FOI bill passed

Measure won’t take effect until 2009

The Cayman Islands’ Legislative Assembly approved a long-awaited Freedom of Information Bill Friday afternoon following a politically-charged debate.

A third reading of the bill is still legally required, but that’s largely a procedural vote and the measure is soon expected to become law.

‘It has been too long in coming,’ said Education Minister Alden McLaughlin.

‘No government in the history of this country has been prepared to swing wide the doors of the Glass House’,’ he added, referring to the government administration building.

The FOI Law, when it takes effect, will allow any member of the public access to government records upon request. Information managers of various government entities will have to review each request made to their department individually.

The law sets out broad guidelines which allow certain information to be exempted from release. Those include records related to the conduct of a criminal investigation, the trial of any person, those that would reveal confidential sources of law enforcement information, or those that reveal investigative methods used by police.

The closed-door consultations of Cabinet are exempted from disclosure. Records would also be exempt if they could prejudice the maintenance of the convention of collective responsibility of government ministers; inhibit the free and frank exchange of views in deliberations; or if they were likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.

An Information Commissioner will be appointed to review cases where the government has denied access to records. The commissioner has the power to overturn government decisions and order the release of certain information. The commissioner’s decisions can be challenged in court.

The FOI Law is not expected to go into effect until January or February of 2009. The 17 month lag time between the law’s passage and implementation is being put in place to allow time for government employee training in how to handle information requests.

‘We don’t want to simply rush the date for putting it into effect, and then we have a very dissatisfied public,’ Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said.

Mr. Tibbetts said a 17 month timeline was realistic. He noted the United Kingdom took about five years from the date legislators approved its Freedom of Information Law to when that law was put into effect.

Government back bench MLAs Alfonso Wright, Osbourne Bodden and Lucille Seymour all spoke in favour of the FOI bill before its passage.

‘It’s a paradigm shift for the government to understand that people have a right to information,’ Mr. Bodden said.

Opposition members did not oppose the FOI bill’s passage, but they remained largely silent during the day’s debate on the issue. Only West Bay MLA Rolston Anglin rose to speak on the measure after Mr. McLaughlin urged the opposition government to ‘make it’s position known’ on the FOI bill.

‘This bill is an important step forward for the Cayman Islands. We acknowledge that,’ Mr. Anglin said.

However, Mr. Anglin said the law would require the strong cooperation of Cayman Islands public service employees.

‘The alteration of behaviour needs to come from the public service.’

Mr. Anglin also commented on the date of implementation and what he said was the political nature of the government’s support for the FOI Bill.

‘This law is going to come just several months before the current administration will probably be leaving office,’ Mr. Anglin said, inferring that the People’s Progressive Movement would leave another government to deal with Freedom of Information requests.

Mr. Tibbetts denied that the timeline for implementation was politically motivated.

‘There has been absolutely no consideration of the timeline coming just before the (May 2009 general) election,’ he said.

However, Mr. McLaughlin did mention the upcoming elections during his debate on the FOI Bill and intimated that the PPM government intended to continue pushing for openness in the public sector if they were elected to another term in office.

Mr. Anglin denounced what he called ‘unadulterated politics’ during the FOI debate.

‘It wasn’t even dressed up nice,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s gone a little silly on this Friday afternoon.’