Freedom of Information legislation, unanimously approved by the Gibraltar Parliament, will come into force in Gibraltar for the first time ever next week. The legal and administrative framework that the legislation will bring about will be open to evaluation and amendment as the practical effects of the operation of the new law are monitored going forward.
Requests for information will be open to any Gibraltar resident who is aged 18 years or over. An initial charge of £10 will be levied per request. There will be no additional cost for tracing, compiling and supplying the information where this is calculated to be £100 or less.
A Freedom of Information portal will be added to the e-services section of the Government website www.gibraltar.gov.gi The portal contains a copy of the Act, of the application forms, and the relevant guidance notes for anyone who may be eligible to request information and who wishes to exercise that right. This allows the system to operate electronically as information requests, replies and payments can all be submitted via the new gateway. The email address firstname.lastname@example.org has been established to deal with any queries.
In addition to this, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB) will be the point of contact for anyone who requires assistance in person with the operation of the electronic portal.
The responsibility for the disclosure or not of the information requested will rest with individual Government departments, agencies and authorities. The Gibraltar Regulatory Authority (GRA) becomes the Information Commissioner under the law, will be responsible for the oversight of the implementation of the legislation and serve as an appeal body from decisions taken by Government departments and other public authorities.
The Act will initially only apply to those public authorities that are listed in the Schedule. The first three departments of Government to be listed will be the Department of Education, the Human Resources Department and the National Archives. The staff in those three departments have received training conducted by the GRA in order to familiarise themselves with their duties and obligations under the law. The number of public authorities added to the Schedule will increase slowly as the appraisal of the workings of the system progresses. The legislation already provides for the Information Commissioner to submit an annual report to be laid before Parliament on the administration of the Freedom of Information Act.
The Government already publishes more unsolicited information online on its website than ever before. This includes detailed statistical information across many areas of public administration. The three departments which will commence this pilot, will additionally be making available a publication scheme on-line which sets out as much information as possible relating to their respective functions. Those intending to submit a request should check and establish whether the information that they seek is already publically available elsewhere. Clearly, information which is already in the public domain cannot be the subject matter of a freedom of information request.
Moreover, the mechanism for answers to press questions, which are received and replied to on a daily basis, and that for answers to Parliamentary questions, expected to now continue on a monthly basis, will remain unchanged and unaffected by this legislation
The Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia, who took the legislation through Parliament, explained:
“It needs to be understood that this Act and the administrative practices created under it are not set in stone. Far from it. The Information Commissioner will be monitoring the application of the legislation throughout, including during this first phase, and the Government will be open to addressing any issues or concerns that may surface as we move along what is a new pathway for Gibraltar.
“The Government has made it abundantly clear, in Parliament and elsewhere, that we intend to proceed slowly and with caution in order not to repeat the same mistakes that were made elsewhere when this type of legislation was first introduced. A major consideration will be to ensure that the public sector is fully aware of and becomes accustomed to the practical procedures and the requirements of the law before the obligations it contains are extended to them.
“Therefore this is an important first step forward but there is still some way to go. There were a number of factors outside the control of the Government which delayed the legislative and administrative procedures for the creation and implementation of this legal framework but gladly we have now reached the point of commencement. I am very grateful to all those who have contributed to this, in particular the GLO, the GRA, the staff in my office, the Government’s digital services and colleagues on both sides of Parliament.”