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Despite Failure to Speed Up FOIs, $10 Fee Is Staying

New minister defends charge, but opposition says it shows government’s secrecy.

Andrew MacLeod 4 Mar 2024The Tyee

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on X or reach him at .

The B.C. government is monitoring the impact of its $10 application fee for freedom of information requests, but has no immediate plans to remove it, said George Chow, the recently appointed minister of citizens’ services.

“I think we are doing what we can, making sure the system works for people,” Chow said. “As far as the fee is concerned, I think we are proactively releasing more information, such as ministers’ calendars, briefing notes, transition binders, estimates.”

The BC United critic for citizens’ services, Renee Merrifield, said the thousands of FOI requests made to the government show that people aren’t getting the information they want. “Just because you released a calendar doesn’t mean that’s sufficient.”

The application fee should be cancelled, but won’t be, said Merrifield. “I think this government has shown us they are not interested in transparency or accountability.”

Premier David Eby appointed Chow on Feb. 20 as part of a small cabinet shuffle that saw Lisa Beare move to post-secondary education and future skills following Selina Robinson’s departure from cabinet.

In 2021 under Beare, the provincial government introduced the controversial $10 application fee for FOI requests. Beare said at the time the fee would speed up response times, but critics said it would discourage information requests and be a barrier to people gaining access to public records.

At the end of January the province’s information and privacy commissioner, Michael McEvoy, released a special report that found response times had indeed lengthened despite the number of requests dropping, particularly from political parties and the media.

The average number of business days public bodies take to answer requests has stretched to 85 days, the longest in the 13 years his office has been tracking performance and nearly four times as long as responses took in 2010. Over the most recent three fiscal years only about half of requests received answers within the 30-day legal limit.

Chow said a large portion of the media requests before the fee was introduced came from one journalist and that the number of requests coming from the public has remained consistent since the government introduced the fee. There is no application fee for people requesting their own personal information.

As for speed, he said, the government has taken steps to improve the process. “We have increased the resources through the ministry. I think it’s about $7 or $8 million, in order to speed up the process.”

The ministry has said it has $7.7 million in new funding to improve FOI processes and systems in an effort to reduce the number of responses that exceed the legal time limit.

The government’s goal remains to make sure the public gets the information it needs and it will continue to monitor the effect the fee is having on the number of requests and response times, Chow said. “In a democracy we need to have transparency and we need also to have openness.”

BC United critic Merrifield said it is noteworthy that the public bodies with the longest delays include the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the premier’s office, all of which deserve scrutiny.

The government lacks a culture where it feels it needs to provide the information people want, said Merrifield, adding the application fee is one more barrier to transparency.

“It’s just another failed experiment by this government that also conveniently chips away at democracy,” she said. “We have a premier who doesn’t really care about being held accountable.”  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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