Black Spider Letter Controversy

The government of United Kingdom released 27 ‘black spider memos’ named so because of the Prince of Wales’ distinctive handwriting on the cabinet office website. The letters are correspondences between the heir to the throne and the ministers in the then Labour government (2005-2009). The letters range from topics such as affordable housing in rural areas, charity work, military resources, farming, environment, protection of specific buildings, funding for heritage projects, protection of species, to his views on teaching.

John-PrescottThe Mirror reported that Prince Charles has been accused of “meddling” in governmental affairs and, with the release of the letters demonstrating an attempt to influence Parliament, the tradition of royal neutrality could be ruined.

The legal battle for obtaining these letters has spanned almost a decade. The Guardian journalist, Rob Evans lodged a request to see the letters under the Freedom of Information Act when it was in its infancy in 2005. The request was initially refused. The Guardian refused to give up and fought a legal battle which was won in September 2012. But Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, used a ministerial veto to block the release of the letters in October 2012. This was challenged again and won in a court appeal by the Guardian in March 2014. In a final bid to maintain its secrecy, the attorney general appealed to the supreme court and lost in a judgment handed down by Lord Neuberger, its president, on 26 March 2015.

Even though the letters have now been released, the official cabinet website states:

The government maintains that communications between the Heir to The Throne and ministers should remain private, and that this is a part of our constitutional arrangements.

The letters are mostly tedious and show Prince Charles views on broad topics. But it shows that the monarchy likes to lobby for its causes. The Prince lobbied for his hobby horses which stretch from healthcare, education, culture and environment to defence. It touches on importance of architecture and organic farming to school teaching and the performance of military surveillance aircrafts in Iraq. Most of the views are not especially controversial but they are views that have to be taken seriously by the ministers because of the political clout surrounding the individual who is writing them. These requests and opinions cannot be simply rejected by the ministers. The letters receive prompt replies; the opinions however insignificant are noted. Prince Charles’ opinions on the poor performance of Lynx helicopters in Iraq were duly noted by Tony Blair. Tony Blair even acknowledged the problem and informed the Prince that the helicopters would be replaced over time. Mr Blair’s comments to the Prince of Wales were much more specific than any of his public statements at the time. The helicopters were fully replaced by a new model with more powerful engines in 2011.The letters elucidate that the royal is not a silent participant and is exercising his position to influence the ministers. Prince Charles tried to actively persuade the former health secretary to fund controversial homeopathic medicines. Even though there is a lack of scientific evidence that homeopathy is effective the Prince tried to persuade the government to look into the same and provide funding as he believed it to be effective.  He also wrote extensively about protection of Patagonian toothfish and the albatross. It seems as if he wrote extensively and lobbied for almost anything that caught his fancy. Even toilets were lobbied for by Prince Charles. He urged Tessa Jowell to recognize the importance of a lavatory block at Smithfield Market. The same was set to be demolished but Tessa Jowell acknowledged that the block had historical importance in part due to the prince’s letter. This might not seem dictatorial but it does influence the government greatly. Ordinary citizens do not have the power or influence to get the minister’s attention surrounding important topics while the Prince is able to lobby for funding of alternative medicines. The fact that the government fought so hard to keep the letters private shows that they do not wish to reveal to the public the amount of influence the monarchy has over government policy. The monarchy is not neutral and neither is it as silent as the public believes it to be.

The public will probably not see any other correspondences that might shed even more light on the part the monarchy plays in the government as the Freedom of Information Act was amended in 2011. The change in 2011 states that an absolute veto is now in place, covering correspondence from the monarch, the heir to the throne and the second in line. The black spider memos have been published as the request for the information was placed before the change in 2011. The government can now veto the release of information under the Freedom of Information Act.

 According to the Freedom of Information Act:

 (1)Information is exempt information if it relates to—

[ (a)communications with the Sovereign,

(aa)communications with the heir to, or the person who is for the time being second in line of succession to, the Throne,

(ab)communications with a person who has subsequently acceded to the Throne or become heir to, or second in line to, the Throne,

(ac)communications with other members of the Royal Family (other than communications which fall within any of paragraphs (a) to (ab) because they are made or received on behalf of a person falling within any of those paragraphs), and

(ad)communications with the Royal Household (other than communications which fall within any of paragraphs (a) to (ac) because they are made or received on behalf of a person falling within any of those paragraphs), or]

(b)the conferring by the Crown of any honour or dignity.

