Wednesday, July 25, 2012

OIA review: First thoughts

The Law Commission's review of the Official Information Act [PDF] has finally been released. Its a substantial review, 423 pages long, so its going to take some time to chew through it. But here's a few preliminary thoughts based on the summary.

Firstly, there's some good ideas in here, which deserve to be enacted: greater guidance from the Ombudsman, a new Information Commissioner to report on the Act, and expansion of the Act to cover parts of Parliament. But my overall impresison is negative. Egged on by secretive bureaucrats, the Law Commission has recommended an expansion of secrecy in the form of new withholding grounds and wider scope to refuse requests for "substantial collation and research" (derisively referred to by those secretive bureaucrats as "fishing expeditions"). If they get their way, officials will be able to refuse requests not because they require excessive time to find the information, but because they will spend excessive time deciding what parts of it to withhold. And that is simply wrong. They're also suggesting a new ability to complain to the Ombudsman for "wrongful release", particularly around personal or commercially confidential information. While there are real concerns in this area, this mechanism (and the resulting desire of agencies to avoid such complaints) will change the entire nature of the Act, from one which allows information to be withheld to one which requires it. And this will turn the OIA into the Official Secrets Act mk II.

Overall, this seems to be a rollback of openness in favour of greater secrecy and unaccountability. And that is something none of us should support.