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BC NDP minister won’t commit to freedom of information recommendations

On April 7 During the Ministry of Citizens’ Services BC Liberal critic Bruce Banman raised an issue with the school board demanded a fee payment from Eric Hamber secondary’s Griffins’ Nest student newspaper. He asked the minister if Lisa Beare would consider exempting student newspapers from the fee.

“As with any new piece of legislation, it’s important to try and strike that balance within it,” Beare said. “Of course, as with any new piece of legislation, it’s also important to monitor the implementation and what that looks like, and to hear feedback.”

After the student newspaper went public, a GoFundMe campaign raised $1,650.

The BC NDP on Nov. 25 passed Bill 22, a suite of controversial amendments to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) that included power to charge an application. Shortly after royal assent, Beare signed a cabinet order setting the fee at $10.

The government rushed to make the amendments ahead of the all-party Special Committee to Review FIPPA struck to consider changes to the law once every six years. That committee had only met once, in order to elect a chair, before Bill 22 was passed. Banman asked whether Beare would abolish the $10 fee if the committee’s scheduled June 15 report recommends it be scrapped.

“I’m not going to prejudge any committee determinations. I’m looking forward to seeing the report,” Beare said. “Of course, we will give them thoughtful consideration, as we would any committee report that we receive here in government.”

Banman pressed Beare further: “Would she consider ignoring the recommendation of the committee on that particular issue?”

Replied Beare: “The member is asking hypothetical questions, which is absolutely the member’s right, of course. It’s hard to comment on a hypothetical.”

Michael McEvoy, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, testified before the all-party review committee on April 7 and made 17 recommendations. His first recommendation was that the administration follow through on its promise in February 2019 to include the legislative assembly under the public records transparency statute.

“There is no reason why the legislative assembly should not, in respect of its administrative functions, be subject to the same transparency and accountability rules as the more than 2,900 public bodies across the province,” McEvoy said.

McEvoy and the Ombudsperson and Merit Commissioner issued a joint public letter to House Leader Mike Farnworth more than three years ago, after then-Speaker Darryl Plecas exposed a spending scandal. Farnworth stated that the legislature would be added to the law, but this has yet to happen.

McEvoy recommended the law to cover legislative administration while still protecting constituents’ case files and other records subject to parliamentary privilege. For nearly 30 years, ministries, local governments, universities, schools, and independent legislative officers have followed the law.

“It is time for the legislative assembly to adhere to the same standards,” McEvoy said.

McEvoy also recommended that FIPPA be changed to allow cabinet to release information about its deliberations if it is determined that the public interest outweighs the requirement to protect cabinet secrets. Cabinet agendas, minutes, and reports are typically kept confidential for a period of 15 years.

He also wants the government to clarify the section that protects advice and recommendations made to politicians, so that factual, investigative or background material can be accessed by the public.

McEvoy said he would not repeat his criticism of Bill 22, except to say he would eventually report on its impacts.

“The obvious thing we’d be looking at are the volume of requests, whether that’s been impacted,” he said. “And, for example, comparing what is happening with the provincial government, generally, compared to past years, how that compares to other public bodies, where fees are not being charged, to see how the level and number of requests are being made.”

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