Ministers could face contempt of court proceedings unless they respond to a request for documents that could reveal how the late Queen hid some of her private wealth from the public.
Britain’s transparency watchdog, the Information Commissioner, has threatened legal action against the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which has blocked the request for two years.
He now has until the end of October to respond to the freedom of information request or he could face legal action.
The documents may detail how the late monarch used a secret financial facility to hide from the public the shares of business companies she owned, as well as the value of those shares.
The size of his personal fortune, including his investments, has never been disclosed to the public. Estimates have regularly speculated it could be in the hundreds of millions of pounds.
Last year, the Guardian revealed how the Queen successfully lobbied the Government to change proposed legislation to prevent her actions from being disclosed to the public.
Following her lobbying in the 1970s, the government set up a state-backed shell company, Bank of England Nominees, which appears to have kept the Queen’s private holdings and investments secret for more than three decades.
Documents obtained by the Guardian show that other members of the royal family may have used the same company to conceal their investments in businesses. The identities of the other Windsors, as well as the extent of their holdings, are also unknown.
In 1973, the Queen dispatched her private lawyer to lobby the government to change a bill that would allow the public to establish who owned shares in specific companies. His lawyer argued that disclosing his holdings would be “embarrassing”.
A special exemption was inserted into the bill, according to an internal Whitehall document drafted in 2011, “to avoid a situation where, for example, the ownership of specific shares by members of the royal family could become widely known”. .
The shell company, run by senior Bank of England officials, was set up in 1977 “to hold royal investments”, according to the document.
“This vehicle, the relevant trustees and investment managers and certain members of the royal family have been granted an exemption from the requirement to disclose an interest in a company’s shares,” the document adds.
The directors of the front company were required to send annual reports to the government listing “the identity of those for whom it holds titles, and, provided that it holds titles for two or more persons, the total value of the securities”.
In 2020, the Guardian submitted a freedom of information request to BEIS for copies of these annual reports.
The ministry did not respond, although public bodies are required to process requests under the Freedom of Information Act within 20 working days.
Now the Information Commissioner has ruled that the department violated the rules of the Freedom of Information Act. The watchdog ordered the department to process the request, warning that he could face legal action if he did not act by October 31. The court has the power to decide that the department was in contempt of court. BEIS said it would “respond within” the deadline.
Bank of England nominees appear to have kept Royal Family investments a secret until later 2011. The Whitehall document from that year stated: ‘These provisions are now lapsed and the Palace is clear that there is no wish for them to be reinstated’. The company was liquidated five years ago.
It is unclear why the exemption was removed, or what provisions to keep royal investments secret replaced it.
The Queen appears to have used a secret mechanism, known as the Queen’s Consent, to obtain changes to the 1973 Bill. Under this mechanism, the government must obtain the monarch’s approval for laws that affect the private wealth or royal powers of the Windsors.