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Politics Committee calls for sweeping changes to Access to Information Act

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question during in the House of Commons in Ottawa on June 14, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A House of Commons committee wants the government to loosen the grip of cabinet secrecy, automatically publish more documents and create a duty to write things down as part of sweeping information reforms.

The 32 recommendations from the multi-party committee go much further than current Liberal government proposals for updating the Access to Information Act.

The access law allows requesters who pay $5 to seek a range of federal files — from correspondence and briefing notes to expense reports and meeting minutes — but critics say the system is slow and outdated.

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In its report tabled Thursday, the Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics recommends scrapping the application fee but suggests other charges for requests that require considerable research.

The government has proposed several reforms to the access law, to be included in a bill later this year or early next.

They include giving the information commissioner — an ombudsman for requesters — the power to order release of government information and ensuring the act applies to the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet members, as well as to administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.

The Liberals have already eliminated search and copying fees, but opted to keep the $5 application charge — at least for now.

The government also promises an in-depth review of Access to Information to be completed no later than 2018.

The committee, chaired by Conservative MP Blaine Calkins, advocates pushing ahead with many additional changes in the first wave of reform, including steps to:

  •  Bring cabinet records — now completely excluded from access — under the law and reduce the 20-year period during which they are under wraps;
  • Make purely factual or background information presented to cabinet and records of decision accessible;
  • Broaden access to bureaucratic advice and recommendations by ensuring they are withheld only when there is proof of injury to the government;
  • Limit time extensions for answering requests beyond the 30-day limit to a maximum of 30 additional days, with longer extensions available only after permission from the information commissioner;
  • Make federal agencies proactively publish information that is clearly of public interest;
  • Require documentation of government decision-making, with sanctions for non-compliance.

The committee has requested a comprehensive response from the government.

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In his appearance at the committee, Treasury Board President Scott Brison suggested a government openness to including other elements in the coming legislation.

The Liberals should build the MPs' recommendations into the bill, said Duff Conacher, co-founder of the group Democracy Watch and chairman of the Open Government Coalition.

"Given that the Access to Information Act and system have been reviewed several times in the past 15 years, and that there is a consensus on key changes that must be made, there is no justifiable reason for any further delay in making the changes."

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