Nfld. & Labrador

Ed Ring 'ecstatic' about access to information review findings

Tuesday's release of an independent report into information and privacy legislation was greeted with enthusiasm and support by this province's privacy watchdog.

Privacy watchdog says it will take four to six months to prepare; will need additional resources

Information and privacy commissioner Ed Ring had high praise Tuesday for a report that recommends sweeping changes to the province's information and privacy laws. (CBC)

Tuesday's release of an independent report into information and privacy legislation was greeted with enthusiasm and support by this province's privacy watchdog, who will see his authority bolstered once a new law is enacted.

"I'm ecstatic about it," information and privacy commissioner Ed Ring told reporters following a news conference at Confederation Building, during which the 400-plus page report was unveiled.

The review of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA) was carried out by an independent commission chaired by former Liberal premier and chief justice Clyde Wells.

It contains 90 recommendations that will dramatically overhaul the province's access to information and privacy laws, including the contentious Bill 29 amendments made in 2012, and gives more powers to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC).

The provincial government has already committed to implementing all the recommendations, and will begin doing so when the legislature resumes sitting on March 17.

No order-making power

Under current legislation, the OIPC has legal authority to review decisions when a public body denies information requests, and to make recommendations to these public bodies.

The commissioner can also appeal decisions to the province's Supreme Court.

However, the information and privacy commissioner does not have any order-making powers.

That's about to change, to a degree.

The review determined this model is not working because the commissioner has little to no power to persuade reluctant public bodies to co-operate with those requesting information.
Commissioner Clyde Wells speaks with reporters Tuesday, as cabinet minister Steve Kent listens. (CBC )

This results is long delays, as well as a widespread belief that the system is not working, the report stated.

Under a new "hybrid" system, once a government department or other public body receives an OIPC recommendation to grant access, it will have 10 business days to comply or contest the recommendation in Supreme Court.

Currently, the onus is reversed. The government can withhold information, and it's up to the applicant or the commissioner to go to court to get it released.

Ring called this a "great day for openness and transparency."

He added that the excessive delays often caused by the preparation of exhaustive reports will be greatly reduced.

"The reports will look different and will be more accurate, precise and to the point, as opposed to long background and preamble," he said.

Ring commended the government for undertaking the review nearly two years earlier than was necessary, saying it will "have impacts for individual applicants, the general public, public bodies and for our office as well."

Extended term in office

The review also recommends removing any political influence in the selection process for future information and privacy commissioners.

Ring, for example, was nominated by cabinet, and approved by a majority in the legislature for a two-year term with an option for reappointment.

It puts us in a position where we can oversee the Act, which is what the office was created to do in the first place. And not just 80 per cent of it, but it's entirety.- Ed Ring

"It is difficult to imagine a system or combination of factors more likely to create the perception of a commissioner beholden to government," the report stated.

The report recommends a six-year term, with the option of a second six-year term. A list of candidates would be compiled by a selection committee, and approved by a vote in the legislature.

A reappointment will require majority approval from members on the government and opposition sides of the House of Assembly.

More resources needed

The report also recommends that the commissioner be given authority to audit public bodies to ensure they are meeting their obligations under the Act. 

Ring acknowledged that big changes are in store for his office, and he expects it will need additional resources — both financially and human resources — to meet the added demands.

The OIPC currently has a full-time staff of 12 employees. 

Ring estimates it will take four to six months to prepare for the changes.

"It really strengthens the jurisdiction of the office, and it puts us in a position where we can oversee the Act, which is what the office was created to do in the first place. And not just 80 per cent of it, but its entirety," he said.

Lifting the veil of secrecy

Meanwhile, opposition politicians also welcomed the report.

New Democratic Party Leader Lorraine Michael was an outspoken critic of Bill 29, and took part in a marathon filibuster when the legislation was debated in the House of Assembly nearly three years ago.

"This report validates every minute we spent in filibuster," said Michael. 

She said the report puts the power "rightly into the hands of the information and privacy commissioner."

Liberal MHA Cathy Bennett agreed, urging the government to implement all 90 recommendations as quickly as possible.

She said the governing Progressive Conservatives are "backtracking over their own legislation," and added the people of this province have been under a "veil of secrecy" from the governing party for long enough.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story inaccurately said the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner had a full-time staff of 21. The correct number is 12.
    Mar 04, 2015 8:17 AM NT

With files from David Cochrane and Peter Cowan

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