I lend my support to the Bill and I should like to demonstrate how the Freedom of Information Act has been interpreted by public bodies and extended into areas not provided for in law. I shall do that with reference to the Law Society, which one might think would understand the law. Its interpretation affects all Members of Parliament.
Many Members will know that since being elected in 2001, I have fought hard on behalf of many of my constituents who have been defrauded by claims handlers and lawyers in miners’ compensation cases. That has involved a lot of correspondence with the Law Society, some of which contains confidential information that raises serious accusations put to me. Some of those allegations were against law firms accused of defrauding my constituents—and they have been proven.
On 31 January, I received a letter dated 24 January.I shall read it to the Committee:
“Dear Minister”— they promoted me to a rank that I never held—
“The Law Society has received a request from a solicitor's firm for a copy of a letter sent to you by Alison Crawley, Director of Regulation Compliance on 25 October 2006”— it provides a reference number.
“I have enclosed a copy for your consideration. The Law Society is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act” — this is the important thing—
“but has adopted its own Code of Practice to voluntarily comply with FOI. After considering the letter's content, The Law Society has decided”— decided!—
“that it should be released by the 30 January 2007”.
So I got the letter a day too late. It continued:
“I am contacting you to make you aware of this decision”— again, it was a decision. It was not asking for my thoughts. The letter continued:
“and provide you with an opportunity to raise objections, if any, to this decision. I apologise for the short notice, but please do let me know if you have any objections before the deadline.”
But I received the letter after the deadline.
I say again that I am quite happy for the letterin question to be released to Watson Burton—a disreputable company in Newcastle, which in my opinion has stolen £350,000 from victims in miners’ compensation cases in pursuit of justice. Also included is a freedom of information code from the Law Society, which sets out exemptions. It is interesting that lawyers always seem to look after themselves. Paragraph 14.6 of the code of practice exempts information if
“it is about appointments by the President of the Law Society of arbitrators and experts in specific cases (but we will supply general information about our procedures).”
Clearly information about how the Law Society works and appoints people is exempt but our correspondence is not.
The letter was sent to Watson Burton and I make no objection to that, but if I did, what would be my recourse to action? Could I stop it from happening? I could have objected, but paragraph 17 of the code of practice, under the heading, “What to do if you think we have denied you information unreasonably”, says that I could appeal to the independent freedom of information arbiter, who deals with disputes in such cases. That person, or persons, clearly has more power than we do as individual Members of Parliament and no doubt could override any objections to any of our correspondence being released to a solicitor’s firm. In this case I have no objections to anyone seeing the reply, but there are cases that I have raised with the Law Society in which I have been given confidential information, about the money that people have or disputes between siblings, that I would not want in the public domain. Neither would I want someone to go back to the solicitors to alert them to the way in which I have come by such information.