Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Unimpressed III

Back in June, I received some Cabinet papers on the government's "boy racer" laws from Minister of Police Judith Collins. While the papers did show that Treasury thought the proposals would not work, they were riddled with deletions, almost all made under s6(c) of the OIA, potential prejudice to the maintenance of the law.

Given Collins' past record of information control-freakery, I complained to the Ombudsmen, challenging the deletions on the basis that there was no prejudice. Under the Ombudsmen's Practice Guidelines [PDF],

It is not sufficient to simply assert that disclosure of the information will have a prejudicial effect. The public sector agency must be able to identify, with sufficient particularity, the nature of the prejudicial effect and explain how such prejudice will occur in order to meet the tests for withholding in section 6.
Furthermore, there must be "a real and substantial risk" that the prejudice will occur. Based on other releases, I suspected that the Minister was censoring material which undermined her preferred policy or made the police look bad - a clear misuse of the Act.

My suspicions were correct. A new version of one of the documents I received today - sans deletions - showed that the Minister had attempted to remove material showing:

  • Police were reviewing their operational procedures to managing public disorder associated with street racing - implying that those procedures were flawed (and arguably a significant cause of the problem in Christchurch);
  • The large numbers of people involved in street racing events presented "practical difficulties" for police;
  • Increased demerit points were more effective than fines in handling noise offences, but police had explicitly ruled out such an approach;
  • Police have had persistent trouble enforcing the graduated driver licensing system;
  • Amendments to the bill would close a loophole around enforcement of fines and sale of confiscated vehicles. This was obvious the moment the bill hit the House, but it was censored from documents released after the bill was introduced;

The common theme here is anything which makes the police look bad or ineffective. But while that may be an embarrassment for the Minister and the Police, it is hardly a prejudice to law and order, and not a reason for withholding information under the Act. Hopefully the Ombudsman will have educated Collins about this. otherwise, she'll be getting a lot more complaints.