Legislative Session: Fourth Session, 39th Parliament
COMMITTEE A BLUES
This is a DRAFT TRANSCRIPT ONLY of debate in one sitting of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. This transcript is subject to corrections, and will be replaced by the final, official Hansard report. Use of this transcript, other than in the legislative precinct, is not protected by parliamentary privilege, and public attribution of any of the debate as transcribed here could entail legal liability.
PROCEEDINGS IN THE
DOUGLAS FIR ROOM
Committee of Supply
ESTIMATES: MINISTRY OF
LABOUR, CITIZENS' SERVICES
AND OPEN GOVERNMENT
The House in Committee of Supply (Section A); J. McIntyre in the chair.
The committee met at 2:31 p.m.
On Vote 38: ministry operations, $66,974,000.
Chair: Minister, do you have an opening statement?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I do. I'd like to begin by introducing the senior staff who are with me here today. I'm accompanied by Kim Henderson, the Deputy Minister of Labour, Citizens' Services and Open Government; as well as Dave Nikolejsin, the associate deputy minister and chief information officer for the province of British Columbia; Brad Grundy, the assistant deputy minister and executive financial officer, corporate services division of the ministry; and Bobbi Plecas, the assistant deputy minister, logistics and business services division, Shared Services B.C.
I'm pleased to introduce the budget estimates for the Ministry of Labour, Citizens' Services and Open Government. The ministry is committed to providing British Columbians with safe workplaces and easy access to excellent government services.
The Labour side of the ministry supports a modern, stable and safe work environment for families, employees, employers, unions and businesses in British Columbia.
The Citizens' Services and Open Government side of the ministry unites the responsibilities for service delivery, technology and access to information. Open government is a major focus for the ministry, and in the upcoming year we'll continue to put open government front and centre.
Shared Services B.C. delivers the infrastructure and services that the government needs to operate — buildings, technology, procurement and supplies. In addition, effectively managing the provincially owned real estate portfolio will remain an important part of the work of Shared Services B.C.
Government communications and public engagement will continue to lead and coordinate external communications with a goal of engaging with and informing citizens about government policies, programs and services.
We've built a budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year that supports the mandates of all parts of the ministry. The ministry will operate with a net budget of $548.586 million. Along with the rest of government, we remain committed to meeting our fiscal targets during the upcoming year.
This ministry is broad in scope, and I look forward to taking action on the opportunities that fall under my responsibility. I would now be happy to answer questions about the budget estimates.
D. Routley: Can the minister please explain to me how her budget stands now, as opposed to last year, and what the major changes have been?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: In the 2011-12 estimates last year it was $565.722 million. Restated, as per the blue book this year, it's $542.824 million.
The main explanation for this change is the transfer out of funding for B.C. Ambulance Service. The shared service, which is the cost, has gone to the Ministry of Health. That's $19.555 million.
There are some other smaller transfers to other ministries, but that's the main reason for the change. The total of all those changes is $22.898 million.
D. Routley: What other transfers in and out of the ministry have there been?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The others include a transfer out of mandatory operating equipment funding back to ministries. Those ministries include the Ministry of Attorney General, which is now the Ministry of Justice; MCFD; and the Ministry of Agriculture. That's $2.5 million.
Transfer out of public service initiative to the Public Service Agency, $1.436 million. Transfer out of funding to Jobs, Tourism and Innovation for office space costs to replace London House is $30,000. Transfer in funding for board resourcing and development office from the Office of the Premier to our ministry, which is $447,000. And the transfer of two information technology staff from Forests, Lands and Natural Resources to support the open data initiative — again, that's a transfer in — $176,000.
D. Routley: What exactly was involved in the transfer from the Premier's office?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The board resourcing office was transferred from the Premier's office to the ministry.
D. Routley: The mandatory operating equipment — would this in any way change the role of Shared Services in the potential sale of assets and their involvement in that initiative, as described in the budget?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: No, it would not.
D. Routley: The transfer of public service — is the entire involvement of the Citizens' Services Ministry with public service ended?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Yes.
D. Routley: Have there been any large staffing changes in the ministry, or can the minister describe any staffing changes that have occurred in the last year?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The largest change was about 20 staff, and that would be the change with the public service initiative.
D. Routley: In management what changes have there been?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The chief operating officer of Shared Services B.C. — that position has been eliminated.
D. Routley: What specific changes have there been at the senior bureaucratic level in the ministry as a whole?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I'd just like to take a moment to introduce another senior staff member who's joined us, Athana Mentzelopoulos, the deputy minister of government communications and public engagement.
