Ministers are likely to defer to the court process if the late Queen does not respond to requests for documents revealing how she hid some of her personal wealth from the public.
The UK’s transparency watchdog, the Information Commissioner, has threatened legal action against the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) for failing to meet requests for two years.
He now has until the end of October to respond to a Freedom of Information request or face legal action.
The documents may detail how the late monarch used a secret financial vehicle to hide shares in commercial companies he owned and the value of those shares from the public.
The amount of his personal wealth, including his investments, has never been made public. Reports have consistently suggested 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 holdings from being made public.
As a result of her lobbying in the 1970s, the government created the state-backed Bank of England Nominees, which apparently 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 were able to use the same company to hide their investments in the companies. Identities of the other Windsors, along with the range of their stock unknown.
In 1973, the Queen sent her personal solicitor to propose changes to the law that would allow the government to determine who owns the shares of certain companies. His lawyer said it would be “embarrassing” to make his shares public.
According to an internal Whitehall document written in 2011, a special exemption was included in the proposed law “to prevent, for example, a situation where 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 exempted the vehicle, the relevant trustees and investment managers and certain members of the royal family from the requirement to disclose their shareholdings in the company,” the document said.
Shell’s directors were required to submit annual reports to the government showing “the identity of the persons holding its securities and, in the case of holding securities 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.
Although government agencies are required by the Freedom of Information Act to process requests within 20 business days, the department did not respond.
Now the Information Commissioner has ruled that the department has breached provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. The watchdog warned it could face legal action if it failed to act by October 31 and ordered the department to consider the application. The court has the power to find the department in contempt of court. BEIS said it would “respond” in accordance with the deadline.
The nominees of the Bank of England seem to have kept the royal family’s investment secret until the very end 2011. A Whitehall document from the same year said: “These arrangements have now lapsed and the Palace is clearly unwilling to reinstate them.” The company went out of business five years ago.
It is not clear why the exemption was suspended or what measures to protect hidden royal investments replaced it.
The Queen appears to have used a secret mechanism known as Queen’s Assent to make changes to the 1973 Bill. Under this mechanism, the government must get the monarch’s approval for laws affecting the Windsors’ personal wealth or royal powers.