Mr. Speaker, I would like to address this motion. I am pleased the hon. member for Red Deer so vigorously supports the principles exemplified by the Access to Information Act that he wishes to see its coverage expanded. Such enthusiasm is to be commended.
I am happy to say that this government remains firmly committed to the principles of openness contained in the Access to Information Act. Such openness assists in debate on national issues, provides background for the development of public policy and allows more in depth explanation of government processes and decision making.
This is why our government is always prepared to look at ways to improve public access to information held by these Crown agencies, this in order to promote government accountability. Currently, the legislation applies to government institutions listed in the schedule to the act. If a department, an agency or a board is not mentioned in the schedule, the legislation does not apply to it. It is that simple.
At the time the act was passed in 1982 there was careful consideration given to which institutions should be included in the coverage of the act and which should not. There are ways in which the act could be updated to reflect the new information age. It may also be that the sorting of the institutions into the categories of those covered and those not covered could also be reviewed and updated. I do not believe that this is something which should be done in a casual or haphazard manner.
In considering the suggestion that the Access to Information Act be expanded to cover Parliament and crown agencies, as with all proposals for amendment to the Access to Information Act, the government is guided by the need to ensure that all amendments to the act and to its schedule are in the public interest.
While on the face of it providing access to government-held information may be seen as obviously in the public interest it is not necessarily the case. If it were the Access to Information Act would contain no exclusions or exemptions. We would just throw the information doors wide open.
There are competing public interests which must be taken into consideration. In the same way that exceptions serve public interest by protecting personal information on taxpayers, or information received in confidence from our government, it may be in the public interest to protect some information held by Crown agencies or by Parliament.
We must consider these competing interests before making such a sweeping recommendation.
When the motion refers to crown agencies it is unclear whether the term should be taken to refer to crown corporations or if it is intended to include a much broader range of institutions. After all many institutions which would normally fall under the heading of crown agencies are already covered by the act. CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, is already covered, as are national museums, the Federal Business Development Bank, the Space Agency, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, and so on. On the other hand the act does
not currently apply to Canada Post or the National Arts Centre Corporation. We cannot assume that these were frivolous decisions as to who was included and who was excluded.
When considering expanding the coverage of the Access to Information Act to crown corporations the concern for a long time now has been that making all crown corporations subject to the act could for some of them result in harm to their competitive position relative to their private sector counterparts which are of course subject to no comparative requirements for openness. The hon. member for Red Deer alluded to this.
What might be required to mitigate such potential for harm would be additional amendments to the act which would provide crown corporations with an exemption tailor-made to protect information that if disclosed would result in injury to the competitive position of the crown corporation. The private sector corporations have such an exemption to protect commercially sensitive information in the financial information that they are presently required to file and no less protection should be provided to crown corporations.
While expanding the act to cover crown corporations is not a bad idea in itself, it must be examined in its proper context. In fact, the whole framework of the act must be examined from that perspective.
If the motion is intended to cover a broader range of institutions then careful consideration must be given to the implications for each type and for each institution. There is not enough room for that in the motion.
Much the same thing can be said concerning the suggestion that the act be expanded to cover Parliament. While in principle this is a laudable idea there are more than a few practical issues to consider. Just what coverage would the act have? When this issue was considered previously it was generally believed that it would be unwise to cover the personal offices of members of the House of Commons and senators but I think Canadians want to understand why that is.
The problems which could result from a decision to include the offices of MP's in the coverage of the act will have to be taken into consideration before such a measure can be taken. On the other hand, if members' offices are not to be covered by the act, then we will have to define very explicitly the precise scope of the act.
Where would responsibility for the application of the act by Parliament lie? Who would be considered to be the head of the institution for the purposes of the act with the authority to release requested information or deny access on the basis of exemptions contained in the act? If there was a complaint concerning the handling of a request made to Parliament under the act would it be a conflict of interest for the information commissioner as a parliamentary agent to investigate such a complaint? Would Parliament report to itself on its own administration of the act? These are not simple questions.
When considering possible amendments to the Access to Information Act or its schedule of institutions, consideration would also normally be given to the Privacy Act and its schedule of institutions.
Generally speaking, there are more government institutions covered by the Privacy Act than the Access to Information Act since the principle of providing individuals with access to their own personal information is seen as even more widely applicable than the principle of open access to general information.
If we were to extend the application of the Privacy Act to Crown corporations, it seems that there would be less obvious risk of harming the institutions' competitive position.
In the case of Parliament there remains the question of whether the Privacy Act would cover the personnel records contained in the offices of members and senators. It is clear that it would be beneficial for employees of the House and the Senate. Even in relation to the Privacy Act it is clear that expanding the coverage of the act must not be done in a haphazard manner but must be done in full consideration of the public interest in the possible outcome.
To summarize, while the idea of expanding the coverage of the Access to Information Act to Parliament and to crown agencies is surely based on a concept of openness which this government wholeheartedly supports, the practical implications of such an expansion of coverage cannot be disregarded.
For now, the most logical solution would be to keep these suggestions in reserve so that they can be considered as part of another process to amend the act for which the Minister of Justice and the President of the Treasury Board will initiate consultations.
At that point every member will have the opportunity to make suggestions for amendments to either the Access to Information Act or the Privacy Act or both. Possible amendments to these
acts will be open to full debate as pieces of an amendment package instead of as a separate patchwork proposal.
We do not wish to interfere in that process or to prejudge any of its outcome. We want the Canadian people to have input into this process.
All this is to say that while I very much support the principle which I believe lies behind this motion, I cannot support the motion itself at this time.