Statement on Section 22 of Bill 35: FIPPA Reform

From FIPA President Mike Larsen

The introduction of the amendments to B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) contained in section 22 of Bill 35 demonstrate that the government is willing to move forward on legislative reform.

And as the all-party special committee who reviewed the Act in 2016 found in their 39 recommendations, the FIPPA is definitely in need of reform.

But, when it comes to the proposed amendments to the FIPPA contained in Bill 35, the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) supports the assessment of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of B.C. (OIPC).

We are firmly committed to the requirements for local data storage contained within the Act. We do not support amendments to the legislation that function to erode the protections enshrined in the Act. The OIPC assessment of the language in section 22 of Bill 35 as “too permissive” is entirely accurate.

B.C. FIPA is disappointed by the proposed reforms to the FIPPA for the following reasons:

  • The government has made numerous commitments to transparency and privacy that are not achieved by these amendments. They promised comprehensive FIPPA reform in their campaign; they have consulted with the public around FIPPA reform; they have strong recommendations for reform from legislative review and from current and former Information and Privacy Commissioners.
  • We do not support reforms to the Act that weaken existing privacy protections for British Columbians. The proposed amendments deal with exceptions to current outside-of-Canada processing and storage restrictions. To date, this is the only legislative reform that the government has proposed to the FIPPA. Rather than strengthening freedom of information or protection of privacy, the proposed amendments is a qualification of existing rights, and not an expansion.
  • We do not need incremental FIPPA reforms through “Miscellaneous Statute Amendments”. We need a comprehensive overhaul of the FIPPA that is informed by a deep and sincere commitment to updating and expanding the information and privacy rights of British Columbians. This requires vision and leadership.

Despite all of this, the proposed amendments in section 22 of Bill 35 do demonstrate that the government is willing to make reforms to the FIPPA. In the wake of scandal, the challenge for the government will be to realize the possibility of these reforms. The proposed amendments for the FIPPA in Bill 35 are a move that is too little, too late, and in the wrong direction.

The government now has an opportunity to distinguish itself from previous governments by proposing meaningful reform that further the information and privacy rights for British Columbians. They have promised transparency and accountability and it is now time to demonstrate it.

Criminal Investigation into the Conduct of a Former Minister

Vancouver, October 7, 2019 –  The Premier of British Columbia, John Horgan, announced late Friday that he has accepted the resignation of the Minister of Citizens’ Services, Jinny Sims, due to an ongoing RCMP investigation into her conduct. At this time, precise details into the nature criminal investigation of Minister Sims are unknown.

The former Minister of Citizens’ Services oversaw the administration of the freedom of information laws that are contained within the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and the records management practices contained in the Information Management Act (IMA).

During their 2017 campaign, the NDP promised to make reforms to the FIPPA. These included the creation of a duty to document government decisions and the inclusion of this provision within the FIPPA. Instead, the government added this provision to the IMA, which places authority within the former Minister to ensure government accountability. If the provision were to be included in the FIPPA, independent oversight would be given to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of BC.  

“This is a time for the government to move forward with a comprehensive reform of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act,” says Sara Neuert, the Executive Director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “This is a necessary step in rebuilding trust with the public, it’s what was promised, and it’s the recommendation of the all-party special legislative committee that reviewed the FIPPA in 2016, former Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, and current Commissioner Michael McEvoy.”

The former Minister of Citizens’ Services, Jinny Sims, issued a public apology in the spring of 2018 for conduct that contravened BC’s freedom of information laws. In the spring of 2019, a former staff member made several new allegations, which included an accusation that the former Minister continues to break these laws. We will be following the RCMP investigation very closely.

Contact:

Sara Neuert, Executive Director

BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association

Email: fipa (at) fipa.bc.ca

Phone: 604-739-9788

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New on the Podcast: Information Laundering

As we learned in the first episode of Data Subjects, BC’s Freedom of Information laws were created in order to ensure that public records belong to the public, which is a fundamental principle to our democracy.

Citizens in a democratic nation must have a right of access to information about their government in order to make informed choices. But prior to 1992, we didn’t have these rights in BC. And now, we’re at risk of losing them again due to something called information laundering.

This episode is about a loophole in BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that allows public bodies to create subsidiary companies that are not subject to BC’s Freedom of Information laws.

First, we learn about how BC Ferries and BC Hydro used subsidiary companies with disastrous consequences in the 1990s during the ‘Fast Ferries’ and ‘Hydrogate’ scandals. Then, we hear from Larry Kuehn, of the BC Teachers’ Federation, and find out how BC school boards have misused subsidiary companies.

