Archive for the ‘Official Information Act’ Category

OIA lessons for the media

February 28, 2010

Dominion Post columnist Tracy Watkins has an interesting column that explains how the details of spending on ministerial credit cards were made public. The information was released following an Official Information Act (OIA) request made by the media. Watkins explains that on this occasion copies of ministerial credit card statements were provided to the media. Previously it seems that the media were only provided with summaries of overall spending:

Requests under the Official Information Act for ministers’ credit card expenses have been made before. But what was new about this week’s release was the manner in which the information was provided. Minister’s credit card statements were supplied in their unvarnished form. Identical requests under the former government garnered nothing like the same level of disclosure; the information was supplied in table form, with totals ascribed to each minister and little more. The only checks that could be made were phone calls to individual ministers, asking them for an explanation as to why they had run up a particularly large bill in comparison to others.

Commenting on the article, David Farrar suggests that the Dominion Post could reveal the exact wording of the request so that others may use it in future.

While that is a helpful suggestion, as far as I can tell the media (or anyone else) could previously have requested copies of ministerial credit card statements. That is because the Official Information Act 1982 allows the person requesting official information to request that the information be provided in a certain format.

Section 16(1) of the OIA says that where information is requested that is comprised in a document, the information can be made available in a number of ways, including:

(a) by giving the person a reasonable opportunity to inspect the document; or

(b) by providing the person with a copy of the document; or

(e) by giving an excerpt or summary of the contents; or

It would seem from Watkins’ column that in the past Internal Affairs chose to respond to requests for details of ministerial spending by providing a summary of spending.

However, section 16(2) of the OIA provides that subject to a provision about the deletion of information where there is a good reason for withholding it, the Minister or Crown organisation responding to the request “shall make the information available in the way preferred by the person requesting it”. The information can only be provided in a different format if providing the information in the way requested would (section 16(2)):

(a) impair efficient administration; or

(b) be contrary to any legal duty of the department or Minister of the Crown or organisation in respect of the document; or

(c) prejudice the interests protected by section 6 or section 7 or section 9 and (in the case of the interests protected by section 9) there is no countervailing public interest.

I think that it would be difficult to rely on any of those grounds to refuse releasing copies of the actual ministerial credit card statements.

I wonder if media organisations previously said that they wanted copies of ministerial credit card statements or if they simply asked for details of ministerial spending. I suspect they may just have asked for details of spending. Perhaps after this incident they will be encouraged to ask for original documents more often when making future OIA requests.