Hon. Scott Brison (President of the Treasury Board, Lib.)
moved that Bill C-58, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am proud today to discuss Bill C-58, an act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other acts.
This legislation, which I introduced on June 19, is built on a foundation of work by many people through consultations: parliamentarians, the Information Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner, important stakeholders, and, of course, Canadian citizens. All have strong views, sometimes conflicting, as to what we ought to do to modernize this 34-year-old act.
I would like to thank each of them for their careful consideration of the issues involved in updating our access to information regime.
The Liberal Party has spent over a decade defending and strengthening the principles of openness and transparency, both in government and in opposition. In fact, I remember when I served in the Right Hon. Paul Martin's cabinet. That was the first time a prime minister required the proactive disclosure of ministers' expenses. In fact, Mr. Speaker, you were a colleague in that same cabinet.
Later, in opposition, under the leadership of the current Prime Minister, our Liberal caucus was the first to proactively disclose parliamentarians' expenses. Now we are bringing this ongoing effort toward openness and transparency to government.
On day one, our Prime Minister made the ministers' mandate letters public, for the first time ever. This week, when I was in New York at the UN General Assembly, the CEO of the global organization Open Government Partnership told me that making public ministerial mandate letters is a real game changer that is going to raise the bar globally in terms of other countries.
Ministers are no longer just accountable to the Prime Minister for their mandates. Today, having our mandate letters public means that we are more accountable to Parliament, and of course, are more accountable to Canadian citizens.
That was just the beginning. Within our first two days of government we unmuzzled government scientists and restored the mandatory long-form census. All these measures are consistent with our drive toward openness and transparency and providing higher-quality information to Canadians.
Our actions are being recognized by global organizations. In March we were elected to the steering committee of the Open Government Partnership for the first time. This week we agreed to take on the role of co-chair of the OGP. This is the world's largest multilateral organization dedicated to open, transparent, and accountable government.
As we developed this first set of legislative reforms of the Access to Information Act, we have continued to be guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people it serves. If anything, it is truer today than ever before.
The Access to Information Act, in 1983, first enshrined in law the following principles: that citizens have a right to government information, that transparency makes government more accountable and responsive to the needs of citizens, and that access to information allows citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process and hold their government to account.
The amendments we are proposing to the act will strengthen its original purpose in a way that reflects today's technologies, policies, and legislation. Now more than ever, open government is good government. We want to work with parliamentarians, independent officers of Parliament, and stakeholders to ensure that this first major Access to Information Act reform in three decades reflects that intention.
A lot has changed since the ATI Act first came into force. Thirty-four years ago, government information was paper-based and stored in file cabinets.
Since then, information technology and our communications infrastructure have been revolutionized and personalized.
Over the same period, the volume of information collected and held by government has grown, and the Internet has made it easier for the government to make large amounts of information widely available.
The Access to Information Act played an important part in bringing about a change in public expectations. It was in fact ground-breaking.
Since the act became law, in fact, more than 750,000 information requests have been processed. That is 85 requests every working day for more than three decades. Since 1983, the number of requests has grown by an average of 13% annually. In fact, 2015-16 saw more than 75,000 requests. I would like us to consider that number: 75,000 information requests in one year. That represents almost 10% of the overall number of information requests processed since 1983, so demand for information is actually growing.
Clearly, there is a rising demand for government information and government transparency. That demand has strained government, and it has frustrated Canadians who are accessing information.
We have heard the complaints about government delays in responding to requests or about denied requests. We believe that the changes we are making will help address some of these issues. However, in 2015-16, for example, 64% of all completed information requests were answered within the initial statutory time limit of 30 days. That number jumps to 86% if we consider the requests closed within an extension period provided for within the act. More than nine million pages were processed in 2015-16, and more than 80% of the records were disclosed either in full or in part.
In some cases, exemptions were invoked for valid reasons, including the privacy of personal information, national security, and the ability of the public service to give full and frank advice to government.
Nonetheless, to say that reforming the 1983 act has been a long time coming would certainly be an understatement.
That is why we are modernizing the act today. This is not just a one-off exercise that might have to wait another 34 years for an update. We are making it law that there will be regular reviews of the act. We began these efforts just over a year ago. In May 2016, we issued an interim directive that enshrined the principle of open by default. This refers to a culture shift across government in which data and information are increasingly released as a matter of course unless there are specific reasons not to do so.
This culture of openness helps Canadians engage with their government on policies, programs, and services.
We believe that good public policy comes out of conversations and consultations with Canadians and that it needs to be two-way communication. Even in the last few months since introducing this legislation, we have continued to engage the commissioners of information and privacy, along with many other experts on this subject. We paid close attention to the concerns raised, and I look forward to pursuing that conversation with this Parliament and with parliamentarians here today and in the coming weeks.
