B.C. government inflating fees to shield information: watchdog
Newspaper association says government using high fee estimates to dissuade people from getting information. (FOTOLIA)
B.C. took in far fewer fees than it quoted to people for general Freedom of Information requests since 2009 — leaving some to accuse the government of cranking up fees to deter people from following through with requests.
The FOI Act is used by politicians, citizens, journalists and interest groups to get government information not readily available.
The first three hours of research are free, but sometimes gathering requested information takes a long period of time and the person who’s asked for the information will be quoted a fee and they can choose to continue or abandon their request.
People can also request the fees be waived, and that is then considered.
But figures from the FOI office show that since 2009 about $2.8 million in fees have been quoted by provincial ministries, but only $260,000 had been paid by people requesting information.
John Hinds of Newspapers Canada, a Toronto-based newspaper association, said the government is using the fee estimates to dissuade people from getting information, sometimes asking for thousands in fees.
“They should bring themselves into the 21st century and deal with what normal businesses would do and not be hiding behind (fees),” Hinds said.
The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner would not facilitate an interview on the fee estimates, but said it does monitor trends and quality of responses.
“Addressing perceived trends in the administration of fees for general access requests would be taken into consideration as part of this ongoing work,” said spokeswoman Cara McGregor. “Any future actions taken on this file will be made public.”
Meanwhile, Hinds said the system is inefficient because of outdated methods of keeping records, referencing the failure to get the cell phone records of a B.C. ministry’s employees.
“Given where the FOI system is today there shouldn’t be costs, it should be just a query,” Hinds said. “At the end of the day, most information is currently stored in some kind of database or some kind of archive and it is fairly easy to access.”
Newspapers Canada conducts FOI audits and its next audit report will be released in the coming weeks.