There are two new assistant deputy ministers in the ministry, Bobbi Plecas and Jay Schlosar. New deputy minister at government communications and public engagement — that's Athana Mentzelopoulos. The deputy minister left and the Deputy for Citizens' Services assumed the role of Deputy Minister of Labour as well, Kim Henderson. There are two new assistant deputy ministers at government communications and public engagement, John Paul Fraser and Kelly Gleeson.
D. Routley: Can the minister explain the duties of Ms. Mentzelopoulos for me, please?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The deputy is responsible for overall government communications and public engagement. There are staff from GCPE in each of the ministries, and the deputy is responsible for overseeing their work. The ministry has responsibility for communications and also for public engagement. An example of that would be the public engagement with respect to the jobs plan, so interacting with the public in various different ways.
D. Routley: I'll have more questions about that later.
The name Jay Schlosar has popped up here, there and everywhere in the estimates of this ministry over the last three years. Can you explain the current duties of Jay Schlosar?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Mr. Schlosar is responsible for a division called strategic initiatives. This was formerly called the business and workplace transformation. Strategic initiatives develops corporate strategies, training and support across all government ministries in the following areas: the area of open government, which includes open data, open information, our citizen-centric web services and citizen engagement; as well, the area of corporate data management and web services; and lastly, integrated planning and policy development.
D. Routley: That's a very broad title. The last time I asked about this gentleman's duties they were more restricted to the public engagement on the social media side. What was the reason for this expansion of duties?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: This gentleman's role has changed in the ministry. He previously had a different job with a different job description. As of this past fall he became the assistant deputy minister, so he has a different list of duties now.
D. Routley: His duties range from what I would understand to be government public engagement duties around communications but then also data management duties, which would seem to be more in the realm of FOI or data archiving management of records. What is the focus of Mr. Schlosar's duties — the main focus?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: It's true that it is a diverse group of duties, but really the main focus is to support our government's commitment to open government. Our commitment to open government is…. There are a number of different programs, as I've mentioned briefly.
Open data, which is the Data B.C. website. This is new to government, where we have a catalogue of machine-readable data from all of our ministries across government. It can be licensed, reused and repurposed by the public. It helps them to inform their decisions and public dialogue, and also for them to develop new tools and applications, if they wish.
Open Information is a new website and policy that allows the proactive disclosure of general requests that have been provided through our Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. These are, as I think the member may be aware, available 72 hours after they're provided to applicants, when it's appropriate to release them.
We've also got the routine release of monthly summaries of expenses incurred by ministers and deputy ministers.
The other area of open government is the citizen-centric web. This is a new approach to government web design that better connects citizens to the services they need.
So the main focus would be on open government, but it is in several different areas.
D. Routley: Mr. Schlosar's duties under former Premier Gordon Campbell, as I understand it, was to review FOI requests. It was often a question of the Premier's office's role in determining what FOI requests would be held back or released. Now his focus seems to be directed more towards — at least as the minister has described — open government. It seems a massive shift in focus.
What particular area of the open government initiative will Mr. Schlosar be responsible for, or is it the whole thing?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Just to be clear, he became the acting assistant deputy in the fall, and more recently he is actually the assistant deputy minister in this area. With that comes the responsibility for the entire file, all the open government initiatives, working, obviously, with the staff in this area.
D. Routley: What role would he have, say, for example, in the IBM issue — the ongoing issue of the IBM FOI requests from BCFIPA?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: He does not have a role in that area.
D. Routley: In 2004 BCFIPA, the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, requested a copy of the IBM workplace services agreement, which is a $300 million contract, and it was denied. The OIPC ruled in 2008 and again in 2010 that the government must release the contract in full. The government has continued since then to fight that release in court, appealing all the way to the Supreme Court.
I would like to ask the minister what the costs have been to the taxpayer of that fight not to release the IBM contract in full.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: This is in the Ministry of Attorney General's budget. There was on the public record a couple of weeks ago the amount…. At the time, the amount that was quoted was $124,000 to date. But the member opposite would need to canvass this with the Ministry of Attorney General to get the exact amount. It's not within our budget.
D. Routley: Since this dispute over the IBM workplace services agreement began in 2004, other alternative service delivery contracts have been released. How many, and of what value?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We consistently post contract summaries, but the only contract that government has proactively posted was the recently awarded contract with TELUS. The value of that contract was approximately $1 billion over ten years.
D. Routley: My estimation is that since that time the government has been forced to release a total of $1.8 billion in other alternative service delivery contracts in total, in that time. That's probably a bit of an estimation, based on what we could find.
Since there have been other contracts released in full and their value exceeds the IBM contract, what makes the IBM contract so special to government that government is willing to wage an eight-year campaign not to release its contents in full?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Government has released almost all of the 535-page contract with IBM for workplace support services. We certainly respect the orders of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, and we consider a judicial review, as we have done in this case, only if a fundamental principle in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act has been brought into question.
