Strategic Thoughts

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February 9, 2007

Public Information Not the Public's Business

"The bare bones version of the letter provided enough to indicate that Purchase had resigned over budgetary concerns. The full version simply rounds out the details of his concerns.
"The exclusions tell a different story -- how government exploits every technicality in the information law to minimize embarrassment to the politicians."
Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun, February 8, 2007

"In accordance with the Act, a single copy of these records is provided to you. Please note, however, that these records may be protected by copyright under the federal Copyright Act, pursuant to which unauthorized reproduction of works is forbidden. Permission of the copyright owner must be obtained prior to reproduction, dissemination or sale of these records."
Ministry Responsible for Housing, letter dated February 1, 2007

Vaughn Palmer expressed his disgust with how the Campbell government withholds information that should be public. Most regular users of the Act find that the government not only improperly uses provisions of the Act to withhold information, but it also attempts to intimidate those who successfully obtain information. They don't seem to get the idea that public information should be public.

In early October I submitted a simple Freedom of Information request asking how the government arrived at its estimate that 15,000 low-income working families would immediately benefit from its Rental Assistance Program. Despite the requirement in the Act for a response within 30 days, it took three months to get a simple answer and then the answer came with a warning that it must not be shared with anyone without further government permission for fear of prosecution under Canada's Copyright Act. The Campbell government doesn't understand that public documents are the public's business.

On November 1st my request was postponed with the excuse that the Act allows an extension of 30 days when the volume of information cannot be processed within the usual time limit. On December 14th I received a letter saying that approximately 497 pages of documents would be made available if I would forward my cheque in the amount of $159.25. I replied with a clarification of my request in which I explained that I was looking for fewer than a dozen pages that simply explained their method of estimation. In a letter dated February 1st I finally received an answer that basically said they used 2001 census data on family income to derive their figure. A lot of time and effort could have been saved if that answer was forthcoming in October, but the Campbell government does everything possible to frustrate information requests, as if it is a silly game.

The explanation of how government came up with an estimate of 15,000 families included a statement that they assumed that only 75% of those who are eligible would take advantage of the program. You might wonder how it could be that at least 5,000 low-income families who qualify for help with their rent wouldn't take advantage of the program. The answer might be that the government is doing as little as possible to make those who qualify aware of the program. It has the names and addresses of all likely recipients as part of its records on who qualifies for MSP premium assistance. Those records, as well as taxation statistics, suggest that the estimate of the number it used for eligible families is low. It is nothing new that the Campbell government understates the plight of those who have not shared in BC's good times. It is unconscionable for it not to reach out to those who need help and at least assure maximum subscription for the Rental Assistance Program.

In December I submitted a Freedom of Information request for the statistics on MSP premium assistance by level of assistance and family size so as to enable a comparison with estimates that only 15,000 families were likely to immediately take advantage of the Rental Assistance Program, and so as to test previous claims made by the government with respect to the number of people who benefit from premium assistance. In a letter dated February 7th from the Ministry of Finance I was told there are no records responsive to my request. That strains credibility. I've asked the Ministry to take another look before I trouble the Commissioner with yet another appeal.


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2007 David D. Schreck. All Rights Reserved.