OTTAWA - The federal budget axe may be chopping away at citizens' right to information about government, a parliamentary watchdog warns.
Suzanne Legault, information commissioner of Canada, says her office has seen a sharp rise in complaints about departments that take too long to answer requests under the Access to Information Act.
The increase in such complaints over the last six months is likely linked to budget cuts that will remove 19,200 public servants from the federal workforce by 2015, Legault says in a new report.
"If this trend continues, it could seriously stretch our investigative team," says the document.
"We suspect ... that budget cuts may be a factor, since a jump in administrative complaints suggests that institutions are struggling to meet their basic obligations under the Act."
Legault's office is itself caught in the same budget squeeze, with funding reduced by five per cent as the number of complaints coming through the door rises, to 1,596 in 2012-2013, up by eight per cent from the previous year.
Legault will tell MPs at a House of Commons committee later this month that she needs more staff to deal with the burgeoning workload.
"Any meaningful solution could only come in the form of an infusion of resources so we could increase our staff complement," she says in a report tabled in Parliament.
The budget squeeze is apparently having an effect similar to 1995, when the Chretien government's so-called program review, also intended to slay the deficit, ground down the access-to-information system because of staff cuts.
Departments lost institutional memory with the departure of senior officials, former information commissioner John Reid reported to MPs, and document-filing systems suffered with the loss of clerical staff.
The latest round of cuts, begun in 2011 but accelerating in the 2012 budget, seem to have reversed a modest improvement in the timeliness of responses under the access-to-information system.
"We're now back to an all-time low in timeliness," Legault said in an interview, citing statistics released in December by Tony Clement, president of the Treasury Board, which is responsible for the access-to-information system.
The percentage of requests answered within the basic 30-day time frame specified by the Act hit 55 per cent in 2011-2012, the lowest ever and down almost five points from when the Tories first formed government in early 2006. A decade ago, 66 per cent were answered within 30 days.
Departments also violated legislated deadlines for responses in one of every seven requests in 2011-2012, with most saying they lacked the staff necessary to process them.
"This is disquieting," said Legault. "There is a number of institutions where it's clearly having to do with the level of resourcing."
But a spokeswoman for Clement says the government's cost-cutting has deliberately spared the access-to-information system. Access to information "has not been part of that," Andrea Mandel-Campbell said in an interview.
She also noted there has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of requests arriving annually since 2006, currently more than 43,000 a year, many of them more complex than in the past.
Given the extra workload, the government has done well in maintaining a "pretty steady state" for timeliness, she said. "We are keeping up."
Mandel-Campbell also said the government is investing in new digital technology to make the access-to-information system more efficient and effective.
On Tuesday, Clement will appear in a how-to video on the Treasury Board website to launch a pilot project that will allow requesters to file and monitor requests online, and pay their fees electronically, all from a single portal.
Currently, many departments require a completed paper form and cheque, usually sent by mail. There is currently no central clearing house for requests.
The six-to-12-month pilot will include just three departments — Citizenship and Immigration, Treasury Board and Shared Services Canada — but is to be expanded eventually to all departments and agencies.
Also in the works for later in 2013-2014 is an online tool to allow searches — by keyword, date or institution — of summaries of completed access-to-information requests government-wide.
Departments and agencies currently are required to post such summaries monthly to their individual websites, but there is no central registry. An earlier registry known as the CAIRS system was killed by the Conservative government in early 2008.
The Access to Information Act came into force in 1983, when Canada was considered a global leader in government transparency. But the legislation, born in the pre-Internet era, has never been overhauled for the digital age, and of late Canada has been called an international laggard in freedom of information by human-rights groups and academics.
The Act allows anyone resident in Canada to request government-controlled information for a $5 application fee, plus any additional fees for processing and photocopies.
The law requires a response within 30 days, but permits departments to take sometimes lengthy extensions, and to black out broad categories of information, such as advice or security-related material. Aggrieved requesters can complain to the information commissioner without charge, though Legault's office lacks order-making power.