And finally, we hear from Stanley Tromp, independent journalist, and learn about his experience requesting information about one of UBC’s subsidiary companies, the UBC Properties Trust, and its consequences for health and safety on campus.

If you’d like to see information laundering as a thing of the past, please sign our petition and encourage the BC government to keep their campaign promise of protecting information and privacy rights in BC.

Support Information and Privacy Rights in BC

We’re calling on the provincial government to keep their promise

Earlier this month, we teamed up with the BC Civil Liberties Association and created a petition to encourage the British Columbia government to keep their campaign promise of reforming the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

This Act is as important today as it was when it was created in the early 1990s. It creates a legal framework that regulates how public bodies treat personal information and assigns information and privacy rights to British Columbians.

But in the nearly thirty years since the Act was passed, a lot has changed while the Act has stayed largely the same. Just think, the new technology at the time was the fax machine. The internet and our connected world has changed the way information is created, stored, used, and accessed. And our laws need to change as well.

The status quo isn’t good enough

Two years ago, during the campaign period for our last provincial election, we asked each political party about their plans to update BC’s FIPPA. We asked the New Democratic Party (NDP) if they would include a duty to document within the FIPPA and if they would create penalties for those who interfere with information rights.

In response to both questions, the NDP unequivocally committed to including a duty to document within the FIPPA, and to creating penalties for those who interfere with information rights.

Today, over two years later, we’ve seen no action towards realizing these commitments. In fact, while the government celebrated legislative changes to the Information Management Act as improvements to “transparency and accountability to British Columbians,” they were being accused of breaking the very laws they are mandated to uphold.

The Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC, Michael McEvoy, released this statement about the legislative changes to the Information Management Act and the serious accusations facing government:

‘As it now stands, the Information Management Act designates the Minister herself as primarily responsible for ensuring her Ministry’s compliance with the duty to document its decisions. Citizens would find it very surprising that, on its face, the current law makes a Minister responsible for investigating their own conduct. This is unacceptable and falls short of the independent oversight required to ensure public trust and accountability.’

The tragic irony of the situation seems to be lost on government. Serious accusations of wrongdoing, the kinds that have been recently levelled against a government Minister, cannot be appropriately investigated by that very same Minister.

If British Columbians are to truly have improvements to government “transparency and accountability” then what is needed is independent oversight. The FIPPA creates a regulatory framework within the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, one that operates separately from government.

To keep its promise, and to truly increase “transparency and accountability to British Columbians,” the government must assign independent oversight to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner by creating a duty to document within the FIPPA.

What is a ‘Duty to Document’?

A duty to document is quite simple and something that the original writers of the FIPPA did not think would be necessary to include in the legislation. It’s the idea that government must record their decision making process, which is fundamental principle to functional freedom of information laws.

For example, if someone were to request documents related to a new tax that government was requiring of citizens, that request would not be successful if no records were to exist. The duty to document would compel government to document their decision making process so that citizens can exercise their information rights, like the right to know.

The original lawmakers who drafted the FIPPA did not anticipate that government would hold meetings in person and over the phone without writing anything down (a phenomenon known as ‘oral government’), use personal email addresses to conduct government business, and maliciously delete records in order to circumnavigate freedom of information laws (a practice known as ‘triple-delete’).

But unfortunately that is now the reality in which we are living.

We are not alone in calling for a duty to document. The all party special legislative committee that reviewed the FIPPA in 2016 made the specific recommendation to include a duty to document within the FIPPA. That committee included BC’s current Attorney General, David Eby.

In addition, Information and Privacy Commissioners in BC have called for the inclusion of a duty to document within the FIPPA. Elizabeth Denham, in her report, Access Denied wrote:

‘Government should create a legislative duty to document within FIPPA as a clear indication that it does not endorse “oral government” and that it is committed to be accountable to citizens by creating an accurate record of its key decisions and actions.’

And BC’s current Information and Privacy Commissioner, Michael McEvoy, has written this:

‘It is time for government to amend FIPPA to ensure that the vitally important duty to document has the oversight of my office, which is independent of government. The public interest requires this’

Yet despite these calls, the government has failed to act on their promise to protect the information rights of British Columbians.

We need your help

So after two years of government inaction, distraction, and obfuscation, we are inviting the public to join our call for the government to keep its promise of reforming FIPPA. We have included four main points; the inclusion of a duty to document within FIPPA is just the beginning. Over the coming months, we’ll expand on the other points.

If you are interested to learn more about the FIPPA, and our role in getting the legislation passed, check out our podcast. We have an episode on the history of the Act and an episode on the duty to document.

But the most important thing that you can do, is to add your name to our petition and voice your support for the privacy and information rights of British Columbians.

Support information and privacy rights for British Columbians today