Submission of FOI Bill Delayed on Isle of Man

8 March 2012

Isle of Man Chief Minister Allan Bell on Feb. 22 pushed back the date for introduction of a bill on freedom of information, indicating that further study is necessary.

Last November, Bell promised a bill by the start of the recently begun parliamentary session, but now he said introduction won’t occur until the end of the session.

Cost is one of his concerns, Bell said in his Feb. 22 statement, and “some policy issues have surfaced which will need further discussion by the Council of Ministers.”

Without getting specific, he said further, “There are a number of issues which need further discussion and decision to ensure that we achieve the right balance of rights of access, with the obligation to respect a confidence.”

Later on he stated:

I remain absolutely committed to the Isle of Man’s move towards a more open government, but we must remember that there are sometimes very good reasons why a confidence must be kept. The Bill will not be an instrument which allows access to all information. There will be checks and balances and rights of appeal, should a request to release information be refused. I do not want to bring forward a flawed system, unsuited to our circumstance, which serves only to put us in an adversarial position with requesters.

Costs Cited as Concern

The cost of the legislation “will vary considerably in respect of how the Bill’s effects are phased in, but a more realistic estimate of £400,000 is likely.” He continued: “There still may be some ways to save further on this figure by looking at options in respect of historic records and how the Information Commissioner’s office is established.”

Underscoring his concern about cost, Bell said that a FOI bill “introduces a whole new statutory service at a time when we are trying to shrink the public service and drive down costs, so a careful approach must be taken.”

Timing: In Due Course

On timing he said:

The review is looking for ways to move forward with transparency, but to contain the costs. I anticipate that the revised Bill will still be brought forward for consideration before the end of this parliamentary year. I can also report, Madam President, that a much fuller impact assessment is well underway and will, of course, be published with the Bill in due course.

Bell noted the ongoing review by the United Kingdom of its FOI law, and observed:

Although our Bill will not be a direct lift of the United Kingdom Freedom of Information Act 2000, both originate from very similar codes of practice. The United Kingdom post-legislative review concludes the United Kingdom legislation has been successful in opening up government.

The use of the UK Act by the public, campaigners and the media has increased considerably since its introduction. There are issues over timeliness in respect of responding whether public interest tests need consideration and the framework does not come without cost. Time taken to process requests to consider exemptions and conduct public interest tests is, therefore, significant. These are, of course, only some of the points of the review and the United Kingdom continues to expand its transparency agenda with further legislative reforms.

I am determined that the Bill will be brought forward, when I am comfortable that provisions strike the important balance we need: a good level of transparency, which seeks to presume in favour of release, unless there is a need to protect that information for a very good reason.

For a clause by clause summary of public comments, posted June 2011, on the 2010 draft bill, see here.

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