Mr. Speaker, I am happy to have this opportunity to speak to elements of the motion put forward by the member for Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre, many of which appear to be reflected in the draft provisions prepared by the Information Commissioner for consideration by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. I wish to take a brief moment to provide the House with some important background information.
As most members know, the Minister of Justice appeared on April 5 of this year before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. At that time the minister tabled with the committee a discussion paper on access to information reform issues. This paper was presented to the committee with the intent of involving parliamentarians in this important reform process.
During his speech to the committee, the minister made clear his goal. His goal was to present the committee with a paper that described a number of key areas for reform, all of which have proven to be difficult to resolve because of their high level of complexity. This complexity includes the need to balance competing interests of apparently equal importance. During his remarks the minister expressed his hope that the committee would be willing to provide its invaluable assistance with a balancing of interests and the resolution of at least some, if not all, of the difficult issues raised in the discussion paper.
I wish to echo the minister's hope that the committee will indeed become engaged in this fundamentally democratic issue, which is the reform of the Access to Information Act, by hearing the views of interested parties on the questions raised in the paper.
The committee, of which I am a member, chose not to study the issues outlined in the discussion paper. Nor did the committee consult with a wide range of stakeholders whose views are of crucial importance in the area of access reform. Instead, the committee asked the Information Commissioner to prepare legislative proposals to reform the Access to Information Act. At the end of September of this year the deputy information commissioner presented the committee with these legislative proposals.
On October 25 the Information Commissioner himself appeared before the committee to discuss his proposals. During his appearance the Information Commissioner confirmed that he had not consulted certain key stakeholders, by which I mean regular requesters, affected government departments, agents of Parliament, crown corporations and other federal entities, companies that provide sensitive commercial information to the government, and foreign governments that share national security information with us. This may explain why a number of the commissioner's proposals may seem acceptable in concept, but are problematic or even unacceptable as drafted.
For example, the Information Commissioner proposes to clarify that ministers' offices are subject to the act, although it appears that the commissioner's intent is to subject only those records held in ministers' offices that relate to departmental matters. The proposal as is does not clearly exclude records of a personal or political nature. This means that a person could potentially obtain information about a minister's constituency business by means of the Access to Information Act which has nothing to do with ministerial accountability.
As stated in the discussion paper, the government is of the opinion that records in a minister's office should not be covered. The current exclusion of these records allows for the free and frank debates that are required to ensure that the political process functions properly.
Further, confidentiality is required for the offices of ministers to respond to constituents' concerns. Also, ministers and exempt staff are already encouraged by the Prime Minister to proactively disclose information about their travel and hospitality expenses. This information can be accessed on their web pages in a timely manner.
On another note, the Information Commissioner proposes to cover cabinet confidences under the act. Currently, cabinet confidences are excluded from the act. Ministers meet regularly in cabinet to exchange views and opinions on policy matters in order to make decisions on government policy. For this decision making process to be fully effective and in order to foster cabinet solidarity, it is essential that ministers be able to have full and frank exchanges between and among themselves and to have the assurance that these exchanges will be protected. As such, the government believes that the exclusion of cabinet confidences from the act should continue, with one important modification.
The government would enshrine in the legislation the right of the Information Commissioner to go to court to challenge definitional issues. This would allow the Information Commissioner to ask the Federal Court to review the government's determination that information sought under an access request fell within the definition of a cabinet confidence and for that reason was properly not accessible pursuant to the act. If the court did not agree with the determination made by the government, the information would no longer be excluded from the application of the act.
The Information Commissioner on the other hand would make cabinet confidences subject to the act, but they would be protected from disclosure by a mandatory exemption. However, this mandatory exemption would have a public interest override attached to it. This means that any cabinet confidence could be disclosed if it were in the public interest to do so. Even leaving aside for the moment the question of whether cabinet confidences should be fully covered by the act, the commissioner's proposal is problematic for a number of reasons.
