Federal info commissioner says integrity of access-to-information system at risk

OTTAWA – Poor leadership and scant resources have left government agencies struggling to answer access-to-information requests from Canadians, warns a federally appointed watchdog.

In her annual report tabled Thursday, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault said the integrity of the system is at risk and the weaknesses must be urgently addressed.

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to request a variety of records from federal agencies — from correspondence and briefing notes to expense reports and audits.

The government is supposed to respond within 30 days or provide good reasons why a delay is necessary.

But Legault said staff shortages meant one institution — the RCMP — routinely went six months without even acknowledging receipt of requests.

In other cases, the response time could vary from 18 months to more than three years.

Legault, an ombudsman for users of the access law, said the mild optimism she felt last year has evaporated.

“In fact, there are unmistakable signs of significant deterioration in the federal Access to Information system,” Legault told a news conference.

In 2012-13, complaints to her office from requesters were up nine per cent overall. Administrative complaints about such things as delays, time extensions and fees were up 42 per cent.

The trend has continued into this fiscal year, she said.

“It is imperative that the access problems be fixed promptly and significantly. There is truly a need for leadership on the part of the government and the individual institutions.”

The comments amounted to a clear shift in Legault’s tone from measured concern to blunt criticism of the government’s record.

She said it was unfortunate that the speech from the throne delivered this week “is silent on matters of transparency and accountability.”

The throne speech mentioned the government’s commitment to address issues surrounding the fatal rail disaster in Lac-Megantic, Que., last summer, Legault noted.

However, based on Access to Information request extensions being taken by Transport Canada, members of the public who want records about federal plans to deal with the accident’s aftermath can expect to wait “a year before they actually get their response,” she said.

“Canadians have a quasi-constitutional right to most government-held information and they should have a prerogative to request what they want to see, when and how — not when the government chooses to release the information.”

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, minister responsible for Access to Information, said earlier this year the Harper government was the most transparent in Canadian history. He pointed to the steady increase in the number of requests processed by agencies compared with a decade ago.

Legault took issue with that assertion Thursday, saying that the number of requests being handled is meaningless when there are egregious delays.

“That’s not transparency, that’s simply breaching the law.”

Legault said she recently met with Clement and told him she would publicly hold him accountable for the Access to Information system’s failings.

Clement’s office refused to make him available for an interview Thursday.

Deputy ministers and agency heads — as well as Privy Council clerk Wayne Wouters, who oversees them — must also be accountable for the way organizations answer access requests in order to have “a public service that respects its legal obligations,” Legault said.

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus characterized the commissioner’s criticism as “some of the strongest language we’ve ever seen from a parliamentary officer.”

“We’re talking about denying access to Canadians about how money is being spent.”

To mark the law’s 30th anniversary, Legault will soon table recommendations to modernize the legislation, drafted in the pre-Internet era.

She confirmed Thursday she will advise government to extend the law to cover Parliament and administration of the courts.

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