Thursday, April 18, 2024

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: Freedom of information


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One of the few useful bits of information I gleaned from the recent TV interview with the Attorney General was the fact that a Freedom of Information Bill is apparently in the works.

Of course it’s been in the works since 2008 when it was reported in the Press that “the drafting of integrity legislation and the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2008 are expected to be concluded in less than two months and soon after brought before Parliament”. That two months has become six years and we are yet to see the bill. But what’s new?

The act should save journalists and the public from having to depend on documents “falling off the back of trucks”.

Politicians and other Government officials are becoming increasingly bold in their disregard of the public’s demands for transparency and accountability in the spending of their taxes, especially under the present difficult circumstances. The “like it or lump it” philosophy is truly embedded.

We shouldn’t accept this. Journalists must take a leaf out of the books of United States journalists when they question government officials. They need a harsher approach, while still respecting the offices these people hold. They must pin them down and not allow them to get away with statements like “I have nothing more to say to you” and “I done with that”.

There continue to be questions about Government’s spending on overseas travel, and they’re coming not only from those who seek political mileage, but those of us who have no political axe to grind, but are concerned about our country’s future.

We all understand that Barbados has to be represented at certain international events, but why would it take eight persons in the case of the Heads of Government Conference and ten in the case of the SIDS Conference to carry out this function? What does each one of them do? There is no explanation. We are just meant to accept it. But then, to make matters worse, we never see any details of the spending, nor do we see a report on any tangible achievements from these conferences.

Of course there are those who speak about “heads” in the Estimates as if the money under the “travel” head appears from some specific source which demands that it be used for travel or there will be some penalty. As far as I’m aware there’s something called “virement” which allows monies not spent under one head to be transferred to another where it’s more needed. In any case there’s only one pot of money to run the country, so priorities must be set. Certainly, sending ten persons to a conference in Samoa can’t be a priority at this time.

The fact that this is “nothing new” is no justification for it to continue. That just makes it more shocking that we’ve allowed such a bad practice to continue unabated. We must continue robust constructive criticism, which one writer has described as “the vital oxygen which keeps our democratic fires burning brightly”.

Then of course there is the matter of consultants hired by Government. Sometimes these are short term, for specific projects requiring particular expertise, although, sad to say, these project reports and recommendations seem to be seldom read or acted on. Then there are the long-term ones which are more questionable since, with such a large public service supposedly well qualified, one would think that  support for ministers would be readily available. With the limited information relayed to the public, there’s no wonder many feel it’s a matter of political patronage.

A few months ago Caswell Franklyn provided us, via the Press, with much needed detailed information on many aspects of Government’s spending and policies. I was about to propose him as Minister of Information, when suddenly he seemed to “disappear off the scene”. One wonders why.  

Let’s hope that the Freedom of Information Bill will soon go before Parliament and we will have answers to such burning questions as the true level of National Insurance Scheme funds borrowed by Government, the current situation with the Four Seasons project, details of the Al Barrack contract which eventually led to Government owing Barrack millions of dollars, the whereabouts of an alleged significant donation to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital some years ago, the situation with the Needham’s Point clean-up, among many others.

• Dr Frances Chandler is a former Independent senator.


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