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."
Clarke, the justice secretary, said the new rule was needed "to protect the long-standing conventions surrounding the monarchy and its records, for example the sovereign's right and duty to counsel, encourage and warn her government, as well as the heir to the throne's right to be instructed in the business of government in preparation for their future role as monarch."
The government argues the law enshrines the "well-established conventions of confidentiality" that protect the monarch's political neutrality.
But critics say Prince Charles, the 62-year-old heir to the throne, has cast neutrality aside by peppering ministers with letters on behalf of environmental issues and his pet projects. With the new law, they despair of getting their hands on evidence of his alleged meddling.
"What he's doing in some of these cases is obviously lobbying," said Frankel. "That raises the question whether he should still enjoy the special protection that the monarch and the heir to the throne traditionally get."
All freedom of information requests for details about Prince Charles' correspondence have been rejected. But such requests have managed to extract some royal nuggets, including the queen's 2004 request for money from a fund intended for low-income households to help pay palace heating bills. The request was turned down.
Frankel said the effects of the change would likely be limited. The royal household is already defined as a family rather than a public body, and so is exempt from most requests. And the new rule shouldn't let the government keep factual information such as the size of royal budgets secret.
Buckingham Palace publishes annual accounts, which last year showed the total public cost of supporting the monarchy to be 38.2 million pounds ($61 million), the equivalent of 62 pence ($1) per person.
But Republic, a group that campaigns against the monarchy, said the change will "make it almost impossible to hold the royal household to account for their actions and spending."
"The monarchy is a public institution, it is part of our political structure and it is funded entirely by public money," said spokesman Graham Smith. "The public has a right to hold it to account and to know what it is doing."
Britain's Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government insists its new legislation makes government more open, expanding the number of bodies covered by freedom of information rules.
It also reduces the time that government papers are routinely kept secret from 30 to 20 years. Papers relating to the royals also will be released after 20 years — or five years after the death of the individual in question, whichever is later.
British Monarchy: http://www.royal.gov.uk
Constitutional Reform and Governance Act: