Holness felt he had Opposition backing for ATI extension

Holness felt he had Opposition backing for ATI extension

Senior staff reporter

Friday, October 04, 2019

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Prime Minister Andrew Holness yesterday said that he decided on extending the waiting time for releasing Cabinet information into the public domain as he had expected support from the Opposition.

“I briefed the leader of the Opposition that we would bring an order resolution and that the order resolution would increase (the waiting period) from 20 to 70 years. I explained to him what triggered it and that we would want his support, which he agreed to. Otherwise I wouldn't have gone through with it,” the prime minister told the Jamaica Observer.

Asked whether he was assured by Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips of support for the order and the follow-up affirmative resolution, Holness said: “It was about principle and good governance, and I expected his support.”

Holness was responding to questions from the Observer on the public outrage which followed reports of his tabling the resolution in Parliament to extend the waiting period for Cabinet information through the Access to Information (ATI) Act from 20 years to 70 years.

He refused to admit or deny whether his decision to seek the extension was triggered by a request from Radio Jamaica for the minutes of meetings of the Cabinet between 1975 and 1976. However, he confirmed that currently there is a general request for the minutes of the Cabinet over the two-year period which is still awaiting response.

He said that the documents were of no personal interest to him, as the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) did not form the Government at the time, although it would have covered the period of the 1976 State of Emergency and the ensuing general election which the JLP lost under a state of emergency.

“So, we had no interest in either releasing them or preventing them from being released. However, there is principle that has to be considered, and the first principle is that if the information is released after 20 years, as the present law allows, would there be persons who are still alive and who would be affected? And the answer to that is yes, there are persons who are still alive whose names would be mentioned,” Holness explained.

He said that Cabinet discusses a wide range of issues at its meetings, including the personal health of people seeking help with medical conditions, the granting of licences, copyright and patent, as well as other personal issues which raise questions as to whether discussions on them should be made public.

“If the discussions of Cabinet are made public, ministers would become very cautious in how they bring their knowledge and judgement to bear on the issues, and would not be as forthright and free as before. It would impact the level of detailed discussion and the attention which is brought to bear on the issues,” Holness said.

“All of these are legitimate questions that have to be contemplated,” he added.

However, he said that the Government has now decided to withdraw the order and the order resolution, instead of going ahead with a debate next week in the House of Representatives, or in the Senate where it was mistakenly tabled last Friday.

He said that a joint select committee will be formed to review three similar pieces of legislation – The Access to Information Act (ATI); the Official Secrets Act; and the Archives Act.

He said that the committee will look at privacy rights affecting national security, property and proprietary rights, in respect of how these issues are treated in the legislations.

In the meantime, he said that the process of releasing the requested documents on the 1975-76 period into the public domain will commence.

“These documents will now be in the public domain, and if there are parties or persons who feel that their private information has been released and they have been prejudiced by it, they have to make an appeal to the court,” he advised.

He added that in the meantime also, the Government will move as quickly as it can to have the committee established and to have them meet, although he admitted that it will be “a very long process”.

“But we will try as best as possible to have it fast-tracked, and then move to the stage where we could draft new legislation or amend the existing legislation,” Holness said.

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