April 21, 2015 | Andrew MacLeod | The Tyee
The British Columbia government is routinely blocking access to documents that should be made public by claiming that the records don’t exist, says the NDP opposition.
The NDP has asked, through freedom of information requests, for documents that it already had obtained copies of through other means, leader John Horgan told reporters.
Yet the government still claimed it had no documents to hand over, he said. “We continue to get ‘no records’ responses back, yet we have the documents in our hands.”
During Question Period Monday in the Legislature, New Democrat MLAs raised three examples of documents the government claimed did not exist, including records from meetings about the disappearance of women from Highway 16, dubbed the “highway of tears,” between Prince George and Prince Rupert.
Jennifer Rice, the MLA for the North Coast, described how the government’s statements shifted on whether or not there were records.
“First, ministry staff had told the opposition they had meeting notes but they needed time to have them transcribed,” Rice said. “But then in official correspondence the ministry claimed that there were no records, that those notes never existed.”
Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk said the government receives roughly 10,000 FOI requests a year, and the civil servants who provide the responses follow the law.
“Trusted public servants indeed work with the individual that requests information to help them define their request,” Virk said. “They’re going to continue to try to be as succinct as possible, depending on the request that’s received.”
Other examples of NDP information requests that received “no records” responses included the briefing notes on the indemnities provided to people who might get sued while doing work for the government, and emails sent by Virk’s chief of staff Nick Facey during a period in 2014 when Virk was under fire for his role at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
“This government is no longer simply skirting FOI rules or failing to hand over the occasional document,” said Carole James, the MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill. “It has now adopted a widespread practice of claiming that important government records don’t even exist.”
Added Doug Routley, the MLA for Nanaimo-North Cowichan, “There is a pattern here. Government is now routinely returning ‘no records’ responses to FOI requests in an effort to avoid public scrutiny.”
Virk ducks reporters
But Virk defended the government’s response to the freedom of information requests.
“The public servants that we have in British Columbia are very well trained,” Virk said inside the house. “They apply the act. They decide which information is released, not politicians.”
After Question Period, Virk was unavailable to speak with reporters.
Horgan said he was unsatisfied with Virk’s answers. “He demonstrated yet again why he is in fact the weakest link,” he said.
Premier Christy Clark came to office saying she wanted to lead the most open and transparent government in the history of the province, Horgan said. “She’s missed that by a significant distance.”
Horgan said the government’s response demonstrates a pattern of withholding information. He noted that if the official opposition can’t get access to documents, neither can the public.
“We wanted to demonstrate not that they were withholding that particular document, but that they were withholding documents in a whole range of areas and that is completely counter to what the premier promised when she became leader of the Liberal party.”
In recent years, the information and privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has criticized the government for the increasing number of “no records” responses to FOI requests. “In the past four years, the number of ‘no responsive records’ replies has increased from 13 [per cent] in 2008/09 to 25 [per cent] in 2011/12,” she wrote in a March 2013 report.
There was no single cause, she said, but many of the responses that said the government found no records came from the premier’s office.