The Cayman Islands government’s proposed merger of two, or perhaps even three independent oversight offices would forever end their independence and might be considered unconstitutional, Arden McLean said last week.
The East End MLA so far is the only elected member to publicly oppose government’s stated plan to merge the office of the complaints commissioner with the information commissioner’s office. It has also been suggested that government’s data protection regime and an independent police complaints function, if those are ever established, could be added to the independent offices under a “super ombudsman.”
“I will never, ever support [this],” Mr. McLean said.
“If we amalgamate a number of these bodies, then we compromise that independence by having one person [as] the head of them all,” Mr. McLean said. “It is a serious matter and I want to go on record … to say that I am not supporting the amalgamation of these offices.
“What are we going to do, put two, three hats on one individual? And then you get some members in one authority knowing what the others [are] doing? And then the tenets of secrecy [are] eroded.”
While both the complaints commissioner and information commissioner have public reporting functions, any appeals handled under the Freedom of Information Law and any private individual’s complaint about a governmental body are always kept under wraps.
Freedom of Information and the complaints commission functions are protected to a certain extent under the Cayman Islands Constitution Order, 2009, but there is no specific provision that requires both a complaints commission and an information commissioner.
Deputy Governor Franz Manderson said the government was putting together a business case for the merger, including how much money – if any – would be saved from such a move.
“The idea at a very high level is to merge these offices to where they’ll be in one location, hopefully cross-training staff to where we can have a more efficient service,” Mr. Manderson said. “Certainly, we will not go down this road if we felt the independence of these offices will be compromised. On the contrary, we feel that it could be enhanced.”
Government’s level of support for both offices has been called into question in the past year. The complaints commission has not had a full-time leader since Nicola Williams departed last year.
Meanwhile, recent statements made by Premier Alden McLaughlin seemed to indicate government’s support for the Freedom of Information Law is no longer as strong as when the law was first passed in 2007.
“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 McLaughlin said earlier this month during a meeting of the Legislative Assembly’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 has publicly opposed the merger of the independent offices, said he was caught completely off-guard by the premier’s statements.
“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.
“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 Legislative Assembly in 2007, then that is very disappointing.”