Royal charities lobbied ministers and officials, papers reveal

A number of charities set up by Prince Charles have called on the government to change policies on politically sensitive topics

Prince Charles's charities have lobbied government ministers and senior officials to change policies on politically sensitive topics including VAT rates and regional development spending, according to letters and emails obtained by the Guardian.

In a series of interventions that will re-ignite debate about the Prince of Wales's alleged "meddling" in politics, charities set up by the prince in line with his social and environmental goals have called on the government to change policies.

Business in the Community, a charity of which Charles has been president for 25 years, urged the business secretary, Vince Cable, to rethink a decision to scrap the Northwest Regional Development Agency, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

In another case, the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment urged the local government minister, Grant Shapps, to incorporate greater community engagement in planning and promoted its own planning work around the country as something for him to consider in the national planning policy framework.

Three months later the Department for Communities and Local Government awarded a £800,000 grant to the foundation to advise local groups on new developments. The communities department denied there was any connection between the lobbying and the grant to the Prince's Foundation.

The correspondence released by the government to the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act comprises 17 emails and letters between five of the prince's charities and ministers and officials in four government departments. It has prompted fresh concern that the initiatives could be used as a way of extending the prince's political influence in a way that could cause constitutional problems.

Prof Adam Tomkins, a leading expert in constitutional law at Glasgow University, said that because the charities were set up by Prince Charles and appear to reflect his sometimes deeply controversial political agendas, their interventions undermined royalty's traditional non-involvement in politics.

A former ministerial adviser who handled lobbying from the prince and his charities on housing and complementary medicine said he felt that interventions by the prince and his charities have previously been granted priority in Whitehall. "There was a frisson of excitement when a letter came in from Charles and there was easy, open-door access for his office and charities in a way I felt other organisations would struggle to match," said Paul Richards, special adviser to Hazel Blears and Patricia Hewitt, former secretaries of state for communities and health. "My sense was that the charities were given a star status and that means they get priority and I would be astonished if that was any different under the current government."

Charles is president of 20 charities which are widely seen as an extension of his own social and environmental goals. Eighteen of them were founded by him. They are overseen from Clarence House, the prince's headquarters. "They are independent charities governed by their trustees and they communicate with government on issues relevant to their work, just like many charities do all the time," said a Clarence House spokesman. "The prince founded most of his charities and so, of course, takes a close interest in what they do. It is up to the charities themselves to decide on their communications with government."

Charles has repeatedly come under fire for his attempts to influence public policy. It emerged in June that he has held meetings with 10 government ministers, including talks at Clarence House with the chancellor, George Osborne, the education secretary, Michael Gove, the international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, and the environment secretary, Caroline Spelman. Their discussions remain secret because of exemptions in freedom of information laws concerning communication between members of the royal family and public bodies. The same exemptions do not apply to the charities.

The latest documents show how in March this year, Ros Kerslake, chief executive of the Prince's Regeneration Trust , which promotes the restoration of old buildings, followed up what she describes as "a fruitful and productive" meeting with Shapps with a letter urging him to pressure the Treasury to cut VAT on restoring historic buildings offering public access. Kerslake told the minister the scheme would cost the taxpayer between £13m and £48m a year but argued it would deliver a net gain by the fourth year and appended a detailed proposal. "I hope this report will prove of interest to you and will highlight that there is evidence to present to the Treasury," she wrote.

Charles is involved in projects that could benefit from such a tax change. In 2007 he took out a £20m loan from the Prince's Charities Foundation to help finance the purchase of the grade I-listed stately home, Dumfries House, and he has since opened it to the public following an extensive refurbishment. VAT is also paid on the upkeep of Buckingham Palace which is partly open to the public.

Shapps replied that a change in VAT was not possible under European agreements, but offered his officials to personally brief Kerslake on another heritage regeneration funding scheme and added a note in his own hand: "Great to meet you the other week. Stay in touch."

A spokesman for the Prince's Regeneration Trust said: "The issues around VAT on the repair and adaptation of historic buildings was and continues to be one of public debate," he said. "Ros Kerslake and the Prince's Regeneration Trust were just one voice of many in a debate on this issue, which affects the whole of the heritage sector. Highlighting this to the minister is in our interests, and the interests of the entire UK heritage industry."

Business in the Community, a charity that was not originally set up by the prince, although he is its president, pressed Cable to rethink a decision to scrap the Northwest Regional Development Agency, which funded the charity's linking of businesses with disadvantaged secondary schools.

The agency had also funded another royal charity, the Prince's Regeneration Trust, with close to £500,000. Business in the Community's chief executive, Stephen Howard, sent the letter 13 days after the formation of the coalition government and told Cable: "I have already had the pleasure to attend No 10 to meet the prime minister and to start a discussion on 'big society'." There is no suggestion that Howard's communications with government were improper.

James Gray, spokesman at Republic, which campaigns for a directly elected head of state, said: "Other charities who struggle on a day to day basis to get ministers to listen to them will look at this and ask why these supposedly independent charities are getting such unrivalled access."

A spokeswoman for the communities department said officials who assessed the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment bid for the £800,000 grant had no knowledge of the charity's earlier letter to Shapps: "The department assessed all bids on their merit and each one was treated fairly and impartially."

Network of influence

The heir to the throne has become famous for sending handwritten "black spider memos" to politicians expressing his views on the issues of the day - and he is not embarrassed about them. "What some people call meddling I call mobilising," he said in a speech at Clarence House in February. His network of 20 charities has arguably allowed him to spread that influence further still. Each charity reflects his interests in areas including health, education, housing, heritage and the environment.

The prince's website describes it as "the largest multi-cause charitable enterprise in the United Kingdom, raising over £100m annually", although that includes government grants. The most famous charity is the Prince's Trust, but he has also founded charities which focus on climate change, architecture and teaching. "We need to explore whether this is a deliberately constructed network of organisations to do more political work that the heir to the throne could, were the spirit of the constitution adhered to," said Adam Tomkins, professor of constitutional law at Glasgow University. "The overall pattern raises a question about whether the constitutional propriety of the political independence and neutrality of the monarchy are being jeopardised by a long-standing pattern not just of work on good causes but on campaigning on political issues, which are sometimes party-political."

The prince's approach contrasts with that of the Queen.

She is patron of 619 charities but Buckingham Palace said the Queen has never established any charities of her own.


Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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