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British royals exempt from freedom of information laws

THURSDAY, JAN. 20, 2011

Amendment makes monarch’s private information secret

LONDON – What happens in the palace stays in the palace.

A new British law that took effect Wednesday makes Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles and Prince William exempt from freedom of information laws, meaning many private details of their lives won’t be made public for decades.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke says the exemption will protect the monarch’s private conversations with politicians and officials – but information advocates say it will make it even harder to hold to account a royal family that costs taxpayers millions a year.

For centuries, the workings of the British monarchy were shrouded in secrecy by a blend of law, convention, deference and media self-censorship. That media acquiescence is long gone, and under freedom of information laws that took effect in 2005, information about the royal family could be released if it was shown to be in the public interest.

“It at least raised the possibility that information could be disclosed,” said Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. “What the changes do is remove the public interest test – exemption becomes absolute.”

Although the 84-year-old queen has no political power, she meets regularly with prime ministers and other senior politicians to talk about events of the day. Imagining such scenes has been grist for writers of movies like “The Queen” – which shows Elizabeth meeting Tony Blair – and “The King’s Speech,” in which her father George VI consults 1930s Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Authors will have to continue to use their imagination thanks to the new legislation, which amends the Freedom of Information Act to exempt communications with the monarch, the heir to the throne and the second in line, or with others acting on their behalf.

In an irony noted by anti-monarchists, the change is buried within the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, legislation the government says is aimed at “opening up public bodies to public scrutiny.”


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