British royals to get new secrecy rights: ministry

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Britain's royals will benefit from changes to freedom of information laws meaning their letters will no longer be disclosed even if they are in the public interest, the justice ministry said Saturday.

The ministry said it planned to introduce "enhanced protection" for communications with Queen Elizabeth II's family and household as part of wider reforms to information laws brought in six years ago.

"Communications with the monarch, the heir to the throne and second in line to the throne will be subject to an absolute exemption (from disclosure laws) and the rest will remain qualified," the ministry said on its website.

The aim was to protect the "long-standing conventions surrounding the monarchy and its records", it said.

"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 announcement was buried in the small print of a package of proposed changes to the law -- entitled "Opening up public bodies to public scrutiny" -- which were unveiled on Friday by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

The proposals will go before parliament in February.

The royals have experienced several embarrassing revelations under Britain's information freedom laws -- including that the queen asked the government for help from a fund for poor people to pay heating bills on her palaces.

Britain's Freedom of Information laws were hailed as a watershed when they were introduced in 2005 by the previous Labour government of then-prime minister Tony Blair.

A spokesman for Buckingham Palace was quoted by The Independent newspaper as saying the change in the law was needed to protect the constitutional position of the queen and the heir to the throne, Prince Charles.

"This constitutional position relies on confidentiality, so that all such correspondence remains confidential," the spokesman said.

But the anti-monarchy pressure group Republic vowed to campaign aginst the "disgraceful" change.

"The monarchy is a public institution, it is part of our political structure and it is funded entirely by public money. The public has a right to hold it to account and to know what it is doing," said spokesman Graham Smith.

The new plans will, however, reduce the amount of time that Britain's public records remain secret, from 30 to 20 years.

For information about the royals, the lifespan of the exemption from disclosure will also change to 20 years "or five years after the death of the relevant member of the Royal Family, whichever is later."

© 2011 AFP

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