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Next: 2012 budget highlights
2012 BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS
The government is calling the budget a plan for Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity.<br><br> "In this budget, our Government is looking ahead not only over the next few years but also over the next generation," said Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. "The reforms we present today are substantial, responsible and necessary. They will ensure that all across government we are focused on enabling and sustaining Canada's long-term economic growth."<br><br> However, while the budget does include many investments, it also make a number of cuts and changes that will save money. Here are some of the highlights. <br><br> (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)
PUBLIC SERVICE CUTS
The government is cutting spending by $5.2 billion on an ongoing basis, but it says it will not reach that total until 2014-2015. <br><br> Ottawa says 70 per cent of these savings will come from "operational efficiencies." <br><br> The planned reduction in spending is expected to result in the elimination of 19,200 public service jobs over a three-year period, 4.8 per cent of total federal employment. The government expects 7,200 of those positions to be eliminated through attrition. Six hundred executives positions are expected to be slashed. <br><br> Roughly $900 million will be spent making these job cuts, on things such as severance and benefits. <br><br> After 2014-2015, the public service cuts will save the federal government $5.23 billion per year.
The government is cutting the budget of Canada's national broadcaster by $115 million per year by 2014-2015. Currently, the CBC's total budget stands at roughly $1.1 billion per year, making for a cut of roughly 10 per cent.
The federal government is eliminating the penny. <br><br> But prices won't necessarily be rounded. The cent will continue to be the smallest unit of sale and non-cash transactions, such as spending done with credit cards, will continue to be settled to the nearest cent. <br><br> Existing pennies will continue to be legal tender for an indefinite period of time, but the Mint will stop producing new ones and distribution will cease in Fall 2012. <br><br> If no pennies are available for a cash transaction, it will be rounded to the nearest five cent increment after GST/HST. <br><br> The government says it currently costs 1.6 cent to manufacture a penny and that supplying them to the economy costs $11 million per year. (CP photo)
CRIME & JUSTICE
The government says it has no intention of building any new prisons, despite the passage of the omnibus crime bill that some experts suggests will increase the number of people incarcerated. The Tories plan to slash $295 million from Corrections Canada by 2014-2015.<br><br> The RCMP will also receive major cuts, $195.2 million by 2014-2015.<br><br> But the government will spend $9.6 million over three years to combat counterfeiting.
The government is moving to alter the current process for the environmental assessment of resource-based projects. <br><br> It plans to move to one review for one project and to give these reviews a definite deadline. The change will affect the Northern Gateway pipeline. Additionally, the government wants to focus resources on reviewing the largest plans with the greatest potential for environmental impact. The federal government says it will do this while continuing to protect the environment. <br><br> The government says this change is aimed at simplifying a complex system of reviews that imposes costly delays and deters investment.<br><br> Canada's first near-urban national park will also be declared in the Rouge Valley in suburban Toronto. <br><br> Other highlights include: - By 2014-2015, Environment Canada's budget will be reduced by $53.8 million per year.<br> - $50 million will be spent over two years to protect species at risk.
OAS: FREEDOM 67
The government is increasing the eligibility age for receiving Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income from 65 to 67. <br><br> The change will be made starting on April 1, 2023 and will be fully implemented by January 2029. <br><br> The government will also allow individuals to choose to defer payment for a maximum of five years starting in July 2013. <br><br> If a person does defer, they will receive a larger adjusted pension than if they had begun collecting at 65. <br><br> The government says it is making the changes primarily due to demographic shifts. The pending retirement of the Baby Boomers will increase the total cost of the program from $38 billion in 2011 to $108 billion in 2030.
