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Scottish ministers challenged over 'misleading' royal correspondence rules

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/09/2017 Severin Carrell Scotland editor

Prince of Wales: It was revealed last month Scottish ministers refused to release correspondence with the Prince of Wales showing he lobbied them to support the charity Teach First. © AFP/Getty Images It was revealed last month Scottish ministers refused to release correspondence with the Prince of Wales showing he lobbied them to support the charity Teach First. Scottish ministers have been challenged over “misleading” rules giving the royal family unique privileges to keep its correspondence secret. 

Senior figures in Scottish Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Greens have written to ministers questioning their decision to give the royal family extra rights to read all freedom of information requests (FoI) that refer to them and to then screen responses before they are issued.

The rules, seen by the Guardian, wrongly imply this is an absolute requirement for all Scottish public bodies and government agencies. The rules state: “You must liaise with the royal household whenever the information requested relates to any royal matters,” adding this must happen as soon as possible.

Related: Prince Charles honours Welsh dead at Passchendaele (Provided by: ITN News)

The then Scottish information commissioner said the rules went further than legislation required.

Rosemary Agnew opposed the Scottish government’s decision to apply special privileges to the royal family, saying the proposals were unnecessary and misleading. Ministers nonetheless introduced them last December.

Her objections came to light after the Guardian revealed last month that Scottish ministers refused to release correspondence with the Prince of Wales showing that he lobbied them by letter and in person to support the charity Teach First.

Agnew twice told ministers these rules went beyond statutory requirements to consult with third parties set out in legislation agreed by the Scottish parliament.

In a joint letter to ministers, Neil Findlay for Labour, Patrick Harvie, the co-leader of the Scottish Green party, and Tavish Scott, the former Scottish Lib Dem leader, said they feared these rules could also allow the royal family to sidestep controls coming into force soon to ensure all lobbying of ministers and Scottish parliament is transparent and recorded.

Agnew told ministers their FoI code of conduct rightly made clear that it was not always appropriate or necessary for outside bodies or third parties to be consulted about a request under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FoISA).

“The new text suggests that the royal household should always be consulted. This is not a requirement under FoISA and the suggested text could misleadingly create the impression that it is,” she said. Agnew is now Scotland’s public services ombudsman, and her replacement as information commissioner, Daren Fitzhenry, is due to take office in mid-October.

The three MSPs asked Joe Fitzpatrick, the Scottish government’s minister for parliamentary business: “Can you please explain why such special privileges have been built into the code despite there being no statutory requirement to do so, and why you ignored the advice of Rosemary Agnew on this matter?”

They said the issue should be included in an independent review of the Scottish government’s FoI policies, which Fitzpatrick and SNP MSPs agreed should be set up in a vote at Holyrood in June but has not yet begun.

On Tuesday, Holyrood’s standards and procedures committee wrote to Fitzpatrick asking whenthe inquiry would take place. The committee’s chair, Clare Adamson MSP, told him the committee felt the new commissioner should be asked to conduct a full review once he takes up his post.

Scottish ministers insist the FoI system in Scotland is more liberal than UK government legislation, which has a blanket ban on the release of any correspondence relating to the three most senior members of the Royal family.

A Scottish government spokesman said the legislation in Scotland was “the broadest in the UK and ensures that there is no blanket exemption for the Royal Household, and that no veto can be applied to the release of such information.”

“All FoIs are considered in line with the independent information commissioner’s code of practice and FoI legislation, including contacting third parties. It is for MSPs to determine any post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act not the government.”

The total exemption for the royals at UK level was introduced when the Guardian challenged in court a refusal by ministers to release dozens of letters from Prince Charles to ministers, known as the “black spider memos” due to his scrawling handwriting.


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