People filing freedom of information requests in British Columbia will have to pay a new application fee as a result of legislation introduced by the NDP government Monday.
Lisa Beare, the minister responsible, said the fee will be “modest” and won’t apply to people applying to receive their own personal information.
But critics called the move “troubling” and damaging to democracy.
“This is a modest application fee, it’s in line with other jurisdictions and it will not be a barrier,” Beare, the citizens’ services minister told reporters. “Other jurisdictions’ fees range from $5 to $50 and I’m recommending a fee right in the middle of that.”
The federal government, including the RCMP, has long charged a $5 application fee for access to information requests. In recent years it has refused to drop the fee even though it costs the government significantly more to process a cheque than it collects.
Among provinces, Alberta charges the highest application fee at $25 per request. Ontario, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island each charge $5 while the five other provinces charge nothing.
B.C.’s freedom of information law hasn’t allowed application fees since it was passed in the early 1990s, but public bodies are allowed to charge applicants for some of the work required to respond to their requests.
“The introduction of fees for government information is just another example of the NDP trying to frustrate legitimate inquiries and keep journalists, the opposition, and British Columbians in the dark,” said an emailed statement from Bruce Banman, the MLA for Abbotsford South and the BC Liberal critic for citizens’ services.
“Our concern is John Horgan and the NDP government’s growing trend of hiding information from the public. Whether it’s burying reports, blacking out documents or posting information in some far corner of the internet, this government doesn’t like British Columbians knowing the facts.”
The BC Liberal opposition makes a few thousand information requests each year and money to pay for application fees would have to come out of its limited caucus budget, an amount provided through the legislature based on how many MLAs the party has.
Sean Holman, the new Wayne Crookes professor in environmental and climate journalism at the University of Victoria, said introducing an application fee is a move in the wrong direction at a time when the public is already distrustful of how governments manage information.
“It’s scandalous,” said Holman. “This is public information. The public should not have to pay twice for information that belongs to them.”
B.C. was a leader in Canada on information rights, so “it’s a real shame... to now see it taking this very regressive position,” Holman said. “The only jurisdiction that charges $25 for an FOI request is Alberta and it’s arguably the most secretive jurisdiction in this country.”
Holman, who previously taught in Alberta and has worked as a reporter in B.C., said the fee will be a barrier to many reporters. “It puts it completely out of the reach of journalism students and a lot of cash-strapped newsrooms,” he said. “I am unbelievably disgusted in this government if this is the direction they’ve decided to head in.... It totally erodes trust.”
According to the B.C. government, it processes about 10,000 FOI requests a year, 40 per cent of which are for people’s personal information.
Introducing a fee of $25 per application would therefore raise about $150,000 per year.
In an emailed statement, B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy called the new fee a “troubling proposal” and said his office is preparing a comprehensive analysis of the bill.
He also expressed deep concern about other parts of the bill, including measures that will allow public bodies to store British Columbians’ personal information outside of Canada without explaining to them how they will protect it.