Burt bemoans weaponising’ of Pati
A culture of “weaponising” public access to information laws has emerged, the Premier claimed yesterday.
David Burt said that policy and legislative changes had been delayed owing to Pati requests.
Mr Burt told the House of Assembly that the Pati Act, passed in 2010 and followed by regulations in 2014, was designed to grant the public the right to information held by public authorities, and to increase transparency and accountability, but a “disturbing trend” had emerged.
Mr Burt explained: “There is now a clear culture of weaponising these objectives to serve political ends and other agendas.
“The result is an increasing atmosphere of undue caution in the provision of advice to ministers, and a reluctance to commit to writing or any form of permanent record, legitimate, contemporaneous views and thinking around critical policies, on behalf of the people of Bermuda.
“This is dangerous. Legitimate scrutiny will encourage accountability, but ‘gotcha journalism’ or wanton political use of Pati, even by Honourable Members, will yield a shrinking culture of effective decision- making.”
Questioned by Scott Pearman, the Shadow Minister of Finance, about how public documents can be “gotcha journalism” or wantonly political inquiries, Mr Burt said: “As you will know, there have been documents which have been released from public officers which were not supposed to be released as per the law.
“The fact is the Pati regime is there for the provision of information, but in cases as a government, you have to admit when things are not working in the best interest of the country.
“No one wants information to be disclosed that is not supposed to be disclosed legally, under law. That is what we are speaking about.”
Mr Pearman repeated the question, and noted the Premier had only given an example of a civil servant making an error.
Mr Burt said: “What I can tell you is when, for instance, Pati requests are used up here for political debates, instead of regular questions, it would seem to me, to be used for political purposes.”
Asked by Mr Pearman if he did not think documents legally available to the public should be used in parliamentary debate, he said: “He asked the question earlier about what I thought about wanton political abuse. I answered the question precisely.”
In his ministerial statement, Mr Burt said that Pati requests had “begun to stretch the administrative capacity of information officers”.
He added: “The result is the mistaken release of information which is rightly exempt under the Act, delays in the processing of requests, and information officers so burdened with requests that the performance of their core duties suffers.”
Mr Burt added: “The demands placed on information officers and some departments have so affected their work that some officers have relinquished the role whilst others have complained about the all-consuming nature of the tasks.”
He said that information officers “seldom” refused requests despite provisions in the Act and regulations that allow them to be refused, where they would “cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with, or disruption on the other work of a public authority”.
Mr Burt highlighted a Pati request for records related to daycare centres and providers, and said the request was initially denied by the Ministry of Health, owing to the disruption it would cause to ministerial work.
The denial was upheld by an internal review, but the Information Commissioner’s Office rejected the decisions.
Mr Burt said: “I can advise Honourable Members that it took 12 public officers almost 400 hours at a cost of over $20,000 to process this request.”
He added that the ministry had sought assistance from the Policy and Strategy Section to handle the task.
Mr Burt said: “Whether the ministry devoted an individual or multiple resources to administer this process, it would have resulted in a substantial interference with and disruption of the work of the ministry.
“Notably, this was only one request and, until the PSS’s assistance was engaged,” Mr Burt continued. “The Ministry of Health had to suspend its policy/legislative development initiatives, as its three policy analysts had to de deployed to processing Pati requests.”
Mr Burt said that the Pati Unit, which had provided help to deal with requests, was abolished under the former Government, and that the work of the four scrapped posts had been taken on by the Policy and Strategy Section of the Cabinet Office.
He added that he had asked the leadership of the public service “to examine a means by which to re-engage a level of centralised expertise”.
Mr Burt said: “This will make use of training in Pati management received by officers within the PSS and will provide an additional layer of support to the management of requests under the Act.”
He said the Government was determined to provide a framework for the management of Pati “that fully embraces the original intentions of the Act, and supports a regime that provides the people of Bermuda with the fullest information about the work done every day, in their name and on their behalf”.
• To read David Burt’s statement in full, click on the PDF under “Related Media”
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