Premier Eby’s government claims to be increasing transparency but is using a paywall to prevent release of information he admits is in the public interest.
In response to an FOI request filed by the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Government of British Columbia has moved to place key documents related to the release of the recent B.C. Housing forensic investigation behind a nearly two-thousand-dollar paywall.
Premier Eby and Minister of Housing Ravi Khalon spoke in the legislature in detail about the release of the forensic investigation into B.C. Housing. This report was conducted in response to one of the major scandals to emerge under this government. Specifically, the Minister and the Premier described the issue as rising to a level of such public interest that the report’s release warranted using section 25 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of a Privacy Act to make it available to the public. As they noted, this was the first time section 25 had been used in this way in the 30-year history of freedom of information in this province.
As part of FIPA’s ongoing research into the FOI process in B.C., we filed an FOI request with each of the ministries, central agencies, and public sector organizations we anticipated could have been involved in the report’s release: Government Communications and Public Engagement, Office of the Premier, Ministry of Housing, Ministry of Attorney General, Ministry of Citizens’ Services, and B.C. Housing itself. Our request sought to obtain copies of particular record types on the subject of the report’s preparation for release and was standardized across all recipients. Record types included correspondence, briefing notes, decision notes, information notes, issues notes, presentations, agreements, forms, and reports on the subject. You can read more details about our request here https://fipa.bc.ca/public-interest-paywall-part-1/.
It initially cost $60 to make these requests — $10 per public body, as a result of the government’s institution of the access-reducing FOI application fee. On May 30, one of the recipient public bodies, the Ministry of Attorney General, presented FIPA with a fee estimate in the amount of $1792.50 for searching and preparing records for release. This is a considerable sum to us and to many requesters.
Fees for large record volumes like this are permitted under the law, but are discretionary. There is no statutory requirement to charge these fees, and the ministry would be well within its authority to waive them given the Premier and Minister’s statements that the issue is in the public interest.
“The government’s claim of transparency in releasing the report is contradicted when they create a paywall of this nature,” says FIPA Executive Director Jason Woywada. “We are seeing multiple instances where the B.C. government is withholding information about its FOI process. When government is secret about transparency, they aren’t really being transparent at all.”