By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
FORMER Free National Movement Senator Dr Duane Sands yesterday claimed the government intentionally stalled the implementation of Freedom of Information legislation by choosing to reintroduce a new bill instead of amending the existing act.
Dr Sands told The Tribune that it was evident that the 2015 bill released this week was not a priority for the government, given that it borrowed heavily from the former bill despite its severe criticism.
Dr Sands introduced and led debate on an amended Freedom of Information (FOI) bill in the Senate in 2012. That bill was passed in early 2012 but the FNM lost the May 2012 election and the legislation was never enforced. When the Progressive Liberal Party assumed power, the government said the FOIA needed significant overhaul or had to be completely scrapped, citing flaws in the legislation passed by the Ingraham administration.
“You are going to take three years, when you have some massive problem with the Act, and this is all you come up with? What you needed was the honeymoon period so you could do what you wanted to do without Freedom of Information,” Dr Sands said. “The Bahamian people can look forward to having this thing come in right under the wire.”
He added: “(Minister of Education Science and Technology Jerome) Fitzgerald made such a big deal about why they needed to change it, and this is the best you could do, and it took this long? Obviously this was not a priority, or unless the real priority was to delay it.”
The draft Freedom of Information Bill 2015 was released on Monday and, if passed, will repeal the 2012 legislation, which never came into effect.
Last September, Mr Fitzgerald – who is the minister responsible for the legislation – said the government was still in the process of deciding whether it should make the “over 100” amendments needed to augment the present Act or “scrap it” and start it from scratch.
He forecast that a revised Freedom of Information Act would not be presented to Parliament before spring 2016.
Yesterday, Dr Sands said: “They don’t intend for it to have anything to with this term, and since their administrative and governance decisions indicates this will be their last term for a while, it is very clear that they don’t intend to be guided, guarded, or governed by this legislation.”
The 2015 bill, which appears to have been based on the 2012 version, removes ministerial veto power over disclosures and sets out guidelines for the appointment of an independent information commissioner. The 2015 bill also omits sections included in the 2012 Act on the amendment and annotation of personal records and the declaration of adherence to the Official Secrets Act, which were identified as significant challenges to the former legislation. Other notable changes include expanded sections related to exempt records and determining public interest.
The 2012 legislation was passed in the Senate in February 2012 without an enforcement date. Observers have argued that the Ingraham administration rushed the legislation to fulfil its campaign pledge, and never intended to put it into practice.
When asked whether his criticism could also be applied to his own party, Dr Sands said the legislation that was passed was the first of its kind for the country.
“It was the first attempt,” Dr Sands said, “and certainly if you recall, it was brought in as we had spent the most of time in 2008 tackling the great recession. I don’t think this administration has the same excuse, but if you want to be fair you can use it.”
He added: “The challenge is that there is an existing FOI Act. It has been passed in the House and Senate. This so-called reintroduced Act could have easily been handled with an amendment, this is nothing less than stalling.”
The Freedom of Information Act, 2012 was passed by the Ingraham Government just before the May 7 election that year.
It stated: “This Act shall come into operation on such date as the Minister may appoint by notice published in the Gazette, and different dates may be so appointed for different provisions.”
When the PLP government took over the administration, it never set a date for its enactment.
According to Attorney General Allyson Maynard Gibson at the time although government wanted to enact the law as soon as possible it was then under review. There were certain sections, she said, that needed to be reviewed. “We don’t want to have a situation where we have actually brought something into force and it can’t work.”