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August 7, 2001

Ottawa blocks MPs' access to civil servants

Will not let them appear before openness committee

Ian Jack
National Post

OTTAWA - The Liberal government will not allow civil servants to appear before an all-party committee of MPs examining federal access to information legislation, says Don Boudria, the House Leader.

The committee intends to hold hearings this month into the Access to Information Act with an eye to making more government documents public. MPs set up the ad hoc group on their own this spring to examine the Act and recommend changes to it before a task force of bureaucrats can forward its own proposed changes.

The MPs say they do not want to see the amendment process taken over by mandarins more concerned with keeping information secret than with making it public.

John Bryden, Liberal MP and chairman of the committee, wrote to the Prime Minister's Office and to several Cabinet ministers this summer to ask them to allow staff to appear. Only the Prime Minister's Office responded, with a flat refusal.

But Mr. Boudria now says no officials will get permission to appear because the committee does not have parliamentary standing, which means bureaucrats would be open to legal liability for what they say.

"The House has never resolved to form a committee. Mr. Bryden may have informally asked some MPs to join in a project with him, but that does not make a parliamentary committee," he said late Friday. "No government official will be attending this."

Critics say the government is too quick to deny access to official documents. John Reid, the Information Commissioner, is facing 15 court challenges to his attempt to examine the agendas of Jean Chrétien, the Prime Minister. Mr. Reid wants the right to determine whether the agendas should be released to an unnamed applicant.

Mr. Boudria said those court cases are another reason civil servants cannot appear.

"Anything these officials say could be seen as having an impact on the court process."

He insisted MPs will get a chance to review any changes to the legislation after the task force reports.

"We have a task force of civil servants doing research and that report will be sent to a committee. So there will be a committee."

Mr. Bryden said he is disappointed by the refusals and by the time it has taken to get a reply.

"I'm a Member of Parliament. The idea is if a Member of Parliament makes a legitimate request, Cabinet ministers are supposed to make timely responses."

The committee would also like to hear from five Crown corporations, including the CBC, that are excluded from requirements under the Act to make information available if a member of the public requests it. None of them have replied to the committee either.

Mr. Bryden said the point is not to embarrass any of the potential witnesses but to get them to explain how the process works and why exemptions should be maintained.

"These aren't terribly complex requests," he said. "Where they're missing the boat is this is their chance to express their position."

Although the committee was not created by Parliament, it will meet on Parliament Hill and be able to use services including a Library of Parliament researcher.

The House of Commons is not scheduled to resume sitting until Sept. 17, and it is unusual for a committee to meet during the summer. Mr. Bryden's group aims to report in October. The committee's work will go ahead even without government participation.

"There are lots of people outside government who want to participate," Mr. Bryden said.

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