Big changes could be coming to the antiquated Access to Information Act if a Commons committee has its way.
The Access to Information, Ethics and Privacy Committee dropped a major report last week before wrapping up for the summer. Unanimously approved by the multi-partisan committee, the report pushes the Trudeau government to make some serious and long-overdue changes to the law.
The Trudeau government started making improvements to ATI procedures -- important changes that did not require any legislative changes -- already this year. Treasury Board President Scott Brison, the minister responsible for the operation of the ATI system, said he wanted to bring in a limited package of legislative amendments this fall or early next year, but put off a major review of the act until 2018. He also asked the committee for recommendations.
And did they ever make recommendations -- 32 in all, including some that the Liberals had not mentioned in their election platform.
For example, the committee has recommended the creation of legal duty to document government decisions and processes. This recommendation was called for by all this country's information commissioners, as well as by a number of stakeholders. It is also being considered at the provincial level here in British Columbia, and was recommended by the legislative committee looking at the province's FOI law.
Another major recommendation is that the commissioner (and the courts) be allowed to look at records denied to a requester under the "cabinet confidences" exclusion. At present, if a government official claims a document is cabinet confidence, neither the information commissioner nor the Federal Court can look at the document to make sure the claim is valid.
Now that the committee has had its say, it's time for citizens to weigh in.
The recommendation to get rid of the $5 fee charged to all requesters of information would both expand transparency and save money, as each payment costs the government more than $50 to process. The Liberals have already eliminated all fees except the $5, but the committee has opened the door to bringing back fees for requests that are "voluminous" or which require "lengthy research."
The committee is also recommending bringing the federal information commissioner up to the level of many of her provincial colleagues by giving her the power to order the release requested information, without having to appeal to the courts.
Unfortunately, their recommendation included the problematic idea that cabinet ministers be able to override the commissioner's orders in cases where national security is involved. Interestingly, the government's consultation proposals also suggested it might want to allow a minister or cabinet to override the commissioner if they disagreed with her order.
These overrides are problematic, as they would allow ministers to block access to any documents they don't want seen. A more measured approach would be to simply allow the government to appeal the commissioner's decisions when they feel a mistake has been made.
Another major recommendation of the committee was to greatly expand the scope of the institutions that would be covered by the ATI law to include ministers' offices, the Prime Minister's Office, Parliament and court administrative offices, as well as other types of federal organizations providing government services.
Now that the committee has had its say, it's time for citizens to weigh in. The federal government is running a public consultation on access to information reform that runs until Canada Day.
Have your say -- insist that government make significant changes to be more open and transparent.
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