In a classic piece of doublespeak that would have made George Orwell proud our government has stated that secrecy is required to ensure the impartiality of the head of state.
Gordon Brown has won a few muted accolades for his modest new reform agenda announced in the Commons yesterday. What has attracted less attention was his remark that “there will be protection of Royal Family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions” while informing the Commons of his plans to reduce the 30 year rule to a 20 year rule.
The new restrictions will remove all FOI access to documents relating to the royal family, whereas at the present time they are subject to a public interest test. This is a serious challenge to those, like Republic, who want to hold the monarchy to account and challenge their position in our constitution.
There is absolutely no defence for this reversal of FOI laws. The government clearly agrees, as it has resorted to an extraordinary bit of doublespeak to explain the change. In a statement sent to BBC blogger Martin Rosenbaum, the Ministry of Justice said:
To ensure the constitutional position and political impartiality of the Monarchy is not undermined, the relevant exemption in the Freedom of Information Act will be made absolute for information relating to communications with the Royal Household that is less than 20 years’ old. After that point – if the relevant Member of the Royal Family is still alive – then the exemption will continue to apply until five years after their death – on an absolute basis for the Sovereign and the Heir to the Throne, and on a qualified basis for other members of the Royal Family.
So the government believes that impartiality and accountability require secrecy. Of course the opposite is true, impartiality needs openness, transparency and scrutiny – it needs to be demonstrated, to be seen to be done, not just promised.
This move clearly has nothing to do with impartiality, it’s to do with protecting the interests of the Windsors. No doubt a lot of royal lobbying has gone on over the past several months to secure this change.
The big question mark is how far will this exemption extend? Will we not be told how Andrew spends his time and our money in his role with UKTI? Will we not be told how many times Charles writes to ministers in an attempt to influence policy? Will there be a block on knowing if Harry and William are abusing their positions to gain favour in the military? Their finances are already opaque as it is, what chances will there be for full disclosure under the new rules?
It all leaves us with one question in mind: what do they have to hide?