Friday, 28 November 2014
Jersey's Freedom of Information Law--A Lucky Break !!!
Last Tuesday the States debated an amendment to the Freedom of Information Jersey Law which will come into force in January next year. Before covering that matter I believe it would be helpful to mention that the States has taken almost 20 years to bring the Law to fruition.
The seeds to the Law were sown by former Senator Stuart Syvret who in early 1994 was appointed as President of the newly constituted Special Committee on Freedom of Information to examine the issues involved in establishing by law, a general right of access to official information by members of the public.The members of Stuart's committee were Senator's Nigel Quérée and Vernon Tomes, and Deputies Robin Rumboll, Jimmy Johns, Gary Matthews and me.
It has been a torturous route with every opportunity taken by those with vested interests finding every possible excuse to deny the public of information they are entitled to. If it had not been for Stuart's initial initiative, drive and persistence one wonders whether there would be a Law today.
I have lost track of the number of States Members who before being elected supported the principle of openness yet have failed to keep their promises. In the attached Comments the Council of Ministers/COM claims to strongly support openness and transparency in government yet could not give its support to a common sense set of amendments from Deputy Carolyn Labey of Grouville which sought to extend the Law to States-owned bodies.
It is only in recent years that States-owned bodies such as Jersey Telecoms and Jersey Post have Boards comprising of non-States Members. It is only months ago that the States transferred the running of its housing stock to Andium Homes which will come within the Law's remit. Yet the COM opposed Deputy Labey's amendments which were in two parts/paragraphs. The first two which sought approval to extend the Law to include such bodies as Jersey Telecoms and secondly for law drafting to be completed as soon as practicable.
Part/Paragraph (c) was even less testing because all it asked was for the Chief Minister to investigate the feasibility and desirability of further extending the scope of the Law to other entities that receive a majority of their funding from the States, and to report back to the States with recommendations within 6 months.
Unfortunately the same COM which claims to strongly support openness and transparency in government wasn't even prepared to investigate extending the Law. The usual red herrings of confidentiality intruding in business were recycled, however the Law will rightly have clauses to prevent such eventualities.
I have attached Deputy Labey's proposition and her Report along with the COM 's Comments which are below. I have also attached the details of the two sets of votes which are worth reading.
The Chief Minister who is to be likened to a Dictator in that he now requires all his Ministers to fall into line and vote as he does was left with egg on his face. When one looks at the way Members voted it will be noted that all Ministers in Lemming fashion obeyed the call to duty. However the Chief Minister will have to do something about the dining habits and travel arrangements of Senators Bailhache, Farnham and Ozouf.
The first two were unable to complete their lunch within the 90 minute luncheon break whereby they missed the vote which was taken soon after the luncheon break. Senator Ozouf's absence was because he was out of the Island on States business which turned out to be a blessing. This is because their absence meant that parts (a) and (b) of Deputy Labey's amendments were approved by 3 votes, 22/19 with 8 Members out of the Chamber. Had the Ministers been present the Deputy would lost because if a vote is tied the amendment/proposition is lost.
When it came to voting for part/paragraph (c) even though it was opposed by the COM, Deputy Labey increased her majority to 28/12 with 9 Members absent. If one looks carefully at that vote it will be seen that the Education Minister, Deputy Rob Bryans broke ranks and actually voted according to his conscience. One wonders whether he has been ordered to produce 100 lines promising to obey in future, or given a yellow card.
Tuesday may have been a bad day for Chief Minister Gorst and his Ministers but it was a good day for the general public who will benefit from greater openness and transparency.
Deputy Labey's amendment and the COM Comments can be read in full by clicking on to the links below. The two votes can also be read by clicking onto the relevant links.
Freedom of Information amendment P149/2014
Freedom of Information Council of Minister's Comments
Votes for Paragraphs A and B
Votes for paragraph C
Tuesday's States business was all over before 3pm. However I doubt whether it will end by 3pm when it next sits on Tuesday 9th December. On the Order Paper are 3 cannabis related propositions which were lodged last July by Deputy Monty Tadier. He is seeking approval for sufferers of multiple sclerosis to be prescribed Sativex Spray which is cannabis based, He is also requesting the Minister to use his discretionary powers under the Misuse of Drugs (General Provisions) (Jersey) Order 2009; to permit Bedrocan BV to be prescribed and thirdly to allow cannabis to be smoked for medicinal purposes.
There should be some lively debates.