Cabinet Office accused of lying to MPs to keep Mountbatten papers private

The Cabinet Office lied to MPs in an attempt to keep Earl Mountbatten’s private letters and diaries out of the public eye, a tribunal was told on Monday.

Andrew Lownie, the author and historian battling to gain unrestricted access to the archive, said it was "shameful" that it had not been made available to the public in its entirety, 11 years after it was saved for the nation.

He said the documents were "crucial" to biographers and historians but that the case had also raised "very important issues of transparency and abuse of power".

Mr Lownie has spent four years fighting the Cabinet Office and the University of Southampton, which bought the archive in 2010 using £2.8 million of public money, for full sight of the documents.

In 2019, the Information Commissioner found in his favour and ordered the release of the entire collection of 4,500 boxes of documents and photographs – known as the Broadlands Archive archive – but the Cabinet Office appealed and has continued to block access to certain passages in the diaries, some of which date back to the 1930s.

While he has now forced the release of the vast majority of the material, around one per cent remains under wraps.

As the appeal hearing got under way on Monday, Mr Lownie accused the Cabinet Office of lying to MPs by claiming that undertakings given by Mountbatten in 1969 about publication of the archive referred to his private musings rather than his official papers.

"I’m afraid the Cabinet Office have not been honest to MPs, and I completely stand by that," he said.

Andrew Lownie accused Southampton University of ignoring him and his lawyers in their quest to gain access to the material

Credit: Neil Spence/Alamy Stock Photo

Mr Lownie accused Southampton University of ignoring him and his lawyers in their quest to gain access to the material, believing they "could get away with it".

"This material was bought by the university to be made available, and it failed to do so – and I think that is a shameful thing," he said.

He insisted he had "no problem" with the Royal family’s right to privacy but added that there should be a balance because they were public servants and legitimate subjects of investigation.

"I don’t think that, in terms of what I’m seeking, there is no material that is sensational or embarrassing," he said. "There are legitimate reasons to keep information secret about the conduct of the Royal family to preserve the dignity of the Crown, but one has to keep things in perspective."

He said that, within a week of being sent some of the documents, he managed to ascertain that much of the redacted material was already in the public domain, in books and biographies, which "rather makes a joke of the whole thing".

Mr Lownie insisted he was not a "muckraker journalist" but rather that the case represented important principles about academic freedoms. "A university should be supporting this principle, not trying to suppress it," he said.

Roger Smethurst, the head of knowledge and information management at the Cabinet Office, said the material could impact the "dignity" of the Queen.

"Protection of the dignity of the person of the sovereign includes protecting Her Majesty’s privacy and the privacy of members of the Royal Family, where their personal lives might have an impact upon that dignity," he said in a witness statement.

"Despite its age, there is some information within the documents held by the university which, if released, would compromise the UK’s relations with other states."

The hearing continues.

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