Prince Charles's charity officials given access to Whitehall elite

Eighteen recent meetings with ministers and top officials raise further questions about prince's influence on politicians

Prince Charles' charity aides have held at least 18 face-to-face meetings with senior cabinet ministers and top Downing Street officials since the beginning of last year, raising fresh questions over the heir to the throne's influence on British politics.

The meetings took place over 13 months from the beginning of 2011 and include talks with four secretaries of state, the head of the civil service, the chief government scientist and the prime minister's key adviser on Europe and global issues.

News of the prince's access to the highest reaches of the political establishment through his charities came amid a growing controversy over official secrecy surrounding his lobbying on issues ranging from planning to genetically modified crops and climate change. On Tuesday the attorney general blocked the release of letters from the prince to ministers in seven government departments hinting that to do so could precipitate a constitutional crisis. He said any perception that Charles disagreed with government policy "would be seriously damaging to his role as a future monarch".

The prince has established a network of 17 charities which is co-ordinated from Clarence House and operate in areas that mirror his interests including architecture, planning, environmental sustainability, farming, old age and corporate responsibility. Whitehall records show senior figures from the charities have met Vince Cable, the business secretary, Eric Pickles, communities secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary, and Caroline Spelman, then environment secretary.

Charles's environmental advisers appear to be among his best connected aides. Representatives of the Prince's Charities' International Sustainability Unit (ISU), which works on behalf of the heir to the throne's interests in agriculture, marine conservation and rainforests, secured two meetings with Sir John Beddington, the government's chief scientific adviser. The first, in January 2011, was "to discuss science" around the time when Beddington, an expert in population biology, produced a major report that warned that moves to block cultivation of GM crops in the developing world could no longer be tolerated on ethical or moral grounds. Charles has long opposed GM crops and once accused agricultural multinationals of a "gigantic experiment ... with nature and the whole of humanity which has gone seriously wrong". When he was prime minister Tony Blair asked Peter Mandelson to tell the Prince of Wales to stop his "unhelpful" attempts to influence policy on GM and Mandelson accused him of being "anti-scientific and irresponsible".

In the same period, the charity also secured two meetings with Sir John Cunliffe, then David Cameron's adviser on Europe and Global Issues and his lead representative at meetings of the G20 group of the world's richest nations. The first, in March 2011, was to "discuss the work of the International Sustainability Unit" and the second was about "food security and G20" ahead of a May meeting of G20 agriculture ministers that spring. When Cunliffe moved on, the charity quickly secured a meeting with his successor, Ivan Rogers.

The prince's spokesman said the "meetings with government ministers and officials are an opportunity to update the government on the ISU's work" and denied any suggestion he is exerting undue influence on them through his charities.

However, Graham Smith, director of the Republic pressure group which campaigns for an elected head of state, said his charities were "lobbying ministers and officials across the whole range of issues in favour of Charles's political agenda".

Smith said: "These groups are intervening at the highest level on some of the most controversial issues of the day and are gaining access that most lobby groups would struggle to get. This further adds to concerns about the extent to which public policy is being shaped according to the idiosyncratic views of Prince Charles."

The prince's spokesman stressed the charities are independent organisations governed by their trustees.

"They communicate with government on issues relevant to their work, such as creating opportunities for disadvantaged young people, developing economic regeneration in deprived areas, encouraging businesses to help their local communities and promoting greater protection of the environment," he said.

Other high level access for Charles' charity network includes a meeting between Duncan Smith and the Prince's Initiative for Mature Enterprise which helps people over 50 who are "desperate to work but unable to find anyone to employ them", two meetings between the Prince's Trust and then employment minister Chris Grayling on disadvantaged young people and youth unemployment and two meetings between Business in the Community and the current head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake.

Hank Dittmar, chief executive of the prince's built environment charity held meetings with Pickles and the then planning minister, Greg Clark, on "planning policy" in the run up to the government's publication of a new national planning framework.

"We won a competitive process to provide neighbourhood planning services to communities in support of the new Localism Bill," a spokeswoman for the charity said. "The meetings with the secretary of state and the planning minister were to discuss this work. Meetings of this nature are something in which independent charities like ourselves routinely engage."


Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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