Government is seeking judicial review on a very specific set of information within the contract to protect government's IT security assets. These would be server names and locations, network addresses and specific software requirements. No other portions of the contract are at issue. Of the 535 pages released, there are five lines of text and specific information from several columns of information that have been withheld.
We are committed to the principle of openness and accountability, and we're taking every step to ensure that the protection of privacy is being achieved while at the same time meeting the requirements of the FOIPPA act. Security, however, is paramount, and we're performing due diligence in the public interest by protecting a small amount of information within the contract that should be withheld for security reasons.
D. Routley: It seems difficult to accept these answers year after year, when the reasons for withholding information have shifted and the efforts to avoid sharing the full contract have been so longstanding and so expensive. The reasons given to the court and to the OIPC have changed over the years.
Really, I think there are a number of stakeholders in the province and the media and British Columbia taxpayers who are shaking their heads and wondering why at this late date the government is willing to again engage in a resistance to the order continually given both by the OIPC and by the courts of the province to fully release the contract.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I have not had the pleasure of participating in the estimates for this particular ministry in the past. But what I can say to the member opposite is that security is of paramount importance. There is a very small amount of information in this 535-page contract which we believe needs to be kept back. There are security issues at play here, and that is why we have taken the rather unusual step of seeking judicial review.
D. Routley: Has the minister made recommendations to the government Finance Committee, which finances the OIPC office, to increase the funding to the office given these continual court challenges?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: That is not the role of the minister. The Finance Committee makes their determinations, and it's not the role of the minister to direct that committee.
D. Routley: The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia is the most litigated office in Canada, according to the officer herself. Her concern around the bill, which amended the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act last year, was that it would lead to continued and increased challenges of a more detailed, complex and specialized nature, and that these costs would only increase.
So it seems that as the ministry has a role in fulfilling the Premier's commitment to open government and has the role of facilitating the mechanisms of disclosure, the minister might support the officer's requests to the government for increased funding. The officer has made it clear publicly, and to me in conversation, that the demands on the office are increasing and that the complexity of the demands is increasing
Her need for resources will likewise increase, and so much of what has been promised in terms of open government and fulfilment of promise depends on that office being able to fully fulfil its mandate.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The member opposite has made a comment about the office being the most litigated. We don't have information about that, but what I can say is that as a province, as a provincial government, we receive more freedom-of-information requests by far than any other jurisdiction in Canada. Our legislation covers the most public bodies of any jurisdiction in Canada, over 2,000. It is the most extensive in Canada.
We also have the most open government in Canada. It's not a competition, but we are leading in terms of the provincial governments across Canada. I'm very proud of that, and I think everyone in the ministry is.
With respect to the legislation, there was extensive consultation with the commissioner, which was very much valued on our side. There was extensive consultation, and she was supportive of the new roles and responsibilities she would have when the amendments were passed in the last legislative session.
I want to conclude by saying how much we value the good and constructive working relationship we have with the commissioner and the valuable work she does on the part of British Columbians.
D. Routley: Well, last year the Canadian Association of Journalists ranked B.C.'s freedom-of-information performance as tenth in the country, and so claiming to be the most open government…. It may or may not be the case, but in that measurement, certainly, it wasn't the case.
Does the minister believe that open data is equivalent to facilitating freedom of information?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I'd just like to talk a little bit about the Information and Privacy Commissioner's report to us, to our government — her report card on the timeliness of government's access-to-information responses from April 1, 2010, to March 31, 2011.
She noted that our government responded to FOI requests 93 percent on time, which was a 31 percent improvement over the 2008 figure of 71 percent. Last year she noted that government made "extraordinary efforts to meet its timeliness obligations." In her 2011 report she noted that this government "has done even better."
Given our success, the commissioner has actually stated that she will not produce an annual report on timeliness for 2011-2012. She's going to look at other areas.
Now, with respect to the question from the member about open data versus open information: how does this tie in with freedom of information?
These are all part of our open government initiative. The open data is the provision of government data sets from across all ministries. There are, I believe, over 2,700 presently. That is not about freedom of information fulfilling requests that come to us, but it certainly is providing a lot of government information that's freely available in a searchable fashion with an open data licence. That's available for British Columbians.
On the Open Information website is where we are posting FOI requests within 72 hours of them being provided to the requester, as long as it is appropriate for them to be posted — in other words, as long as there's not personal information that should be held back.
