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Province refused to release report on welfare leavers

The British Columbia government has suppressed a report on what happens to people who leave the province's welfare system, but now is promising to release it today.

On Jan. 26 The Tyee made a freedom of information request to the Housing and Social Development Ministry for the records, including the latest in a promised series of reports created using federal tax data.

“Please be advised that it is the ministry's intention to post these updates within the next 60 days,” said a Feb. 12 letter from Richard Maddia, the ministry's director of information and privacy. Under provincial law, that meant the ministry could refuse to disclose the records through the FOI process.

Counting “days” as business days, that put the deadline at April 22. The date passed without the records being released. The Tyee's request would be treated as a new request and the ministry would have 30 business days to respond.

As of Thursday the government was holding fast to its decision not to set a date for releasing the report. After the Tyee told a freedom of information officer it would go ahead with a story about the suppressed report, this morning that officer's superior, Maddia, informed the Tyee the government's position had changed and it will release the report shortly.

“Clearly it's sensitive to them during the election,” said David Eby, the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, after being told of the government's refusal to release the records. “If it's got bad news, for example that everyone who got cut off welfare became homeless, that's not the kind of thing they want out there when they're campaigning.”

Many government agencies do what they can to suppress records the public has a right to see, he said. “This kind of gamesmanship around elections with information takes on a different character, which is the appearance of bad faith.”

The minister responsible, Rich Coleman, was not available by posting time.

“The government is adamantly opposed to releasing information when it's not in their interests,” said Darrell Evans, the executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “They're tighter than a frog's asshole now on anything to do with freedom of information. You can quote me on that.”

A long time advocate for greater government transparency, he said this is the first time he's heard of a public body using the planned-release measure to refuse access to a record.

“This has never come up in 18 years,” he said. “This is a delaying tactic. This is one more effort to suppress information that may put the government in a bad light.”

The province has insisted that the rapidly declining welfare caseload has been the result of more people finding employment. Other research, including a landmark study by Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives researchers, and past Tyee coverage, suggests tightening eligibility rules in 2002 played a large role in the decline.

A recent report by provincial Ombudsman Kim Carter, Last Resort, noted, “The ministry lacks evidence to support its conclusion that the reduction in the income assistance caseload is a result of people leaving assistance for employment.”

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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