Better access to information fading

Governments say more study needed before law is changed

Reprinted with permission from the Ottawa Citizen

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Friday, October 4, 2002

Jim Bronskill
The Ottawa Citizen

Prospects for reform of Canada's freedom-of-information law faded yesterday amid talk of further government study of possible changes.

Key officials involved in a review of the Access to Information Act indicated there would be many months of consultations and preparatory work before proposals could be drafted for consideration by the federal cabinet.

The remarks at the annual conference of the Canadian Access and Privacy Association effectively scotched rumours the Liberal government would soon carry out a long-awaited overhaul of the law, which has barely changed since taking effect in 1983.

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to request a variety of records held by government departments. But many critics have called for improvements to the act, saying it is out of step with public appetite for greater government transparency.

A federal task force report issued in June recommended several modifications to the access regime, raising hopes of legislative and regulatory reform.

But federal Justice Department official Bill Pentney told the conference the report was "not meant to be the last word" on the law.

Officials are consulting government departments, Crown corporations and other parties, Mr. Pentney said.

"It is not clear what the timing of the government's response will be on the legislative side," he said.

"We are taking the time right now to try to study the task force report, look at it in the broader context, and try to develop the best possible set of reform recommendations for consideration by ministers."

Mr. Pentney said Justice would work with officials at the Treasury Board Secretariat, another federal agency with responsibility for the access law, in assembling proposals.

The secretariat is undertaking a review of administrative policies associated with the access law in order to help government officials who answer requests for information do a better job.

Journalist Dean Beeby, who also addressed the conference, expressed frustration at the slow pace of the reform process in the wake of the task force report.

"How long are we going to study this thing?" asked Mr. Beeby, Atlantic bureau chief of The Canadian Press. "It seems to me that this was a lost opportunity."

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 granting authority to issue orders to the information commissioner, who is now limited largely to a mediator's role.

 Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen

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