Further secret lobbying letters could set cabinet against judiciary again if judges rule in favour of publication ‘in public interest’
Government ministers are heading for another clash with the judiciary over the publication of secret lobbying letters written by Prince Charles.
Cabinet ministers provoked an uproar this year when they summarily overruled three judges and banned the disclosure of 27 “particularly frank” letters that could have cast doubt on the prince’s neutrality.
The three judges sitting at a freedom of information tribunal had earlier decided that the public had an overwhelming right to see how the heir to the throne had been trying to sway government policy.
Now the same judges are deciding whether a second set of letters sent by the prince should be published, based on much the same arguments they had considered first time round.
If the judges also decide that this second cache of letters should be published, the cabinet would then be faced with the prospect of having to veto their publication as well.
The tribunal’s decision comes amid continuing criticism that the prince has been interfering behind the scenes in the affairs of government and trying to persuade ministers to change official policies.
The prince is known to have strong views on subjects as diverse as architecture, farming and alternative medicine.
For seven years, the government has been fighting to prevent the disclosure of the letters – dubbed “black spider memos” because of the heir’s handwriting.
Copies of the letters have been requested by the Guardian under freedom of information legislation.
The three judges ruled in favour of publishing the first set of letters in September after two years of deliberation.
They said: “The essential reason is that it will generally be in the overall public interest for there to be transparency as to how and when Prince Charles seeks to influence government.”
The prince’s activities “are not neutral, and in a number of respects have been controversial”, they noted.
Grieve said that disclosure of the letters, which contained the prince’s “most deeply held and personal beliefs”, would lead to the perception among the public that Charles had disagreed with government policy.
“Any such perception would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne he cannot easily recover it when he is king,” Grieve said.
The Guardian had requested copies of letters the prince wrote to ministers in seven Whitehall departments between September 2004 and April 2005.
The paper is seeking to take the government to the high court to challenge the veto on grounds that the ministers had acted unreasonably.
Now in front of the tribunal is a second request from the Guardian for another set of the heir’s letters over a longer period. The tribunal is deciding whether his letters to ministers in four government departments, mainly between September 2006 and September 2009, should be made public. The departments are health, culture, international department and communities.
The tribunal is also deciding whether to allow the publication of documents relating to a dinner the prince had with the Royal College of Physicians in 1986, soon after he started his campaign to promote alternative health remedies.
Christopher Graham, the information commissioner, had ruled against the publication of the first set of letters, but is not opposing the disclosure of the second set, as he expects the tribunal to come to the same decision.