Cabinet documents should be reviewed to ensure government isn’t hiding anything from public, watchdog says
Secret Cabinet documents should be reviewed to verify that they are truly Cabinet confidences – and not an attempt to shield government documents from access to information law – the US watchdog said on Wednesday. Canada’s access to information for Members of Parliament.
When asked during her appearance before the House of Commons Committee on Freedom of Information, Privacy and Ethics about secret or unpublished Cabinet decisions, Information Commissioner Caroline Maynard said she was not even allowed to see documents that the government says contain Cabinet confidences.
“Cabinet confidences do not currently fall under my jurisdiction,” Maynard told MPs. « I am not able to see confidential cabinet documents. »
Maynard said Canada should follow the example of other countries that provide for independent reviews to determine whether a document is truly a Cabinet confidence.
Maynard painted a picture for MPs of a struggling access to information system. She said that 30% of access to information requests by Canadians are not answered within the timeframes set out in the law — and the problem is getting worse.
While some departments are showing improvement, « no one is doing very well, » Maynard told MPs. « Everyone is struggling to meet the 30-day deadline. There are a lot of problems with extensions. »
« Not a good record »
She said her office had seen a 70% increase in complaints over the past year – a record number.
« I could get up to 10,000 complaints this year if it continues like this, » she said. « Every year is a record. Not a good record. »
Maynard, appointed in 2018, revealed that she also referred seven possible filibuster cases to the attorney general’s office. Obstruction can be a criminal offence.
“What we see most is the destruction of documents,” Maynard said. « Documents that we know existed and disappeared. »
Maynard said she was unable to tell the committee what, if anything, officials from the attorney general’s office had done about the cases she had referred to her.
Although the law currently requires the Attorney General’s office to refer potential cases of obstruction to the RCMP for investigation, Maynard said she would like to see the law changed to allow her to refer cases of obstruction directly to the RCMP. police.
NDP MP Matthew Green asked the committee to follow up to find out what happened to those seven cases.
Maynard said each department’s track record in administering the Access to Information Act can be influenced by those at the top. She said government officials should be held accountable for how their institutions enforce the law.
Proactively disseminating information could significantly reduce the number of freedom of information requests a department has to deal with, she said. For example, she added, in the United States, if a file is requested by three different people, the policy is to publish it proactively.
Pandemic no longer causing delays: Maynard
Maynard also questioned the claim that the growing backlog of freedom of information requests is a result of the pandemic. While that may have been a factor initially, most departments have adapted, she said.
« At the beginning of COVID, it was really difficult to do investigations because most analysts did not have access to their servers or any information. COVID is no longer an excuse. You should have access to your server, you should have access to the documents,” she said.
Maynard told the committee that the access to information law should be updated to allow individuals to request Cabinet confidences and information from ministers’ and prime minister’s offices. Currently, they are excluded from the law.
She said steps could be taken to improve access to the information system without changing the law through improved leadership, innovation, more resources and declassification of records.
If Canadians cannot successfully use access law to obtain information, they could lose trust in government and foster the proliferation of misinformation, Maynard said.
« If they don’t have information from our own institutions, they will turn to other sources of information, which will lead to misinformation. »