Abolishing the independent offices of the information commissioner and complaints commissioner, newly released legislation proposes to create an ombudsman’s office to oversee open records requests, complaints of government maladministration and public complaints against the police.
The Ombudsman Bill, 2016, gives Cayman’s governor the power to appoint an ombudsman to the new post for seven years with no possibility of reappointment. The governor’s selection must be made in consultation with the premier and the opposition leader, according to the bill.
Two deputy ombudsmen will serve under the ombudsman, one to manage Freedom of Information matters and the other to handle maladministration complaints. Power to deal with complaints against police is given directly to the ombudsman but may be delegated, according to the bill.
The ombudsman cannot hold that office if in the past three years he or she has been an elected member of the Legislative Assembly or the holder of any office for a political party, according to the legislation.
The bill makes no mention of any data protection regime for Cayman, which was once planned to operate under the information commissioner’s direction. However, data protection, largely aimed at protecting personal information of individuals, has been left out of the Ombudsman Bill.
Deputy Governor Franz Manderson said Tuesday that the data protection legislation is currently under the attorney general’s remit and was not included in the mandate to create the ombudsman office. Special Assistant to the Deputy Governor, Peter Gough, added that “at present” there is no funding for the government personnel that would be needed to implement a data protection regime.
“In the future, the Office of the Ombudsman will oversee the Data Protection Law and the Whistleblower Law when they come into force,” Mr. Gough said.
The proposal to combine the independent offices of the information commissioner and complaints commissioner has been in discussion for more than two years and has been touted by government as a cost-saving measure. The ombudsman office will replace two department directors at a savings of approximately $205,000 per year.
The proposal requires changes to at least six laws, including those governing the information commissioner and complaints commissioner, as well as government public service management and financial management legislation. All are proposed to come before the Legislative Assembly in its next meeting in January.
Neither the Office of the Complaints Commissioner nor the Office of the Information Commissioner has had permanent leadership for nearly two years while government managers awaited the outcome of merger discussions.
The merger has been the source of some controversy among opposition lawmakers and the former directors of the two independent offices, who questioned the government’s true support and desire to maintain those offices.
Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers once called the merger proposal “a solution in search of a problem.”
Earlier this year, four of the five lawmakers serving on the legislative oversight committee for the complaints commissioner resigned in protest over the proposed merger.
Former committee chairman Ezzard Miller said he and Legislative Assembly colleagues Bernie Bush, Capt. Eugene Ebanks and Alva Suckoo did not support combining the independent offices.
“I believe the role, function and achievements of the complaints commissioner are going to be diminished,” Mr. Miller said. “My fears are that they will not be allowed to function as independently as they have been doing.”
Independent MLA Arden McLean also publicly opposed the merger.
“If we amalgamate a number of these bodies, then we compromise that independence by having one person as the head of them all,” he said. “I will never, ever support [this].”
The Ombudsman Bill seeks to ensure the independence of the new office, stating, “The ombudsman shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority,” subject to constitutional provisions relating to the public prosecutor’s office.
For budget purposes, the ombudsman will report to a select committee of the Legislative Assembly, similar to the reporting process for the complaints commissioner, information commissioner and the auditor general.