Ministry asks $30 per minute for data, despite Brison’s order to drop ATIP fees

As a reasonably heavy user of IRCC data, that released on Open Data as well as specific requests, I understand and appreciate both the cost recovery (takes time and resources) and public interest aspects (data helps inform discussion and debate).

But $30 per additional minute of search time? Hard to justify on cost recovery given it is only staff time that should be counted: $100 for the first 10 minutes and $30 per minute thereafter is $1,600 per hour!

The federal immigration ministry is asking up to $30 per minute to process a public request for immigration data, despite the Liberal government’s directive last year to waive extra fees for access to information requests and commitment to making government information open by default.

One advocate of government transparency said the $30-per-minute proposed charge thwarts the intent of Treasury Board President Scott Brison’s fee-waiving directive, and another said such fees could work as a “deterrent” to members of the public looking for government information.

The request related to information that factored into a change in the government’s visa policy that allowed the passage of Canada’s trade deal with Europe.

Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada officials initially declined to make public the rate at which visa applications from Bulgaria and Romania were refused, unless the requester—The Hill Times—agreed to pay $100 for a 10-minute search of the department’s records, plus $30 for each additional minute it would take IRCC employees to find the data.

Mr. Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.) instructed all government entities last year to waive fees associated with access to information requests—used by businesses, media, and the general public to obtain government information—beyond an initial $5 filing fee, as part of the government’s transparency platform.

The Hill Times used the Access to Information Act to request the most recent three-year visa refusal rate for Romania, Bulgaria, and Mexico, countries for which the Liberal government has scrapped or has pledged to scrap visa requirements since it came to power in 2015. The government has been criticized, including by the opposition Conservatives, for deciding to drop those requirements to grease the wheels of international relations, despite evidence that in the months leading up to the visa-lifting decisions none of the three countries satisfied some of the government’s formal criteria for eliminating a visa, including high rates of refused visa and asylum claims.

The immigration ministry provided some data for Mexico, but none for Romania and Bulgaria, citing a clause in the Access to Information Act that says the access law does not apply to “material available for purchase by the public.” The ministry’s response also cited regulations, specific to that department, which allow it to charge large sums for “statistical data that have not been published by the department.”

In effect, the data—which should be at the fingertips of decision makers in IRCC—was considered to fall outside of the scope of the Access to Information Act because the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations allow the department to charge money for data searches.

“It’s obviously an illegitimate interpretation of the act,” said Toby Mendel, executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy in Nova Scotia, and an advocate for government transparency.

The Access to Information Act clause excluding material available for purchase “means material that you are selling, like a book,” not government data, said Mr. Mendel, who called it a “dishonest” interpretation of the act by the department.

The three-year visa refusal rate is a key figure used by the government to decide whether or not citizens of a particular country need to apply for a visa before travelling to Canada. Canada decided last year to waive the visa requirement for Romania and Bulgaria by December 2017 as part of what is widely seen to be a quid-pro-quo for support from those two countries for supporting the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe.

The government has not disclosed the latest visa refusal rate for those countries, but an April 2015 report from the European Commission, citing Canadian statistics, said the refusal rates in the first half of 2014 had been 16 per cent for Bulgaria and 13.8 per cent for Romania, which made hitting the target of four per cent over three years “quite difficult.”

…The fee starts at $100 for the first 10 minutes departmental employees spend searching for the requested information in their databases. After that, it increases to $30 per minute.

After being initially contacted by The Hill Times on April 20, the immigration department’s media relations team promised to provide the visa refusal rate for Romania and Bulgaria and respond to a series of questions about the fees charged under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations in relation to requests under the Access to Information Act. The department had not responded by filing deadline May 2.

Source: Ministry asks $30 per minute for data, despite Brison’s order to drop ATIP fees – The Hill Times – The Hill Times

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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