AFR case only emphasises lack of access to information
Tuesday 5th March 2013, 5:00PM GMT.
LAST week the Policy Council was making a play of its progress on a new access to information regime as it sought to deflect attention away from the secrecy surrounding the AFR case.
It did not work, mostly because of what the Treasury minister saw fit to describe as ‘froth’ lies at the heart of the problem with how the States treats openness and transparency.
One of the key issues surrounding AFR is that no one knows when a confidentiality agreement should be reached or what the tests are that should be applied.
As with much of how the States handles the information, there is no set policy, or at least not one that the public knows about, so there can be no accountability.
Chief Minister Peter Harwood, in giving his backing to Home minister Jonathan Le Tocq, said that the Policy Council will shortly set out guidance on the circumstances under which confidentiality and non-disclosure clauses might be approved.
So some progress – would it have happened without the furore that surrounded AFR?
In March, the Policy Council will consider a draft policy on access to States information of which this will form one part.
‘Having approved guidance on how decisions are made to agree confidentiality and non-disclosure conditions in negotiated settlements, whether the States is the claimant or the respondent, will enable scrutiny of both the decision and the process which led to that decision,’ said Deputy Harwood.
Do not, though, expect miracles from this new policy.
Unless there has been a dramatic change in thinking, there will be little teeth to what is on offer.
Guernsey lags far behind most democracies when it comes to freedom of information.
In October 2011, it published an independent paper that set out a three-year vision for moving forward.
There has been no rush to get that vision into action.
So when Jersey is introducing its law in 2015, having been operating a code of practice successfully for years, Guernsey is still likely to be putting its house in order.
There are some necessary steps to be taken before access to information becomes a reality, not least getting a handle on what it is that the States holds and, crucially, moving towards proactive release.
But there is resistance – otherwise these relatively simple steps would have happened a long time ago.
Departments are under pressure from the FTP and different ministers have warned that the staff do not have time to deal with answering questions or releasing information.
But perhaps they should spend time looking at what other similar-sized jurisdictions do and the key role it plays in building trust with the public.
The Policy Council agreed in June 2012 that the presumption must be to publish information unless there are over-riding reasons not to do so.
Which is great. But it’s just a shame this policy is not filtering through to the departments.
Recently Health and Social Services told a reporter from this paper that it was being careful with how much information it would supply – in this case, it was something as simple as measles figures.
There are countless examples from across the States of questions being sidestepped and relatively straightforward figures not being released.
But it is not just the media that struggles to extract answers from the States.
Backbench deputies run into similar problems.
Not long ago, they were encouraged to write rule six questions instead of asking them during question time.
Now they are being encouraged to meet with departments instead.
But it seems this can take up to five weeks, and perhaps more importantly, the public will never find out what the answers were.
This States set the bar very high during the election as to how its success or failure will be judged.
Transparency and openness featured strongly in manifestos and campaigns.
Now they are in power, some are struggling with following through on these promises.
The debate that follows the Policy Council’s recommendations will be a fascinating touchstone of this Assembly’s credentials.
Watch out for how extensive any policies are – whether they extend to cover all public bodies, such as Guernsey Post, for example.
Has the concept of having independent oversight of refusal to release information made it into anyone’s thinking yet?
What of the original recommendation to publish salaries of top-earning public figures?
Will it step forward with a central communications team that can work to best practice instead of ad-hoc, and at times obstructive, individual departments?
And who will be the first person to say ‘we are only Guernsey, we don’t have the resources?’.
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