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BC NDP minister won’t commit to freedom of information recommendations

Lisa Beare sidesteps questions about ending $10 fee for FOI requests and adopting other recommendations of all-party committee.
B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner said this week that the government should fulfil a promise to add the legislative assembly to the public records disclosure law.

The BC NDP minister in charge of the provincial government’s freedom of information department said she is “monitoring all trends with the legislation” after the Vancouver School Board refused to waive the $10 application fee for a high school newspaper.

During the Ministry of Citizens’ Services April 7 budget hearing, BC Liberal critic Bruce Banman mentioned how the school board demanded payment from Eric Hamber secondary’s Griffins’ Nest student newspaper. He asked Minister Lisa Beare whether she would consider exempting student newspapers from the fee, but Beare was noncommittal.

“As with any new piece of legislation, it's important to try and strike that balance within it,” Beare said. “Of course, as with any new piece of legislation, it's also important to monitor the implementation and what that looks like, and to hear feedback.”

After the student newspaper went public, a GoFundMe campaign raised $1,650.

The BC NDP on Nov. 25 passed Bill 22, a suite of controversial amendments to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) that included power to charge an application. Shortly after royal assent, Beare signed a cabinet order setting the fee at $10.

The government rushed to make the amendments ahead of the all-party Special Committee to Review FIPPA struck to consider changes to the law once every six years. That committee had only met once, in order to elect a chair, before Bill 22 was passed. Banman asked whether Beare would abolish the $10 fee if the committee’s scheduled June 15 report recommends it be scrapped.

“I'm not going to prejudge any committee determinations. I'm looking forward to seeing the report,” Beare said. “Of course, we will give them thoughtful consideration, as we would any committee report that we receive here in government.”

Banman pressed Beare further: “Would she consider ignoring the recommendation of the committee on that particular issue?”

Replied Beare: “The member is asking hypothetical questions, which is absolutely the member's right, of course. It's hard to comment on a hypothetical.”

Earlier on April 7, Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy testified to the all-party review committee with 17 recommendations. His top recommendation was for the government to fulfil the February 2019 promise to add the legislative assembly to the public records disclosure law.

"There is no reason why the legislative assembly should not, in respect of its administrative functions, be subject to the same transparency and accountability rules as the more than 2,900 public bodies across the province,” McEvoy said.

More than three years ago, after then Speaker Darryl Plecas uncovered a spending scandal, McEvoy and the Ombudsperson and Merit Commissioner issued a joint public letter to House Leader Mike Farnworth. Farnworth said the legislature would be added to the law, but it still has not happened.

McEvoy recommended the law be amended in such a way that covers the administration of the legislature, but still protects constituents’ case files and other records subject to parliamentary privilege. For almost 30 years, ministries, local governments, universities, schools and independent officers of the legislature have complied with the law.

“It is time for the legislative assembly to adhere to the same standards,” McEvoy said.

McEvoy also recommended FIPPA be amended to allow cabinet to disclose information about its deliberations when satisfied the public interest outweighs the need to protect cabinet confidences. Cabinet agendas, minutes and reports are generally kept secret for 15 years.

He also wants the government to clarify the section that protects advice and recommendations made to politicians, so that factual, investigative or background material can be accessed by the public.

McEvoy said he would not repeat his criticism of Bill 22, except to say he would eventually report on its impacts.

“The obvious thing we'd be looking at are the volume of requests, whether that's been impacted,” he said. “And, for example, comparing what is happening with the provincial government, generally, compared to past years, how that compares to other public bodies, where fees are not being charged, to see how the level and number of requests are being made.”