By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
THE revised Freedom of Information bill will allow for the courts to ultimately determine matters of public interest, State Minister in the Ministry of Legal Affairs Damien Gomez confirmed yesterday.
Mr Gomez said public release of the Bill last week hit a “glitch” when the final review of the Bill led to some minor changes.
He said the revised Bill represented a “great improvement” over its predecessor and urged the public to wait for the final version that is likely to be released this week.
“There were one or two changes that were added that Cabinet had not expressed an opinion on,” Mr Gomez said.
“This led to the slight delay. We were cleaning up the Bill and the cleanup went a little further than we anticipated. Once we get the final version, as is approved by Cabinet on Tuesday, it should be published. It’s a great improvement over what we have at present, a lot of work has gone into it. It’s really top notch.”
Draft legislation for a new FOI Act was promised to the public last week by Minister of Education, Science and Technology Jerome Fitzgerald, who is responsible for the legislation.
Mr Fitzgerald told the House of Assembly the draft bill would dramatically improve upon the act that the former Ingraham Administration passed shortly before the May 2012 general election, but was never enforced.
In a critical review of the act passed in 2012, international expert Toby Mendel said the legislation contained provisions that were “inherently offensive” to the public’s right to know, and gave it a score of 59 per cent in a rating of the law against international best practices.
Mr Mendel, an FOI advocate and human rights lawyer, took issue with the information minister’s ability to provide “absolute” exceptions to information disclosure upon request, and pointed to the wide range of public agencies that were excluded from accountability, such as law enforcement agencies, the Bahamas Investment Authority, the Bahamas Environment Science and Technology (BEST) Commission, and the National Economic Council.
On Wednesday, Mr Fitzgerald said the revised bill’s publication would be followed by town hall meetings where members of the public can comment on the proposed legislation. Among other things, the new bill, he said, will narrow “the class of documents that are exempt from disclosure,” recommend “a standalone whistle-blowing legislation” and call for a “review of the Official States Secrets Act”.
In forming the new bill, the FOI committee considered recommendations by two international organisations and used several countries as a benchmark, including Jamaica, Trinidad, Cayman Islands, Bermuda, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland.
In a recent interview with The Tribune, Cayman Islands’ Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers stressed the importance of the appointment and training of Information Managers in each public authority, and raising the awareness level of public officials.
Yesterday, Mr Gomez agreed that the training of Information Officers was critical in each government department. “It’s inevitable in any scheme because the information officer is critical in each department,” he said. “If they don’t know what they’re doing there could be chaos so one does need to put a lot of emphasis on training. It will be evident from the bill, that that it is the case and in the regulations.”
When asked whether the issue of ministerial power concerning information disclosure had been addressed, Mr Gomez said: “The court can determine whether something is governed by public interest privilege. Wait until it comes out: you will be able to track the changes and see the major improvement.”
Mr Gomez told The Tribune he had hoped that the legislation would be published as a draft Bill; however, he said when it is released it will be ready for Parliament subject to any drastic changes arising from public consultation.
He declined to comment further on the legislation because it was not his Bill. Mr Fitzgerald, who has responsibility for FOI, did not respond to calls up to press time.