Watchdog groups give BC government a failing grade on freedom of information

The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association was joined by four other public interest groups today as it released a report taking the BC government to task for failing to live up to its “New Era” promise to deliver open and accountable government.

The FIPA report is a preview of a major study to be released later in 2005, which will detail steps the BC government has taken to undermine the freedom of information act and re-assert strict government control over access to information.

Groups represented at the news conference included the BC Civil Liberties Association, Sierra Legal Defence Fund, Canadian Association of Journalists and Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation.

BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPP Act) was passed in 1992. In recent years, there has been a serious decline in the health of the FOI process, with increasing barriers to timely access to information for many citizens. These problems began with severe budget cuts to FOI administration under the previous administration, but have worsened under the current administration.

FIPA’s report states, “Over the past 10 years, a government culture has developed that employs every possible tactic to discourage and delay requests for information that it considers in any way “sensitive”. The culture of denial has employed a combination of budget and staff cuts, legislative and policy changes, government reorganization, delaying tactics, excessive use of the Act’s exceptions, and the extension of secrecy to additional government committees.”

“We are completely non-partisan,” stated FIPA executive director Darrell Evans, “but we feel it’s vital to get this information out during the election campaign so that the political parties will hopefully put their positions on freedom of information on the public record.”

“The Clark administration was a disaster for freedom of information, but sadly, the Current government has been even worse, and we’re extremely disappointed.” continued Evans.

“We were promised “the most open, accountable and democratic government in Canada,” said Devon Page, staff lawyer for Sierra Legal Defence Fund. “Instead, we have suffered through endless delays, lost documents, increased Cabinet secrecy, and political interference.”

A wide range of organizations have had a tough time getting information from the BC government. Sara MacIntyre, BC director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, could not attend the news conference, but issued the following statement:

“It is nearly impossible to hold a government accountable if it fails to disclose information on its procedures, audits or general operations. In the past four years, access to information has been slowly choked off by increasing search fees, expanded response times for requests, and the slashing of the Information Commissioner’s budget.

“It’s completely disingenuous to commit to the principles of transparency and accountability and then slash the resources of the Legislative officer who is charged with carrying out those principles. The next government in BC should re-affirm its commitment to transparency, restore funding to the Commissioner’s office and immediately cease the practice of tracking so-called “sensitive requests.”

“The business of government is the people’s business,” said Jason Gratl of BC Civil Liberties Association. “In our view, the government should not wait for a specific request to disclose information. They should generally volunteer to disclose records, especially statements of public policy, in which there is a public interest.”

To download FIPA’s preliminary report https://fipa.bc.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/library/Law_Reform_Activities/Campaign_to_Reform_BC’s_FOI_Act/BC_Govt_FOI_Performance_2005.doc:”Click Here”

CONTACTS:

Darrell Evans, FIPA: (604) 739-9788
Jason Gratl, BC Civil Liberties Association: (604) 687-3013
Devon Page, Sierra Legal Defence Fund: (604) 685-5618 (ext. 233)
Wendy McLellan, Canadian Association of Journalists: (604) 605-2030
Sara MacIntyre, Canadian Taxpayers Federation: (250) 388-3660

News coverage

Vancouver Sun
The Province

FIPA asked the leaders of the three major BC party leaders for their positions on freedom of information issues. Here are their responses:

Liberal Party

NDP

Green Party

FIPA asks BC party leaders for positions on Freedom of Information issues

FIPA sent a letter on May 4 to the Leaders of BC’s three leading political parties, asking them to clearly state their positions on a wide range of issues concerning freedom of information. We are deeply concerned with the 10-year decline in access to government information that has occurred under the last NDP and current Liberal administrations.

Update: Responses from the three party leaders have now been received:

Questions for Party Leaders

Liberal Party

NDP

Green Party

BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA) was passed in 1992. In recent years, there has been a serious decline in the health of the FOI process, resulting in increasing barriers to timely access to information for many citizens. These problems began with severe budget cuts to FOI administration under the last NDP administration, but have continued and even increased under the Liberal administration.

The problems mainly concern access to general (that is, non-personal) information. FIPA’s research shows that delays and fee assessments for FOI requests have risen sharply, and that the functionality of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner is badly impaired following cuts to its budget of 35 percent.

In addition, a number of serious deficiencies in the FOIPPA have become apparent over the years and the Act is overdue for reform and updating. The need for FOI reform has been recognized and called for by FIPA, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, and two Special Committees of the Legislature.

Justice Minister Presents Framework for Reform of the Access to Information Act

OTTAWA , April 5, 2005 – The Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Irwin Cotler, today presented a discussion paper on Access to Information reform to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. The paper outlines the Government’s views on access reform issues for the Committee’s consideration before the Government proceeds with proposed amendments to the ATI Act.

“The Government of Canada is committed to reforming the Access to Information Act (ATI Act) so that it meets the needs of Canadians and further strengthens the integrity, accountability and transparency of government operations,” said Minister Cotler.

“Our reform initiative is organized around two basic principles: first, that freedom of information is a cornerstone of a culture of democratic governance, and second, that the Access to Information Act is a pillar of democracy which the Supreme Court of Canada has described as quasi-constitutional in nature.”

FIPA executive director Darrell Evans stated, “We hope this marks the beginning of a sincere process of reform of the 22-year old ATI Act. The Act desperately needs to be strengthened and updated to reflect modern expectations of government transparency and accountability.

“We urge all MPs and Ministers to get behind this reform and make it happen, regardless of the current instability in Canadian politics.”

Federal Information Commissioner John Reid is critical of the discussion paper, believing it is too much based on a flawed review of the Act conducted in 2002 and could result in increased government secrecy (See article below).

Full government news release

Discussion paper “A comprehensive Framework for Access to Information Reform: A Discussion Paper, April 2005”

WATCHDOG SLAMS FEDERAL PLAN FOR INFORMATION LAW
Canadian Press
April 12, 2005
OTTAWA – The federal information watchdog says Liberal government proposals for revising Canada’s freedom-of-information law would dramatically increase secrecy instead of modernizing the act for the 21st century.
Information Commissioner John Reid urged members of a Commons committee today to be wary of the government plan to redraw the Access to Information Act.
Reid, an ombudsman for users of the law, rhymed off more than a dozen elements of Cotler’s plan he argues would entrench secrecy, saying only a few would open up additional records to Canadians.
For instance, the federal proposals will make it easier to extend the 30-day deadline for responding to requests, weaken the information commissioner’s powers and grant secrecy to additional types of records such as consultants’ reports, he said.

Freedom of Information comes to Britain

Britain’s Freedom of Information Act came into force on January 1, 2005. Will it create a more open government in spite of Britain’s notoriously secretive government culture?

Under the act, anyone, of any nationality, living anywhere in the world, will be able to request information held by more than 100,000 public authorities and other designated non-governmental organisations in Britain, and expect an answer within 20 working days, usually free of charge save for the cost of copying, printing and postage. Only where the costs of retrieving and collating the information are above £600 for a central government department … or £450 for other public bodies … can a full charge be made or the request refused on the grounds of expense … It will be a criminal offence to destroy data for which a valid request has been made under the act.

Special report and features on Freedom of Information, The Guardian newspaper

UK Government freedom of information web site

Free to Distrust
Comment by Prof. Alasdair Roberts