The Royal Family, freedom of information and the rest of the story

At the weekend The Independent ran a piece very critical of the Liberal Democrats in government:

The Royal Family is to be granted absolute protection from public scrutiny in a controversial legal reform designed to draw a veil of secrecy over the affairs of the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William.

Letters, emails and documents relating to the monarch, her heir and the second in line to the throne will no longer be disclosed even if they are in the public interest…

The decision to push through the changes also raises questions about the sincerity of the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to government transparency.

And there was plenty more along similar lines in the piece. But what there wasn’t in the story is the current legal situation. Here’s how the Royal Family’s own website puts it:

The Royal Household is not a public authority within the meaning of the FOI Acts, and is therefore exempt from their provisions …

Section 37 and section 41 of the two respective FOI Acts provide a qualified exemption for information relating to communications with The Queen, other members of the Royal Family or Royal Household …

FOI exemptions relating to the private aspects of people’s lives, such as for example, private finances and activities undertaken in a personal and private capacity, therefore apply equally to The Queen and members of the Royal Family as to any other individual …

Since the Royal Household is not a public authority under the terms of FOI legislation, neither the FOI Act nor the Public Records Act relate to access to the Royal Archives.

Yet despite these many significant existing exemptions for the Royal Family, on a normal read of the newspaper’s piece you wouldn’t realise it – instead it reads as if exempting the Royals is something new.

Is what the current government is planning worse than the exemptions passed into law by Labour when in power? That’s certainly possible, but without putting the changes in context, the piece doesn’t tell us.

As for why it doesn’t tell us, the journalist Robert Verkaik, said to me in an email, “I think it would have been better to make full reference to the laws and amendments to legislation which underpin freedom of information. But the truth is that we didn’t have the room to include such explanation. This is a very complex issue and my job is to make the story as understandable as possible.”

I can appreciate the motivation in the last sentence, but in this case I think the newspaper got the reporting wrong – as did many of the other news outlets which also covered the exemption without mentioning the existing situation, even if the other reports were not so critical of the Liberal Democrats. Across the board, it’s hard to find stories which actually given enough of the issue for the reader to be able to make a judgement, rather than having to leap to simplistic conclusions that because Person X said it, it must be good / bad.

As for whether the proposals themselves are good, bad or indifferent? From what I’ve managed to glean in amongst all the incomplete reporting, I think I’m with Lib Dem MP Tom Brake on this one: “I am disappointed. Maybe this is a matter that will have to be revisited.”

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  • Is what the current government is planning worse than the exemptions passed into law by Labour when in power?

    Are you really still using that reasoning to divine your policy positions?

    If you want to be seen as a champion for transparent government, then introducing this type of legislation is not the way to go.

  • 1st let me say I am a supporter of the Monarchy and of Prince Charles however the Prince of Wales is notorious for his letter writing on issues that he cares deeply about. Often these issues are of public interest and if the letters have a direct influence on what a minister or public body does or does not do then they must come under the freedom of information act surely!

    As for the Queen, the Prime Ministers meeting with her should be private and totally confidential, everyone must have the right to speak freely in private and that includes Prime Ministers and Monarchs!

  • Great piece Mark, I read the story and though it odd. But should Cowley St not be rebutting these sort of lies?

  • “Lib Dems suspend parliamentary candidate over fraud claims”

    Is a headline in The Guardian today. Only when you get almost all the way through the story do you find that the candidate in question last stood in 2005, so is NOT a current LibDem parliamentary candidate at all.

    Deliberate misrepresentation & distortion of exactly the sort we now expect from the supposed ‘quality’ media. Even the BBC are playing the anti-LibDem game.

  • @SMcG

    And what sort of lies would they be? Even Mark Pack and Tom Brake would admit that the general premiss of the article is correct.

  • ‘no longer’ is the lie jayu.

  • Surely this is an ideal issue for Clegg to show the clear yellow water between himself and the Tories – if Labour were protecting members of the Royal Family beyond that period given to ordinary members of the public then they were wrong and the LibDems have a wonderful opportunity to right the wrong in the name of fairness and transparency.

    Obviously matters involving individual security should still be restricted but other than that I can’t think of anything else that should.

  • Scott Walker 12th Jan '11 - 5:28pm

    There’s two conflicting liberal principles here. Transparent government and the right to privacy. Whatever you think of the royals, they are, afterall, human beings who should have their privacy respected.

  • William Summers 12th Jan '11 - 7:35pm

    With all respect I don’t think this above piece is entirely informed and up to date. The key issue is that the royal family have had qualified exemptions in place, but they are now removed (because of proposals put forward by Gordon Brown when PM, with Tory support) to ensure that NO communication between the royal household was subject to FOI, whether it is in the public interest or not.

    Hence the logical conclusion of this is that EVEN IF IT IS THE PUBLIC INTEREST to release a piece of information it will be kept secret – no appeals etc possible, just a point blank refusal to disclose and a blanket ban on royal communications.


  • Ganesh Sittampalam 12th Jan '11 - 10:31pm

    I think the article is perfectly correct and not misleading.

    The effect of the changes, which although passed by Labour were not yet in force – the government could have chosen to drop them – is to change the situation when one makes a FOI request to the government from one where a public interest test applies to one where it doesn’t. In other words they are indeed getting the “absolute protection” referred to in the article, whereas before it was “qualified” by a public interest test.

  • Ganesh Sittampalam 12th Jan '11 - 10:49pm

    The Royal Family itself isn’t subject to FOI, but you can make a request to a government department about information relating to the Royal Family. Past requests have opened up information about things like discussions on funding for maintenance etc of the Palaces.

    There’s also an ongoing Information Tribunal case brought by the Guardian about Prince Charles’ correspondence with government departments – a particularly important area given his well-known lobbying about his own hobby horses. The Tribunal case is about the public interest test, and so these amendments would have removed any possibility of the information being released.

  • @Mark Pack

    No Mark, that is your personal interpretation. It quite clear that the article talks about a “change”. The premiss is that this change is wrong. You do agree that the change is wrong, don’t you?

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