Public queries FoI proposal

The Cayman Islands is one of the few places that have sought to implement the Freedom of Information Law where the impetus has come from the Government rather than the people, an FoI specialist has said.

Ms Tanya Karlebach, a consultant brought here by the Government was speaking at a meeting at John A. Cumber Primary School Hall, in West Bay to discuss the Freedom of Information Bill. Less than 30 members of the public attended the meeting.

The Bill is for a law to give a general right of access to the public to official Government documents, unless the information is exempted.

Ms Karlebach spoke in answer to a question on whether this is a bill the Government wants or whether it is something being imposed by the UK.

Cabinet Secretary Orrett Connor said that Deputy Chief Secretary Donovan Ebanks has had FoI as his pet project for a long time. ‘There’s no pressure on the Government whatsoever,’ he said.

West Bay MLA McKeeva Bush said that in the past four years some work was started on opening up freedom of information in the Cayman Islands, with the introduction of the Complaints Commissioner. He hoped the bill would enhance democracy by allowing such things as Planning Board meetings to be made public, an idea he had previously floated.

MLA Rolston Anglin spoke about how discussions on the FoI Bill have been around for a long time, with motions passed in the Legislative Assembly calling for it.

MLA Cline Glidden pointed out that anyone interested in obtaining information can visit www.foi.gov.ky

The deadline for submissions of comment on the bill is 28 April, and this can be done through e-mail to [email protected] or a letter to the Cabinet office.

Select committees of MLAs are to invite people to express their views on the FoI Bill.

It looks likely that the legislation will be passed by the initial timeline of June or July and it will be implemented six months to a year after that, said Mr. Connor.

Chief Information Officer with Government Information Services Pat Ebanks said input from the public is essential. ‘The aim is to achieve a well rounded piece of legislation that has earned the respect of the people.’

Ms Karlebach, who is here for one week of consultation with government officials, training of civil servants, and meetings with members of the public, said that the public has a right to know if the information they seek exists, can appeal it if it is exempt, and can ask why they are not getting it.

Exemptions exist, Ms Ebanks explained, because any Government retains the right to conduct business in privacy. This is for reasons such as national security, law enforcement and to keep trade secrets. Exempted documents will generally be made available after 20 years.

An exemption can be over-ruled, however, if disclosure is deemed to be in the public’s best interest.

Exempted information, said Ms Karlebach, may be blacked out from a document so a person can read the rest of the document.

Cayman’s approach will be to define documents and principles for openness and those for exemption. ‘Agencies will have the responsibility to publish what is available and what is exempt,’ said Ms Karlebach.

The Bill will also offer protection of individual privacy.

The Bill applies to documents that go back 30 years before the request was placed.

It also has provision for protection of whistle blowers.

The law supports a culture of openness because FoI will give rights to all by supporting and fostering knowledge of operations, soundness of decision making and greater confidence in Government.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative says that democratic traditions rest on the premise of an informed constituency, able to hold the Government accountable for its actions and that the FoI is a proven anti-corruption tool.

When asked by a member of the public if the bill will help alleviate discrimination in the granting of building permits, Ms Karlebach said it should make the process more transparent because, if denied, reasons must be given why.

In response to another question from the floor on a perceived culture of secrecy here, she said, ‘I don’t think you’ll get a change in the culture of secrecy overnight because culture change is generational.’

The Cayman Islands is to be a first among Caribbean overseas territories to adopt FoI.

Members of the public will not have to state why they want the information they seek. Applications must be made in written form, by letter or e-mail and the response must be within 30 days unless there is a reasonable cause for delay. Ms Karlebach explained that an extension can be given if, for instance the request is so large that 30 days is not sufficient. She pointed out that words such as reasonable are vague when used in legislation, and often its true meaning will only come out in case law.

She used FoI in the past to seek her reference letters given to her University in Canada, in order to determine if she wanted to use those referees again. She also asked for Health and Safety reports for restaurants in the UK in order to determine which was the most sanitary to eat at.

Last year in the UK, she said, a request from someone resulted in the public discovering that Tony Blair spent $2,000 on make-up for the year.

Some information will be free of charge, but search fees may apply.

In the UK, she said, there are three days of free time before a charge is placed on retrieving and reviewing the information being sought. However, in the UK, if the information will cost more than £600 (US$1,041.43) to produce it won’t be given out, even if the person seeking it is willing to pay. She suggested that perhaps people here might want to rule money out as a hindrance to getting the information being sought.

She also warned against upfront fees. In Ireland recently an upfront fee of EU10 (US$11.88) was introduced, and requests for information immediately dropped by half.

When asked if more posts will need to be created in the public sector to cater for this service Mr. Connor said in certain cases those at senior level in departments will take on the extra responsibility but there may be some instances where extra help is needed. There should be some scope for budgetary assistance where this is needed.

A request from the floor asked that the law be drafted with language that is easy to understand, unlike other English laws.

Ms Karlebach

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Ms Ebanks from GIS

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From left, Ms Karlebach, Mr. Bush, Mr. Anglin, Mr. Glidden, Mr. Connor