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“Leading edge” Official Information Act turns 25

Published: Sun 25 Nov 2007 06:23 PM
Media  release
“Leading edge” Official Information Act turns 25
Ombudsmen and Information Commissioners from all over the world will be in New Zealand for their annual conference next week, which will also mark the 25th anniversary of the country’s Official Information Act.
The Information Commissioners and Ombudsmen’s conference (26 to 29 November) provides a forum for those who regulate and enforce access to information laws and has attracted 180 delegates.
Ombudsman Beverley Wakem says freedom of information is a growing issue for many countries and there is a lot of interest internationally in the fact that the Act has been in force in New Zealand for quarter of a century.
“New Zealand’s legislation is seen internationally as leading edge particularly in one key area.  In many countries it is quite unknown to have cabinet papers and public submissions up on websites – but here we now take that for granted. This strengthens the accountability of Ministers and departments, and helps people to participate in the development of public policy.”
She says the conference will provide an opportunity to see what can be learnt from the New Zealand experience and taken forward into the next 25 years.
Beverley Wakem says New Zealand differs from many other jurisdictions in that the OIA does not have any class exemptions.  The UK for example excludes their security and intelligence services from their legislation.
“Here the Act has sufficient protection for classified information where necessary, so we find we don’t need to exempt it.”
While New Zealand does have some of the most open freedom of information laws in the world, Beverley Wakem says there are still some areas for which it is in the public interest to keep information confidential.
“A good example is negotiations between political parties when setting up an MMP government after an election. Protecting these negotiations helps ensure the stability of the government.”
As with any legislation, Beverley Wakem says compliance can be an issue.
“Of course the Act doesn’t work perfectly and we still get complaints about slow responses from government agencies to requests for information but on the whole and comparatively speaking, our system works very well.”
Another area Beverley Wakem signals for improvement is with the education of government agencies about their responsibilities under the Act.
“We spend a lot of time dealing with complaints about government agencies who simply are not well informed of what they are obliged to do under the Act and this needs to be addressed.”
Beverley Wakem says she is happy with the way the 1982 Act has been working in New Zealand but warns we shouldn’t get complacent about it.  “There are things New Zealand can learn from other countries about departments making information available proactively.”
“The basic principle to be explored at the conference is that information should be freely available unless it can be proved it should be withheld, because disclosure would cause some kind of harm.  That’s the basis we work on and so far it has, all in all, been very successful.”
The conference runs from 26 to 29 November and will be held at Parliament.
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