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Thursday 19 September 2019
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Govt removes FOIA clause

Miscellaneous Provisions Bill, 2019 passed

File photo: Finance Minister Colm Imbert  Photo by Jeff K. Mayers.
File photo: Finance Minister Colm Imbert Photo by Jeff K. Mayers.

Government has completely removed the controversial Clause 7 amendment to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The amendment formed part of the controversial Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax Amnesty, Pensions, Freedom of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisations) Bill, 2019 which was passed, with amendments, in the Senate on Monday night.

When the freedom of information clause was introduced there were objections from over 47 groups, among them the Law Association, trade unions, and civil society groups.

Clause 7 was also objected to by the Opposition. The clause sought to extend the period within which a public authority is required to inform an applicant of its decision in relation to a request for information.

This period would have be extended from 30 to 90 days.

After the clause was criticised, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi announced a dialing back on the period proposed for FOIA request responses, giving a public authority a time frame to 45 days with an additional 30 days for the AG to review rejected requests.

This was again reduced and Prime Minister Dr Rowley said the Government will keep the current time frame of 30 days but said the amendment compelling the public authority to refer decisions to decline FOIA requests to the AG, who would make a determination within 30 days and advise the authority whether the applicant is entitled to access a requested document, would remain.

In winding up debate on the Bill, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said he listened to the contributions of senators to the debate, singling out Independent Senator Sophia Chote,SC, who warned of a possible conflict of interest with the AG.

However, he said, "We are coming back with a stand-alone review of the FOIA."

He said there was need to review the exemptions under the Act. Imbert pointed to the recent ruling of the Privy Council in the Ravi Balgobin-Maharaj appeal against Petrotrin which refused to disclose witness statements used in arbitration proceedings in the World gas-to-liquids plant proceedings.

He made it clear it wasn't Government that refused the request, but the company.

He said the proposed amendments was to save the tax-payers millions of dollars paid for claims in the High Court in judicial review proceedings when disclosure is refused.

In a statement last night, the Opposition said Government had collapsed “under intense pressure” when it was forced to remove the FOIA amendments.

“As a result, the time frame for responding to freedom of information requests will not be changed and the Attorney General will not be able to interfere with the freedom of information process,” the UNC said.

The UNC also spoke on the other clauses of the Bill, accusing the Government of refusing to redirect proposed pension monies into programmes to help the poor, create employment, educate citizens or diversify the economy.

“They chose higher pensions over progress. The pension hikes were mysteriously part of the same bill that sought to weaken freedom of information laws,” the UNC said in a statement.

However, it said the removal of clause 7 was a victory for TT and democracy.

The Bill was passed in the House of Representatives last Friday with Government's simple majority.

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