Requests being Met Under Access to Information Act


Information Minister, Senator Burchell Whiteman, has expressed satisfaction with the progress of the Access to Information Act, noting that state agencies were meeting the public’s requests for information contained in official documents.
Seven ministries and government departments are now under the Act, which was implemented in January this year, after passage in Parliament 19 months earlier.
The seven are the Office of the Prime Minister, Cabinet Office, the Ministries of Finance and Planning, Local Government, Community Development and Sports; Jamaica Information Service (JIS), Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), and the National Works Agency (NWA).
Come next month, another block of eight ministries and agencies will come on stream, and the others will be phased in throughout the year for full implementation by June of 2005.
The eight ministries and agencies are the Accountant General’s Department, Ministry of Agriculture, Bank of Jamaica, Urban Development Corporation (UDC), the Ministries of Commerce, Science and Technology; Health, Water and Housing; and Education, Youth and Culture.
Senator Whiteman told JIS News that, “the information so far is that the next round of ministries and agencies are in an advanced state of preparation and should be able to meet the 2005 deadline”.
He said the experience so far has been “generally satisfactory” and the majority of the applications for access have been accommodated within the specified time. Under the Act, it is required that requests for access to official documents be met within 30 days.
In addition, he told JIS News that there have not been any serious expressions of concern about the treatment that applicants have received. “We do have an appeals tribunal, which is available when other levels of appeal have failed, but to the best of my knowledge, it has not yet had to deal with nay appeals,” he informed.
The Access to Information Act provides for the release of official documents, but exempts from disclosure, matters relating to national security, trade, copyright material and “opinions, advice or recommendations (and) a record of consultation or deliberations” of civil servants, including Cabinet members.
Mr. Whiteman said that the civil society organizations have been assisting persons to apply and “there is an active stakeholder group and a body comprising professionals within the ministries and agencies, and both groups have been equipping themselves to ensure that from the demand side to the supply side, we do the best we can”.
“I am encouraged by the way in which the Access to Information Unit has supported the process, and although there was some disappointment that we took a year and seven months to actually start, my sense is that we did the right thing. There are countries more developed than ours, which have allowed a much longer start-up time after the passage of the Act. We have started out relatively well and the indications so far are that we are doing quite well,” he added.
Senator Whiteman informed that most of the requests were for official documents in the Ministry of Finance and Planning relating to expenditure on different projects and programmes, including contract awards, while persons have asked to correct their personal information that are held in official documents. “Generally, people are concerned about the matters that impact on their lives in terms of the spending of taxpayers’ dollars and I think that in itself, is healthy. We have tried to be as proactive as possible as a government in putting the information out there, but there is sometimes a difference between the information at the start of a project and the information at the end of the project and it is this kind of reason, which makes access to information legislation so important,” he said.
The Minister told JIS News that while the Unit, through its public education programme, has been careful to indicate the ministries and agencies, which now fall under the Act, some of the applications for access relate to subjects that fall under other ministries and the information could not be provided.
“We have sought, wherever possible, to direct persons to other ways by which they could get the information, without having access to an official document. We have also had to say in some cases, that a particular document is not available at this time, because the law does not apply to that ministry and agency. We will however, refer the application to that ministry or agency with the expectation that as soon as they come within the ambit of the Act, they can provide it in the form in which it is requested,” Mr. Whiteman said.

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