Governor’s office withholds budget communications

An open records request for a series of Cayman Islands government budget communications between May and August of this year has been denied from release by Governor Duncan Taylor’s office.  

The request, made by the Caymanian Compass on 30 August to both the governor’s office and the Ministry of Finance, initially sought all budget communications between the local government, the governor’s office, then-United Kingdom Overseas Territories Minister Henry Bellingham and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office during protracted talks over the 
2012/13 budget.  

Following negotiations over the Freedom of Information Law request, the Compass and the governor’s office agreed to reduce the scope of the request to “main communications” – those on formal letterhead – between the premier, the financial secretary, Mr. Bellingham, Governor Taylor, foreign office Director Colin Roberts and the foreign office economic adviser. The date of the request was between 1 
May and 30 August.  

However, even after the Compass agreed to work with the governor’s office to whittle down the amount of information sought, the office denied access to the related records.  

“For relations between the Cayman Islands government and the UK government to thrive, there needs to be a comfortable private space where the governments can discuss issues confidentially,” said the governor’s office response to the Compass open records request. “Disclosure of these records would break that confidence and would make it more difficult for the UK government to communicate candidly with the Cayman Islands government in the future.”  

The governor’s office released the decision on 29 October. Office representative Tom Hines said there was consultation between both the Caymanian and UK governments, as well as the attorney general’s chambers and the government Freedom of Information Unit prior to the decision.  

Caymanian Compass Editor Tammie Chisholm expressed surprise at the decision reached by the governor’s office, noting that such communications between the local government and the UK government had been released to the media in the past. In fact, she said, Cayman Islands Premier McKeeva Bush had sometimes read sections of those communications in public meetings and in other public forums in recent months.  

“We are asking for information about the budgeting process for the greater good of the country,” Mrs. Chisholm said. “What politicians, including those in the UK government, seem to forget is that the money we pay in the form of duty, stamp taxes and so forth is what comprises the budget.”  

Mr. Hines gave his reasons for not releasing the various budget communications.  

First, sections 15(a) and 15(b) state that records are exempt under the territory’s FOI Law if, “the disclosure thereof would prejudice the security, defence or international relations of the Islands” or if, “those records contain information communicated in confidence to the government by or on behalf of a foreign government or by an international organisation”. Also, the government seeks to rely on section 20(1)(b) of the FOI Law which states: “A record is exempt from disclosure if … its disclosure would, or would be likely to, inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.”  

In deciding any appeal on the matter, the information commissioner would first have to determine whether any of the above sections of the law apply to the records’ exemption. She would then weigh whether the public interest in releasing such documents would outweigh the reasons for keeping the records private.  

Mr. Hines identified about 20 pieces of communication that went back and forth between Cayman Islands representatives and the UK foreign office during the time period. All records were withheld under the same general areas of exemption.  

Interestingly, Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert recently commented on using a “blanket approach” when considering open records request exemptions in a ruling regarding records held by the Cayman Islands Port Authority.  

“While a public authority can legitimately believe that all responsive records are covered by the same exemption, a blanket approach is rarely the correct approach, particularly where the responsive records are extensive,” Mrs. Dilbert wrote in a hearing decision released Monday.  

Mrs. Chisholm said the Compass would appeal the non-disclosure decision to the Information Commissioner’s Office. 

Gov Duncan Taylor

Mr. Taylor

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  1. This is almost a repeat of the excuse used by the FCO in response to one of my FOI requests.

    This basically suggested that release of the documents I had requested would inhibit the Governor’s ability to do his job because once the precedent was established everything he ever wrote might at some later date have to be revealed to the public.

    In other words the statement on the Governor’s website that his office is committed to openness, transparency and the public interest has some severe limitations.

    Politicians and civil servants make a conscious choice to work in publicly accountable positions. They should not then try to hide behind exemptions like this simply to escape that accountability.

  2. Mr Evans:
    We appreciate that you mean well, and that you have various points you continually wish to put forward, but you are naive to suggest or expect that every single word – or thought – spoken or written – by anyone in a position of public responsibility or trust, should be publicly available.
    Do you propose the same also for all non-public transactions which may or might affect other people?

  3. This means the government has things it wants to hide from the taxpayers. This is morally absurd. Old Hand, I do believe EVERYTHING should be made public. Why hide anything? Private transactions are simply that–private. Public transactions are simply that–public.

  4. Old Hand, that’s the way the public worked over 40 years ago when I joined the civil service.

    It was, and still is, known as the mushroom principle – keep them in the dark and feed them manure.

    In the following four decades things have changed and I have seen a lot of it. Back in my day computer records were converted back to paper files to keep the contents secret when the Data Protection Act kicked in because it originally only covered electronic records. Now DPA covers just about any sort personal information so that whole, expensive exercise was wasted.

    In the run up to FOI in the UK it is reckoned that hundreds of tons of documents were shredded to keep the public from accessing them. The FCO was one of the departments targeted by the media and it seems a heck of lot of overtime was being worked there as the New Year and FOI approached.

    But things change, we move on and the days when the public servants could hide behind a false veil of secrecy have long gone but if you want to live in the 1960s under the old system feel free – there is nothing I can do to stop you just do not expect me to follow that example.