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Expert: Island can only benefit from freedom of information law

Bermuda is on the cusp of a “revolutionary” law coming into force and citizens should seize the opportunity to use it, according to a freedom of information activist.

Heather Brooke, the freelance journalist whose requests for information exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal in the UK, told a Centre for Justice forum on Wednesday evening: “You are at a very exciting time where you are just at the threshold, where the law on accessing public information is about to come into force.”

Ms Brooke described how she moved to the UK from the US in the late 1990s and was shocked at how hard it was to get police and local authorities to release information about the neighbourhood where she was living.

“In Britain at that time you had absolutely zero right to know,” she said. “There was no statutory right to information, public information.”

When Britain’s freedom of information law came into force in 2005, five years after it was passed, Ms Brooke began making hundreds of requests for documents as research for a book she was writing on the legislation.

“Britain was very much a culture of secrecy, perhaps as many of you see Bermuda as being a culture of secrecy,” Ms Brooke said.

“People in government, I knew they were wary of this law, which is why they had the five years to prepare, but I don’t think they had an inkling about quite how revolutionary that law would be and, I’m telling you, this is where you are right now. You are right at this threshold.

“I don’t think people in government quite realise the transition is going to happen once your public access to information law comes into force.”

Ms Brooke added: “Once the law is in force it gives a citizen a right under the law to ask questions and, more importantly, to get answers.

“Your question cannot be just thrown in the bin. It cannot be ignored. It has to be answered and they have to give you the information unless they find a reason under law why they don’t need to give it to you.”

Ms Brooke joked that as a “slightly obsessive individual” she made about 500 FOI requests as research for her ‘Your Right to Know’ book.

She found the British Parliament, which had passed the FOI Act, to be one of the official bodies least willing to share information, especially on how much MPs were claiming in expenses.

“They said ‘it’s private information’. I thought it shouldn’t be private because these are public officials spending public money and they can only spend that money solely for their public duties.”

Her battle to get the expenses information took her to the High Court, where she won an “amazing victory” for disclosure.

“I don’t know how to express to you what an incredible culture shift that was in Britain,” said Ms Brooke, adding that it showed citizens those in power could be held to account.

Parliament still resisted the release of the information and the scale of the abuse of public funds by politicians was only revealed after a disc was leaked to the press.

Ms Brooke told the forum it was human nature for such abuses to occur when disclosure was unlikely.

“What you do once you have this law is you increase the risk that a politician takes or a public servant takes when they want to misspend money or abuse their position of power. You make it so they do have something to lose if they act inappropriately.”

Lawyer Saul Froomkin also spoke at the forum at St Paul AME Church Hall, outlining the failings in Bermuda’s freedom of information law, which is due to come into force in the second half of this year.

He said his pessimistic view was that the legislation had major flaws and only a few virtues.

Useful website: www.yrtk.org.

UK freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke spoke at a Centre for Justice forum on Wednesday evening. Photo by Glenn Tucker

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Published March 16, 2012 at 9:00 am (Updated March 16, 2012 at 9:54 am)

Expert: Island can only benefit from freedom of information law

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