Access to Information Act to be considered by the Commons Committee

(Ottawa) The House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics plans to probe Canada’s widely criticized access to information systems — a filing that has long been under scrutiny to make government more transparent.

Posted at 10:11 p.m

Jim Bronskill
The Canadian Press

Tory MP Pat Kelly, chair of the committee, says the system is plagued by undue delays and a culture of secrecy that “has been around for decades”.

The Access to Information Act allows people paying $5 to request a range of federal documents — internal emails, bills, background information and memos — but it has long been criticized as outdated and poorly implemented.

Federal agencies are expected to respond within 30 days or provide valid reasons why more time is needed to process a request.

The law has not been significantly updated since its inception 39 years ago, and many users complain of lengthy delays, heavily obfuscated documents, or blanket refusals in response to their requests.

According to the government, the expected performance of the institutions is to answer 90% of the requests for information within the legally stipulated deadlines, including extensions.

Of 140 federal agencies that responded to requests in 2020-21, 69 met this standard while 71 did not, largely due to “workload pressures within the organization,” the government said.

Problems with the access system have existed for years under both Conservative and Liberal governments, Kelly said.

“People are still complaining about the rejections, the slowness and the general culture of secrecy,” he said. And that has been a feature of the Canadian government for a very long time. »

Still, Mr Kelly accuses Justin Trudeau’s Liberals of failing to live up to their 2015 election promise to disclose government information by default.

Federal officials reported an increasing number of access requests and the growing complexity of requests.

“I think anything the government says in response to criticism is an apology,” Kelly said. Surely they can find a solution if they have the will. »

The honorary member has no illusions that fundamental changes will take place overnight. “It’s been like this for decades,” he says. You certainly won’t be able to flick a switch and instantly switch from a culture of secrecy to a true culture of openness. »

Kelly said no hearing date has been set because the committee is busy completing studies into facial recognition programs and the use of surveillance technology by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

The committee’s planned review comes as the federal government works to complete its own review of access to information systems, which began more than two years ago.

Written and oral submissions to the federal exam called for an expansion of the Information Access Act, the filling of many loopholes in the law, strict deadlines for responding to inquiries, and more resources to operate the system.

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