D. Routley: Well, I guess the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner works within the laws regarding information release of this province set down by this minister's government. It is the only government in Canada which allows 30 working days to fulfil a release, rather than 30 calendar days. As a result, it skews the numbers.
In fact, the newspaper audit said that it's very difficult to make any comparison because of that difference in the baseline. And if you were to make that the standard, as it is throughout Canada, then the B.C. Liberal government only fulfils that mandate 13 percent of the time. If you extend it beyond 30 calendar days, which would be overdue in any other province, 88 percent of the time the B.C. Liberal government is overdue. So I guess it's all how you measure.
Of course, the Information Commissioner can only respond to the performance of the government within its own rules. But the government changed the rules, as it so often does. It's a little bit like too many speeding tickets, so we'll raise the speed limit.
Is there any thought given by the minister to moving towards the generally accepted standard in Canada — and the standard that used to be in place in British Columbia before the Liberals changed it — of 30 calendar days rather than 30 working days?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I did mention in my previous answer that here in British Columbia we receive more FOI requests than any other jurisdiction in Canada. I've also mentioned that the on-time completion rate for responses to access-to-information requests was 93 percent in 2010-11, which is up from 71 percent. So a considerable effort is being made.
The number of requests is increasing substantially. The number of FOI requests received by government in 2010-11 increased by almost 20 percent from 2008-2009. What I was trying to get for the member are comparisons going back farther than that. I don't have all that information at hand.
But certainly, the processing time for requests is decreasing. In 2008 the average processing time was 35 days. In the last fiscal year it was 22 days, although we're getting more and more requests every year —substantially more requests every year. That trend has been continuing, in fact, since we began our open government initiative.
This is not unique to us. This happened in the United States as well. But when we began that initiative, the number of requests began to increase even more. So we are decreasing the number of days it takes us to respond, in spite of the fact that there's been a considerable acceleration in the number of requests.
D. Routley: I understand, through work on the committee which reviewed the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, that a large percentage of the difference in requests in B.C. can be attributed to the fact that we have a public auto insurance corporation. I'd like the minister to tell me what percentage of overall freedom-of-information requests is coming from ICBC or is directed towards ICBC.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: With respect to auto insurance, that is not part of core government. In fact, the numbers I referred to don't include that. We don't process them. I was referring to core government. The statement I made about British Columbia receiving more FOI requests than any other jurisdiction — it's per capita. That's something that happens per capita.
But what I can tell the member is that with respect to the substantial increase we've had with general FOI requests, in fact, for core government, political party requests accounted for over 85 percent of the increase we received in 2011-12.
D. Routley: Okay. How many FOI requests in the past year, or what percentage, have been directed towards the Ministry of Environment?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We thought we might have that exact number with us. We don't, but we should be able to provide it shortly.
D. Routley: There were requests made for information to the Ministry of Environment pertaining to Enbridge Pipelines. Some of the requests have been fulfilled, but the names of other governments involved in those requests, or information pertaining to other governments, was withheld. What was the reason for withholding the information around the identity of other governments?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: To the member opposite, with respect to his previous question, the Ministry of Environment received 252 FOI requests in 2010-2011.
With respect to the other question, in terms of the specifics, I believe the member would have to canvass it with the ministry who handled the request. What I can tell the member, just speaking generally, is that we have a policy that we sever the personal names of the requesters so that we're not publicizing personal information. That's a general policy. As to the specifics, I think the member would have to canvass that with the Ministry of Environment.
D. Routley: In terms of the policy issues at stake in those particular requests, the names of individuals were not severed. The names of individuals within government and within public bodies that were petitioned for information were not severed — only the names of other governments.
How does policy explain the severing of the names of other governments — these are not individuals — be it foreign governments, local governments or First Nation governments, when it comes to requesting information about Enbridge Pipelines?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: In the case of public servants that information is publicly available, so people who are public servants in the province of British Columbia — their names would not be severed. In the case of the requester from an outside government or someone from outside of the province, it's that information that's considered to be personal information — the personal information of the requester. That's the information that generally the policy is to sever it, to not include it.
D. Routley: Understanding that it would be policy to sever the name, keep the individual anonymous who makes a request, why would it be policy to sever the name of the government that is making a request?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: It's my understanding that in some cases there can be things such as in section 16 of the act, harms to other governments — that revealing that kind of information could potentially cause such harm.
But as I mentioned previously, it's really not possible for us to talk about the specifics of the request to the Ministry of Environment. The member would have to canvass it with that ministry.
We don't know the information. We can hypothesize, but it's not particularly helpful. All I can say is that it could possibly be that some part of the act, such as harm to another government, was taken into consideration.
