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Monday 21 October 2019
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Frustrating FOIA

Photo courtesy Pixabay
Photo courtesy Pixabay

THE proposed amendment to the timeline outlined by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a step back and should be abandoned as a matter of principle.

To the extent that it does not introduce needless delays or duplication, we support the Government’s proposal to introduce a new procedure that would see the Ministry of the Attorney General advise on applications for information submitted under the act.

Such a procedure can help prevent the waste of millions through needless litigation. Agencies that have little access to quality legal advice will benefit from State expertise better capable of conducting the balancing act set out by the Privy Council.

Such a move reduces the likelihood of poor decision-making, decision-making that costs taxpayers.

But Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar has said the involvement of the AG’s ministry politicises the process. This argument is unhelpful. The FOIA already applies to public authorities which all, in one way or another, are overseen by the political officials who sit in the Cabinet.

Meanwhile, there are legitimate reasons why the State might require more time to reply to requests. Clearly, the FOIA has not been working as efficiently as it should, a fact confirmed by recent Privy Council and Supreme Court rulings.

Given the red tape that bedevils the public sector – a sector which even President Paula Mae Weeks has had cause to admonish – it is not unimaginable that officials would need more time for applications to make their way to the appropriate officer at the Ministry of the Attorney General and then back to the applicant after a rigorous review.

But if this is the case, the problem is not the current timeline but the operation of the public service itself. The State should devise a more efficient and timely way of handling and reviewing requests. It can introduce a shared online portal which authorities and citizens can access.

It can allow officials to cooperate with agencies that already store information, such as the Central Statistical Office. If it cannot devise an appropriate means of implementation under the current timeline, it should abandon its proposal forthwith.

As we have said previously in this space, any reform should not result in delays. Prolonging the current timeline, by whatever quantum, is a retrograde step. It enhances the potential for abuse of power, allowing officials to delay requests detrimentally. That type of filibustering should be saved for Parliament.

At a time when democracy all over the world is perceived to be in danger, if changes are to be made to the FOIA, they should be unequivocally positive changes, tipping the scales in favor of the applicant. Not the State.

The fact that dozens of civil society organisations have asked the State to hold its hand and to consult is a further reason why the timeline proposed for this new policy should be abandoned.

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