Premier: FOI 'unproductive use of time'

The Progressives political party, which first advocated for the creation and passage of the Cayman Islands Freedom of Information Law a decade ago, may be having second thoughts, according to comments made by its leader in the Legislative Assembly.

“The sheer number of Mickey Mouse FOI requests that are being submitted creates such a burden on the system and on the people who have to [respond to them], what I call legitimate FOI requests are often not dealt with as expeditiously as they should be,” Premier Alden McLaughlin said Thursday during a meeting of the LA’s Finance Committee. “When the sheer volume of work and expense that is involved in answering questions gets too great … the system starts to grind more slowly and more slowly.

“There’s only so much in terms of resources that can be devoted in terms of dealing with FOI which, quite frankly and realistically from a country standpoint, is an unproductive use of time,” Premier McLaughlin said. “It’s part of the transparency process, but it doesn’t achieve anything as far as the government, as delivery of services is concerned.”

Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers, who was traveling out of the country at the time Mr. McLaughlin made his remarks, said Friday that he was caught completely off-guard.

“I am surprised that the premier has never shared these concerns with the information commissioner’s office,” Mr. Liebaers said. “I suppose government would like to be able to determine which request is legitimate and which isn’t. Fortunately, that is not the system the FOI Law provides for and it would not be a system worthy of any democratic country.

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“There are adequate protections against unreasonable requests already in place and any trained information manager should know about them. If this is truly the opinion of the premier towards the people’s right to open and transparent government that was voted unanimously by the LA in 2007, then that is very disappointing and it puts the recent considerations of the EY [consultant’s report] suggestions in a totally new and frightening light.”

The debate

During proceedings in the LA’s Finance Committee Thursday, North Side MLA Ezzard Miller asked for an update on amendments to the FOI Law which were supposed to have been made sometime in 2010, and whether anything could be done to speed up responses to open records requests.

“The average civil servant, because the law and regulations says that they have to respond [to an open records request] within 30 days, you don’t normally get a reply until 29.5 days. And then they ask for an extension,” Mr. Miller said. “My concern is that there seems to be a growing resistance to responses in FOI and I don’t know what we can do about it.”

Premier Alden McLaughlin, who via his supervision of the Cabinet Secretary’s office has responsibility for FOI and data protection coordination, responded that in his view, the FOI system was being abused, after which he made his “Mickey Mouse” comments detailed above.

This response from the premier prompted Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush to shout from the benches across the floor: “What a difference a day makes!”

Mr. Bush had expressed many of the same concerns in 2010 as then-premier, stating that the FOI process was simply too much for “this little 2×4 country” and that people were using the law, which allows anyone in the world to request public information from government, in attempts to be “slanderous, vindictive and dirty.”

Freedom of Information laws

In the Caribbean, FOI laws have largely struggled through years of delay, political resistance and government bureaucracy.

However, during a first-of-its-kind FOI conference in Kingston in 2013, Laura Neuman of the Atlanta, Georgia-based Carter Center – a nonprofit public policy development initiative – said the Caribbean region had “come a long way” since the start of the 21st century on open records laws. Ms. Neuman considered the Cayman Islands’ open records regime to be one of the Caribbean’s “greatest success stories.”

In the first four years of FOI in Cayman, from January 2009 to January 2013, more than 3,000 requests for information were made for government records. By way of comparison, Belize has had an FOI law since 1994, but only a small number of open records requests have been made over the past two decades.

In the Bahamas, efforts to pass an open records law flopped, while in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Kitts proposed laws have been drafted but not yet considered by the various governing bodies.

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  1. FOI is extremely important and I am somewhat disappointed with what I am hearing from the Premier. Might I recommend that the government take a look at the requests to see if the use of technology to store more government records might make it easier to identify and respond to FOI requests going forward.

  2. The Hon Premier is claiming that the system is being bombarded with what he calls Mickey Mouse requests but has he given any examples?

    Politicians and civil servants should bear in mind that the natural reaction to suggestions that FOI needs to be muzzled is always going to be – What are they trying to hide?

    Having used FOIA in the UK since it kicked off on 1 January 2005 (my last request under FOIA was filed last week) and also having made extensive use of the Cayman Islands FOI Law I feel well qualified to say that remarks like the ones quoted above are counter-productive.

    Over the last decade there have been a number of attempts to restrict public access to records in the UK. ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers, has long been an opponent of FOI and unsuccessfully sought to exempt whole areas of policing from public access. Ironically, in November 2011 ACPO were (although they are technically exempt from FOI) themselves forced by the government to open up their records to the public. In 2008, after being named in the MPs’ expenses scandal, David McLean MP (now better known as Lord Blencathra) tried to exempt the Houses of Parliament records from FOI – he failed.

    In addition to the public attempts to stifle FOI many organisation in the UK (the police are particularly adept at this) have found other ways to frustrate public enquiries. During a lengthy investigation into the UK’s speed camera programme attempts were made to charge me for information that legally I was entitled to free of charge – at the time I was well on the way to proving that not only were there no safety benefits but that some of the cameras had been installed illegally. Another common option here is to rule that the applicant is being vexatious.

    At the end of the day not only do all moves like this fail but also they make the public even more determined to get at the truth so material that ten years ago I was being told was completely exempt is now all in the public domain here.

    The fact is that FOI laws exist because public servants cannot be trusted to engage in open and transparent communication with the general public – the people who ultimately pay their salaries – so it needs legislation to force them to do it.

    If there are grounds to criticise the Cayman Islands FOI Law there are far more serious issues than spurious Mickey Mouse requests to address. The first is the obviously under-resourcing of the ICO but coupled to that is the system under which parties are forced to engage expensive lawyers and go to court to settle simple FOI disputes that in the UK are settled before a tribunal.

    If the Hon Premier is really concerned about the cost of FOI then maybe he should start asking questions about how it is that around one million dollars has been handed over, without any apparent results, to the law firms handling the fallout from my simple FOI request for the Aina report.

  3. Without the FOI and the Auditor General’s reviews the public would remain blissfully ignorant of the serious problems and incompetence that exist in Government departments.Their investigative record speaks for itself.