Information commissioner pleads poverty, Tory MPs say raise fees

Government-ordered budget cuts and a big rise in workload has plunged the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada into "crisis," says its head, Suzanne Legault. She told a House of Commons committee that shrinking resources are cutting into Canadians' right to information, while Tory MPs suggested raising user fees to make up for the shortfalls.

Shortage of funds a 'crisis,' says Canada's information watchdog

Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault says her office is in 'crisis' because of budget cuts and will have to chop staff. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Conservative MPs are proposing that the government raise user fees for access to information requests, charging businesses and journalists more money to help mitigate a series of budget cuts that have damaged the already-ailing system.

The comments from several government MPs at a House of Commons committee Thursday came in response to pleas of poverty from Suzanne Legault, the information commissioner of Canada.

Legault told MPs that a rapid 30 per cent rise in her workload, as well as a shrinking budget to help government fight the deficit, has left her office in "crisis," with little choice but to cut the number of investigators who deal with complaints from requesters about withheld or delayed information.

"Last fiscal year, I faced a 30 per cent jump in new complaints, which has brought the organization to a crisis point," she told the committee.

"Unless my budget is increased, I have only one option going into the next fiscal year … to cut the program."

Sympathetic hearing

Legault got a sympathetic hearing from NDP and Liberal MPs on the committee, but the four Conservative MPs focused on the $5 application fee for access to information, which has not changed since 1983, suggesting fees should rise to help cover more costs and perhaps reduce the number of requests made.

Some 55,000 requests were filed in the last fiscal year, after a large increase driven primarily by new requests from the public.

Conservative MP Erin O'Toole said it did not seem right that billion-dollar businesses could file many requests at only $5 each without being asked to assume more of the average $1,300 cost to the government of processing each request. O'Toole said inflation alone should have pushed the basic application fee to $10.65.

"Would it not make more sense to increase it?" added Tory MP Ed Komarnicki.

O'Toole even proposed a sliding scale, suggesting citizens should be charged no fee to ask for information about themselves, and $25 to $30 for all other information requests. Businesses — including commercial news organizations — would face a $200 fee for each request.

But Legault said charging fees is contrary to the government's touted open government policy, which calls for free access to government information, such as the 200,000 data sets it has now posted online.

She also said it often costs the government more to process fees than they are worth, and that any two-tier or three-tier fee system would simply add complications to the system. It would also require public servants to inquire about the motivation of requesters and the use to which they would put the information, both anathema to modern freedom of information principles.

'Grow your pie'

Conservative MP Joan Crockatt asked Legault to be more open-minded about how fees might help solve the budget crunch. "The solution is in plain sight," she said, referring to higher fees. "You have a garden growing outside your window.… You can look at cuts or grow your pie."

Money from access to information fees currently goes into general revenues, not to the information commissioner's office, and there is no fee charged to file a complaint with Legault's office. She recently reported to Parliament that she no longer has any room to manoeuvre in her budget, and that a simple computer-server failure could halt operations for lack of funds to replace it.

Any proposal to increase application fees would require extensive public consultations and hearings under the User Fees Act, passed in 2004.

Thursday's meeting ended with an NDP motion asking the House of Commons to provide emergency funding to Legault's office, but there was no agreement to extend the committee's time to debate it.

Next month, Legault will release her recommendations to Parliament about how to reform the Access to Information Act, which has not had a major overhaul since it came into force in 1983, years before the digital age.

Legault told the committee she plans to recommend she be given the legal right to refuse to investigate some complaints from requesters. Currently, her office is compelled to open a file on each complaint she receives. Recent increases in the workload have meant she cannot even assign a file to an investigator for six or seven months.

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