B.C.’s NDP government is eroding democracy with its new $10 fee for freedom-of-information requests and the speed at which it rammed through the legislation creating that fee, critics say.
On Nov. 24, the government passed Bill 22 into law, also known as the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Amendment Act.
Third reading in the legislature, followed by Royal Assent, took five minutes. The legislature was then adjourned.
“There’s a bit of an erosion of democracy,” said Jason Woywada, the executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA). “It is not a good practice to see what we saw at the end of the legislative session.”
He said it’s either bad intent or management incompetence.
“Either way, it’s not good.”
Bill 22 passed in the wake of earlier protests from freedom-of-information advocates and journalist groups, who called on Premier John Horgan and Minister of Citizens' Services Lisa Beare not to pass the bill. The government was also sent letters of concern from B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy.
The bill, tabled on Oct. 18, included a possible $25 fee for freedom-of-information requests and other measures.
Beare has said Bill 22 will help people access services faster while strengthening privacy protections. Critics, meanwhile, have said it won't increase government transparency; rather, it will add roadblocks for those wanting to discover the inner workings of the legislature. The changes, they say, could thwart the uncovering of government scandals or impede a citizen’s right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.
Rather than $25 per FOI request, anyone submitting an FOI will have to pay $10 under the new law. The system is used by citizens, journalists, lawyers, business groups and others.
Woywada said the bill's passing sets a dangerous precedent for other levels of government (like municipalities and health authorities) to also start charging fees.
He said the situation opens the door to a growing lack of transparency in government institutions. The fees could create a chilling effect in people using the FOI system, he said.
“That’s going to lead to a continual erosion of trust in public institutions.”
Without any governing regulations yet in place, the new law allows disclosure of personal information outside Canada. That was previously banned in order to keep data stored domestically to avoid it being subject to the laws of countries in which computer servers might be located — for instance, in the United States, where information might be seized under homeland security laws.
“Bill 22 erases one of British Columbia’s strongest protections to your personal information by getting rid of data residency requirements,” FIPA said in a Nov. 25 news release. “It does nothing to close gaps, increase timeliness, or improve proactive disclosure and public interest disclosure.”
In the legislature on Nov. 25, Opposition Critic for Citizens’ Services Bruce Banman said Bill 22 will cost B.C. taxpayers $15,000 a year in FOI application fees.
“Does the minister believe that that aligns with the intent of the act, to block the Opposition from filling its most fundamental role?” Banman asked.