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.