B.C. NDP government aims to impose fees for making freedom-of-information requests

The Freedom of Information and Privacy Association calls this a step backward for transparency

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      Now that the B.C. NDP has a majority under John Horgan, it's decided to put up a barrier to those who want to file freedom-of-information requests.

      In the legislature on October 18, Minister of Citizens' Services Lisa Beare introduced a bill to allow the government to impose fees on those filing freedom-of-information requests.

      A new $25 tariff per request is possible due to Bill 22's amendment to section 75 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to allow a "prescribed application fee".

      Journalists Rob Shaw and Bob Mackin are among those who've condemned Bill 22 over social media.

      UVic's new Wayne Crookes professor of environmental and climate journalism, Sean Holman, tweeted that Alberta is the only other province that charges a $25 fee to ask for government information.

      Meanwhile, B.C.'s information and privacy commissioner, Michael McEvoy, raised concerns to the Vancouver Sun about how Bill 22 would allow public bodies to send British Columbians' personal information outside of the country.

      In addition, Bill 22 would ensure that section 5 of the Offence Act does not apply to the legislation.

      That section of the Offence Act states: "A person who contravenes an enactment by doing an act that it forbids, or omitting to do an act that it requires to be done, commits an offence against the enactment."

      It could mean that anyone who simply omits to fulfill a request won't be guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.

      In its place, Bill 22 declares that an offence occurs if a person wilfully makes a false statement to or misleads or attempts to mislead or obstructs the commissioner, an adjudicator, or anyone acting under their direction.

      In addition, Bill 22 states: "A person who wilfully conceals, destroys or alters any record to avoid complying with a request for access to the record commits an offence."

      "The changes we're proposing will strengthen government accountability and transparency by enabling us to be more responsive to the needs of people by adding more public bodies and charging new offences for destroying records to evade FOI," Beare said in a speech to the legislature.

      The Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has described Bill 22 as a backward step that shows "disregard" for the legislature, its legislation, and British Columbians.

      “A legacy of transparency scandals, from fast ferries, to triple delete, to wood chippers at the Legislature, show the costs of secrecy and the importance of getting these legislative amendments right," FIPA president Mike Larsen said in a news release

      The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act applies to a long list of public bodies, including provincial Crown corporations, municipal governments, school boards, and health authorities.

      According to a Ministry of Citizens' Services report, there were 7,622 general FOI requests and 4,633 personal FOI requests in 2018-19.

      If there were the same number of requests in the first year after Bill 22 became law, FOI submissions would generate $306,375 in revenue for the provincial government.

      The 12,255 requests in 2018-19 were a significant increase over the 10,471 requests received in the previous fiscal year.