Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to offer a few words about Bill C-58 and its proposed amendments to Canada's Access to Information Act. In fact, I would like to begin with some specific comments about the Information Commissioner's expanded role under these legislative amendments.
Among the many changes we have made in our proposed reform of the Access to Information Act, one that we believe is important, and that the Information Commissioner has herself requested, is for strengthened oversight of the right of access.
Currently, the Information Commissioner has no power to order a government institution to release records that have been requested under the Access to Information Act.
For example, if a requester is dissatisfied with the reduction of records in response to a request, they have the option to send a complaint to the Information Commissioner. This complaint is then investigated, and the commissioner can make a recommendation to the government institution to release the records.
If the institution does not accept that recommendation, the commissioner currently has the option to challenge the decision in court, with the agreement of the requester.
Under Bill C-58, the person would continue to have the right to complain to the Information Commissioner if he or she does not agree with how the government institution responded to the request.
This right would be clearly communicated to the requester as required by the act, but when it comes to the conclusion of the commissioner’s investigation of such complaints, the commissioner would now have the power to issue an order to release the record if she deems it was improperly withheld.
The government institution would have to release the record in accordance with an order from the Information Commissioner or, if it disagreed with the commissioner's order, go to court and convince the court, based on evidence it provided, that it has applied the act correctly.
Mr. Speaker, this is a first at the federal level. Never before has the Information Commissioner had the ability to order the government to release records.
If the head of the institution disagrees with the order, believing, for example, that the record should be withheld for security reasons, Bill C-58 proposes to give the head of the institution 30 business days to ask the court to review the matter.
In short, the new reforms to the Access to Information Act would provide the Information Commissioner with order-making power. This would transform the commissioner's role from an ombudsperson to a powerful authority with legislative power to compel government to release records.
These new powers include the authority to make orders about such things as fees, access in the official language requested, format of release, and decisions by government institutions to decline to act on overbroad or bad faith requests.
To enable the Information Commissioner to carry out this new authority, we will also be providing the commissioner with additional resources.
The improvements we are proposing will reinforce the act's original purpose and respond to the recommendations of the Information Commissioner to strengthen her oversight of the right to access.
The changes to the commissioner's role from ombudsperson to an authority with legislated order-making power will increase the commissioner's effectiveness.
This is a sea change in the way access to information works at the federal level, and we are taking the important step to strengthen government transparency and accountability.
We are committed to modernizing the act and making continual progress towards a more open and transparent government.
To that end, the legislative package we have introduced proposes a new part of the act that sets out proactive publication requirements for all areas of government. This will entrench into law the obligation for the government to proactively publish a broad range of information to a predictable schedule. It will apply across departments and agencies, as well as new areas such as the Prime Minister's and ministers' offices, senators and members of Parliament, institutions that support Parliament, and administrative institutions that support the superior courts and over 1,100 judges of the superior courts.
Making more government information publicly available and on a predictable schedule will promote accountability.
Like the Information Commissioner, we are aiming for increased openness and transparency across government.
At the same time, we recognize that proactive publication does not eliminate our responsibility to strengthen the request-based aspect of the system.
For that reason, we are also investing in tools to make processing information requests more efficient. We will support training across government for consistent application of access to information rules and we will provide written explanations for exemptions and exclusions.
We have also heard the commissioner’s concerns regarding overbroad or bad faith requests, those where the intent is clearly to obstruct or bog down the system.
Under very specific circumstances and subject to oversight by the Information Commissioner, government institutions will be able to decline to act on bad faith requests. Doing so will help government better direct its resources to responding to requests that reflect the original intentions of the act, making government more transparent, responsive, and accountable to citizens.
We are making significant reforms to the access to information system, while continuing to establish a relationship of trust between those requesting information and the government that can provide that information. The amendments will also add a new requirement to review the act every five years to make sure it remains current.
The first review will begin no later than one year after the bill receives royal assent.
In addition, we will have a policy requiring departments to regularly review information requests and to use that analysis to make more types of information more easily accessible. This analysis would in turn guide the five-year reviews to ensure ongoing improvement.
After 34 years, the time has come for the ATI laws and program to be revitalized. The reforms we are proposing affect the whole of government, including areas never before touched by the legislation.
They also provide greater powers to the Information Commissioner to oversee the access to information regime and the ability to order the release of records.
I call upon all members to examine, debate, and support the goals of this legislation and to continue to work together to strengthen access to information and make government more open, transparent, and accountable.