Freedom Of Information Bill To Be Introduced In The Near Future

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The belaboured Freedom of Information (FOI) Act made an appearance on yet another Speech From the Throne. This most recent mention was noticeably different as Governor Augustus Jaspert went a step further than all of his predecessors and actually stated that the Bill is expected to be introduced in the near future and gave some details about the long-awaited legislation.

The need for a Freedom of Information Act has been mentioned ad nauseam with virtually no progress being made. Over the last years successive governors have mentioned the need for the legislation in their speeches from the throne with nothing being done; some sources indicated quite clearly that the local government believes that such a piece of legislation would be very disruptive. Others responded that it is high time that the BVI has a “transparent” way to implement democracy so that people can access the “Pandora Box” where solid evidence about good governance and — more so  — about bad governance is often hidden. All too often when the media need to get answers or double check documentation all kinds of obstruction is put forward. Even a former Deputy Governor was very vocal about the urgent need for a FOI Act.

This time however, Governor Jaspert went a step further and indicated that the legislation will be introduced in this session. The Governor told the House of Assembly on 1 March during his speech that the legislation will specify the terms of use and would be a great move in protecting good governance: “During this Session, the Freedom of Information Bill will be introduced by our Government. The Bill will include the guidelines for how people can access public records and it will outline the exempted categories.”

“This piece of legislation will allow for increased transparency and accountability of public affairs. The Bill includes recommendations for the establishment of a Freedom of Information Unit to provide the public with the appropriate administrative mechanism to make and receive requests,” Governor Jaspert added.

It is not surprising that Governor Jaspert went a step further than just announcing that the FOI was needed. This is because during his first media interview after being sworn in Governor Jaspert indicated that one of the subjects he intended to broach with the Premier and Minister for Finance, Dr. the D. Orlando Smith, and the members of Cabinet is the need for introducing a Freedom of Information Bill (FOI).

A Freedom of Information Bill will allow public access to documents or other data in the possession of government, and at least two former Governors, and members of the Opposition expressed interest in seeing the legislation passed.

During his first press conference on 29 August the Governor announced that he is familiar with Freedom of Information Legislation. He also said that the introduction of such an Act here in the BVI is something to be discussed: “One of the principles I come here with is the principle of openness and transparency…For me a Freedom of Information Act is a good thing in the right way but that is something for me to discuss with Ministers or with Cabinet,” the Governor said.

Former Governor Repeatedly Request Bill

Former Governor John Duncan on various occasions announced that the introduction of a FOI Bill would be a step in the right direction for the BVI. One of Duncan’s most notable mentions of the need for the Bill was made last year during the 22 September Speech From The Throne: “The Freedom of Information Bill is being reviewed to ensure its mandates can be successfully carried out in light of imminent legislation to be passed for e-Government and Data Protection,” he said.

The then Governor added, “based on the experiences of other Overseas Territories, it is well known that Freedom of Information can require significantly increased resources to satisfy information requests, especially when coming from the press.” He said that because of this, it is important to ensure that the necessary systems are in place to respond to such requests efficiently without compromising Government’s responsibility to protect personal data under the law.” “The legislation will also give individuals the right to know what information is held about them and provide the regulation for how personal information is handled. The proposed legislation applies to all processing of data in the Territory,” Governor Duncan said.

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