For example, the Information Commissioner has now consulted with the Privy Council Office to see what the impact would be of having a public interest override applied to cabinet confidences. Do we actually want the Information Commissioner telling the government when it is in the public interest to divulge the deliberations of cabinet?
As well, the addition of cabinet confidences to the act requires consequential amendments to the Canada Evidence Act, the Privacy Act and the other statutes that refer to confidences of cabinet. These necessary amendments have not been considered by the Information Commissioner. This may seem like a small point, but underlines why the commissioner's proposals cannot be adopted without great care being taken.
The Information Commissioner would also broaden the coverage of the act by including all crown corporations. The commissioner would not provide protections for sensitive commercial information. As I mentioned, the Information Commissioner did not even bother to consult with the crowns when drafting this proposal. It is anticipated that many of the crowns would therefore not be satisfied with the Information Commissioner's proposal.
Further, the commissioner would cover all bodies or offices funded in whole or in part from parliamentary appropriations, as well as bodies or offices that provide services in an area of federal jurisdiction that are essential to the public interest as it relates to health, safety or protection of the environment.
I am not certain that the criteria proposed by the Information Commissioner for covering federal entities under the act are the correct criteria. The government considers that the criteria should be related to stable characteristics of the organization, such as function or controlling interest by the government, and not to criteria that relate to fluctuating characteristics such as the level of federal funding. Further again, the commissioner did not consult with federal entities when developing his criteria to add these organizations to the act.
The commissioner would also cover the five agents of Parliament. Related to this, he proposes to create a mandatory exemption for information obtained from another government institution in the course of a lawful investigation. The new exemption proposed by the commissioner would not, however, protect the information created by the agents themselves in the course of their investigations. Apparently the commissioner does not believe that this class of information deserves protection. We disagree and believe that the agents should have an opportunity to give their views.
In addition, the Information Commissioner would amend the exemptions for provisions that protect not only sensitive federal government information, but also the sensitive information of our government allies and businesses. The Information Commissioner would make most exemptions discretionary, which would give governmental institutions a choice as to whether or not they would disclose the information.
Some exemptions function well being discretionary. On the other hand, certain exemptions need to offer a stronger level of protection. For example, section 13, currently a mandatory exemption, protects information received in confidence from governments of other countries. The Information Commissioner proposes to make this exemption discretionary. There is a strong risk that foreign governments would be extremely reluctant to provide sensitive information to Canada without the high level of protection offered by a mandatory, not discretionary, exemption.
Almost all exemptions would be subject to any injury test. This means that a government institution could only invoke the exemption if it could prove that the release of the record would cause injury. Again, some exemptions already contain an injury test and function appropriately. However, other exemptions would not work properly with the injury test attached.
For example, the exemption for information covered by solicitor-client privilege currently has no injury test, as is the case in all provincial and territorial jurisdictions. Subjecting solicitor-client records to the injury test would put the federal government at a clear and unjustifiable disadvantage vis-à-vis protecting the legal advice it receives.
Finally, all exemptions would be subject to a public interest override. The implications of such a general override have not been properly assessed. As I have already stated, the Information Commissioner did not consult with government departments and other entities that would be affected by such a sweeping change.
Currently, the act protects confidential commercial information supplied by third parties specifically including trade secrets which are not defined in the act. The Information Commissioner proposes to define trade secrets. This proposal may seem innocuous but we feel that it could be potentially problematic. When a term is codified it becomes frozen in time and may not respond to future developments in jurisprudence. If two years from now the generally accepted view of the term “trade secrets” changed, the Access to Information Act's definition would be outdated and stagnant.
As a whole, the Information Commissioner's changes to the exemption could result in less protection for sensitive information provided often on a voluntary basis to the government. As a result, third parties and other governments might refuse to provide information because they felt that their information was not adequately protected by the exemptions. This could impair the mandate of the departments that rely on those exemptions to protect, for example, information received in confidence from the governments in other countries.
