B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner is raising concerns about a recently introduced bill that limits what information can be released to the public during outbreaks of animal diseases.
Elizabeth Denham states in a letter to Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm that the Animal Health Act, Bill 19, is too restrictive and needs to be changed.
"The Bill … provides for extraordinary emergency powers without providing for oversight of how those powers may impact the privacy rights of British Columbians," Ms. Denham writes.
She states the legislation should be amended "to provide my office with the authority to review the extraordinary collection, use, and disclosure of information by government when an emergency is declared."
Ms. Denham said while Bill 19 provides government with the tools needed to monitor and manage animal diseases, it goes too far in preventing public access to information about animal disease reporting and testing.
"As a result, journalists, citizens, and researchers would never be able to examine the manner in which government is managing its responsibilities under the act," states Ms. Denham.
She complains about a section of the act which declares that anyone engaged in the administration of Bill 19 must not disclose information, even if the release of such information is already governed by B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
"Government has neither demonstrated the need for this exemption nor has it demonstrated how existing exemptions in FIPPA would not adequately protect the interests of farmers who report suspected incidents of animal disease or who submit samples for laboratory testing," Ms. Denham writes in her April 1 letter.
Chris Tollefson, law professor at the University of Victoria, said he agrees that Bill 19 is unduly restrictive.
"Bill 19 in my view takes the muzzling of scientists and public officials to a whole new level," he said. "Not only does it create this sweeping exemption from our FOI laws for animal health data – including critical information on tainted beef and diseased fish and toxic shellfish – but it also … exposes to prosecution and imprisonment any scientist or public official who goes public with concerns that violate its very broad disclosure ban."
Prof. Tollefson said when he read the bill he was surprised by the sweep of its powers.
Mr. Pimm wasn't available for comment on the bill, which was introduced to the House on March 27. In a statement the government said under the legislation "there will be no restriction on the general public, including media, from reporting the presence of diseases."
Jane Pritchard, B.C.'s Chief Veterinary Officer, said the legislation brings in regulations that are badly needed by officials who have to deal with the threat of animal disease outbreaks.
"My interest in the bill is to get the tools to be able to address the diseases that we're faced with," she said. "Essentially, I can't do anything without information and it's been pretty solidly proven that you don't get the surveillance information or the data that you need to ensure the safety of public health, animal health and economic stability without a voluntary program. We can't force people to report anything, so we work on establishing a trusting environment where they share information."
Dr. Pritchard said farmers need to know they can report diseases without worrying the information will get out to the public and damage their businesses.
But she declined to comment on Ms. Denham's concern that the legislation goes too far in that regard.
"I know that I've been told that we have agreed to disagree over some of the issues on sharing information," she said.
Nicholas Simons, the NDP agriculture critic, said B.C.'s privacy and information laws have stood the test of time and need to be respected.
"We've got 20 years of experience with that [FIPPA] legislation," he said. "The government should take [Ms. Denham's] concerns seriously."