Liberals Scrap Most Access To Information Fees As Part Of Open Government Initiative

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OTTAWA — The Liberal government is immediately waiving all fees associated with access to information requests — apart from the $5 application charge.

It is also telling federal agencies to make information available in the format of the requester's choice, such as handy data spreadsheets, wherever possible.

The measures are included in an interim directive on openness from Treasury Board President Scott Brison.

scott brison
Treasury Board President Scott Brison speaks to a conference on open government in Ottawa, Thursday March 31, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

Brison told a Commons committee studying changes to the access law Thursday the steps represent early progress on Liberal commitments for reform.

He said the openness directive is guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people it serves and should be open by default.

It also emphasizes that providing access is paramount to serving the public interest.

'The act is out of date'

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Departments are supposed to answer within 30 days or provide valid reasons why they need more time.

However, the system has been widely criticized as slow, out of date and riddled with loopholes that allow agencies to withhold information rather than release it. The law has not been substantially updated since it took effect almost 33 years ago.

The Liberals plan to introduce legislation late this year or in early 2017 to implement several other short-term changes to the law based on election campaign commitments. They promise a full review of the Access to Information Act once the initial bill passes and every five years thereafter.

"This act is out of date," Brison told MPs on the committee. "We never want to be in this place again."

Brison said the next wave of measures would:

— Give the information commissioner, an ombudsman for requesters, the power to order release of government information — something she cannot do now;

— Ensure the act applies appropriately to the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet members, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts;

— Address the issue of frivolous and vexatious requests so that the purpose of the act is respected;

— Improve government performance reporting on Access to Information.

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