Freedom of Information bill tabled

Cayman’s long awaited Freedom of Information Bill was tabled in the Legislative Assembly as a discussion paper for public consultation.

The bill is designed to give the public a right of access to official documents.

Tabling the document on Friday, Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said seven years ago, as a member of the opposition, he had seconded a motion urging the enactment of such legislation.

He said at that time that government should not have a monopoly on information and he was saying the same thing now.

The operations of government were often ‘shrouded in mystery’ with documents sometimes being classified as secret or confidential even when they did not contain a anything really sensitive, Mr. Tibbetts told the House.

In some cases a document might contain false information but a member of the public did not have access to it or a chance to correct the details.

‘This bill seeks to ensure greater justice to the individual by rewriting the rules on secrecy of government documents,’ he said.

But the bill, which affects documents up to 30 years old, also balances the right of access against obligations in the public’s interest to preserve confidentiality of certain sensitive governmental, commercial or personal information.

Exceptions include certain documents referred to under the Monetary Authority Law and documents relating to exempt companies under the Companies Law will also not be disclosed.

Applicants will not be required to give any reason for requesting access to a document.

‘This provision is there because once a person shows that he or she has a right to access to any document, government does not wish to interfere with his or her privacy by seeking to know why he or she requests access,’ said Mr. Tibbetts.

It was important to note, said Mr. Tibbetts,that exemptions will not go on forever and the bill provides that exemptions shall cease and documents will be declassified after 20 years.

A power is to be retained however to provide for a longer or shorter period after which documents will be declassified, he added.

‘The government is well aware that it is not meaningful to grant a right which is too expensive to enjoy,’ said Mr. Tibbetts.

‘Thus we have provided that any fee that is charged for the granting of access to information shall not exceed the actual cost of searching for, reproducing, preparing and communicating the information requested.

‘In fact, we have gone even further, the Governor in Cabinet will be given power to make regulations to provide that no fee is to be charged in certain categories of cases,’ he added.

Having outlined the general right of access to information, Mr. Tibbetts moved on to the area of exemptions, in which access to information will be restricted or prohibited.

These relate to certain documents including those affecting security, defence, international relations, Cabinet documents, documents affecting the national economy, and others

Mr. Tibbetts said the provisions had to be read carefully and there would be a degree of discretion on the part of officials whether or not to grant access.

The bill provides for two levels of appeal of any decision not to grant access and also provides that every public authority must appoint an information officer to, amongst other things, help people seeking information.

The legislation would also protect ‘whistleblowers’ from administrative or employment-related sanctions when they reveal wrong doing on the part of public authorities.

The bill provides that after one year of it coming into force it will be reviewed by a committee of the House.

‘Only a reading of the entire bill will give a complete understanding of all the details of this important piece of legislation,’ Mr. Tibbetts told the House.

People should take the time to get their hands on the document and come forward with proposals or recommendations, he said.

A programme and timetable would shortly be announced to facilitate discussions and information gathering with a view to completing that exercise in 90 days, he said.

Any amendments would then be made and it would be prepared for its passage into legislation, he added.