said, if you can’t see a check or balance you should assume it does not exist. It is no good to say “well, we can trust William and Charles personally”. An ethical state eliminates corruption by eliminating any possibility of it everywhere it can.

Some will ask, “does this really matter?” It is not the most urgent change needed to improve the immediate lives of people tomorrow. There are many other things that need to be done but none of them mean this cannot be done too.

The Royal Family are “a living symbol”. But, a symbol of what? Let’s make reforms like this, use this living symbol, to show we are all equal before the law and should be equal in life chances.

Perhaps Charles or William will give up their special privilege voluntary? That would be an act of great moral leadership and an example to others.

* Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England (2019) and has practised as a barrister since 2003. He is currently Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Kent County Council.

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  • Hmm. Not convinced.

    Why are official secrets secret? So that our enemies don’t get hold of them? To prevent embarrassment of the government? To protect commercial sensitivities?

    Ceremonial or not, I don’t expect the monarch or heir apparent to be in league with our enemies. Another pair of eyes on some of these secrets seems likely to me to do more good than harm. Particularly a pair of eyes that has seen the last dozen prime ministers in the same game.

  • Carol Linton 18th Dec '15 - 9:41am

    I agree with Joe Otten.
    Information should be as freely available as possible. There can be free reasons for stopping the monarch and her adult heirs from having most information.

  • When we say the royal family gets money from the tax payer isnt it true that the money is derived from the income of the crown estates (property the monarch used to own) that was donated to the nation in lieu of tax (the royal family now pays tax) thus effectively we are one of the few nations to effectively get our head of state for free.

    Personally I would much prefer that the monarchy remains than that we ended up with a second rate politician as head of state and the experience our Monarch has both nationally and internationally is a tremendous asset to the government of the day and this wealth of experience is complimented by the access to official secrets. In order for Charles and William to be similar assets when the take the throne they require the same level of access.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Dec '15 - 10:46am

    I agree official access to secrets should go, but I have bigger concerns about our democracy at the moment.

    We don’t really live in a democracy. Our system is based on the Monarch, the Commons and the Lords. We don’t notice the Monarch because she doesn’t really like to intervene and we didn’t used to notice the Lords very much.

    We should ask ourselves: if people want power over our laws then why don’t they get elected? Anti-democratic bodies are capable of almost anything because they aren’t really accountable to anyone.

  • Prince Charles interference in political issues makes him a politician in all but name. The only difference is that while he has direct access to secret information ( power) and government ministers he can operate entirely in secret and without any fear of being held accountable…….

    The double standard that he can see our secrets but, of course, we mustn’t see his would be laughable if not so serious…

  • The Queen needs the information so that she is informed when she discusses matters with her Prime Minister at their weekly meetings, doesn’t she?

    And some day Charles, and then William, are going to take over those meetings; doesn’t it make sense for them to see the background now, rather than having to get to grips with it all in one lump just after the death of their parent?

    Basically as long as we have the monarchy we have, the system we have makes sense. If you call for a change you’re basically calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Which uou are free to do, of course, as long as you are aware the vast majority of the population disagree with you.

    But don’t try to claim you are okay with keeping the monarchy, just with less access. That means at best you haven’t understood the situation, and at worst you’re being disingenuous about your true, republican, agenda.

  • Now suppose we did remove the monarchy and replaced it with an elected ceremonial head of state. What information should that person have access to? I’m trying to separate out the information issue from the wider debate about the monarchy.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Dec '15 - 11:39am

    That seems reasonable, Mary — except that the article is mainly concerned with Prince Charles and Prince William’s access to secrets, not the current head of state’s. I don’t think anyone would expect a president’s son and grandson to have rights to secret information, would they?

  • This reads much more like a proxy complaint about the monarchy than an actual complaint about the situation.

    Things covered by the official secrets act are not normally “commercial” information but often security matters. Most of the cross over would normally be around where there is defence procurement, though most of these are unlikely to be in these briefings.

    As for a suggestion that “secret information” could be used for commercial gain, if you are talking about dealing in securities on the basis of inside information, that remains a criminal activity and therefore controlled for. The official secrets act doesn’t prevent insider dealing other legislation does.

    Mary’s point is entirely valid about the fact that heads of state receive information, it is not entirely clear if you are proposing that an elected head of state should also be refused any confidential information?

    As to the “Charles and William” issue (I assume we all accept George is not going to be receiving any briefings) In many organisations there are individuals who are tracked in to junior roles with relatively senior exposure and access to information on the basis that they are expected to hold the senior roles in the future. This is simply the way this works the the “head of state system” we have.

  • Malcolm Todd

    “I don’t think anyone would expect a president’s son and grandson to have rights to secret information, would they?”

    But they would expect the Vice-President to have access (and In the US, also the Speaker of the house of Representatives who is 3rd in line of succession, along with others).

