(CNS): Changes to the Freedom of Information Law passed in the Legislative Assembly earlier this month, without the support of the opposition, will see further areas of legal exemption added to government documents and allow ministers more input in decisions on whether or not to grant applications. Changes to the law largely refer to records with legal, criminal or national security implications but the amended bill nevertheless chips away at public access to government documents. The law has also been revised to remove areas relating to data protection covered under new legislation, which was scheduled to be implemented on 1 January but has now been delayed until September.
Speaking in the Legislative Assembly earlier this month, Attorney General Sam Bulgin, who brought the amended Freedom of Information Law to the House, said the changes had emerged from the FOI committee, established by the LA as far back as 2011, to review the law, as required under the provisions of the original legislation. He said the amendments came out of the work of that committee, but there was also a public consultation and input from the ombudsman and other stakeholders, such as information managers and the public prosecutor’s office.
As he outlined some of the changes, the AG also revealed the delay in the related data protection law due to industry concerns, especially those in the offshore sector, who he implied had been “distracted by other issues” and were not yet ready to cope with the implementation of data protection legislation.
He said that he believed the start date was going to be put off until September, and on Thursday public officials confirmed the postponement in a release from Government Information Services.
The government said that following representations from the financial services industry, Cabinet had agreed to postpone the start date for the law until 30 September 2019 to enable all entities impacted by the law to be ready to meet its requirements. This includes completion of training of their existing staff, new staff recruitment, as needed, auditing their existing data and establishing the needed administrative framework.
“Government is hoping that the new starting date will allow all impacted by the law, including data controllers and employers, small and big, in the public and private sectors, sufficient opportunity and time to prepare and be able to comply with the requirements,” the attorney general said in the release.
Officials said that the delay will help small businesses, as well as providing an opportunity for a public education exercise, which government would use to bring greater awareness to the various provisions of the law and their impact on the general public to help with better compliance.
But Bulgin said he expected the local financial services industry — notably those that have business dealings with European entities — to be already familiar with the proposed data protection requirements, which are similar to the European General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), which they would already have been observing.
The law, which was passed in May last year, is designed to protect personal data relating to individuals. It covers how to give effect to the rights of privacy of individuals in relation to personal data, including how such data are collected, processed, stored or transmitted, particularly in their dealings with government bodies, corporate entities, practices and firms. When the law comes into effect, the Office of the Ombudsman will be regulating compliance with the law, as it is the opposite side of the FOI coin.
The changes to the FOI law, as described by the attorney general, that are unrelated to data protection largely concerned blocking access to what are considered more sensitive documents. Bulgin spoke about the changes in the law to clarify the exemption of records held by the office of the director of public prosecutions, prisons, customs, financial reporting authority and immigration. It removes some public authorities, such as the Stock Exchange, from the provisions of the law and paves the way for records that would be automatically released after 20 years to remain secret.
It also makes room for information managers to talk to their superiors and even ministers about the potential release of a record even before an internal review or appeal process begins. Bulgin justified this, stating that ministers should be able to protect information used to inform public policy.
Some members of the opposition raised concerns about the length of the bill and the amount of changes coming just three weeks ahead of the six-day meeting that included around 21 bills.
See the debate regarding the law below on CIGTV starting at 1:17:08 ending at 2:27:38.
Category: Local News