D. Routley: One of the troubling indicators in the timeliness report was an increase in the "no records released" response. That has increased by about 5 percent. I wonder if the minister could explain why there would be an increase in "no records" responses.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We certainly appreciated the commissioner's review into the number of requests that were closed as "no records released." The findings show that a significant number of the "no records released" responses were attributable to requests from law firms to the Solicitor General concerning residential school claims.
The commissioner provided to us a recommendation as to how we could more accurately categorize these requests. We adopted her recommendation, and we began implementing it immediately.
She also found there does not appear to be a significant increase in the number of "no records released" responses issued from any particular ministry. She noted a 4 percent increase in the number of "no records released" responses in the absence of the residential school requests.
The modest 4 percent increase is largely because of increased volume of FOI requests and the ease with which citizens can now make FOI requests to multiple government ministries. In other words, instead of the citizen thinking specifically, "Which ministry should I be asking?" they would just blanket a number of ministries with requests, and a number of those would come back as "no response" records.
D. Routley: In the compliance report card summary, the ministries or areas of government that were below average in their compliance were Office of the Premier, Health, Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, Finance, and Jobs, Tourism and Innovation — fairly significant areas of government when it comes to potentially politically sensitive freedom-of-information requests. Can the minister explain why offices and ministries such as the Office of the Premier and Finance would be at the bottom of the heap?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Just to put a bit of perspective on this, the report card on timeliness of government's access-to-information responses from the commissioner, dated April 2010 to March 2011, has an appendix in it which shows the scoring scheme. Average, in the commissioner's view, is 85 to 90, where 85 to 90 percent of requests are processed on time. Above average is 91 to 99, and excellent, in her view, is when 100 percent of requests are processed on time.
I would take the member opposite back to her report, which noted that the on-time completion rate for responses to access to information was 93 percent overall in government. That was up from 71 percent in 2008. The results, in her view, were so good — in fact, so excellent — that she is no longer going to do this kind of report and is going to look at other areas of open government.
D. Routley: The minister's interpretation of the commissioner's overall impression is certainly shining the apple of the government. If the government were to obey its own statutes only 78, 82 or 85 percent of the time in any other area, it might be cause for even greater concern. If airplanes only landed safely 85 percent of the time, we'd have a really big problem on our hands. It's all a relative issue.
In British Columbia if there's a response requesting an extension of the deadlines, it's considered a response on time as long as that response is made within 30 calendar days — the 30 calendar days being longer than in any other province, as noted in the newspaper audit. The context of the remarks and the measurements needs to be taken into consideration. This province grants itself more time, by up to 50 percent if you consider how weekends can fall in a calendar month, versus 30 working days.
It grants itself 40 to 50 percent more time to perform within its limits than any other province. Right there, that would explain the fact that according to the newspaper audit, 88 percent of the time, under the standard of any other province, the B.C. government would be failing. Then that would bring an entirely different tone and context to the measurement of the government's performances.
There is a troubling continuation in the slow response to political party requests. The minister mentioned law firm requests as a reason for some of the incomplete responses. Law firm requests are handled at an average of 93 percent, but political party requests are fulfilled on time only 78 percent of the time. Can the minister explain the difference?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I'd like to point out to the member opposite that this particular department is a $10 million area of government. Since 2009-2010 government's processing time for political party requests has declined slightly from 89 percent on time to 87 percent on time in 2010-11. In 2011-12 requests from political parties have increased by 75 percent over the same time period for the last fiscal year. The increase is 75 percent. The requests from political parties tend to be more complicated requests that require more extensive consultation, consultation with cabinet and sometimes with other public bodies. That certainly could be partly due to volume and partly due to the complexity of the requests that we receive.
D. Routley: The quote from the commissioner was: "Government is still taking too long to respond to requests from political parties as compared with other groups. I am urging government to address how quickly it responds to requests by political parties. While government has improved its response time to media applicants, its response time to political parties is declining."
That was from the Information and Privacy Commissioner. Can the minister explain how the response time to political parties might be declining? I don't imagine that the complexity is any greater now than it was the year before this report.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I think the answer to that question is pretty straightforward. Last year alone, in the requests from political parties the volume increased by 75 percent. If we want to go back a little bit further in history, in 2010-11 compared to ten years earlier, there was actually a tenfold increase in the number of requests from political parties.
This is a very diligent area of government for people that do this work. It is a $10 million budget, but we are not diverting resources from other parts of government into this area. They're working very hard, and I would point out to the member opposite that the decline was in fact a slight decline from 89 percent to 87 percent.
D. Routley: The $10 million budget that the minister refers to — is that specifically for handling political party requests?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We don't have a department that deals specifically with political requests or requests from political parties. The budget that I refer to is the FOI and records management branch.
