26 July 2012

Parliament and its agencies should be subject to the Official Information Act.

Well, some of their functions should be.  That is included among the 137  recommendations made by the Law Commission in its review report published this week.  The Law Commission found the general provisions of the 1982 Act were sound but that some updating and broadening of the scope was required.  The outcome will be first substantial amendment that embodies the Act’s section 4 purpose “… to increase progressively the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand…”

The rationale for a blanket exclusion of Parliamentary agencies from the Act’s coverage is increasingly less appropriate. Recommendations are that the Parliamentary Counsel Office, the Office of the Clerk and the Parliamentary Service,  should be subject to the Act regarding their agency activities, spending and administrative matters, including assets, resources and support services.

Although a consequence of the proposals would be that information on MPs’ travel and expenses become accessible, change flowing from the Members of Parliament ( Remuneration and Services ) Bill currently in the House is likely to have enacted disclosure obligations before the Law Commission recommendations come into force.

Giving effect to the Law Commission recommendations will have a similar outcome to the Australian Information Commissioner’s recent decision that Federal Parliamentary agencies are covered by the Freedom of Information Act . The cross party moves in Australia to reverse that decision are unlikely to be replicated  in New Zealand, where the Minister of Justice seems to accept that the recommendations align with the Government’s commitment to openness and transparency. They are seen as complementing the Government’s Better Public Services programme and the Open Government Initiative.

An interesting sting among the Law Commission’s change recommendations is that where an agency is unable to supply information for a reason which can be attributed to poor record keeping, the Ombudsmen should be able to refer the matter to the Chief Archivist who has authority to investigate further.