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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The full extent to which MPs were fiddling their expenses was revealed by an FoI request after journalist Heather Brooke smelled a rat. The Telegraph went on to break the story. Without it, we wouldn’t have known about floating duck islands, Horlicks, garlic presses and horse manure apparently required to keep this country’s government working. The scandal saw seven MPs handed prison sentences and led to the resignation of six ministers and the speaker.
The ‘Black Spider Memos’, written in 2004 and 2005 were finally released in 2015 after a decade of wrangling. The Prince of Wales’ wrote to Tony Blair and his ministers to discuss British forces' lack of adequate equipment in Iraq, beef farming and badger culling. They also revealed his love for the Patagonian Toothfish.
There were errors in the authorisation of 40 stop and search operations, the Guardian reported after an FoI in 2010. Some 14 forces were found to be involved in the scandal. Forces had to try to find those involved in order to apologise to them for the error.
Taser use against children by the Metropolitan Police rose nearly six-fold over four years, figures obtained by FoI revealed. Stun guns were used on children 131 times between 2008 and 2012 across all but nine London boroughs, rising from nine in 2008 to 53 in 2012. The figures were published as part of a wider report into children and human rights in London.
Concerns were raised over the treatment of elderly people when an FoI revealed that council visits were lasting a matter of minutes in over half a million cases, the Telegraph reported. Eight councils between them provided over 593,000 care visits to pensioners lasting five minutes or less over three years from 2010/11 to 2012/13. Many more lasted just 15 minutes or less, prompting care minister Norman Lamb to warn that such short visits do not give enough time to help people wash, dress and get out of bed.
Last year the Mirror reported that an FoI resulted in the Ministry of Justice disclosing that almost 500 wanted criminals, including murderers, paedophiles and rapists, had been at large in Britain for more than five years. Some 499 wanted criminals were revealed to be evading police and the authorities - including 53 violent offenders, 12 of which were murders handed life sentences. The group also contained 27 sex offenders, including 10 rapists and two paedophiles.
The Ministry of Defence was accused of knowingly risking the mental health of its own soldiers after an FoI revealed that almost 1,000 service people need psychiatric treatment after taking an anti-malaria medication. The Independent reported that 994 service men and women had received psychiatric help after being prescribed Lariam since 2008. The now-discredited drug has been linked to suicidal thoughts, psychosis, depression and hallucinations.
Back in the early days of FoIs, Bridgend Council in south Wales refused an FOI request for a food hygiene inspection report for a local hotel, according to the BBC. This was overruled by the Information Commissioner, which went on to set a precedent and now food hygiene scores are routinely disclosed. FoIs are not required for this any more and many eateries display their own scores voluntarily.
Follow Vincent Gogolek on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@BCFIPA