Info czar fears 'zone of secrecy' expanding

Government watchdog 'disappointed' by access task force's 'timid' report

Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen

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Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Jim Bronskill
The Ottawa Citizen

The federal information watchdog has lambasted a government task force's proposed changes to the country's freedom-of-information law as timid moves that would "expand the zone of secrecy in Canada."

In his first comments on the task force report released last week, Information Commissioner John Reid expressed concern yesterday that the recommendations would make using the Access to Information Act more difficult for the public.

He also called on the government to respond to the report, prepared by a panel of senior public servants, by referring the matter of access-to-information reform to a parliamentary committee for hearings before introduction of any legislative changes.

"The problem with the task force report is the pervasive influence of the 'insider perspective' on its content," Mr. Reid said in a written statement. "This task force, by its nature, could not be the vehicle for meaningful public participation and consideration of all relevant points of view."

Treasury Board President Lucienne Robillard, one of the ministers responsible for access rights, said yesterday it wasn't the government's place to ask a committee to study the issue.

"Parliamentary committees have the power to take any initiative they want to," she said following question period.

The Access to Information Act enables people who pay a $5 application fee to request a variety of records held by government departments. But critics have called for improvements to the access law, which has barely changed since coming into effect 19 years ago.

The task force, which spent almost two years on its study, recommended access to deliberations of the federal cabinet after 15 years instead of 20, measures to improve government information management and the processing of access requests, and order-making powers for the information commissioner, who is now limited largely to an ombudsman's role.

However, several recommendations would result in diminished public access to records such as draft audits, information obtained from foreign authorities and some files related to police investigations. In addition, the task force recommends doubling the application charge to $10 -- a move that could result in fewer requests -- as well as a range of other fee increases and introduction of the right to refuse to answer frivolous or abusive requests.

"I am disappointed by the timid nature and paltry number of user-friendly recommendations," Mr. Reid said. "If followed, the recommendations for legislative change in the report would significantly expand the zone of secrecy in Canada."

Mr. Reid was not commenting further yesterday, but his office made it clear the commissioner has several specific concerns about the task force recommendations, including:

- Lack of a clear-cut call for expansion of the act to many government institutions that currently fall outside the law. Instead, the report outlined a formula for determining whether the access law should apply.

- Measures that would actually increase the secrecy surrounding background papers viewed by the federal cabinet.

- Further entrenchment of a section of the act that allows other designated federal laws to effectively override access rights.

- New restrictions on the release of notes made by public servants.

- No introduction of penalties for government failure to meet deadlines for responding to requests.

- Less time for requesters to complain about responses to the information commissioner.

 Copyright  2002 The Ottawa Citizen

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