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Freedom of information and the Royal Family

Published Wednesday, May 13, 2015

This Note outlines exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act relating to the Royal Family.

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The Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not apply directly to the Royal Household.  However it does apply to communications with members of the Royal Family held by public authorities.  Under the Act, as amended in 2010, certain information relating to communications with the Sovereign and to the heir and second in line to the Throne is absolutely exempt from the Act, whereas information relating to other members of the Royal Family and the Royal Household is subject to the public interest test.

Before the 2000 Act was amended in 2010 by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, all of the information covered by the exemption for communications with members of the Royal Family had been subject to the public interest test.  In addition, the 2010 Act also amended the Freedom of Information Act 2000 so that the exemption is valid for 20 years from the creation of the record containing the information or five years from the “relevant death”, whatever is later. 

The Constitutional Reform and Government Act received Royal Assent just before the 2010 General Election and changes in relation to the Royal Family were implemented in January 2011.

The changes followed a review of the 30 year rule by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, which had recommended that the 30 year rule be replaced by a 15 year rule.  In responding to Dacre’s report, the Government stated that it would be reducing the 30 year rule to a 20 year rule, but the review had also prompted consideration of whether the safeguards for some categories of information covered by the Act were strong enough. 

On 26 March 2015 the Supreme Court ruled in favour of publishing a series of letters (known as the ‘black spider memos’). These are letters from the Prince of Wales to various Government departments. The case arose from a Freedom of Information request originally submitted by the Guardian in 2005. The request had been rejected but the Guardian successfully appealed this decision to the Upper Tribunal. The Government used the ministerial veto under the 2000 Act to prevent publication. The Guardian then challenged the use of the veto with a final ruling by the Supreme Court in favour of publication. The letters were published with some redactions on 13 May 2015.

Commons Briefing papers SN05377

Author: Lucinda Maer

Topics: Central government, Crown, Freedom of information

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