FOI can be embedded in society

The Freedom of Information Law has
brought about a wholesale change in the way government deals with requests for
information from the public. It has also caused government to voluntarily
publish general information that it previously did not put out in the public
domain.

Many countries now have some form
of FOI legislation. Indeed, such legislation is seen as an essential component
of a modern democracy. It is less than two years since the Cayman Islands’ FOI
Law came into effect and, as the FOI Law itself requires, it is now time for
the Cayman Islands to take a review of the legislation in regard to how it is
working in practice.

The right to know is viewed
worldwide as a fundamental human right. I recognise that freedom of information
is not a luxury; it is vital to good governance and has the power to make
government more efficient, effective and responsible. Despite my reservations
about certain provisions in the Freedom of Information Law, especially those
that relate to the fact that applicants do not have to identify themselves, I
have always supported the principle of freedom of information and will continue
to do so.

The purpose of the FOI Law is to
give people the right to access government information. In some places,
particularly the United States, FOI is known as government in the sunshine.
This in itself drives the people who make up government agencies to ensure that
activities and procedures are conducted so as to be able to withstand scrutiny.
With information comes responsibility. Once information is obtained it should
be used for valid purposes. It should not be used for political gain, to cause
embarrassment or for gossip.

FOI was not meant to, nor should it
become a financial burden to our country. There should be no frivolous
requests; a lot of information about Government is already in the public domain
and I believe that Government should focus on continuing to pro-actively
publish information. This will help to ensure that our already strained civil
service resources are not further burdened with simple and sometimes menial
tasks and the public will have easy and direct access to the information they
seek.

Earlier this year my government did
two things that strengthens the independence of the Information Commissioner’s
Office. We brought a motion to the Legislative Assembly that created a separate
budget for the ICO and created a committee of the whole Legislative Assembly to
which the Information Commissioner reports. This means that only the Legislative
Assembly has influence over the ICO.

In regard to the review that is
required by the FOI Law, a Committee of the Legislative Assembly is now place
to conduct this review. This is a committee of the whole House, which is
chaired by the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. I wanted a committee of the
whole House and for it to be chaired by the Speaker so as to ensure that this
review is not seen as any part of a political agenda, but rather to objectively
assess what types of amendments and changes need to be made to the FOI Law to
ensure that it is achieving what the legislature intended. My government has
always been, and will continue to be, committed to openness and transparency. A
whole House Committee will reassert this position as well as ensure that all
members have the opportunity to contribute to the process.

As the Information Commissioner has
been closely involved with the practical applications of the FOI Law, and is
therefore best able to assist the committee, I have asked the Information Commissioner,
Mrs. Jennifer Dilbert to assist in leading this review. The committee will have
the power to summon witnesses for its purpose of reviewing the law. The review
will include careful consideration of the current fee structure associated with
FOI requests as well as further research into the provision in the law that
allows for requests to be made anonymously by looking at other jurisdictions.
For instance, in the UK a request from Mickey Mouse is technically not a valid
FOI request. Although, a government authority may choose to release the
information requested if it is content to do so. There needs to be both clarity
and balance in the law. 

Changing from a culture of secrecy
to one of openness is not an easy task and requires a multi-pronged change
strategy and a commitment to transparency at the most senior level. The FOI Law
seeks to strike a balance between the public’s legitimate right to know and the
need for Government to keep some information confidential. Government is
working to achieve the objectives of the FOI Law and inevitably during this process
there will be some stumbling blocks. However, I am confident that a balance can
be found and that FOI will be embraced and become embedded in our society as it
has in so many other democratic and forward thinking societies worldwide.

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