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Need for FOI Law has been "over-egged"

Need for FOI Law has been

Thursday 23 January 2020

Need for FOI Law has been "over-egged"

Thursday 23 January 2020

Guernsey's Chief Minister says the argument for a Freedom of Information Law has been "over-egged", after no members of the public attended a drop-in yesterday and a Scrutiny consultation yielded only a "limited" response.

The Scrutiny Management Committee put out a call for information last year in a bid to get a better idea of people's experiences of the Access to Public Information Code.

The consultation formed part of an investigation into whether a Freedom of Information Law needs to be introduced, as it has been in fellow Crown Dependencies' Jersey and the Isle of Man. 

Scrutiny was interviewing some key witnesses yesterday at a public drop-in, which was attended only by a handful of politcians, civil servants and media representatives. 

That turnout reflected the level of engagement to date, said Scrutiny President Chris Green.

"We have only had a limited number of submissions from the public," he said.

"We are still working our way through the review - we are still collecting evidence and reviewing it."

He believes the lack of public input comes down to cynicism with the States, rather than apathy with the process. 

"It is either that they don’t think it is needed or that they aren’t engaged," he said. 

"There is a theme that the public are only really engaged when there is a specific issue right in front of them, and yet I bet your bottom dollar that the candidates at the election who say the States of Guernsey is too secretive will probably do quite well."

Deputy Gavin St Pier, who was one of the key witnesses yesterday, said no strong case had been made for a FOI Law, which he believes would be resource heavy, costly and potentially end up slowing down the process.

"I think the position of disclosure by default is the starting point, there was a slow start but the number of requests [since the API Code came into practice in 2016] is increasing, the number of exemptions is coming down and people are becoming more familiar with it," he said. 

"It is about creating a culture of transparency where there is a starting point of disclosure, but it does need to be balanced."

Deputy Green asked if it was important to introduce an FOI Law as part of efforts to convince the international community that Guernsey is a "mature jurisdiction".

"We have never in external relations had that question or that challenge posed to us," he told the panel. 

Summing up his view, he said: "My approach to all this is I do not think there is a strong case made that there is a problem.

"I think we will introduce far more rid lines about where decisions need to be made and you will probably need some legal expertise within government to help manage this process."

Pictured top: The Bailiwick's Data Protection Officer Emma Martins was one of the key witness giving evidence to the Scrutiny panel. 

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