  • Richard Underhill 18th Dec '15 - 12:22pm

    Antony Hook should be careful. He was number two on the list in the south-east for the elections in 2014, behind Catherine Bearder. There has not been a refreshing of this position. There will only be elections to the European Parliament in 2019 if the populace vote in the EU referendum to remain. The opinion polls are currently showing a disparity between telephone polls and internet polls which the pollsters themselves do not fully understand at present. In any case the electorate will probably wait for the announcement of the terms and the date before focussing on the issue.
    The EU referendum is of over-riding importance. The Liberal Party, the SDP and the Liberal Democrats have always been for inclusion and progress, but campaigning against the monarchy in the EU referendum is risky, because the votes of a wide variety of people will be needed to obtain the right decision. The polls show that a lot of Conservative voters are currently undecided, waiting for a lead from the Prime Minister. They are all in the same constituency.
    Those of us who were born after the abdication of King Edward VIII know that the right choice was made, but the pressures on the Duke of York as he became King George VI were immense, not helped by his lack of training and consequent inexperience. Queen Elizabeth II is well aware of what happened to her father, including his early death. Sir Winston Churchill acted secretly as PM to arrange for what was then an impoverished monarchy to be free of income tax, which was then at higher rates than now. The Queen is widely travelled and has long experience, but still found time to parachute into the London Olympics with James Bond. Who else has done that?
    The constitutional reason nowadays for an hereditary monarchy is to avoid a civil war. This is a country in which a monarchy was executed for High Treason after a vote in parliament, but gradual reductions in real power make a civil war on succession decreasingly likely.
    Of current interest is the role of Prince William and David Beckham in trying to get Olympic events for the UK, failed;
    the role of the Duke of York and the heir to the throne in negotiations with wealthy monarchies about arms sales.

  • Once just once could our party be seen to be where most people are at !!!!!!!!!!!!!A Liberal Democratic party can ,and in the Britain of 2015 onwards , should ,a supporter of our version of Constitutional Monarchy . It is a bulwark against the party politicisation of everything and the trivialisation of much ! Why worry about Prince Charles , a highly intelligent and humane man , saying or seeing goodness knows what ! If the Tories or Labour have their way its the government s snooping we should worry about !So much today is illiberal and democratically illegitimate . The courts , for a start . And, Antony , much of the way the E U is run .Consent , were it measured, in a vote , as in opinion polls, shows massive support in this nation for our very British version of monarchy . And the next generation, William , Kate ,Harry et al, are securing it , by an outstanding contribution .For goodness sake when have we ever heard a left ish leaning political wonk put a fraction of criticism into the poll tax on viewing that is the tv licence which criminalises the poor , and gives a monopoly to the unaccountable and unelected bbc !!!!! And that s for a start ………………..

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Dec '15 - 2:33pm

    We could always try a dynastic elective monarchy with a periodically re-elected deputy monarch as part of the system (?viceregent?).

    No takers? Oh well.

  • Jayne , I get your point , but so what ,would be my view on Prince Charles on homeopathic treatment etc, it s not lobbying ,as he has no financial interests in it , merely enthusiasm . He is going to be a different sort of monarch , I reckon William is going to be so , yet again. The Queen is known to not be a natural Conservative , an apparent supporter, of sanctions against Apartheid South Africa !

  • Perhaps the queen is a Liberal 😉

  • Do you think MPs are ‘qualified to exercise power”? I don’t!

    I was going to have a rant about our first past the post electoral system, the disparity in party funding, the old boys Etonian network, politicians renading on pre-election promises etc. etc.

    But I’ll just wish everyone a Happy New Year!

  • Richard Underhill 19th Dec '15 - 11:40am

    Jayne Mansfield 18th Dec ’15 – 2:27pm “What I most object to, is a monarch or heir involving themselves in politics as per the Black spider letter, where Prince Charles was found, when the information was eventually released, to have lobbied for his pet causes, for example NHS homeopathy funding.”
    When I was in the Department of Health and Social Security as a computer technician I asked the pharmacists about homeopathy, to be greeted by laughter. It had not been banned then because they were concentrating on priorities and homeopathy was generally harmless.
    It is not entirely harmless though, because it can lead to false hopes when other treatments might work.
    New Scientist magazine is one of many sources which says that placebos can have beneficial effects, even if the patients are told that they are being given placebos.
    The issue therefore is about funding priorities. The answer is simple – have a vote in Parliament.
    This tour is after the most likely date for the referendum. Obviously theatres need to be booked, but is this some kind of joke? or will the scripts be updated?

  • They have every right to all. What are the secret for ..only for a few ? It should be open to all unless it is of military purposes. Every citizen has the right to know what is happening to their own country …so why create secret acts. To hide what ?

  • Peter Watson 19th Dec '15 - 1:10pm

    The thread below this article seems to be a snapshot of the Lib Dem transition from being a progressive party to a conservative (small c) one.

