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Call for guidelines on Pati requests

The information commissioner has asked the Cabinet Office minister to give civil servants guidelines on how to deal with public access to information requests and the proper management of public records.

Gitanjali Gutierrez said in her office's 2018 annual report that the minister responsible for the Public Access to Information Act, now Walton Brown, was required to issue two important “practice codes” on Pati law and on records management but had failed to do so since the legislation came into force in 2015.

Ms Gutierrez added: “Four years after the Pati Act has gone into effect, public authorities are increasingly in need of support to respond to Pati requests and other Pati obligations. Key to this support are the practice codes.”

She said: “For the practical benefit of public authorities who seek assistance and support, the information commissioner encourages the minister to issue the practice code on the administration of the Act.

“The minister's practice code on records management is critical to support the public's access to information.”

Ms Gutierrez added: “The Personal Information Protection Act 2016 is also potentially going into effect in the near future, making improvements in records management practices increasingly urgent.”

Mr Brown took on responsibility for Pati in November when he succeeded Lovitta Foggo.

Michael Dunkley, the premier in the former One Bermuda Alliance government, was earlier responsible for Pati.

The Pati Act was passed in Parliament in 2010 and public authorities had almost five years to prepare for its introduction.

It is understood that many authorities did little to organise their records to ensure they were accessible and that not all staff tasked with handling Pati requests were given adequate training.

Ms Gutierrez revealed in her report that of the island's 197 public authorities, 43 reported receiving Pati requests last year, while 144 authorities did not receive any.

Ten authorities failed to submit their Pati statistics to the ICO.

The commissioner said her quarterly briefings for public authorities made clear that staff who deal with Pati requests “seek resources to understand, continually improve and support their Pati practices”.

She said the Cabinet Office restarted formal training sessions for information officers last year.

Ms Gutierrez added: “Ultimately, comprehensive records and information management plans and practices can help public authorities appropriately create, manage, store and destroy records.

“Having these plans in place improves efficiencies for public authorities and facilitates public access to public records.”

The Cabinet Office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

However, a spokeswoman said in 2017 that Pati was “being appropriately managed”.

She added: “Information officers have been trained and there is more training slated for later this year — refresher for existing staff and training for those new to the information officer role.

“The information officers are able to respond to requests in a timely manner. We are working with the information commissioner's office to finalise the codes.”

Ms Gutierrez told The Royal Gazette in January: “To date, the information commissioner has not received the records management practice code and has not been contacted for consultation on a draft code.”

The commissioner said in a July 2018 decision on the handling of a Pati request from The Royal Gazette that the lack of a records management policy at the Registry General that identified who controlled the Charity Commissioners' records “created confusion”.

She added that it was up to the minister responsible for Pati to establish codes of practice for public authorities for the maintenance and management of public records.

Ms Gutierrez said: “The records management practice code has not yet been issued so no general guidance on the management of board and committee records is available.”

The ICO's annual report was tabled in the House of Assembly on Friday, less than two weeks after health minister Kim Wilson told MPs that the Ministry of Health was “disproportionately burdened by Pati requests” and that requests absorbed a “tremendous amount of staff time and resources that is out of proportion to any possible benefit to the public”.

Ms Wilson claimed in her remarks on March 11 that one request took 337 hours to complete and cost taxpayers $20,000.

She claimed the money was “spent on satisfying the curiosity of one requester — and it is a regrettable usage of the public's money”.

Three days earlier, Ms Wilson had told Parliament her ministry was still processing a February 2016 Pati request from The Royal Gazette for the health and safety records of children's daycare centres.

She said: “It makes sense. Our inspections provide one piece of oversight of settings where our children spend the bulk of their day. We absolutely understand the public's interest in getting the full picture.”

The Department of Health at first denied the request on the grounds that provision of the records would be a substantial interference to its work — a claim later rejected by Ms Gutierrez.

The Ministry of Health confirmed today that Ms Wilson was referring to the same Pati request in her separate remarks to Parliament on March 8 and 11.

A spokeswoman provided a memo showing a breakdown for the 337 hours and the $20,000. She said: “It doesn't include all hours worked on this request, just a subset that was quantified.”

This story has been amended to include a response from the Ministry of Health about Ms Wilson's remarks to Parliament. The Royal Gazette asked for the response at 3pm yesterday and received it at 2pm today.

• Click on the PDF under Related Media to view the breakdown from the Ministry of Health on how it has processed the Pati request on childcare records.

Walton Brown, the Minister for Cabinet (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published March 27, 2019 at 9:00 am (Updated March 27, 2019 at 5:33 pm)

Call for guidelines on Pati requests

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