“Open by default” involves providing more information to the general public, engaging citizens in identifying issues and problems, and helping to develop solutions around them.
The interim directive we issued in May 2016 also eliminated all fees for access to information requests, apart from the standard $5 fee, and directed the release of information in more user-friendly and shareable digital formats whenever possible. Now is the time to take more steps on this path of open government.
The legislative package we have introduced proposes amendments that would further improve Canadians’ access to government information.
To begin with, the amendments would create a new part of the act relating to proactive disclosure.
Proactive publication puts into practice the principle of “open by default”.
With modern technologies making it easier to share information in real time, we are looking at new ways to meet Canadians' expectations by sharing government information more quickly and automatically while relieving some of the pressure from our demand-based system.
This approach would build on current best practices, and apply consistent requirements for the publication of information across the government.
It would apply to more than 240 government departments, agencies, and crown corporations. It would include the Prime Minister's Office and ministers' offices, senators and members of Parliament, institutions that support Parliament, administrative institutions that support the courts, and more than 1,100 judges of the superior courts.
We would be putting in law the proactive publication of the travel and hospitality expenses of ministers and their staff as well as of senior officials across government; contracts over $10,000 and all contracts issued by members of Parliament and senators; grants and contributions over $25,000; mandate letters and revised mandate letters; briefing packages for new ministers and deputy ministers; lists of briefing notes for ministers and deputy ministers, including the titles of the notes and their tracking numbers; and the parliamentary binder used for question period and committee appearances. We developed this list by examining some of the most sought after documents in access to information requests.
We expect, in fact, that this approach would guide us over time in terms of expanding proactive disclosure. In other words, if there are certain categories of information that are frequently being requested through the demand-based system, that would be a signal to our government and to future governments that we ought to consider proactively disclosing those categories as we move forward.
This will lead to better public understanding of government decision-making, fostering more participation and public trust in government. We also understand that proactive publication does not absolve us of our responsibility to strengthen the request-based system.
That is why we are also developing a new plain-language guide that will help provide requesters with clear explanations for any exemptions and exclusions. We will be investing in tools to make processing information requests more efficient. We will be allowing federal institutions that have the same minister to share request-processing services to achieve greater efficiency.
Because one of the most common complaints we have heard has been directed at the consistency of how the act is applied across government institutions, we will invest in better government training to get a common and consistent interpretation and application of ATI rules across the government.
We are also following the guidance of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.
We are moving to help government institutions weed out what are genuinely bad-faith requests that put significant strain on the system, slowing responses for everyone else. Repetitive, vexatious requests can gum up access to information processes while providing little new information, and as such, can do a disservice to all Canadians.
Federal institutions spent more than $64 million in 2015-16 to cover the direct cost of administering the act, and this government wants those resources spent efficiently and effectively. Our intent is to ensure that no government, ours or any future government, can abuse this provision. Let me be clear. A large or broad request, or one that causes the government discomfort, does not of itself represent bad faith on the part of a requester.
We need to get this right. We recognize that while this tool is needed to significantly improve the system, everything from sound policy to proper oversight must be done to prevent its abuse. I have faith that this House and this Parliament and the work that will be done at the committee can help us achieve that objective.
We are not stopping there. The proposed amendments would also give the Information Commissioner new powers.
These include the ability to order the release of government records. This was a power long sought by successive Information Commissioners. We are also giving her office more financial resources to do its job.
This is a significant step forward.
We will change the commissioner's role from that of an ombudsperson to that of an authority, with the legislative power to order government institutions to release records. These are significant reforms to our ATI system, but there will always be more we can do to strengthen the trust between citizens and their government.
That is why the reforms being proposed are only the first phase of our modernization of access to information.
In fact, the amendments legislate a review of the act every five years so that the law never becomes as outdated as it is today. The first review would begin within one year of this bill's receiving royal assent. In addition, through policy, we will require that departments regularly review the information being requested under the act. This is important because the trend analysis that we conduct on an ongoing basis will help us understand and increase the kinds of information that should be made more easily available, including through proactive disclosure. This analysis would also inform the five-year reviews and future changes to strengthen the act.
After 34 years, we are the first government to significantly revitalize Canada's access to information law and system. It is the most comprehensive access to information reform in a generation. As I said, these reforms are only the first phase. It is a work in progress to strengthen access to information and openness and transparency in Canada, not just for our government but for future governments. With the support of the House, we can continue to work together to modernize our access to information law and system and to make governments today and in the future more open, transparent, and accountable to Canadians.
Subtopic: Access to Information Act