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Call for Freedom of Information Act to be made operational

Call for Freedom of Information Act to be made operational


The local Human Rights Association is calling for the Prime Minister to declare a date by which the Freedom of Information Act will be made operational – it having been made law since 2003.{{more}}

The 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.

President of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Human Rights Association (SVGHRA) Nicole Sylvester spoke to SEARCHLIGHT about the matter recently, airing her concern about the apparent delay in enforcing the Act.

“There has been a lot of mis-information in relation to the Freedom of Information Act, and it deeply concerns me – from the standpoint of a human rights activist and as a lawyer!” said Sylvester.

“We consider it a vital bit of legislation… It removes the secrecy and the mystery around gaining access to information.”

Since 2009, the SVG Human Rights Association (SVGHRA) has been running training workshops to educate the public on the Act, which was funded by the British government.

She further explained that through the training sessions, she has come across many individuals who claimed that their requests for information were denied, and they were told that the Act was not in effect, because it had not yet been published in the SVG Government Gazette.

One such individual was Ivan O’Neal, leader of the Green Party.

O’Neal said that his written request (dated June 14, 2011) for information regarding the individual school results in the 2011 Common Entrance Examination was refused by Minister of Education Girlyn Miguel.

He claimed that she told him that her Ministry is under no obligation to provide him with such information, because the Act has not been ‘gazetted’, and is, therefore, not in effect as yet.

However, according to the SVG Government Gazette (volume 136) dated December 16, 2003, the FOI Act was indeed ‘gazetted’ – listed in the ‘legislations’ segment as Act No. 27 of 2003.

Queen’s Counsel Bertram Commissiong pointed out that while the Act is indeed non-operational, it is not for the reason that O’Neal was given. Commissiong said that the true reason lies in a clause under the preliminary section of the FOI Act (section 2).

The clause states: “This Act shall come into operation on a day to be appointed by the Minister, by order published in the Gazette” – which means that until the Prime Minister ‘gazettes’ a date for the implementation of the Act, it will not be enforced.

“This is contrary to the scope and objectives of the Act,” argued Sylvester. “The Act is there to show [that] access to the information belongs to the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”

She added: “There is no cogent and compelling reason for the failure to make this Act operational. The British government has seen it fit to fund the Human Rights Association… to educate the public on the Act, and we have done this!”

Sylvester warned the government to “stop putting stumbling blocks in the way of Vincentians”.

Green Party leader Ivan O’Neal also weighed in on the matter.

“He [the prime minister] should not have so much power… we’re a democratic society. Look at the time frame… eight years… that is totally unacceptable!”

O’Neal said that given that the government regularly boasts about its Education Revolution, it should go out of its way to publish this year’s individual school CEE results.

He explained that he wanted the figures to run an assessment study on factors that may be contributing to poor educational performance in the various communities; and that its findings would help the disadvantaged to make better use of the education system.

“Society is judged by how well we look after the disadvantaged!” he asserted.

SEARCHLIGHT made repeated attempts to get a comment from the Prime Minister on the matter. All our attemps were unsuccessful.

The Act applies to public authorities such as Cabinet (with exceptions); local businesses; and embassies, consulates or missions of the State (or any office of the State located outside it), among others.

Documents exempt from this Act include those pertaining to national security and international relations; some areas of enforcement and administration of the law; legal proceedings and those subject to professional privilege; and secrecy provisions, among others.

Copies of the Freedom of Information Act (2003) are available from the government printery.