Freedom of information law: “a step in the right direction,” says governor

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The urgent need for Freedom of Information legislation was emphasized by His Excellency Governor John Duncan in a special territorial address on 17 March.

Queen’s Representative drew attention to the Speech from the Throne that he delivered last November, in which he announced the intention of the current government to introduce a Freedom of Information Act.

His Excellency announced that work on the legislation has begun and highlighted the fact that three overseas territories have already passed freedom of information legislation with a fourth territory planning to follow shortly.

The Governor in elaborating on the importance of such legislation said: “A Freedom of Information Act is certainly a step in the right direction and complements the role which already exists in the form of Questions in the House of Assembly, or the powers of the Public Accounts Committee to ensure the transparency of decision making.”

He however noted that obtaining information under a Freedom of Information Act can be a slow process, and is by its nature reactive.

The highly anticipated Freedom of Information legislation is constantly being referred to as the much-needed tool for the information related issues of the Territory.
The promise of such a bill was first made in 2011, repeated in 2012, mentioned in 2013, and promised again in 2014.

In his Speech from the Throne Governor Duncan announced: “ Government will seek to introduce the Freedom of Information Bill to provide the public with the right of access to information in the possession of the public authorities, thus making available to the public information about the operations of public authorities and, in particular, ensuring that the authorizations, policies, rules and practices affecting members of the public in their dealings with public authorities are readily available to persons affected by those authorizations, policies, rules and practices.”

In his Speech from the Throne delivered on 7 October 2013 then Governor Boyd McCleary announced that Government still intended to pilot such a bill. Governor McCleary told the House of Assembly: “[My Government will] introduce a Freedom of Information Bill to provide the public with the right of access to information in the possession of public authorities.”

Bill Drafted

It was announced in January 2012 that a Freedom of Information Act has already been drafted and was awaiting attention from legislators to become law. Information about the legislation was disclosed by noted lawyer Gerard St.C Farara Q.C who was  lecturing on “The 2007 Constitution and Good Governance in the Virgin Islands” during the 24th annual Frederick Pickering memorial lecture on 17 January at the Eileen Parsons Auditorium.

The Queen’s Counsel announced that the Law Reform Commission drafted and submitted Freedom of Information legislation to government. He stated that the drafted legislation was submitted to Government for their consideration and tabling before the House of Assembly.

He explained that a freedom of information Act is much needed, and is key to enabling members of the public to have access to and become more informed about matters related to decision-making of Government.

“Such legislation has certain financial and other implications for the Territory when fully implemented. Accordingly, as elsewhere, it may have to be brought into effect piecemeal over a period of time. That having been said, the importance of such legislation to transparency, accountability and generally keeping the public informed about government activities, cannot be ignored. As we have seen, this is most critical to the free flow of information and hence good governance,” Mr. Farara stated.

In recent years the public’s frustration about access to information has increased exponentially. In recent months The Island Sun has published an editorial about the media’s difficulties in getting answers from Government: “This situation is no longer acceptable in a territory that brags about good governance and transparency, and yet is deeply entrenched into archaic bureaucracy, procedural dunes, and hierarchical excuses in order to avoid responding to cogent questions. There is enough documentation and reports about this huge problem and even the Complaints Commission has been very vocal about it,” said Vernon W. Pickering, executive editor of The Island Sun.

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