D. Routley: What percentage of that budget would be consumed by the government's efforts to handle FOI requests from political parties?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The ministry does not keep records in this way, nor do they assign staff in this way. Any FOI request could take minutes to process, or it could take many, many days to process. We don't keep track as to whether the source was from a political party or some other body or individual. We don't sort it out that way, and we don't keep track of the hours spent. It's just that things are not collated in that way.
D. Routley: How is the government able to then track its performance if it's not able to answer questions now about how it's apportioning resources and staff to handle various types of information requests? How is it going to be able to fulfil the requests by the commissioner to routinely disclose reports and performance audits of FOI compliance?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Certainly, we're aware in the ministry that we receive FOI requests from various different sources. For example, of the general requests received in 2010-2011, 30 percent were from individuals, 24 percent were from media, and 23 percent were from political parties. Those are of 35 percent of all of the requests that were for general information.
We do track where it comes from, and we do keep very careful track of our processing times. But we don't take the processing times and divide them up as to this is how we did on this, and this is how we did on that.
I certainly am very proud of the staff, and in case any of them are actually following the estimates, I want to say how very much I appreciate what they have been able to do. They're diligent, very hard-working, very dedicated people, and they have been able to take us from 71 percent on-time completion rate for responses to access to information in 2008 up to 93 percent of requests completed on time in 2010-2011. So hats off to the people who are doing that hard work on behalf of the people in British Columbia.
D. Routley: Absolutely, let's congratulate the people who are responsible for doing the work. The issue that I'm canvassing here is not the performance of the individuals doing the work but the effective policy on the outcomes.
If the policy in B.C. is to grant ourselves 30 working days rather than 30 calendar days, well, we have just given ourselves at least a 40 percent head start on the rest of the country in terms of compliance. That seems hardly reasonable grounds to make comparison.
If we're not keeping track of where resources are going and how they're being apportioned to deal with some of the different segments of the issues we're talking about here, how can we keep a measure? In the movie Caddyshack, Chevy Chase's character, I think, was asked: "What's your golf score?" He said: "I don't know. I don't keep score." The person asking the question said: "Well, how do you measure yourself against other golfers?" He said: "By height."
If we are just measuring ourselves completely out of context with those we're to be compared with, if we're not keeping track of information that can help us put the measurements of progress and performance into a context that means anything, then I think we're failing. If the commissioner is saying that for political party requests the compliance is in fact declining, then it seems reasonable to ask how many resources are being apportioned to deal with that decline in response time.
Can the minister give me some indication of what the ministry is doing and what government is doing to increase its performance in areas where our performance declined?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: It seems the member is perhaps somewhat confused, and I certainly apologize if anything I have said has led to that confusion. Timeliness is definitely tracked by ourselves and has been by the commissioner as well. While what the commissioner has to say may not be meaningful to the member opposite, it is certainly very meaningful to those of us in the ministry.
The commissioner noted in her report card of 2010-11 that the government responded to FOI requests 93 percent on time, which was a 31 percent improvement over the 2008 figure of 71 percent. Last year the commissioner noted that government made "extraordinary efforts to meet its timeliness obligations." In her 2011 report she noted: "This year government has done even better."
Again, while the member opposite may not find that meaningful, certainly over on this side we found that very meaningful. The fact that the commissioner had stated that given our success, she was actually not going to provide an annual report on timeliness for 2011-2012…. She noted substantial improvements, and she complimented us on that. We are very pleased about that.
D. Routley: In question period the other day we were referred to the success of B.C. Place being measured by the fact that the B.C. Lions had won the Grey Cup, and our criticism of spending on the B.C. Place Stadium roof meant that we didn't support the B.C. Lions. I think the same minister would be less likely to jump forward to take credit for the Canucks not winning the Stanley Cup.
So it's rather preferential for the government and for the minister to say, "Look, we've increased to 93 percent. The commissioner says that we've made exemplary efforts to meet our timeliness goals," but then ignore….
Those are meaningful statements to the minister. Less meaningful to the minister is the quote from the report that said there was "a slight increase in the number of requests closed as 'no response' or 'no records released' and a slight decrease in the number of requests where government provided 'full disclosure' of records." Those are concerns to me.
To carry on with the quote: "This is troubling as this same trend occurred in last year's report as compared to our first report." She also said: "Government is still taking too long to respond to requests from political parties as compared with other groups. I am urging government to address how quickly it responds to requests by political parties. While government has improved its response time to media applicants, its response time to political parties is declining."
Those would be statements that might be less meaningful to the minister. I would think if they were meaningful to the minister, she would be able to tell me what steps the ministry and the government are taking to improve the performance when it comes to political party requests.
