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Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board, speaks in the House of Commons in Ottawa on March 7, 2016.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

The Liberal government is immediately waiving all fees associated with access to information requests — apart from the $5 application charge.

It is also telling federal agencies to make information available in the format of the requester's choice, such as handy data spreadsheets, wherever possible.

The measures are included in an interim directive on openness from Treasury Board President Scott Brison.

Brison told a Commons committee studying the access law Thursday that the steps represent early progress on Liberal commitments for Access to Information Act reform.

He said the openness directive — an update of a 2014 document — is guided by the principle that government information belongs to the people it serves and should be open by default.

"By providing access to government information, the Act serves the important public interest of enabling public debate on the conduct of government institutions, strengthening the accountability of government to its citizens," the directive reads.

"The Act should be administered with these core principles in mind."

The Access to Information Act allows people who pay $5 to ask for everything from expense reports and audits to correspondence and briefing notes. Departments are supposed to answer within 30 days or provide valid reasons why they need more time.

However, the system has been widely criticized as slow, out of date and riddled with loopholes that allow agencies to withhold information rather than release it. The law has not been substantially updated since it took effect almost 33 years ago.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation welcomed Brison's moves as a step towards "increasing government accountability."

Prolific access law user Ken Rubin, long an advocate of reform, called the measures "smoke and mirrors."

The government should have abolished the $5 application fee, not just charges levied to search for records or reproduce them for requesters, he said.

In 2014-15, federal institutions collected $367,654 in fees from requesters — $311,486 of that coming from application charges. It means the new fee policy, if in place last year, would have saved requesters a total of $56,168.

A key court ruling had already had already limited the imposition of fees, and this measure "should help finish the job," said Fred Vallance-Jones, who teaches journalism at University of King's College in Halifax.

"This is a good first step. Fees can be a huge barrier to access, and Canadians have already paid to collect and store the information," he said. "They shouldn't have to pay to see it as well."

Vallance-Jones, who often requests data, was heartened by the move to ensure it is released in the format requested. Federal agencies have been known to disclose electronic spreadsheet data in paper format, making it almost useless.

But he noted the new wording says agencies would not have to comply if it were "unreasonable or impracticable" to do so — and it remains to be seen what that will mean in practice.

The Liberals plan to introduce legislation late this year or in early 2017 to implement several other changes to the law based on election campaign commitments. They promise a full review of the Access to Information Act once the initial bill passes and every five years thereafter.

"This Act is out of date," Brison told MPs on the committee. "We never want to be in this place again."

Brison said the next wave of measures would:

  • Give the information commissioner, an ombudsman for requesters, the power to order release of government information — something she cannot do now;
  • Ensure the act applies appropriately to the offices of the prime minister and his cabinet members, as well as administrative institutions that support Parliament and the courts;
  • Address the issue of frivolous and vexatious requests so that the purpose of the act is respected;
  • Improve government performance reporting on Access to Information.