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OIA and the Department of Corrections

By Steven | March 18, 2009

You might have seen me on One News last Friday, commenting on the Department of Corrections’ response to TVNZ’s Official Information Act request. I was pretty critical of the department, who had provided minimal information. Either they genuinely didn’t know the answers, which was mind-boggling, I said, or they were lying about it.

TVNZ used my raciest quote, and I guess that’s to be expected. But here’s a fuller version of my comments.

Lisa Owen from TVNZ had asked Corrections a range of fairly specific questions, including things like:

These are admirably specific requests, and the prison ought to have been able to cope with them easily. Instead, Corrections replied in each case that responding would require “substantial collation and research”, and suggesting she consider refining her questions still further. Now, I’ve seen some extremely wide OIA requests. But this wasn’t one of them – or at least, the questions I’ve noted above weren’t. They are precisely tailored – aimed at one prison, over relatively short time periods, seeking clearly particularised and not extensive information. If Corrections couldn’t readily answer that request, they are surely breaching the Public Records Act, which requires them to create and maintain full and accurate records of their affairs, in accorance with normal, prudent business practice, in an accessible form so as to be able to be used for subsequent reference.

It seems to me that Corrections were also in breach of the new rules about invoking the “substantial collation and research” exception – they are supposed to first consider extending the timeframe, imposing a charge or consulting with the requester about narrowing the request. There’s no evidence that they did.

Corrections did make an interesting point. Owen had asked for her request to be treated with urgency. The material couldn’t be assembled, they said, within “the urgent period you specified”. In fact, Owen hadn’t specified any particular time-period. Requests for urgency can be made under the OIA and reasons for urgency should be given (Owen didn’t give any). As there are no consequences under the OIA for agencies who don’t treat a request with urgency even when asked, most usually ignore the urgency request. At least, I haven’t seen any evidence that anyone processes any such requests more quickly. But neither have I seen any that use such a request as Corrections did here: as an excuse for not providing the information.

Let me cut Corrections a small amount of slack. I don’t think they were lying. I suspect their record-keeping practices are a large part of the problem, and that comes through in their response to Owen. They are probably not resourced to dig out this sort of information. They did provide some specific information in response to some parts of Owen’s request. And parts of her request were pretty broad (she asked a total of 16 questions, and at the end of the request sought all documents relevant to them).

But I don’t think Corrections worked very hard to give her the information she asked for. I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t put their fingers on at least some information that fell within the terms of her requests (have they not briefed the Minister on drug tests or weapons seizures, for instance?). I think they were applying the OIA in an obstructive way because they didn’t want to release the information, and (like many other departments) they conveniently ignore the Ombudsmen’s frequent reminders that processing these requests is part of their core function. I think there’s an unhealthy culture of secrecy at Corrections, which only makes proper compliance with the OIA all the more important.

Topics: Official Information Act | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “OIA and the Department of Corrections”

  1. Blog Bits | Kiwiblog Says:
    March 19th, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    […] Steven Price lambasts the same Corrections Department for their failure to be able to provide basic information under the OIA. They could not even answer the question “How many positive drug tests were there at Auckland prison in the last year” claiming that answering this would require substantial collation or research. This suggests they are either incompetent or lying. […]

  2. Stephen Franks Says:
    March 20th, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Whats to be done about this kind of wiful defiance of the law Steven. I came across plenty of it in other agencies, Police in particular while I was an MP.
    I have a current instance of wilful breach of duty under another law inconvenient to the department concerned.

    I suspect that part of what we are seeing is a consequence of general over-reach in the law. Neither the Privacy Act nor the OIA sufficiently respect the need for confidentiality of some kinds of records. There are indadequate sanctions against people who cause pointless trouble and expense in their use of such laws.

    We all know there are laws we cannot comply with if we are to live with dignity, and others that we hope almost no one applies for the sake of commonsense (the anti-smacking law being an example).m In securities law people can be bankrupted with liabilities for conduct set at a standard few politicians could aspire to, directors are faced with the choice between breaching company law or employment law every day, Police sweat blood to catch offenders only to see them back at it the next day.

    Is it possible that we will see increasing disdain for law, until there is a determination to pass no law that is without practical means and likelihood of even0handed enforcement.

  3. OIA enforcement « New Zealand Official Information Blog Says:
    March 24th, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    […] for information under the OIA Stephen Price has a post up on enforcing the OIA, preceded by the example of the Department of […]

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