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

‘First-rate’ access reform coming, says new Justice Minister Cotler

By Paco Francoli
The Hill Times
October 18th, 2004

The Liberal government is finally ready to move forward with reform of the 21-year-old Access to Information Act, confirmed Justice Irwin Cotler on Friday.

The minister told The Hill Times the government plans to introduce its own piece of legislation or cooperate with NDP MP Pat Martin who already has a bill in the works.

“I am open to the kind of cooperation that would produce the best legislative initiative, whether it came from [Pat Martin] in a private members’ bill or it came from us as a governmental bill,” Mr. Cotler said after Question Period on Oct. 15.

Read the full article

FIPA urges all MPs to take up the torch for transparency of federal institutions

October 4, 2004 – FIPA has sent a letter to all federal MPs urging them to help build a “formidable constituency of support” for reforms to increase government transparency.

The letter states, “When the tenure of Prime Minister Martin began, he declared his intention to improve the quality of Canada’s democracy, including the transparency of its federal institutions. Indeed, all party leaders have declared their support for these values. But previous attempts to increase transparency have fallen short. How can we be sure that this commitment bears fruit in the coming session?

“The answer must be found in building a formidable constituency of support for this reform among political leaders of all parties, and it is to encourage this that we send you this letter of appeal. We are seeking MPs who will take up the torch for government transparency and accountability in the coming session.”

The letter recommends action in five main areas:
1. Updating and reforming the Access to Information Act
2. Extending the ATI Act to crown corporations and other “quasi-governmental bodies” (at least 250 bodies have been created that are not covered by the act)
3. Extending the ATI Act to Officers of Parliament
4. Creating an Information Management Act, designed to regulate the entire life-cycle of government-held information
5. Providing adequate funding for the office of the Information Commissioner

COMPLETE LETTER

VANCOUVER SUN ARTICLE by Stanley Tromp, FIPA Research Director and FOI Caucus Coordinator, Canadian Association of Journalists