Caving in to public pressure, the Government on Monday night proposed changes to its controversial bill concerning the Freedom of Information Act.
Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, who laid the new amendments in Parliament on Monday night, confirmed at a briefing yesterday the changes were made after Government noted the public reaction to clause seven of the FOI Act.
“Perhaps I underestimated the reaction to a matter which Government felt was a simple one, therefore we press ‘pause’,” Al-Rawi said.
“It’s clear what Government felt was a simple plan isn’t as simple as what Government intended it to be,” he said, adding he may have misunderstood the effect of the situation.
His shift prompted the Opposition to accuse Al-Rawi of presenting flawed legislation to Parliament.
The new amendments were circulated to MPs at the end of Parliament’s sitting on Monday night.
The original bill, presented to Parliament last Friday, involved a package of amendments headed by law for the upcoming Tax Amnesty. It also seeks to amend the law on Pensions, Freedom of Information, National Insurance, Central Bank and Non-Profit Organisation Acts.
Regarding the FOIA aspect, the original bill had sought to extend from 30 days to 90 days the length of time which Government bodies would have to provide information on public requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act. The proposal also expanded the timeframe to 180 days where the State entity intends to deny the information being requested. That timeframe was to obtain the AG’s approval on the request for information.
Other clauses in the Miscellaneous bill proposed an enhanced pension package for the prime minister, president and judges.
When it was presented last Friday, Al-Rawi said the bill would be debated on Monday. The Opposition objected to such swift debate on the basis the party would not have had time to research.
However, a wave of outcry— especially on the FOIA clause —ensued from over 30 groups including non-governmental organisations, business chambers, the Law Association, NATUC and others. Some retired Tobago House of Assemblymen even expressed concern they couldn’t access the enhanced pension. Government was urged to withdraw the FOIA clause and have consultations on it.
But on Tuesday while Al-Rawi said Government had noted concerns on the length of the proposed 90 days FOIA timeframe, he said there wouldn’t be consultations. “What for? We feel the data will speak for itself,” he said.
He, however, added Government has heeded arguments on the FOI issue and halved the initially proposed 90-day time frame to 45 days.
The change proposes that “a public authority shall take reasonable steps to enable an applicant to be notified of the approval or refusal of his request as soon as practicable but in any case not later than thirty days after the day on which the request is duly made. It also provides a two-week extension of time to ensure that public authorities have sufficient time within which to ensure compliance with the FOI request especially in cases where the request may be voluminous/broad.”
The clause retains the AG to review the public authority’s decision within 30 days and advise the authority whether the applicant is entitled to access a requested document. Members of the public will still have recourse to judicial review if they wish.
Al-Rawi also defended the proposed enhanced pension packages to judges. He said 20,00 people weren’t involved and the Government needs to attract people to the Judiciary. He said some retirees were living almost indigently and even some UNC “people” had come to his office “at death and destruction’s door.” Acknowledging pensions for politicians was a thorny issue, he added pensions would be reset every five years.
The new amendments—which only require Government votes for passage—will be debated in Parliament Friday.