Agencies stonewall on OIA requests

Last updated 05:00 28/09/2012
Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem
Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem

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Government agencies are increasingly trying to keep information secret, the office charged with ensuring fair access to public information says.

The Office of the Ombudsman, whose tasks include regulating the release of information under the Official Information Act (OIA), outlined concerns in its annual report presented to Parliament yesterday.

Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem said there was a worrying trend of agencies trying to seek exemption from the act.

In the past year the office received several legislative proposals, including the proposed Mixed Ownership Model, calling for information to be excluded from the application of the OIA, which regulates what information the public has a right to access.

The OIA helped maintain transparency in the public sector, and people - including those in government - often underestimated the importance of freedom of information in limiting corruption, she said.

"It is somewhat bizarre to hear agencies argue that certain information is so sensitive that the only way to protect it is for the OIA not to apply.

“Proposals to exclude the OIA on the basis of a perceived need for greater protection are inconsistent and should always be regarded with a healthy degree of suspicion."

Any argument to exclude information from the reach of the OIA should be done through changes to the act itself, she said.

Victoria University media law lecturer Steven Price said the OIA had to allow the flow of information, because it was a "vital cog in our democracy".

"When the Government stonewalls information requests or tries to carve out special exemptions for itself, it's throwing sand in the engine of our constitution."

The office was also struggling with a surge in complaints, the annual report said.

In 2011-12, 1236 OIA complaints were received - up 25 per cent on the previous year and the highest in 11 years. They made up about 11 per cent of the office's overall workload, which had also increased about 22 per cent with cases on hand growing from about 800 to more than 1700.

A growing number of complaints were about agencies not responding in time to requests. All OIA requests must be responded to within 20 working days, even if it is to get an extension, Dame Beverley said.

"Too often it's just delay, delay, delay and no answer."

Most OIA complaints come from "individuals", with 202 from media and 58 from "prisoners - sentenced". Members of parliament and political party research units also feature in the list of complainants.

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Dame Beverly said increasing complaints meant higher workload, and a small funding increase covered only about a third of the extra work.

"There is significant pressure on staff and, regretfully, we are missing targets for timeliness in responding to some people asking for help. We don't have the funding to hire the staff required to deal with the workload. However, we do keep the cases under review so we can move swiftly if they become urgent.”

There had also been a surge in complaints relating to information about the Christchurch earthquakes. An increase had been expected, but the jump from 72 complaints to 389, and five OIA complaints to 54, was significant.

- The Dominion Post

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