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MPs to study Access to Information system, federal 'culture of secrecy'

OTTAWA — The House of Commons information, ethics and privacy committee plans to look at Canada’s much-maligned access-to-information regime — the latest in a long line of studies of a system intended to make government more transparent.
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Conservative MP Pat Kelly rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, June 4, 2021. The House of Commons information, ethics and privacy committee plans to look at Canada’s much-maligned Access to Information regime — the latest in a long line of studies of a system intended to make government more transparent.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — The House of Commons information, ethics and privacy committee plans to look at Canada’s much-maligned access-to-information regime — the latest in a long line of studies of a system intended to make government more transparent.

Conservative MP Pat Kelly, the committee chairman, says the system is plagued by excessive delays and a culture of secrecy that has been "baking in for decades."

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to ask for a range of federal documents — from internal emails and invoices to briefing notes and policy memos — but it has long been criticized as outdated and poorly implemented.

Federal agencies are supposed to respond within 30 days or provide valid reasons why more time is needed to process a request.

The law has not been significantly updated since its introduction 39 years ago, and many users complain of lengthy delays, heavily blacked-out documents or blanket denials in response to their applications.

The government says the performance standard for institutions is to respond to 90 per cent of access requests within the legislated timeline, including extensions.

Of 140 federal agencies that answered requests in 2020-21, 69 met this standard while 71 did not, principally due to "workload pressures within the organization," the government says.

Problems with the access system have persisted for years, spanning both Conservative and Liberal governments, Kelly said.

"People still complain about about refusals, about the time backlog, and just about the general culture of secrecy," he said. "And that has been a feature of the Canadian government for a very long time."

Even so, Kelly accuses Justin Trudeau's Liberals of failing to live up to their 2015 election promise to make government information open by default.

Federal officials have pointed to a growing number of access requests and the increasing complexity of applications.

"I think all the things that the government says in response to their critics are excuses," Kelly said. "Surely they can they can figure this out, if there's the will."

Kelly is under no illusion that fundamental changes will take place overnight. "This has been baking in for decades," he said. "You're certainly not going to be able to flip a switch and instantly go from a culture of secrecy to a true culture of openness by default."

Kelly said no hearing dates have been set as the committee is busy completing studies on facial recognition programs and RCMP use of surveillance technology.

The planned committee study comes as the federal government works to finish its own review of the access system that began more than two years ago.

Written and oral submissions to the federal review have called for expansion of the Access to Information Act, removal of numerous loopholes in the law, strict timelines for responding to requests and more resources to make the system work.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2022.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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