Access to government information crucial to expose wrongdoing, says former UK commissioner

Former British information chief says city must balance right to privacy with need for openness and allow public access to government data

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 April, 2014, 10:54am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 April, 2014, 4:51pm

Public access to government information is key to keeping officials accountable as it can deter and expose impropriety, a former UK information monitor says.

On the heels of a call by Hong Kong's Ombudsman for the enactment of a long-overdue access law, Richard Thomas, who was Britain's information commissioner between 2002 and 2009, also said it was important to have an independent and authoritative body that could make binding rulings in disputed cases to balance privacy and freedom of information.

"Secrecy is not healthy as the default position and should be used only where it is strictly necessary," Thomas said. "If information is withheld, people often think there must be something to hide about what is being done in their name with their money."

Thomas made the comments after the city's outgoing ombudsman Alan Lai Nin said he was "a bit embarrassed" that Hong Kong was so "backward" on the issue and called last month for the introduction of a law.

The year-long investigation by the Office of the Ombudsman found that government bodies had a bias towards non-disclosure because of the imbalance between freedom of information and data protection. The code on access to information does not have any legal backing while the protection of privacy has been written into law with full force.

Government bodies have failed to weigh public interest before refusing a request for information, the investigation found.

A quarter of the complaints the Ombudsman handled in 2012 related to refusal of information requests on privacy grounds.

The Ombudsman said an access-to-information law should be introduced to cover not only government bureaus and departments but also hundreds of public organisations. An independent body should be vested with enforcement power to oversee compliance of the proposed freedom of information law, the investigation found.

The report did not say if the Ombudsman should be the watchdog under the proposed law, or whether a new post of information commissioner should be created.

Thomas said it would be better for a single person or office to rule on both freedom of information and data protection laws.

"These are two sets of information rights. Both public access and personal privacy are important and vital principles," Thomas said.

"There are inevitable tensions between openness and privacy, but it is better to take a coherent, balanced and integrated approach rather than have disputes between two competing public bodies."

At present, complaints related to the access-to-information code are handled by the Ombudsman, who can only make recommendations rather than decisions binding on government bureaus and departments.

In countries such as Britain, Australia, France, Germany and Portugal, the Information Commissioner oversees freedom of information and data protection.

In some other jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Sweden, Norway and Bosnia, the Ombudsman oversees the right of access to information.

Thomas said that under Britain's Freedom of Information Act, anyone can make a request to a public authority for disclosure of any information it holds. He said exceptions included disclosure of personal data that would amount to breach of data protection laws.

For example, Thomas said, staff reports and salaries of public officials who were junior or who did not face the public were generally not disclosed.

He added that British courts had ruled that most details of the expenses claimed by lawmakers should be published.