  • nvelope2003 19th Dec '15 - 1:30pm

    Jayne Mansfiled: In which countries did people scoff at our democracy ? I have heard people from Iran and similar places ridicule it. For all its faults it is not the worst place in the world to live in and many people from abroad think so too.

  • Much to respond to and say !Jayne , I in no way consider any of what we are discussing trivial . I respect the views expressed , including , Antony , whose work is admirable . We differ , even here , much less than we probably agree . Peter , though , is very wrong , if he refers to me as in any way conservative , something all too readily thrown at anyone , so if any one is interested to read it , I shall explain precisely why .I think its worthwhile .

  • As a boy and youth growing up in the Thatcher era , I was left leaning and Labour . I am now radical centre and moderate centre left and a Liberal Democrat . During that horrible , polarised era , I came to see the royal family as a symbol , and in effect , of unity in our society . The Queen , Head of the Commonwealth , the best of British diplomacy and of our international , multiracial nation. Prince Charles , terrific work in the inner cities , with the Prince s Trust , more at home with the Three Degrees than Thatcher , who looked like she d be more at home with Mary Whitehouse . And Princess Anne , humanitarian efforts on behalf of Save the Children , following , as I saw it , my heroes , Sir Peter Ustinov and Audrey Hepburn , as they did for UNICEF . To me this was not trivial . The next generation , influenced by the outstanding example of Princess Diana on hiv aids , land mines, I mean of course , Prince William and Princess Kate , and Prince Harry , I believe are dwarfing any worry or concern about the nature of the role of the monarchy , by getting on with being nothing but superb !

  • You quote , Jayne , alas , one of the most stupid and offensive so called comedians to feel you need to justify to others , the role of public servants . For that is what Prince Harry is ! Who elected the other members of our armed forces , or our doctors or judges ? As for Alternative medicine , are you a scientist ? The Queen Mother swore by it , she lived to be a hundred , Prince Phillip , I believe is heading the same way !My father was a foreigner , an immigrant from Italy . He was in the compulsory Mussolini Youth , made to salute the very Duce himself as that thug inspected the poor youngster s , poor in income and sorrow . My father saw the bodies of executed partisans strung up in the street corners as an example to all , not to agitate , yet he , secretly , at night took them food as they hid !And my father served in Trieste , in the occupying British police , relieved , to be free .And you cannot defend our system, when abroad ?!

  • Katerina Porter 19th Dec '15 - 5:41pm

    According to Walter Bagehot in his book on the British constitution which has been considered authoritative the sovereign has “the right to be consulted, to advise, and to warn”. He/she has to know what it is all about and it is surely common sense for the heir to build up the necessary background?

  • Richard Underhill 19th Dec '15 - 6:12pm

    Jayne Mansfield 19th Dec ’15 – 10:15am Reportedly Prince Charles explicitly wanted things on the record which his advisers wanted out. For instance he talks to plants, so maybe he is lonely, or maybe he is checking on the details of their condition.
    Channel 4 News refused to sign a 30 page contract and initiated a debate which was followed up be Radio 4 interviewing biographer/s about the terms of access to the Prince.
    Peter Watson 19th Dec ’15 – 1:10pm Royalty has tended to support the status quo, even when change was overdue. For instance the male and female franchise was widened in the UK in 1917, for an election which happened in 1918, but the lack of adequate democracy in the Empire was an obvious difficulty of huge importance.
    Some of Prince Charles’ opinions are gleaned from outside advisers, causing him to look enviromental, others are derived from his ability to think longer term, compared with the “Wham, Bam, Thank You ” attitude of some property developers.
    The solution is more openness and, where decisions are being made, parliamentary debate.
    In the process both houses of parlaiment could be more democratic.

  • It is entirely appropriate that the Queen, Charles and William have access to State papers. The Queen has unrivalled depth of knowledge and experience, and as future monarchs both Charles and William should have access also. I’m not at all with the Graun or Mr Hook on this. If the UK continues to be a constitutional monarchy, this is part of the package.

  • Richard Underhill 19th Dec '15 - 7:49pm

    Con Logue 19th Dec ’15 – 7:02pm How do you know that ” Charles and William ” are “future monarchs”?

  • David Evans 20th Dec '15 - 9:19am

    Although Richard’s question is technically sound, I would say that Con’s statement seems to be an appropriate working assumption.

  • Jayne Mansfield: When I go abroad I do not lecture people on their system of Government. The only people most of them seem to have heard of are Mrs Thatcher, “Tony Blair” and the Queen. Most seem to like these people, particularly the Queen. In those places where I might have expected Britain to be disliked I found the opposite, even in countries where our behaviour in the imperial era had been appalling but perhaps not anything like as appalling as their own rulers. Even in North Africa the French did not seem to be disliked, maybe because they seemed better than what they had now. The people they seemed to dislike the most I think I had better not say here.

    The question of whether Prince Charles should see state papers is an interesting subject for debate but I do not think it will attract many votes. Most would think it was obvious that he should and be surprised if he did not.

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