Further, the Information Commissioner proposes to repeal section 24 in schedule II which contains over 70 statutory provisions that prohibit disclosure. Without this exemption, however, some government entities may be unable to protect sensitive commercial and personal information they need to carry out their mandates, as other exemptions may not adequately protect these types of information, or because the protection is not strong enough to assure those providing the information that it will not be disclosed.
For example, the confidentiality clauses in both the Statistics Act and the Income Tax Act are included in schedule II. My concern is that regarding the census, people would be much less willing to provide the government with necessary, but undeniably highly sensitive, personal information without an ironclad guarantee of confidentiality which the commissioner's proposal would not provide.
The Information Commissioner also proposes to legislate a statutory duty to create records. The failure to create such a record would be a criminal offence. This duty does not belong to the Access to Information Act. I understand what the commissioner is trying to get at and I certainly do not deny that the deliberate non-creation of records, an important decision, needs to be addressed, but does it need to be addressed in a law? Is a criminal offence necessary here?
Further, what would the operational requirements be to fulfill such an extensive duty? Would this actually help departments fulfill their duties or would it hinder them? Would a civil servant have to make a formal record for every conversation that he or she had with a colleague about departmental matters? This could be a crushing burden. The answers to these questions are not clear in the Information Commissioner's proposal.
The Information Commissioner would also allow any person regardless of citizenry to make access requests. This universal right of access could have significant costs for certain departments. More study needs to be undertaken on the costing and administrative burden of such a proposal before it can be adopted.
On November 3 a motion was agreed to by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics first, to accept the proposed open government act as drafted by the Information Commissioner's office, and second, to recommend to the House of Commons that the justice minister consider the advisability of introducing legislation in the House based on the Information Commissioner's proposed provisions by December 15 this year.
While the minister applauds the movement toward a modernized act that would result in greater openness and transparency within the government, he feels that the Information Commissioner's proposals threaten to disrupt the delicate balance between the need for openness and the need to protect legitimate government interest.
Further, the Information Commissioner did not consult with stakeholders when drafting his bill to reform the Access to Information Act.
Truly balanced legislation that reflects all competing interests and maintains the critical balance between the right of access to government information and the need to protect sensitive information cannot be constructed without full and complete input from all affected parties, including government departments, crown corporations, agents of Parliament, other federal entities, affected third parties and, of course, the media, the Canadian people and foreign countries.
We feel that the access committee, in supporting these proposals, has not taken into account the necessary range of interests and, as a consequence, has acted in haste.
The decision to move ahead with this is that we had spent a period of time with a sense of frustration and a desire to move on. I think there was a desire to do something but in my opinion we had a fair amount of dialogue on the motion that we approved. The hon. member for Winnipeg Centre had served notice. We had time to consider it. A lot of consideration took place by all the parties in question and ultimately it was modified.
I think the motion is very positive and there is a willingness to go forward. However, in doing that, it is not something that can be achieved overnight, even though a response has been asked for by December 15.
The Access to Information Act is a quasi-constitutional statute that has been described by the Supreme Court of Canada as a pillar of our democracy. As such, it is imperative that we strike the appropriate balance between openness and confidentiality in access reform. To do this, all elements and angles must be considered before we can move forward with an informed and balanced reform package.
As such, the adoption of the Information Commissioner's proposals to reform the Access to Information Act is premature. The committee needs to call on stakeholders from all sides to discuss potential areas for access reform in order to arrive at a balanced bill that reflects the needs and interests of all affected parties.
As the current Information Commissioner has stated on more than one occasion, the Access to Information Act is a good law. Equally true is that after being in existence for 22 years the act is in need of reform and modernization. On this I know that the Minister of Justice is anxious to proceed with access reform.
However the Access to Information Act cannot successfully be reformed by having people tinker with it in ways that do not recognize the complexities of the act. The Access to Information Act is a fundamental part of our democracy and we are fortunate to have a statutory right to check up on the government. We must not allow this democratic right to be altered in any way that is not entirely thoughtful and cognizant of the all the interests that are at stake.