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B.C. Government Drags Heels On University Subsidiary Accountability

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The B.C. government sure does love secrecy for its educational institutions -- or at least their subsidiary companies.

It has now been a year since former Open Government Minister Margaret MacDiarmid told the B.C. Legislature (remember when we still had fall sittings?) that she was looking forward to working with Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham to close a major carve-out in B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The loophole allows universities to set up wholly-owned subsidiary companies whose records are completely outside the Freedom of Information regime, despite the fact that these companies often receive public funds to carry out university business.

Last October, Denham wrote a letter to MacDiarmid to highlight a regrettable B.C. Supreme Court ruling, which found that university subsidiary corporations are in fact not subject to the demands of FIPPA as the law is currently written. But in her estimation, it was a relatively quick fix, requiring little more than an amendment to the definition of "educational body."

Following that letter, MacDiarmid expressed a desire to work with Denham to fix the problem, though for her it seemed a significantly more complicated matter. In response to a question from NDP critic Doug Routley on Oct. 20, 2011, she said:

"We certainly have the intention of working with her [Denham] and looking to address it, but it would require consultation and would require a number of sections of the act to be different...The initial conversation is already starting with the commissioner, and we're going to work in this area."

What the commissioner said would be a relatively simple change to definitions was, according to the minister, a much bigger issue requiring consultations and even changes to other sections of the act.

So, a year later, what has been done?

In a word: nothing. Neither the quick fix referenced by Denham nor, apparently, the consultations suggested by MacDiarmid have come to pass. University subsidiary companies, despite making use of public funds, remain outside of FOI. And it isn't likely that anything will be done until, at the very earliest, after the upcoming provincial election. The fall sitting of the legislature has been cancelled due to lack of things to do (apparently), and the spring sitting will be relatively short because of the election itself.

Of course this isn't the first time the Liberals have promised action in this area and failed to deliver. In October 2006, following a report on a series of scandals involving the subsidiaries of school boards, then-education minister Shirley Bond issued a press release promising that she would implement the report's recommendations, including one that stated "school district business companies comply with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act."

That was six years ago this month, and the school board subsidiaries (whatever number remain) are still a FOI-free zone.

Apparently the B.C. government doesn't share Commissioner Denham's view that "It is vital for open and accountable government that, whatever the form of the entity, if it is carrying on public business, it should be subject to FIPPA."