THE MINNIS administration is seeking to immediately implement protections for whistleblowers in the Freedom of Information Act, despite not having a date as to when the entire legislation will be revised and fully enacted, according to Attorney General Carl Bethel.
In an interview with reporters, Mr Bethel said the AG’s office received the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) files last Thursday and his team has dedicated this week to “aggressively” reviewing the bill and consulting with the private and public sector on whatever changes need to be made.
The former Christie administration passed a FOIA in Parliament in February. However, only part one and sections of part five and eight of the legislation have been enacted, allowing for the appointment of an information commissioner and repealing the 2012 FOIA.
Since then, various civil society organisations (CSOs) have pressed the government to pick up recommendations to amend the FOIA, calling on the Minnis administration to not only look to the timely enactment of the FOIA, but to also take the opportunity to make revisions to strengthen it.
Shortly after the general election in May, State Minister for Legal Affairs Elsworth Johnson confirmed the government is considering amendments to the FOIA.
“We have just within a few days ago been given the portfolio with responsibility for the Freedom of Information Act, it has been returned to this office and the file just got on my desk quite literally yesterday (Thursday) afternoon. So over the course of this week, I with my senior officials, will be sitting down to determine how to proceed from here,” Mr Bethel said.
“One thing we are committed to as a matter of policy to doing almost immediately is to, at an appointed day’s notice, see if we can bring into force those provisions of the act that deal with the protection of whistleblowers but we don’t want to just have a single step approach we want to immediately look at the broader question of implementing the entire act as quickly as possible and also having an ongoing dialogue with civil society and others who wish to suggest further ways in which we can improve the operations of FOIA.
He said: “It is a specific policy of this government and we intend to aggressively seek to bring it into force as quickly as possible and improve it where necessary.”
Part one and sections of part five and eight of the legislation were enacted on April 21, bringing the legislation into force allowing for the appointment of an information commissioner and repealing the 2012 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
As for whistle-blowers, the Act states: “No person may be subject to any legal, administrative or employment related sanction, regardless of any breach of a legal or employment related obligation, for releasing information on wrongdoing, or that which would disclose a serious threat to health, safety or the environment, as long as he acted in good faith and in the reasonable belief that the information was substantially true and disclosed evidence of wrong-doing or a serious threat to health, safety or the environment.”
Wrongdoing was said to include, but is not limited to: commission of a criminal offence; failure to comply with legal obligation; miscarriage of justice; or corruption, dishonest, or serious maladministration.
The act specifies between “minister,” which refers to the minister with responsibility for government information, and “responsible minister,” which is used in relation to a public authority, and refers to the government minister who has ministerial responsibility for the public authority that holds the record.
Under the previous administration, responsibility for the act was vested in the Ministry of Education Science and Technology, under then Minister of Education Jerome Fitzgerald.
The previous Ingraham administration passed a FOIA shortly before the 2012 general election, however there was no date for enactment. The incoming Christie administration then overhauled the legislation, and conducted an extensive public consultation process.
However, the bill was only partially enacted ahead of the May 10 general election.
Activists have expressed concern over the stalled pace of the bill, and a collective of 20 civil society organisations issued a statement calling for the government to consider recommendations for revisions but ultimately move ahead with full enactment.