Three years after being created by the Cayman Islands Constitution, the Commission for Standards in Public Life is still working toward transparency, both for itself and government.
The constitution charges the five-member commission with setting and monitoring standards of integrity, competence and ethical conduct in government. However, the Legislative Assembly has not approved the requisite legislation enabling the commission to carry out its function.
As of mid-October, commission chairwoman Karin Thompson had agreed to the final draft version of the bill, and expected the legislation to be forwarded to Cabinet by November.
The commission, which must report the assembly at least every six months, continues to battle for its reports to be made public in a timely manner. At the moment, the commission files its reports with Cabinet, which then tables the reports in the Legislature at its leisure, making the reports public.
According to the minutes of the commission’s 13 August meeting, the commission had agreed to follow preliminary legal advice and submit its reports directly to Speaker of the House Mary Lawrence, bypassing Cabinet. Ms Thompson then met with Ms Lawrence.
“It was agreed with the honourable speaker of the House that while there is limited precedence for this, the honourable deputy apeaker could lay the reports on behalf of the commission,” according to the minutes of the commission’s 15 October meeting,
Bodden Town Member of the Legislative Assembly Anthony Eden is the presiding deputy speaker, who cannot be a member of Cabinet.
The commission asked the commissions secretariat to seek written advice from the attorney general “on how and by whom the reports of the commission should be tabled”.
Not under FOI?
Dated 17 August, the commission’s fifth report was made public 5 November. That less-than-three-month gap is an improvement upon the six-and-a-half-month lapse between when the fourth report was dated, 17 February, and when it was tabled, 31 August.
During its October meeting, the commission chairwoman related a conversation she had with Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert, who had discussed ways to assist the commission in having its reports made public, possibly using the Freedom of Information Law.
According to the fifth report, the commission sought the opinion of Attorney General Samuel Bulgin about whether it was subject to the Freedom of Information Law. Mr. Bulgin indicated neither it nor any of the commissions created by the constitution are subject to the law.
“In turn, the commission understands through the advice provided by the honourable attorney general that the constitutionally-created commissions, including the commission, are not included in the entities mandated to comply with the provisions of the FOI legislation,” according to the report.
“The commission nevertheless recognises and accepts that the commission, being one of the institutions treated to support democracy, is by its very nature charged with the duty of promoting openness and transparency. It is also accepted that the exclusion of bodies such as the Commission for Standards in Public Life was likely not a deliberative decision on the part of the legislative framers,” according to the report.
The commission said it intends to include provisions within its own enabling legislation expressly making it subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
Mrs. Dilbert welcomed the commission’s “positive attitude” and said her office looked forward to discussing these issues with the other commissions.
She said, “For practical purposes, I believe that it is already the case that any records created by the constitutionally created commissions are maintained by the commissions secretariat, which is itself a public authority that falls within the ambit of the Freedom of Information Law. The general public can apply for access to any records held by the commissions secretariat under the FOI Law by contacting the secretariat’s information manager, Deborah Bodden at 244-3685 or e-mail [email protected] or [email protected]
“As you know, the approach of the FOI Law is already balanced and in my opinion the exemptions under the law are sufficient in order to allow public authorities to withhold certain information where appropriate.”
Lack of response
In its fifth report, the standards commission took the “opportunity to again publicly express its concern that its previous reports have elicited little to none formal written response from government officials”. Particularly, the commission noted that none of its recommendations from August 2011 had been implemented, though they “are being considered, reviewed and some are in draft form”.
According to the fifth report, the commission had created a code of conduct and a standard declaration of interests form, and requested that the deputy governor and governor forward those for use by members of public boards.
Ms Thompson also chaired a working group that during the past year has been conducting a review of the government’s current procurement system.