I can give the minister an example of a request. It took seven months for an official opposition request regarding the TELUS $1 billion IT contract that was signed recently. The request was related to the complaints from other agencies, other corporations — the process that was available to them to register complaints with the process.
There were eight companies that complained about the process after the government removed itself from the request for a tender process and went to a direct award. Those were City West, Bell, InterCall Ontario, IBM, Navigata, Shaw, Northwestel and Rogers, as well as two communities — Cranbrook and the city of Coquitlam.
All of those parties complained about the government and felt that there was an unfairness to the process. They had all invested resources in participating in the request-for-proposal process around the TELUS contract.
Why would it take seven months for the government to release that information? It's an example of information that might be sensitive to the government, might be embarrassing to the government. It takes seven months for the opposition to get that request. The commissioner is obviously pointing to responses to political parties as being a problem area for the government.
What can the minister tell me the government or her ministry is doing to improve the performance when it comes to requests from political parties?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The member opposite has asked a few questions about this area previously, about FOI requests by political parties. I'm certainly happy to go over that information again. The commissioner did notice a slight decline in the on-time fulfilment of such requests from 89 percent to 87 percent. So that was a slight decline. At the same time, the volume of requests was up by 75 percent.
I think I mentioned to the member opposite previously that there are issues around volume, quite significant issues around volume, and also the complexity, in some cases, of these requests, where consultation with cabinet and other public bodies is involved.
I thought it might be helpful to anyone who is interested in this area just to go over the volume of political party requests, because we do have data on that. So back in 2001-2002 there were 59 requests. In 2003-2004 we had 86 requests. Moving forward to 2005-2006, there were 335 requests; in 2008-2009, 174. Then last year there were 1,117 requests from political parties in our province. The graph is impressive. The curve is very sharply upwards, for those of you who are watching at home.
Certainly, the volume is substantially up, and during that same time frame there has been really a slight — 2 percent — decline in the speed with which we are able to fulfil these requests.
D. Routley: In that extraordinary increase in the last two years, how much of that was requests related to HST, and how much of that was requests related to the Enbridge gateway pipeline project?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We don't have that specific information at hand. It would probably take a little bit of time, but we'll certainly be happy to attempt to provide that for the member.
What I can tell the member is a substantial increase, in particular, in areas such as the number of political party requests for calendars across governments. In 2008-2009 there were 41 such requests. In 2011-12 there were 528 such requests.
Another significant increase area is number of political party requests for travel expenses. In 2008-2009 there were three such requests. In 2011-12 there were 147 such requests.
As for the other specific details that the member has asked for, we'll certainly attempt to get that. It likely will take a bit of time.
D. Routley: How long does the minister expect it would take to get the information related to how many FOI requests related to HST and how many FOI requests related to the Enbridge pipeline project proposal?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I feel as if I should be saying: "Operators are standing by."
At any rate, I believe we would be able to get that information for the member. It's a very diligent group of people. I believe that before the estimates are concluded, we should be able to have that information provided for him.
D. Routley: One of the other recommendations that the commissioner made in the timeliness report related to CRTS reports, which gauge the government's performances in these areas. The recommendation went:
"Each year government provides my office" — this is a quote from the Information and Privacy Commissioner — "with various reports generated by CRTS that enable us to analyze how effectively government is meeting its timeliness requirements under FIPPA. These reports are essential to the production of our timeliness reports.
"As part of government's Open Information and Open Data initiatives, I recommend the government proactively and regularly publish all the CRTS reports that it provides to my office so that the citizens of British Columbia can track government's progress in responding to access requests under FIPPA."
Has this been done?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We certainly agree with the commissioner. I'm pleased to say that the first report of this kind will be available on the open government website within two weeks. Then our plan going forward is to provide such reports on a quarterly basis.
D. Routley: The information that's being released on the open government websites…. Most of that information so far is information that's been available on other sites, in other ministries, just consolidated onto these sites. What steps are being taken to satisfy the principles of routine and proactive disclosure of information other than that already available on ministry sites elsewhere?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Just to clarify, there are two areas of open information — just so that I'm clear that we're talking about the same things.
One of the areas is the proactive release of information. Proactive disclosure is when we publish general information that's been requested and has already actively been released through the freedom-of-information process.
Proactive disclosure using on-line technology can supply citizens with information that most interests them in a form that is easy to access, read, search and understand. This is one of the ways that we believe we're going to give information to citizens so that they are empowered to actually engage with us, with government, in conversations about policy, service delivery, innovation and their priorities.
We started the proactive disclosure program back in July of 2011 as part of our Open Information program and website. So there's information that is released proactively in that way.
