I am glad that Minister of Health, Dr Fenton Ferguson, changed his mind and is now going to release to the public the long-withheld health facilities audit report. It is the right decision and should have been his position from the start.
But I have some concerns.
I am concerned that the Minister initially felt it was acceptable to withhold the full report from the public, as this doesn’t fit within the access to information paradigm which is supposed to operate in Jamaica.
I am concerned that the individuals and organizations (including media houses) who made applications for the audit report using the provisions of the Access to Information (ATI) Act hadn’t received the report as of Monday (Nov 2). Applicants have said they were beyond the original 30 day period and were at or approaching the end of the 30 day extension that can be requested under the Act. The reason the Ministry of Health (MOH) gave for the delay was that it had asked the Attorney General (AG) for legal advice regarding releasing the report.
A number of the individuals and organizations said that the MOH wrote to them on Monday saying that it was still awaiting the AG’s response, and so wouldn’t be releasing the document at that time. The MOH also advised applicants that they could appeal the decision, using Part 5 of the Act.
So basically, as of Monday the MOH was not prepared to release the report to those who had applied for it using the designated law for this purpose.
And then on Tuesday morning (Nov 3), the Minister reversed his decision and said that he would be releasing the audit report after all.
What changed the Minister’s mind? Consultations, said the Minister at a public function on Tuesday. Consultations with whom and of what nature?
Was the Minister’s decision to release the audit report based on the principles and provisions of the law, the ATI Act? Or was it the public pressure? The mounting political pressure? The intervention of the private sector organizations? The continued media scrutiny? The likelihood that the full report had already been leaked & the details were beginning to make their way into the public sphere?
So where does this leave the ATI Act? What happens when there is no public, political, private sector or media interest and pressure? When it is just you the citizen, a Ministry of Government and the Access to Information Act? We don’t know how long the appeal process would have taken or what the outcome would have been. But we do know it would have been a lot longer than 24 hours and would have fit the delay-and-frustrate model far better than the public outcry did.
I am concerned that more than 10 years after the ATI Act came into being, Ministers and Ministries do not respond as quickly as they ought to, given the objects and provisions of the Act.