The Liberal government says it is open to narrowing provisions of its Access to Information bill that many say would allow federal agencies to refuse to answer valid access requests.
Treasury Board President Scott Brison says the government is also willing to let the information commissioner be a watchdog over new requirements that ministers' offices and other institutions proactively release records such as briefing notes and expense reports.
The pronouncements from Brison represent the first solid indication the Liberals will permit amendments to the much-criticized bill when clause-by-clause review begins next Monday at a House of Commons committee.
"We want to ensure that this modernization of Access to Information strengthens the regime," Brison said during the Commons question period Thursday.
The bill would allow an agency to reject a request unless the applicant stated the type of record being sought, the subject matter and the time-frame in which the documents were created.
Critics, including information commissioner Suzanne Legault, say the criteria are unreasonably specific and could lead to rejection of worthy requests for federal files.
The bill would also give agencies the power to decline to act on requests considered vexatious or made in bad faith.
Brison said the government would support requiring departments to seek approval from the commissioner before refusing to process a request.
He acknowledged concerns that the bill as drafted could hinder the ability of Indigenous groups to request archival records needed to settle historical claims.
"We value our relationship with Indigenous Peoples and we want to ensure that we do nothing that would impede their work in terms of settling these treaties," Brison said after question period.
The access law allows applicants who pay $5 to ask for a wide range of government documents, but it has been denounced for years as clumsy and slow.
The Liberals tout their bill as the first overhaul of the law in 34 years. However, pro-transparency advocates and Legault, an ombudsman for requesters, have called the legislation a step backwards.
In their election platform, the Liberals promised to extend the access law to the offices of the prime minister, cabinet members, senators, MPs and administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts.
Instead, the bill would require these offices and institutions to regularly release certain types of records, such as hospitality and travel expenses and contract information.
Legault says she would have no power to ensure such releases were timely and complete because the disclosure scheme falls outside the bounds of the access law.
Brison said Thursday the government supports giving her office such authority, and suggested it was the federal intention all along. "That would be more of a clarification, in fact. It was never intended that it should be any other way."
New Democrat MP Murray Rankin said Thursday his party would propose 28 amendments to the bill in committee, including one that would scrap the $5 application fee.
Committee vice-chairman Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said members want to ensure the legislation is "a step forward," and he indicated proposed changes would be taken seriously.
"Our job is to hear the concerns from the testimony – and there were real concerns raised – and to make sure we're improving the bill as much as we can," the Liberal MP said in an interview. "You're going to see us do that, I think."