The 2020 Association, set up in 2018 by ex-members of the Islanders Association’s executive committee, which includes Deputies Peter Ferbrache and Joe Mooney, was resolute in its suggestion that if the current code of practice for public information, which is voluntary, was changed into a FOI law then it would become much easier to enforce.
The Scrutiny Management Committee is currently investigating on the effectiveness of the Access to Public Information code.
‘There is a supposed “presumption in favour of disclosure” rule,’ the association said in its submission.
‘Experience suggests, however, that this is not observed if the information requested would cause discomfort. The ranks close. A full Freedom of Information Law would prevent this happening by providing a defined right to information, subject to independent interpretation by a judge or data protection commissioner, rather than by a non-independent official, and thereby capable of enforcement.’
Within the submission it said the States had previously refused to change the code into law due to cost.
‘While “small government” and the minimisation of the costs of government, both those directly charged to citizens and those indirectly caused to them, is of course an important objective, it should not be used as an excuse for not doing what is undoubtedly right for the modern day, but which happens to be inconvenient to the establishment.’
At the Scrutiny hearing, Policy & Resources president Deputy Gavin St Pier said he could see a situation where an independent API appeals process could be set up ‘at a proportionate cost’, but warned the danger of putting the code on a statutory footing could make it less transparent and more rigid in its application because lawyers would have to be involved.
Deputy Jennifer Merrett said the Isle of Man had revealed the cost would be a few hundred thousand rather than millions.
The 2020 Association wrote the ultimate cost of a FOI law would likely be lower than the direct costs of its implementation and existence, because that existence would encourage better practice.
‘We believe that FOI will pay for itself in practice, because the likelihood of public disclosures would result in more careful decision-making with consequent savings to the public purse, as well as discouraging the questionable use of taxpayers’ monies,’ the group stated.
‘We believe that an easy, effective and affordable route for accessing information must be developed and provided, particularly for the aggrieved. It is a vital tool for both the efficiency of a modern system of government, and for promoting the trust of citizens.
‘The case for introducing such a law going forward is therefore compelling.’