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Appearances before Parliamentary Committees
Appearance before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on the Access to Information Act reform
[Check against Delivery]
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for inviting me to address you once again on the issue of Access to Information Act reform. With me today are Suzanne Legault, Assistant Commissioner, Policy, Communications and Operations, and Andrea Neill, Assistant Commissioner, Complaints Resolution and Compliance.
At my appearance before you last week, I tabled a document which elaborates on twelve recommendations to strengthen the Access to Information Act. These twelve recommendations are, in my view, urgently needed to modernize the access to information regime from a legislative perspective and to catch up with more progressive regimes both nationally and internationally.
These changes address the general themes of Parliamentary review, providing a right of access to all, strengthening the compliance model, public education, research and advice, coverage and timeliness.
I want to stress that the list of recommendations represent an important first step in meeting the challenge of modernizing the Act. The list is by no means exhaustive. The recommendations only tackle the most pressing matters.
I will quickly go over the twelve recommendations and am prepared to respond to more detailed questions in a moment.
1. I recommend that the Act be amended to require a review by Parliament every five years. This schedule would provide an opportunity for Parliamentarians to identify systemic issues, consider best practices in other jurisdictions and recommend changes to legislative or administrative structures.
2. In an environment of increasing globalization, people will require access to information regardless of their physical presence. It is becoming difficult to sustain the concept of limited access. It prevents our regime to move to the Internet age, which ultimately affects timeliness. It also increases costs by adding intermediaries. Therefore, I recommend that the right of access be provided to all.
3. I also recommend providing the Information Commissioner with order-making power for administrative complaints. This model facilitates an expeditious resolution of administrative matters, which account for over 50% of my Office’s business.
4. In order to exercise a measure of control over the complaint process and the utilization of resources, I recommend for the Information Commissioner to have the discretion to investigate complaints. Currently, the Access to Information Act requires that I investigate all complaints received.
5. The two next recommendations deal with my mandate as Information Commissioner. I believe that these changes will assist in promoting greater dialogue, transparency and increased accountability.
First, many of my counterparts are expressly empowered to promote a public understanding of access rights and to conduct research into issues affecting the public’s right to know. This expanded mandate will help ensure that Canadians are aware of and know how to exercise their rights to information. Therefore, I recommend that the Information Commissioner be given a public education and research mandate.
6. In addition, I recommend that the role of the Information Commissioner in providing advice regarding proposed legislative initiatives be expressly recognized so that federal institutions are obligated to consult with my Office in developing legislative proposals to ensure proper account is taken of the impact on freedom of information.
7. Canadians expect all publicly funded bodies to be accountable under access to information legislation. This is why the administrative records of the Senate, the House of Commons, the Library of Parliament and the judicial branch of government should be covered by the Act. This is my recommendation number 7.
8. Another important proposal relates to Cabinet confidences. The status of Cabinet confidences has been under constant debate since the inception of the legislation. Currently, they are excluded from my review, which goes against one of the fundamental principles of freedom of information legislation – independent oversight. Therefore, I recommend that the Access to Information Act apply to Cabinet confidences as discretionary exemptions.
9. As noted in my Special Report to Parliament on Report Cards, greater oversight is required to ensure that extensions do not undermine the timely release of information. Therefore, the approval of the Information Commissioner should be required for any extension that is greater than sixty days.
10. Timeliness of investigations is also an issue that my office is tackling. I believe it is appropriate to establish a ninety day timeframe for completing administrative investigations. This is my recommendation number 10.
11. The Access to Information Act does not provide direct access to the Federal Court for requesters. Instead, the Information Commissioner must complete his investigation before a complainant can go to court, if he or she so desires. The time required to obtain a binding resolution of a complaint can be too long for some requesters. Recommendation 11 provides for that option.
12. Institutions are sometimes faced with multiple and simultaneous requests from the same applicant. As it currently stands, the provision for extending time limits cannot be applied to these situations. Therefore, I recommended that government institutions have the option of claiming time extensions when responding to multiple and simultaneous requests from the same requester that would unreasonably interfere with their operations.
In closing, I would like to reiterate that I support in principle the Open Government Act that was developed by my predecessor at the behest of this Committee. However, the recommendations I am making in this document should be implemented without further delay. They would go a long way in appreciably improving the effectiveness of the regime and providing significant benefits to Canadians.
Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts on the reform of the Access to Information Act. We would be pleased to answer any questions.