The letters have started a debate on the Freedom of Information Act. The prime ministers spokesperson said, “Given that the court ruling has generated some degree of uncertainty in this area this (release of black spider letters) is an issue which the government will look at and consider carefully and thoroughly in the period ahead. Our view remains, as the government has argued during the lengthy legal proceedings, that there is a strong case for the ability to exercise a ministerial veto.”  The government spent around £400,000 in legal costs to block the release of the memos. The decade long battle involved a total of sixteen different judges. The release of the letters also raises the question of whether the extensive legal battles and cost was worth hiding the narrow personal interests of Prince Charles.

Curtailing the Freedom of Information Act will just make it easier for MPs to cover up their mistakes. The public has benefited from this act but the ministers have not as they have become accountable to the people. On the surface it would seem that Prince Charles’s lobbying led to no results but that is not the case. In the case of Herbal medicine, back in 2005, the Department of Health was considering regulation of herbal medicine and acupuncture. Prince Charles thought the directive was too aggressive and stated it was like a “sledgehammer” was being used “to crack a nut”. Tony Blair ultimately delayed implementation of the directive. Prince Charles on 24 February 2005 also asked for an independent adjudicator to be appointed to protect the interests of farmers from powerful supermarkets. An adjudicator was eventually appointed years later. He also directly urged the health secretary, John Reid, to accelerate redevelopment at a hospital site in Sunderland in which his own architecture charity was involved, even warning bluntly that “chickens will come home to roost” in Reid’s government department if action was not taken. At that point of time the public was not aware of this dialogue between the two but the release of these memos makes the public question and the ministers accountable for their actions.

memoThe monarchy is of the opinion that the letters should remain private and even when they have been released they state that the Prince is showing “concern” and is expressing his “opinions” on matters he cares about. The publication of the letters, in their opinion, will just inhibit him from expressing his concerns and opinions in the future. The Prince should be able to communicate privately with the ministers is their opinion. To protect the Prince’s rights the government has spent a decade worth of its time and money. This could have been easily avoided especially if they were just minor concerns and suggestions. Yes, everybody is entitled to their opinion but if that opinion influences policy in any way, the public deserves to know. The curtailing of the Freedom of Information Act ensures that even these concerns or opinions are not made public. The monarchy will no longer be accountable as the public will not be aware of what the monarchy has expressed to the parliament.

The self-depreciating Prince clearly plans to be much more outspoken in his rule than the taciturn Queen. Allies told the Guardian newspaper in 2014 that he planned “heartfelt interventions” in national life, while in 2013 his friend and biographer Jonathan Dimbleby said: “A quiet constitutional revolution is afoot.” He has been dogged in his demands from ministers. He has held 87 meetings with ministers and other political personnel since 2010.These black spider memos only give a glimpse of the widespread lobbying that goes on behind the scenes. There is a lack of transparency in the system and the laws that can help the public gain information are being curtailed. There is a need to remove public suspicion from the lobbying process and there seem to be no steps being taken to ensure the same. The letters question the fact that a man with no constitutional role is being able to bend the ear of those in office, that too on any and every topic. This is reminiscent of the time in which there was a divine right of kings. The monarchy was absolute and couldn’t be questioned and by curtailing the Freedom of Information Act the parliament seems to be putting forward the same message. There are still some black spider memos that have not been released and will not be released in the future either. So far it seems that the letters have just changed Prince Charles’s image in society. Some applaud his efforts to take part in the political process while others think he should have no say in the process going so far as to call him “dumb” and his concerns “too simplistic”. Maybe this is what the monarchy is afraid of. The public will know their monarchs intimately and question their character instead of just idolizing them. The social status of monarchy will come under the scanner and people will think of them as simple citizens with petty concerns, not rulers.

– Kadambari Bahl

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