Final report (3218-00618): Privy Council Office

Institution: Privy Council Office 
OIC file number: 3218-00618
Institution file number: A-2016-00289
Date: September 11, 2020

Summary

Privy Council Office (PCO) did not respond to an access request within the time limits set out in the Access to Information Act. PCO is therefore deemed to have refused to give access to records requested.

As a result of a complaint submitted to the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) of Canada, the Information Commissioner recommended that PCO provide a final response to the request no later than June 1, 2020. PCO did not provide a final reponse by June 1, 2020. PCO did not indicate when it would be able to respond to the request, citing outstanding consultations with other provincial and federal departments, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on operations.

The complaint is well founded.

Complaint

The complainant alleged that the Privy Council Office (PCO) did not respond to a request for information within the time limits set out in the Access to Information Act.

Investigation

On July 29, 2016, the complainant submitted an access to information request to PCO for records relating to assistance in responding to the Alberta fire disaster in the spring of 2016. PCO retrieved approximately 9,100 pages responsive to the access request.

Within the statutory timeframe to do so, PCO claimed a 120-day extension of time, relying on paragraphs 9(1)(a) and (b) of the Act.

In December 2016, shortly before the expiration of the time extension, PCO put the request “on hold” indefinitely while it undertook consultations with other government institutions. It should be noted at the outset that there is no provision in the Act that permits the indefinite suspension of an institution’s obligation to respond to an access request in order to conduct consultations.

In November 2018, PCO informed the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) that it had reviewed and completed consultations on approximately half of the responsive records.  In January 2020, PCO confirmed that it had sent all remaining consultation requests on the second half of the responsive records.

PCO indicated that it would require until June 2020 to issue a final response to the access request, in order to:

  • receive responses to the outstanding consultations;
  • consider the recommendations on all of the responsive records; and
  • take decisions regarding disclosure.

PCO has provided only one interim response to the complainant, in May 2018 (totaling 139 pages).

By failing to respond within the extended due date claimed, PCO is deemed to have refused access under subsection 10(3).

Results

The complaint is well founded.

Having found that the complaint is well founded, I issued a report pursuant to section 37(1) of the Act, recommending that PCO process the remaining pages and provide a final response to the complainant no later than June 1, 2020.

PCO did not respond to my report until June 29, 2020, at which time PCO indicated it had been unable to meet the June 1, 2020 deadline.

Specifically, PCO responded:

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, PCO committed to responding to this request by the June 1, 2020 deadline; and we were on track to meet that objective. However, given the current circumstances, we were unable to respond by June 1, 2020. To properly respond to this file, a number of consultations were sent from our office to various provincial and federal departments. We continue to follow up with these institutions in an effort to receive their representations in a timely manner; however, not all institutions currently have the capacity to complete this work at this time.

PCO further noted that, in light of the varying impacts of the pandemic on each department consulted, it was not able to commit to a specific deadline by which to provide a final response, but noted that the file remains a priority.
Although recent amendments to the Act authorize me to order the disclosure of records, this is only with respect to complaints received as of June 21, 2019. As this complaint was received prior to that date, unfortunately, I have no authority to order that PCO respond to the request by a specified date. Having made my recommendations to the Clerk of the Privy Council, I must conclude my investigation as I have exhausted my jurisdiction under the Act.
In issuing this report I must, however, stress that the response to my recommendations is disappointing, particularly as it comes from PCO, a central institution of government headed by the Prime Minister, who has expressed a commitment to transparency and openness.

This final report will be published in accordance with subsection 37(3.1) of the Act.

Finally, please note that section 41 of the Act provides a right to the complainant who receives this report to apply to the Federal Court for a review. The complainant must apply for this review within 35 business days after the date of this report and must serve a copy of the application for review to the relevant parties, as per section 43.

Caroline Maynard
Information Commissioner of Canada

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