September 24, 2020

The importance of freedom

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His Excellency the Governor, Duncan Taylor

Information Commissioner, Jennifer Dilbert gave a special presentation on the work of her Office to MLA’s and Chief Officers of government departments, to mark International Right to Know Day.

“We are joining over 90 countries worldwide in celebrating this day…so we feel we are very honoured that this is taking place in Cayman where we’ve had our legislation in place now for over three years,” she said.

H.E. The Governor, Mr. Duncan Taylor gave the Right to Know Day address: “Why is freedom of information important? It leads to better government and to better services to the public,” he said.

“My very first job as a young diplomat in the foreign office was in Havana, so I saw first hand what a society is like where there is absolutely no freedom of information at all.

“Where information is tightly controlled, and used by the state against citizens in the state, it’s a very grim picture… what happens there is the state can pretty much do what they want, and you don’t have citizens having power to bring influence to bear.

Deputy Information Commissioner, Jan Liebaers

Mr. Taylor went on to use the example of the uprising in the Middle East dubbed the Arab Spring as a further example of both the power of information. In this case promulgated not through the government but through technology, and the demand for more open forms of government.

Mr. Taylor then used the recent expenses scandal involving UK government ministers as another example.

“The information became available only because of the leak of a disc containing lots of information to the Daily Telegraph,” he said.

“As we read stories of what’s been going on and how people have been manipulating the expenses system for their own benefit in parliament, we were more and more incredulous as to what had been going on…it seems to me that in reviewing the system of expenses in Westminster the best way to make sure it doesn’t happen again is to make it (the expense claims information) all available.

“In my career as a diplomat we would refer to what we would call the ‘Daily Mail’ test…which is means when you want to do something such as spend some money or going on a trip, the Daily Mail test would have been: How would this look if it was written in the Daily Mail? Would I feel comfortable? …Would I feel a bit embarrassed?” he said.

Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert

Mr. Taylor then turned to the way local customs and culture have been challenged to adapt to FOI: added: “We had a lot of people sending in request and a sort of resistance to providing that information because its quite a significant change. It’s a change to our habits and to
our culture.”

The way forward, he said, was to embrace a culture of pro-active disclosure within government departments:

“We put that information up on the website or make that information available automatically so people don’t have to go asking questions.”

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