The B.C. NDP government’s proposed $25 fee for filing non-personal freedom of information requests is aimed at speeding up service, and it’s not an obstacle for the vast majority of people who file five or fewer requests in a year, Citizens Services Minister Lisa Beare says.
Beare and Premier John Horgan have been criticized for introducing the fee in an overhaul of B.C. privacy law, with Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy calling the up-front fee charged by the government and its agencies for non-personal information “a troubling proposal.”
Beare introduced amendments to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act Oct. 18, emphasizing that no fee will apply to individuals applying for their personal information. The proposed $25 filing fee for media organizations and others making FOI requests is “modest” and “in line with other jurisdictions and it will not be a barrier,” since 98 per cent of applicants put in five or fewer requests in a year, Beare told reporters at the B.C. legislature.
The system has struggled to meet deadlines on information requests for years, but Beare says performance is improving, with 86 per cent of responses given by deadlines in 2020 and 81 per cent so far this year. She said the changes are supported by universities and regional health authorities, which have been dealing with high demand for COVID-19 information requests.
The ministry says it now processes more than 10,000 FOI requests annually, with the volume of requests increasing by more than 40 per cent over a two-year period, reaching an all-time high of more than 13,000 requests in 2019-20 (13,055).
Beare highlighted the most prolific sources of FOI requests, starting with the B.C. Liberal opposition, which made 4,772 applications in 2020-21. That averages 13 requests a day and the government estimates it cost $14.3 million to deal with them. One media applicant, Vancouver blogger Bob Mackin, made 397 applications in the same year, more than all other media combined, with an estimated processing cost of $1.2 million.
The amendments also remove a requirement to store B.C. information within the province. Beare said no other jurisdiction has that restriction, which prevents use of cloud-based services, and security requirements for contractors will protect privacy. McEvoy called the legislation “a blank cheque” for the government to use information storage outside of Canada.
Beare said moving from a dedicated data centre in Kamloops to a cloud-based system will require administrative as well as contract controls to protect data.
“We are going to be in a hybrid model for a long time,” she said.