11/07/2017 03:34 EST | Updated 11/07/2017 10:43 EST

MPs begin amending Access to Info bill, but many suggestions voted down

OTTAWA — MPs have amended the government's much-criticized Access to Information bill by placing a check on plans to give federal agencies the power to refuse to process access requests.

Members of a House of Commons committee voted to give the information commissioner authority to decide if an agency can decline to handle a request.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith says it's an important safeguard because an agency would have to get the commissioner's approval before rejecting an application for federal files.

Transparency advocates and the commissioner herself sounded alarms about the bill because, as originally drafted, it would have given federal departments authority to simply reject a request it deemed too vague or frivolous.

The Access to Information Act allows applicants who pay $5 to ask for government documents ranging from expense reports and internal audits to briefing papers and archival papers, but it has been widely denounced as slow and antiquated.

The Liberal government says its bill, introduced last June, represents the first real modernization of the law since it took effect in 1983.

But many have dismissed the proposed changes as a backward step.

In addition, the government has been pilloried for backpedalling on a promise to extend the law to the offices of the prime minister, cabinet members, senators, MPs and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

Instead, these offices and institutions would be required to regularly release certain types of records, such as hospitality and travel expenses and contract information.

Last week the Liberal government said it was open to narrowing the proposed refusal provisions, which critics said would allow federal agencies to reject valid access requests.

At the Monday meeting, the NDP and Greens put forward several other changes to the bill, but they were swiftly defeated.

A number of amendments proposed by New Democrat MP Murray Rankin — including one to scrap the $5 application fee — were ruled out of order because they were deemed to be beyond the scope of the bill.

Conservative MP Peter Kent said the legislation was "beyond redemption" and that no bill at all would be preferable. As a result, his party did not even suggest changes.

The committee is slated to meet again Wednesday to resume clause-by-clause dissection of the bill.

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter