Drop plan to let Minister shield data, MPs advise

Reprinted with permission from The National Post

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Thursday, November 1, 2001

Ian Jack

The National Post

OTTAWA - The government should drop plans to give the Justice Minister the power to keep information permanently secret if it pertains to national security or foreign relations, a committee of MPs will recommend today.

The backbench committee, led by John Bryden, a Liberal, will issue 11 recommendations aimed at making more information public at a time when the Liberal Cabinet is trying to pass omnibus legislation that would further restrict the public's access to government documents.

The committee has been controversial since Mr. Bryden launched it in the spring. Don Boudria, Government House Leader, blocked bureaucrats from appearing on the grounds it was not an official committee of the House of Commons.

Mr. Bryden's group, with representatives from all parties except the New Democratic Party, will also urge that Cabinet confidences be made subject to the access to information process, which means they could be released to the public if the federal Information Commissioner determines that doing so would not harm the national interest.

The committee also wants Crown corporations such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and Via Rail to lose their exemption from the Act, which currently means it is impossible to get any corporate information they do not want to reveal.

"You're going to see a report that fairly represents the reservations that ordinary MPs have with the shortcomings of the Access Act," Mr. Bryden said in an interview.

A controversial section of the government's omnibus anti-terrorism bill would give the Justice Minister the right to designate information secret, taking it out of the access to information process that allows the Information Commissioner, an officer of Parliament, to judge whether a document should be released.

The current act allows for information to be withheld in the national interest, but only after such a review, opponents of the amendment say.

Anne McLellan, the Minister of Justice, has said the amendment is necessary to maintain information-sharing agreements with Canada's allies.

"We need the security measures but we as Parliamentarians need to ensure the measures don't go beyond what is absolutely necessary," Mr. Bryden said.

He said he will attempt to raise as a point of privilege in the House today the government's treatment of the committee.

Meanwhile, a unanimous report by a Senate committee will call for a sunset clause to retire certain controversial aspects of the government's anti-terrorism bill.

The call came as Herb Dhaliwal, the Fisheries Minister, repeated his desire to see an expiry date attached to the controversial measures included in the proposed anti-terror bill.

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