FREEDOM OF INFORMATION LEGISLATION COMING

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Government is moving swiftly to keep a promise it made to the country earlier this year to have a Freedom of Information Act on the statute books during the current session of Parliament. Indeed, it is working assiduously to have the proposed legislation debated in both Houses in the very near future.

However, before this comes about, the Bill is being circulated widely to secure the views and feedback from various interest groups and a wide cross-section of the society. There are also imminent plans to bring discussion on the draft legislation to the general public through a number of strategic town hall meetings. These are expected to begin in earnest next week. The first meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, October 15, at 7:00 p.m. at Combermere School, Waterford, St. Michael.

Cabinet has established a Governance Unit and a Governance Advisory Board to facilitate the implementation of various pieces of legislation relating to integrity and transparency in public administration.

The Board is soliciting inputs from entities such as the Bar Association, the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB) and the news media on the Freedom of Information Bill, which may be accessed online at www.gov.bb. Persons providing electronic feedback should do so at freedomofinfobill@barbados.gov.bb. Printed copies of the Bill are also being made available at post offices island-wide.

Generally, Freedom of Information legislation prescribes rules that enable public access to information or records held by government bodies.

The specific law defines a legal process by which government information is required to be available to the public. In many countries, there are constitutional guarantees for the right of access to information, but usually these are unused if specific legislation to support them does not exist.

A basic principle behind most Freedom of Information legislation is that the burden of proof falls on the body being asked for the information, not the person asking for it. The individual does not usually have to give an explanation for his request, but if the information is not disclosed a valid reason has to be proffered.

It is expected that such legislation would make official information more freely available, provide for proper access by individuals to official information, protect official information to the extent consistent with the public interest, preserve personal privacy, and establish procedures for the achievement of those purposes.

The legal principle behind the law requires that information shall be made available unless there is good reason for withholding it. Conclusive reasons for withholding information include national security; international relations; that it was supplied by another government in confidence; maintenance of the law; personal safety; or severe economic damage.

According to the Head of the Governance Unit, Captain Randolph Straughan, written responses to the Bill should be forwarded to the Permanent Secretary (Special Assignments), Prime Minister’s Office, Government Headquarters, Bay Street, St. Michael.  They may also be faxed to 228-8234. All responses, whether electronic or hard copy, should be forwarded no later than Friday, October 31, 2008.

Four town hall meetings are scheduled to be held every Wednesday over the coming month to allow members of the public to air their views on the Bill. Venues for the meetings are: Combermere School, Waterford, St. Michael, on October 15; Alexandra School, Queen’s Street, St. Peter, on October 22; Deighton Griffith School, Kingsland, Christ Church, on October 29; and Princess Margaret School, Six Roads, St. Philip, on November 5.  All meetings begin at 7:00 p.m. 

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