Access to information changes are good: Collins
Over the last few days, there has been an important debate in the House of Assembly regarding Bill 29, an Act to Amend the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The changes that the provincial government is making to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act ( ATIPPA) are sound and reasonable.
The act was introduced in 2005 and requires that a review of the legislation occur within five years and every five years thereafter. The completion of this first review fulfils a key piece of the ATIPPA. In addition, a public consultation process helped form the basis of the recommendations contained in the review.
Cabinet confidence is vitally important on many levels and exempting cabinet material is a standard practice across all jurisdictions in Canada. Cabinet materials under this act will continue to be protected.
Bill 29 ensures that the auditor general will continue to receive the information he had before. There is absolutely no change. In addition, the auditor general has full access to all the financial expenditures of the province. On a regular basis, the provincial government provides financial reports to the auditor general. Every expenditure, every dollar spent, is subject to audit.
We have made positive changes to the fee schedule which will benefit applicants. Currently the applicant is entitled to receive two hours of free processing time with respect to th eir access requests.
The new fee schedule will extend the amount of free time from two hours to four hours and the hourly fee rate is consistent with other jurisdictions. In addition, the $5 application fee for ATIPP requests has not changed, nor has the ability for public bodies to waive the payment of fees in certain circumstances.
Amendments to ATIPPA will also provide public bodies the ability to disregard frivolous and vexatious requests. These are requests which have no purpose or are highly repetitious.
Most straightforward, reasonable requests can be handled in the four hours of free search time. However, frivolous and vexatious requests can take a substantial amount of time and cost a significant amount of money with often no co-operation from the applicant to narrow the scope of their request.
But the point that is being missed is that the public body must notify an applicant that the request is refused due to it being frivolous and vexatious and a reason must be provided for such a refusal. The applicant also has the right to appeal that decision with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner or the court. To simplify, if a department determines a request is frivolous and vexatious, the applicant has every right to appeal and this legislation will provide for that. It should also be noted that the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has the same right to refuse frivolous and vexatious complaints.
There has also been misinformation that the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has been prevented from doing its job. Nothing could be further from the truth. The commissioner has broad abilities to review, with limited exception, all records of government. The commissioner plays a significant and important role in the legislation.
Other positive benefits include providing public bodies with more flexibility in disclosing personal information; providing additional protection for people who want to do business with the government of Newfoundland and Labrador; extending the time for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to conduct reviews; and providing the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner with the legislative authority to conduct privacy complaints in order to protect the privacy of individuals.
ATIPPA must strike a balance between the right of the public to access information and good stewardship on the part of the provincial government. These proposed amendments are all sound changes to our province’s access to information legislation. Felix Collins is minister of justice and attorney
general for Newfoundland and Labrador.