Trinidad: Kamla says Freedom of Info Act amendments obscene

Kamla Persad-Bissesar

(Trinidad Guardian) A mass appeal by at least 30 private bodies, including the Law Association of T&T (LATT) is trying to force the Government to withdraw the Clause 7 amendment to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The LATT, in a media release yesterday, said it supported the call for public consultation on the proposed amendments to the FOIA.

“The FOIA has become a cornerstone in civil society’s effort to hold public authorities to account.

Any such substantive changes ought to be considered after the views of key stakeholders are widely canvassed and thoroughly ventilated,” the LATT said.

“The LATT therefore calls upon the Honourable Attorney General to (postpone)  debate on the

Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax Amnesty, Pensions, Freedom of Information, National

Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisations (NPO) Bill, 2019 and put it out for public comment,” the LATT said.

Parliament is expected to debate today on the Miscellaneous Provisions (Tax Amnesty, Pensions, Freedom of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisations (NPO) Bill, 2019, which seeks to amend the Freedom of Information Act to extend the period within which a public authority is required to inform an applicant of its decision in relation to a request for information. This period would be extended from 30 to 90 days.

A public authority would, however, be required to obtain the approval of the Attorney General before refusing a request.

In a joint release, several other bodies added their concern about the proposed amendment.

“We are firmly of the view that the public consultation is essential to any change to the Freedom of Information Act and especially as pertains to Clause 7,” the groups says.

“We are of the view that such far-reaching alterations to the Freedom of Information Act should not proceed without full public discussion and consultation,” the amalgamation of public and civil bodies said.

AG: Will raise it with colleagues Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi yesterday said he had seen the joint release from the groups. And while the public pressure may not trigger any change of the planned debate, the Attorney General promised to talk with his colleagues today about the concerns.

“I will speak with my colleagues tomorrow (today) on these developments,” he said.

“There is an obvious need to provide facts which will demonstrate the propriety of the proposed amendments-which are designed to improve the situation and save taxpayers dollars,” he said.

“All that is being proposed is an extension of the time to deal with the initial FOIA and the AG to consider any proposed denial of any FOIA request in the event that a public body intends to refuse the request,” he said.

Al-Rawi said that the amendments would “preserve all rights whilst saving millions of dollars in costs that could have been avoided”.

Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissesar said the Opposition will voice its own dissent of the amendments during the debate today. She described the amendments as “obscene” and said the Opposition will not support it despite the fact that the Bill needs a simple majority to pass.

“It is a dictatorial, despotic and desperate action by the Government to curtail information firstly by extending the time-frame to 180 days,” she said.

Persad-Bissessar said she reviewed the laws of 125 countries with FOIA’s and found none that had the same amendments that the Government was proposing.

“Not a single one of them has a time frame of 90 days for reply,” she said.

She said the additional proposal of another 90 days meant that a person could wait 180 days for a denied FOIA request.

“I have seen nowhere else in the world, 125 countries, they all have within a month, within 20, 30 35 days,” Persad-Bissessar said.

“It is totally out of this world,” she said.

She said the simple majority to pass such a Bill was “frightening”.

“Of course the arguments would be done in Parliament with respect to that,” she said.

Persad-Bissessar said the crux of the Government’s argument was that the FOIA rights were not entrenched in the Constitution but was an honorary statute.

“There are arguments that that right is an adjunct, a sub-division of the right to Freedom of Opinion and Freedom of Expression. There are views in that regard,” she said.

“The second thing that is out of this world is the insertion of the Attorney General as the gate-keeper,” she said

“I have again looked at the 125 countries with FOIA’s, there is not a single country in the world that has an AG inserted in this manner to give approval before a decision is made,” Persad-Bissessar said.

The Opposition leader said that the insertion of the AG in the FOIA breaches the separation of powers.

Persad-Bissessar said if someone sends an FOIA request to the Parliament,the AG would have final say on what that public body’s response.

“Parliament has to send it to the Attorney General. That cannot happen,” she said.

“It is totally abhorrent to a democracy and a participatory democracy,” Persad-Bissessar said.


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