Can FOI co-exist with present legislation, trade unionist ask

Leaders of trade unions directly impacted by the Freedom Information Act (FOIA) voiced passionately their concerns Wednesday about how the new piece of legislation will co-exist with older laws, namely the Secrecy Act, the Public Service Commission Regulations and General Orders of the Public Service.

The unions concerns were addressed during an implementation forum at the police headquarters on East Street Wednesday, which targeted trade unionists, religious leaders, members of the media and other civic groups.

The meeting, which quickly became a spirited one during the first question and answer period, was facilitated by the Department of Legal Affairs.

“I’m thankful to the government for inviting us as stakeholders, or part of the trade union to be present today,” said Bahamas Union of Teacher President Belinda Wilson.

“It is coined as consultation but, we’ve already been presented with the Freedom of Information Act, that has been gazetted – which means, it has already been passed in Parliament. However we have several concerns.

“Is there supposed to be an Independent Commission? We wanted to know the process by which that individual will be employed or appointed or selected. There is the section on 7 (4a), that speaks to once you would have given an application, to receive information within reasonable time, or no later than 30 days.

“However, if we say that we are moving to the digital or the technological age, and the government is moving toward e-government, then 30 days I think is a very long time. If all of the systems are tied into each other, then that information should be readily available.”

President of the Bahamas Public Services Union (BPSU) Kimsely Ferguson told Eyewitness News, that the consultative process should have taken place prior to the act being gazetted, so that the suggestions of all stakeholders could have been given proper consideration.

“And so that is a position that we hold but, we’re understanding now from the permanent secretary, that the minister has an authority now to amend without the amendments having to ascend to Parliament. And so we’re going to wait to see that. But there could have been greater consultation even initially before the bill was enacted,” he said.

“It would have avoided the need for this and what we would have been doing this morning, is fine tuning the actual document to ensure that the Bahamian public would have gotten the best bang for their buck.

“The public service regulations suggests a number of things. There is a Secrecy Act as well. There is legislation that deals with the conduct and behaviour of public servants and the concern for my union colleague Belinda Wilson, is how then does that impact this.

And does one go way when this one is implemented. And so those are some of the concerns that we have.

“The nongovernmental agencies have the concern as to whether or not the access side of things is going to be a smooth transition. I’m using the illustration of the Registrar General’s office, where pertinent information is being stored and how that is going to be amalgamated into this particular act. So that’s one of our concerns.”

Further, Ferguson said, the BPSU and the trade union movement in general wants to see the proper implementation of the act, which he said, must be heavily focused on training .

“We have to ensure proper training to make certain that the parameters in which our members operate, that they are properly educated to ensure that they don’t breach anything so as to ensure that, if the need for representation is necessary, then we would have proper means by which we can pursue the protection of our membership,” he said.

“In the Bahamas we have a particular culture and based on the technological side of things, nothing really is a secret in this particular day and time. And so there is a concern for ensuring that certain information is properly protected. And so we were looking at the mechanisms for that.”

According to the prime minister, an information commissioner will be appointed to establish and oversee a Freedom of Information Unit.

This person will be appointed by the Governor-General following the recommendation of the prime minister, after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP).

Once appointed, the information commissioner must ensure that training is provided for information unit’s officials regarding the right to information, and the effective implementation of the FOIA provisions.

“It is crucial to note that the information commissioner will have the overall responsibility for the freedom of information regime. The commissioner will be required to monitor public authorities to ensure that they are complying with the act and also oversee the recruitment of staff, which will include one or more deputy information commissioners, and assistant information commissioners,” shared the prime minister.

While the government seeks to provide unrestricted access to information, the prime minister noted that the act will have a number of safeguards for the protection of an individual’s sensitive personal data.

“The act ensures the protection of national security matters, legal privilege and certain government communications. With the exception of these carve outs or exemptions, the act provides the public wide access to records,” he said.