Where openness is still a closed shop

Council members should closely scrutinise the fine print of a new document from the Law Society that is currently sitting on their desks.

The Provision of Information to Council Members – Guidelines for Staff promises to create openness and is a response to the council's resolution on the lack of disclosure by those involved in the Regis debacle in December.

However, despite its promises, the document would seem to signal more of a clampdown on disclosure than the beginnings of transparency at the Law Society.

Staff now have to decide if a request from a Council member is "unreasonable", is "for other purposes than to fulfil duties", is made for "political purposes", or if they have "good reason to believe that to respond to [the] request could lead to the unauthorised disclosure of confidential material or business". If they suspect any such motives, they are under an obligation to refer the matter to their manager and/or the secretary general.

Council members would be right to feel aggrieved at this turn of events. Not only are they less likely to get information, they are now subject to a judgement on their motives. They may think, rightly or wrongly, that this is a case of the tail wagging the dog, and far from introducing an era of openness, barriers are going up to prevent freedom of information.

And what of the secretary general? Hired as an administrator-cum-manager, Jane Betts has begun to assume an increasingly high-profile role and is currently on tour promoting her policy programme, according to the society's in-house magazine, the Gazette.

Now she is the arbiter of the motives of council members who request information on the workings of the society. A very powerful secretary general is in the making.

Plus ca change…