Premier On Public Access To Information Act

July 24, 2010

The Public Access To Information Act 2010 [PATI] was debated in the House of Assembly last evening [July 23], and MPs unanimously approved the bill, and Premier Dr Ewart Brown said the legislation should be implemented within two to three years.

The Premier said “there are many who are anxious to peer through the files of the Office of the Premier, the benefits that this Bill will open up to all Bermudians and residents is truly for each and every one of us.” The Premier went on to say that the Bill now currently covers all records, irrespective of when they were created, even “back to the Sea Venture.”

The full text of the Premier’s statement to Members of Parliament:

Today is the fulfillment of this Government’s long standing pledge to operate in the light of public scrutiny; it is the expansion of the limits of democratic citizenship characteristic of Bermuda’s not so distant past.

We have always had a vision for Bermuda, and the Public Access to Information Bill brings us closer to the Bermuda of our imagination. Some may perceive this Bill as a lofty concept, one for politicians and journalists. And while I’m sure that there are many who are anxious to peer through the files of the Office of the Premier, the benefits that this Bill will open up to all Bermudians and residents is truly for each and every one of us. Democracy and good governance are not simply ideals to be discussed and debated by politicians, but principles that must be realized by everyday people.

Mr. Speaker, Public Access to Information will not only provide a statutory right for people to request and obtain information; it will provide an obligation of review and appeal in cases where information is not provided.

There are a number of great objects of this Bill; to make government for all generations to come, more open and transparent; to develop a more efficient and engaging Civil Service; and to increase accountability to the people of all public bodies. This Bill will increase the sphere of public influence on how Government does the people’s business.

Mr. Speaker, for the single parent interested in getting his child into a particular school, or the descendants of war pensioners who want to know why they have been denied benefits of equal measure, or the hospital patient who wants access to her medical records, this legislation is for them.

For those who believe in a better Bermuda and want insight into the sustainability of our waste methods, the efficacy of zero-based budgeting or how Government’s policies strengthen Bermudian culture, this legislation will give them access to the answers.

And for those who seek justice and redress predicated upon access to information, this legislation will empower them.

Mr. Speaker, I also believe it important for my colleagues across the floor to know that we did not simply answer the call for Public Access to Information; we made the call.

This Bill is in many ways the daughter of Bermuda’s constitutional reform. Through the labour of love of my esteemed colleague, The Honourable Dame Jennifer Smith, Bermuda’s modern Constitution was brought to life.

Work began in earnest to launch the next era in Bermuda’s democratic maturity, and under the Premiership of my predecessor, The Honourable W. Alexander Scott, a project team was struck to implement the Throne Speech pledge to examine proposals for Public Access to Information. Comprehensive research and consultation began. Presentations were made to every Ministry of the Government. International consultation that focused on both the successes and shortcomings of Public Access to Information laws around the world was conducted. This important work resulted in a Discussion Paper outlining the Government’s intention to bring forward this legislation.

At that time the interest in the initiative was strong, but the number of comments on the Discussion Paper was few. In spite of this the work embodying the legislation continued quietly and diligently until the Consultation Draft of the Bill was released for Bermuda and the world to review and provide comment.

The consultation was conducted not for its own sake, but to hear the views of the people and where appropriate amend the Consultation Draft for its improvement. The Government worked hard to obtain substantive and meaningful feedback on the Bill. Presentations were made to the general public, civil society groups, Rotary, and on the local airwaves. Following these efforts, we were inundated with submissions and received over five hundred comments on the Bill. The people decided to speak, and not only on talk shows and in barber shops and boat clubs; people chose to speak directly to their Government. And it should be no surprise that we listened.

The consultation submissions called for the law to be fully retrospective, for more detailed fees information to be provided, for fewer exemptions, for amending the procedures under which the appointed Minister could make regulations, and for protection for civil servants and whistleblowers.

The Government revisited its large library of research and deliberated on the substance of every single consultation submission. The issue of retrospection, the greatest concern raised during the consultation has been fully addressed with the deletion of section 13 of the Consultative Draft Bill which read in part that the Bill did “. . . not apply to records held by a public authority that were created before the coming into operation of this section.” I am proud to say that the Bill now currently covers all records, irrespective of when they were created, dating back to the time of the Charter for the Somers’ Isle Company, in other words, Mr. Speaker, back to the Sea Venture.

Exemptions pertaining to personal information, the deliberations of public authorities, financial and economic interests, and the Governor’s responsibilities and communications with the United Kingdom were narrowed to allow significantly more information to be accessed through this legislation.

The Minister’s powers to make regulations, as is common practice in a number of laws through the negative resolution procedure, are now mandated through the affirmative resolution procedure.

Additionally, the Government has not only provided protections for civil servants acting in good faith under the legislation, but affords those protections to every public authority, its employees and agents.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to announce at this time that the consultation submissions in their entirety are available at the Cabinet Office for all to see. It is important to this Government to share with the very public who participated in the development of this public policy just what was said and how.

And so on this day, it is intended that Bermuda take another step towards joining the 70 plus countries with Public Access to Information legislation. We will join the company of countries as large and vibrant as India and as small and tranquil as the Cayman Islands.

Every Ministry and Department of Government, every Quango, every Parish Council, and every Board and Committee will be covered by this legislation and required to provide information to members of the public both proactively and upon request. From Government House to the Office of the Premier to the Bermuda Police Service, to the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital, the light will shine on these and every other public authority.

Mr. Speaker, I have already heard the question “when will access be provided?” The issue of just “how” to provide access to members of the public has been a key component of our proposals thus far, and must be addressed before the question of “when” can be correctly answered. The Government has carefully examined implementation of Public Access to Information in many other jurisdictions and is currently concretizing these efforts through the drafting of a comprehensive plan by the Permanent Secretary seconded to the Cabinet Office for oversight of Public Access to Information implementation. This is further demonstration of the value that we place on making this legislation a practical reality.

The public will be able to exercise their statutory right to access information within the next two to three years. Efforts are already in train to establish a Public Access to Information Unit to lead implementation across all public authorities. The Unit will also have ongoing responsibility for monitoring and evaluating the legislation’s effectiveness and will provide ongoing support to public authorities to ensure that they are ready to meet and exceed their statutory responsibilities with regard to providing access to the public.

The Bill will also establish an independent Information Commissioner who will hear appeals and have the power to make binding decisions on any denied requests for information. The Commissioner is also responsible for promoting Public Access to Information to the general public.

A special thank you must be extended to our sister to the south, the Cayman Islands who have been instrumental in providing ongoing assistance and insight into their successes and challenges in bringing forward Public Access to Information. They have generously allowed us to engage them on a continuing basis and we have learned a lot from their experiences thus far.

Mr. Speaker, on this special day, a day whose significance and impact will not be fully appreciated for some time to come, I would like to close with the following remarks. We have long been a Government that strived to advance Bermuda among modern, western democracies; and today we continue in this process. This Bill fulfills our promise to give back to the people access to the information that is truly theirs. The Government will become a spectrum/prism through which information will be disseminated in all its shades and colours for all to see. This is but one of the many paths that we have chosen for a better Bermuda.

Thank You.

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Comments (3)

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  1. terry says:

    Thanks for putting this up Bernooze……

    “PATI”……………..I need another ‘Ironing Board’

    I saw this headline/info and I did not even have to read it. What a load of tripe by someone who will leave office in the months to come.


    ‘Premiers Access To Information’

    I rest my case of Goslings………My Lord.

  2. Boot them out says:

    Two to three years ….wtf ?
    They must reckon that’s how much time they have left until we get a T&C style investigation here .

  3. terry says:

    Well said…Smucksblanks……………