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Ombudsman releases 2000 Access and Privacy Annual Report

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Apr 24, 2002

Experiences in 2000 suggest a need for improvement in compliance with both the letter and spirit of the access and privacy legislation.

In 2000, the Office of the Manitoba Ombudsman opened and closed a record number of access and privacy related complaints under The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), The Personal Health Information Act (PHIA), and The Ombudsman Act.

Of the 224 access and privacy complaints received by the Ombudsman in 2000, 66% were about provincial government departments and agencies, 21% were about local public bodies, 7% were about health professionals, and 6% were about health care facilities.

"Access and privacy legislation is not about the provision of a government program or the delivery of a public service," said Barry Tuckett, the Manitoba Ombudsman. "It is about protecting the rights we enjoy as Canadians to an open and accountable government that respects our fundamental right to personal privacy."

Some of the major challenges in 2000 included:

  • Several access requests involving the provincial government were delayed by time extensions taken by the government, the process within government was changed for coordinating access requests, and the way in which government responded to requests for information contributed to an unprecedented volume of complaints to the Ombudsman's office.
  • Significant effort was expended by the Ombudsman's office investigating complaints generated when the provincial government denied members of the media access to provincial government information. These included requests to all provincial government departments for ministerial briefing notes, costs and other information concerning the travel of various ministers and the Premier.
  • A complaint was made to the Ombudsman when a media request for access to attendance records for Treasury Board meetings was denied on the grounds that FIPPA provides mandatory exceptions to disclosure for matters involving Cabinet or its committees. When information was finally released to the applicant, the disclosure was made on the basis of Cabinet consent rather than by using other more routine mechanisms available under FIPPA.

"We remain of the opinion that the release of the information requested would not have revealed a confidence of Cabinet and that FIPPA respects basic parliamentary conventions and principles," said the Ombudsman. "I am concerned that the actions and decisions of the provincial government in some of 2000's high-profile challenges have raised questions about the level of government commitment to FIPPA," said Tuckett. "While these instances are of particular concern, it is encouraging to note all the same that government has generally responded well to access requests and has maintained a commendable standard of compliance with the legislation overall."

The Government of Manitoba also declared its intention to conduct a public review of FIPPA. Comprehensive reviews of the legislation must be undertaken by December 11, 2002 respecting PHIA, and May 4, 2003 respecting FIPPA.

"Hopefully these reviews will not only identify and strengthen the public's right of access to information and protection of personal privacy, but will also serve to demonstrate commitment to these rights," Tuckett stated. "I feel there is no greater accountability mechanism than public scrutiny of government actions and decisions in an open and transparent environment, an essential component of a democratic society."

Under The Ombudsman Act, the Ombudsman investigates complaints about any act, decision, recommendation or omission related to a matter of administration by any department or agency of the provincial government or a municipal government. The Ombudsman Act was expanded on January 1, 1997 to include more than 200 municipalities. The Personal Health Information Act came into effect on December 11, 1997. The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act became law on May 4, 1998, encompassed the City of Winnipeg on August 31, 1998, and was proclaimed on April 4, 2000 for more than 370 local governments, educational and health care bodies. With responsibilities as an independent oversight agency under all three acts, Manitoba's Ombudsman now has one of the broadest jurisdictions for an Ombudsman in Canada.

Created in 1970, the office of the Manitoba Ombudsman exists to promote fairness, equity and administrative accountability through independent and impartial investigation of complaints and legislative compliance reviews.