NEWS RELEASE: Proposed Law Leaves Lots of Holes in Outdated Access to Information Act

MEDIA RELEASE
June 19, 2017

Proposed law leaves lots of holes in outdated Access to Information Act

VANCOUVER, June 19, 2017 – The bill tabled late this afternoon by the three ministers in Ottawa does not meet the promises made by the Liberal Party of Canada in 2015.

What was announced today will make some useful improvements to Canada’s outdated Access to Information system, but there will still be black holes in the law that will prevent information from being released.

“Today’s announcement doesn’t even meet what the Liberals promised in the last election,” said FIPA Executive Director Vincent Gogolek. “There are some significant improvements being proposed, but there are lots of shortcomings.”

Some significant points include:

  • The Information Commissioner will be given the power to make orders, but will still be prevented from even looking at documents the government claims are cabinet documents. These will continue to be excluded completely from the ATI process.
  • There will be proactive release of a variety of types of information from Ministers’ offices, but Canadians will still not be able to request information from those offices and appeal to the Commissioner if the government refuses to release the documents.
  • There is no indication that the government is going to introduce a duty to document as recommended by every Information Commissioner in the country.
  • There will be a Legislative review of the Access to Information Act every five years, as promised.
  • The government will continue to charge $5 per ATI request, despite the fact the Commons ETHI committee recommended it be abolished, partly because each $5 cheque costs $55 to process.

“If we are called to testify on this legislation, we will have a number of recommendations to improve it,” Gogolek said. “We hope the government will be open to improvements, because this bill certainly needs them.”

 

BC Government keeps important environmental records behind closed doors

MEDIA RELEASE

BC government keeps important environmental records behind closed doors

Environmental Law Centre and FIPA ask Information Commissioner to investigate

VANCOUVER, February 24, 2017 – In a report released today, the Environmental Law Centre (ELC), and the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), called out the BC government for failing to proactively disclose a wide range of important environmental records.

Over the past decade the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the Ombudsperson, the Forest Practices Board and the Auditor General have all specifically recommended that certain classes of documents should be disclosed proactively — but those recommendations have often been ignored.

For example, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations is still not posting contravention decisions to show how our forest practices laws are being broken — contrary to the recommendations of the Forest Practices Board. And the Ministry of Environment is not publishing copies of its compliance orders across most of the Province.

“So you can go to a website and promptly find every Vancouver restaurant that has broken a minor health regulation in the last year – but you can’t find those who have broken the rules on Crown land,” said FIPA Executive Director Vincent Gogolek.

Proactive disclosure is essential, because the enforcement of BC’s environmental regulations relies heavily on the public to raise issues and complaints. Without proactive disclosure, citizens and groups are forced to go through the Freedom of Information system to obtain the information necessary to launch a complaint – if they receive it at all.

For example, when the ELC tried to get copies of Government authorizations for liquid manure spraying above the Hullcar drinking water aquifer in 2015, Government officials said it might charge the ELC up to $600 for such orders.  And then release of the orders was unreasonably delayed – in contrast to other jurisdictions that promptly make such orders available.

The types of documents that the groups say should be proactively released include environmental orders, permits, contravention decisions, and policy manuals. Public disclosure of regulatory penalties is also important for the penalties to have a true deterrent effect and promote compliance.

“The public availability of such documents is absolutely necessary to keep government accountable and protect both our fragile ecosystems and the health of British Columbians,” said ELC Executive Director Calvin Sandborn.

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Contact:
Vincent Gogolek, Executive Director
BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association
vincent@fipa.bc.ca  | (o) 604-739-9788 | (c) 604-318-0031

Calvin Sandborn, Executive Director
Environmental Law Centre
csandbor@uvic.ca  250-472-5248

For a copy of the full submission asking the Information Commissioner to take action to ensure more government transparency, go to www.elc.uvic.ca .

Triple delete case highlights need for FOI reform

The conviction of former Ministry of Transportation political staffer George Gretes for  obstructing the Information and Privacy Commissioner in her investigation of the “Triple Delete” scandal underscores the need for serious reform of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

He was not, however, charged with the act of deleting information as that is not actually an offence under FIPPA. We need tougher penalties for those interfering with information rights as well as a legislated duty to document..

Both Commissioner Elizabeth Denham and her predecessor, David Loukidelis, have called for a legislated ‘duty to document’ and for stiffer penalties for violations of the Act.  So did FIPA. This was echoed by the Special Legislative committee reviewing the Act in its report this past May. The BC government has yet to respond to any of these recommendations except for vague statements that they were being ‘actively studied.’

According to a poll done for FIPA by Ipsos Canada, it is clear that many British Columbians want action on these issues. The poll found:

  • 96% of British Columbians believe it is important that government officials be legally required to keep accurate, complete records of what they do on the job.
  • 84% think government officials who interfere with access to information rights should face penalties.
  • 85% of respondents believe these reforms should be put into law before the next provincial election in 2017.

(Full poll questions and responses can be found here: https://fipa.bc.ca/poll/)

The inaction of the BC government is unacceptable, especially since Commissioner Denham first made these recommendations more than three years ago – presumably they should be able to put together legislation to implement this amendment by now, especially since they were able to bring back the Legislature in the middle of summer to bring in changes to the land transfer tax.

There really is no excuse for delaying action to restore public confidence in this province’s Freedom of Information system.

FIPA talks ATI reform with Commons Committee

FIPA was back in Ottawa earlier this month, once again talking about reform of the ancient Access to Information Act. This is something we have done going back to the last century, with very little to show for our efforts to-date.

There is a difference this time, however, because the minister responsible for the Act, Treasury Board President Scott Brison, has promised legislation this fall or early in 2017 to bring in some ‘quick wins’ for ATI, followed by a full review of the Act in 2018 (one year before the next federal election).

Recognizing what the government has imposed by way of a time-limited consultation process and legislative agenda, we dealt with a limited number of recommendations in detail in our submission, but urged the Committee to look at the dozens of other recommendations we made to the Information Commissioner during her 2012 consultation.

The government’s proposals include some restatements of what the Liberal Party promised during their election campaign, but some new elements have been added.

For example, the federal Liberals promised during the election to provide the Information Commissioner with order-making power, (similar to what we have long had here in BC). However, the proposals are now raising the possibility that the orders could be subject to an override by ministers . They have also floated the idea that government departments be given the power to bar requesters by claiming their requests are frivolous or vexatious.

Another issue: there is nothing in the government’s proposals about eliminating the exclusions in the Act, the most notorious being the exclusion of anything claimed to be a Cabinet document from review by either the Commissioner or the Federal Court.  We pointed out that the number claims of Cabinet confidences have increased dramatically over the last few years, and that if nothing is done to close this “information black hole”, the improvements to ATI will be undermined.

Also missing from the government’s proposals is a legislated duty to document. We pointed out to the Committee members that their equivalents in the BC Legislature—those reviewing the provincial access legislation—had just recommended the government put a duty to document into law. We urged them to follow suit at the federal level.

Hopefully the Committee will take our words and those of other witnesses to heart. Their report on recommended changes to the Act is expected to be released before the summer break.

Read more from the May 2016 Bulletin »