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Lead from in front, Mr Minister

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We might have been tempted to rejoice that change is coming when Minister of Finance and Economic Planning Camillo Gonsalves last week expressed his frustration with the way most public servants stand guard over data collected by the Government, refusing to hand over even the most benign of information to members of the public who request it.

Journalists know only too well how difficult it is to get even a simple comment from public servants on a matter for which they have oversight; getting data is far more problematic. But any excitement we may have experienced at the Minister’s announcement abated when we reflected that it will take more than the Minister expressing his views at the opening of a workshop for the culture and practice within the public service to change. It first of all will take political will, buy-in from the Cabinet, for this deficiency to be corrected, including the long-awaited passage of the Bill, which we have been told will replace the Freedom of Information Act – passed and gazetted since 2003, but never proclaimed. The Freedom of Information Act is a piece of legislation that gives Vincentians rights of access to official documents issued by the Government and various public authorities – with stipulated exemptions.

In November 2016, Minister Gonsalves told Parliament that Government will not proclaim the 2003 Act, but instead pass a new, updated Freedom of Information Act, as part of a suite of HIPCAR (Enhancing Competitiveness in the Caribbean through the Harmonization of ICT Policies, Legislation and Regulatory Procedures) legislation. He said then that his Ministry is committed to “expeditiously enacting and implementing” the entire suite of legislation.

The suite of legislation includes the Electronic Evidence Bill; the Electronic Transaction Bill; the Electronic Funds Transfer Bill; the Electronic Fine Bill; the Electronic Crimes Bill (the Cyber Crime Bill); the Data Protection and Privacy Bill and the Freedom of Information Bill. The Cyber Crime Act was passed very quickly, but so far, we have heard nothing of the Data Protection and Privacy Bill and the Freedom of Information Bill, which we have been told should be passed together.

Minister, you have taken the first step by explaining why it is wrong for the public service to withhold from the public data which is essentially theirs. We urge that the other components of the HIPCAR suite, which have so far not been made law, be brought to Parliament for consideration and passage.

After that, we can deal with the attitudes of the public servants. Lead from in front; pass the new Freedom of Information Act.

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