A secretive power enjoyed by HM The Queen and Prince Charles to alter new laws is set to be exposed after the government lost a legal battle to keep details of its application private.
The application of the controversial veto was disclosed by a major tabloid last year and has been described by constitutional lawyers as “a royal nuclear deterrent”. Some believe its existence may underpin the influence Charles appears to wield in Whitehall over pet issues ranging from architecture to healthcare.
A judgment issued last week by the deputy information commissioner, Graham Smith, means the Cabinet Office has until 25 September to release the confidential internal manual. It details how the consent of “The Crown and The Duchy of Cornwall” is obtained before bills are passed into law and what criteria ministers apply before asking the royals to amend draft laws. If it fails to do so it could face high court action.
In the past two parliamentary sessions Charles has been asked to consent to at least 12 draft bills on everything from wreck removals to co-operative societies. Between the years 2007-2009 he was consulted on bills relating to coroners, economic development and construction, marine and coastal access, housing and regeneration, energy and planning. In Charles’s case, the little-known power stems from his role as the head of the £700m Duchy of Cornwall estate that provides his £17m-a-year private income.
Lord Berkeley, a Labour peer who was ordered to obtain the consent of Prince Charles on a marine navigation bill, said the commissioner’s decision was “absolutely right”. He said publication could shed light on a little-known procedure that allows the prince and the Queen “to fiddle around with bills to make sure they don’t affect their private interests”.
“People will start thinking what the hell is going on,” he said. “We are in the 21st century, not the 18th century and it is crazy to think they are even trying to do this. The royal family should give up this special privilege and we should all obey the law of the land. Just because they have private estates, private incomes and land from several centuries ago doesn’t mean they should have the right to interfere.”
The Duchy of Cornwall runs farms and industrial property, builds houses and acts as a landlord as well as taking responsibility for large areas of the natural environment in south-west England. Its interests often overlap with Charles’s own in areas such as town planning where past interventions in public debate have seen the prince accused of abusing his influence to distort the democratic process.
Kirkhope said evidence he had gathered suggested the process of seeking royal consent for draft bills was not a mere formality.
One email refers to a note from the Queen’s solicitors, Farrer and Co, “setting out his instructions in relation to the application of the apprenticeships bill to Her Majesty in her personal capacity”.
The official states: “I understand from our discussion today that it might not be possible for what they want to happen without there being express provision in the bill”.
It echoes correspondence released last year in which a minister wrote to the prince’s office requesting his consent to a new planning bill because it was “capable of applying to … [the] Prince of Wales’ private interests”.
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