Immigration board warned over transparency
A government board did not use the “required rigour and efficiency” to find records when asked to disclose the minutes of its meetings under a public access to information request, the Information Commissioner has ruled.
Gitanjali Gutierrez said in a written decision she was not satisfied the Board of Immigration took all reasonable steps to trace the records before it rejected a Pati request from The Royal Gazette on the grounds that the minutes did not exist.
She ordered the board to issue a new decision by June 26.
The Pati request was submitted in November 2016 when a row over the Reverend Nicholas Tweed’s work permit was making headlines.
Mr Tweed, a pastor at St Paul AME Church and a prominent critic of the former One Bermuda Alliance government, had an application for renewal of his work permit considered by the Board of Immigration and denied by then home affairs minister Patricia Gordon-Pamplin.
The church and Ms Gordon-Pamplin gave different accounts of how the application was dealt with and the Pati request was made in a bid to shed light on the process for the public, as well as find out more how church work-permit applications are handled in general.
The Royal Gazette asked for the minutes of the board’s meetings from July 8 to November 17, 2016, as well as any memos, protocols or guidelines related to work-permit applications and renewals from churches which it used to decide applications and appeals.
Danette Ming, the Chief Immigration Officer, denied the request a week later.
She wrote: “The Board of Immigration, being a working board, does not record minutes of its meetings. Rather, during each meeting, it reviews applications and renders decisions directly on the applications.
“Such decisions are not then compiled in report form as minutes. There are therefore no minutes that can be provided to you.”
The Royal Gazette appealed the decision to board chairman Glen Smith, then an OBA backbencher.
He upheld the refusal and wrote: “As chairman of the board since 2013, I can advise that the board, during its weekly meetings, has never taken minutes for any meetings as it is not mandated to take minutes.
“I am advised that prior to my chairmanship, minutes have also never been taken.”
He said the board reviewed, on average, 150 applications a week and a record of its review was made on each application.
Mr Smith added that the board could not indicate which applications it considered during the timeframe set out in the request without the name of the applicant or employer.
Ms Gutierrez found that the board failed to comply with its duty under the Pati Act to assist with the request and respond completely and accurately.
She wrote: “The duty to assist is ... essential to fulfilling the purposes of the Pati Act ... The reasonableness of a public authority’s efforts to assist a requester must also be viewed in light of these purposes: to give the public the right to access to information held by public authorities to the greatest extent possible, subject to the exemptions within the Act; to increase transparency and eliminate unnecessary secrecy; to increase the accountability of public authorities and to inform the public about a public authority’s activities and decision-making.”
Ms Gutierrez said her office’s investigation found that the Department of Immigration logged the receipt of work-permit applications and the outcome of the board’s reviews in its computer system.
She said: “The half-hour meeting with the ICO investigator embodied the discussion that the board should have made a reasonable effort to have, or offer to have, with The Royal Gazette at the initial request stage.”
She said records relevant to the request were identified and told the board it must “take an approach that seeks to increase the transparency around how it works, its activities and how it records its decisions on work permit applications” in order to increase accountability.
The board did not respond to a request for comment.
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