The feds are planning to reduce Health Canada's budget by nearly $310 million per year by 2014-2015. <br><br> Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada will consolidate many services, reducing what the government calls duplication, in order to achieve some of these savings. <br><br> The government will also eliminate Assisted Human Reproduction, a group involved in the study of potential uses for stem cells. <br><br> They also propose:<br> - Expanding GST/HST and income tax breaks for health care services.<br> - $51.2 million over two years to improve food safety. <br><br> (Alamy photo)
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
The government is making an investment of more than $1 billion in science and technology. <br><br> Canada currently lags behind other similar economies in terms of private sector investment in R&D and overall innovation, according to the government. <br><br> Here are a few highlights of the spending:<br> - $400 million to help increase venture capital investment by businesses.<br> - $100 million for the Business Development Bank Of Canada for venture capital investment.<br> - $110 million per year for the Industrial Research Assistance Program.<br> - $105 million over two years help pay for innovation in the forestry sector.<br> - $500 million over five years for the Canada Foundation for Innovations to pay for new competitions. Funding will start in 2014-15.<br>
The government will revamp the immigration system by killing a backlog of 300,000 skilled foreign worker applicants by sending them their money and applications back. Up to $130 million will be spent refunding fees to skilled worker applicants who paid under outdated criteria. <br><br> The feds are planning to improve the system for the recognition of foreign credentials <br><br> The government will move to ensure businesses first look to domestic sources of labour before using the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. <br><br> <blockquote><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> A previous version of this story stated that the budget will kill a backlog of 460,000 skilled foreign worker applicants by sending them their money back. The actual number is 300,000. </blockquote> <br><br> (pwenzel on Flickr)
The budget will implement the Beyond the Border security pact with the United States (The Action Plan on Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness and the Action Plan On Regulatory Cooperation). <br><br> But the coming changes don't mean the Canada Borders Service Agency will escape cuts. The department's budget will be reduced by $143.4 million by 2014-2015 <br><br> It will also seek to streamline for the process of bringing goods home from abroad by increasing the dollar amount exempted from tariffs for travellers. <br><br> (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
The budget seeks to continue the government's work to expand Canada's international trading relationships. <br><br> "Our government is undertaking the most ambitious trade expansion plan in Canadian history," said Flaherty. <br><br> In his speech, Flaherty also signals that, while the U.S. will remain our largest trading partner, Canada needs to open its export economy to emerging economies. China, India and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are mentioned by name. <br><br> However, there will be cuts. <br><br> The International Assistance Envelope, which includes the Canadian International Development Agency, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, the International Development Research Centre the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Natural Resources Canada, will be cut by $377.6 million by 2014-2015. <br><br> Most of that money will come from The Canadian International Development Agency -- $319.2 million. <br><br> Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada will be cut by $29.1 million. <br><br> The federal government also plans to find $80 million in saving by selling official residences abroad. <br><br> (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Prime Minister Stephen Harper March 2, 2012 in Ottawa -- Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images)
The budget touts the government's progress in modernizing the Canadian Forces through major investment. However, the Defence budget is about to fall substantially. <br><br> Some of this reduction will come from improvements in efficiency, but much will come from the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan.<br><br> The cuts will amount to roughly $1.12 billion by 2014-2015. According to Armine Yalnizyan, of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, these cuts are over and above the roughly half a billion announced during a previous round of strategic review. <br><br> The size of the military will not shrink but it won't grow either. The regular Canadian Forces will remain at 68,000 members and the reserve force at 27,000. <br><br> Veterans Affairs will also be on the receiving end of cuts - $66.7 million by 2014-2015. <br><br> The budget will also provide $5.2 billion for the Coast Guard over the next 11 years. <br><br> (Canadian soldiers prepare to leave Kandahar military base in southern Afghanistan on July 17, 2011 -- ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
The government is eliminating the Trudeau-era youth program Katimavik, as The Huffington Post Canada first reported. <br><br> The federal government says the program benefits a very small number at an excessive cost per person. <br><br> (CP photo)
FISHERIES AND OCEANS
The budget reduces spending on Fisheries and Oceans by $79.3 million by 2014-2015 <br><br> The department will undergo a substantial restructuring. Services will be consolidated and the size of its motor vehicle fleet will be cut. It will also focus less on research, relying more on academia. <br><br> (AFP/Getty Images)
The government will spend $275 million over three years on First Nations education.<br><br> The money is budgeted for the building and renovation of schools on reserves. <br><br> Ottawa is also set to spend $27 million over two years on the Urban Aboriginal Strategy. <br><br> $330.8 million will also be provided over two years to build and expand water infrastructure on reserves. <br><br> (CP)
Coming changes to MP Pensions are not outlined in the budget. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said the changes he wants to make, increasing pension contributions by the MPs themselves and raising the age of eligibility will have to be discussed. <br><br> (Alamy photo)
The government is making a number of changes to Employment Insurance (EI) it says are aimed at creating a more efficient program.<br><br> -$387 million over two years for matching benefit amounts to wages in different local labour markets. Depending on the unemployment rate in the region, claimants will need between 14 and 22 weeks to qualify for EI. <br><br> -$74 million over two years to help make sure claimants benefit from getting a job. EI claimants will be able to keep 50 per cent of their earnings without getting their benefits clawed back. <br><br> - Limiting premium increases to no more than 5 cents per year. <br><br> - $21 million over two years to improve the content and timeliness of information provided to job seekers. <br><br> (Alamy photo)