The other kind of information, which I think the member opposite may have been talking about, is open information that we're routinely releasing. This is not based on any kind of freedom-of-information request. We're routinely releasing information that…. We're actually publishing information of specific categories about government regularly, without there being any formal requests from anyone.
We're using on-line technology and providing citizens with information that, again, is interesting to them and, again, in a format that is easy for them to access, read and search and understand.
This routine release includes things such as monthly summaries of expenses accrued by ministers and deputy ministers. In the first six months of this program we had over 270 expense reports that were posted.
Combined with the proactive disclosure of Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act requests, altogether there've been over 17,000 information packages that have actually been downloaded for use and reuse by citizens of British Columbia.
D. Routley: What the minister has described as proactive disclosure has been described by the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association of British Columbia as reactive disclosure — that an FOI request is made; the government fulfils that FOI request, then within 48 hours reacts by posting it on a website.
Proactive disclosure seems to be something that would be released without request — that as the information became available to the government, it would proactively release that information. "Routine" would be, as the minister describes, regular reporting, cyclical information that recurs.
Can the minister address the issue of proactive disclosure of information not requested and not routinely released in the form of annual audits or monthly reports and that sort of thing?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I think we're just using words differently here. What the member would describe as, I guess, proactive is something that we are calling routine. It's just using different words to describe something.
D. Routley: With respect, I would differ that what the minister has described as routine is something that happens chronologically on a regular basis — a regular report, an audit that's annual, a monthly summary and that sort of thing. Then what she's describing as proactive is the posting of FOI requests on open data websites within 48 hours of the applicant receiving the request. That would be reactive to a request.
Proactive might be, for example, releasing a copy of the HST pamphlet when it was available, rather than waiting and fighting the media against releasing that information. Proactive might be releasing the complainants of the process of the TELUS contract being removed from a competitive bid process.
Proactive might be information that comes available related to environmental considerations, around Enbridge, of a public interest and important nature to citizens or bodies in this province.
[D. Horne in the chair.]
So it seems to me that what the minister has described is reactive, and I'd like to know what steps are being taken to instruct ministries to be proactive about releasing the information that they have that is not routine — not released in regular reports, annual audits, calendar-related routine — but information that's available to the government and heretofore has had to be requested through FOI.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We've consulted with, I believe, Webster's dictionary and discovered that for "routine," the definition is: related to or being in accordance with established procedure.
We are actually working with the Information and Privacy Commissioner now to determine what kinds of information could be routinely disclosed from various ministries across government. We've made a commitment to do that. It's actually in the legislation, and we are working on that with the commissioner at this time.
With respect to some comments that the member made about freedom-of-information requests, the way these were managed in the past was that someone — a political party or an individual — would put through a request. The request would be fulfilled, the information would be provided, and that was the end of it.
What's different now is that we are proactively disclosing that information and making it available, but it's not as the member suggested. It's a different website. It's the Open Information website. That information is now available to anyone who would like to look at it, whereas in the past the information only went to the requester.
D. Routley: There has been criticism of this system when B.C. Ferries brought it forward. There's been criticism of it since the B.C. government brought it forward, particularly from reporters, from the media, as they are often met with steep fees for freedom-of-information requests but then only have 48 hours to process the information and use it to their competitive advantage. The recommendation from the Information and Privacy Commissioner was for a two-week period. Why did the government decide that 48 hours was appropriate?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The description that the member has given is actually incorrect. The proactive disclosure program was launched on July 19, 2011, as part of our Open Information program and website.
With this program, government is required to wait a minimum of 72 hours after an applicant receives their requests before posting the request to the website. The Information and Privacy Commissioner had actually recommended a 24-hour delay.
D. Routley: Does the minister not agree with the media that 72 hours is not enough time to use the information, particularly for weekly publications, and that it is in fact acting as an obstacle or a disincentive to FOI requests from media outlets?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The commissioner recommended that the information should be released within 24 hours of the requester receiving the information. We've taken a bit longer — 72 hours. We do think that that is reasonable, and we're not contemplating changing that.
D. Routley: How many staff in total are handling FOI requests?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The information access operations has 149 full-time equivalents, but the actual FTE complement in the information access operations area in fiscal year 2011-12 has been about 163. This increase is due to an increase in general FOI requests, the need to resource the open government initiative and the implementation across government of improvements to the administrative records classification system.
D. Routley: The minister seems to be indicating that that number of staff also includes the records management staff.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Yes, it does.
D. Routley: How many staff would be working on FOI versus records management?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: There are 108 FTEs doing this work.
D. Routley: Does the minister agree with Commissioner Denham? Last year she said that the finding of "no records" would, in effect, assist ministries when they're under the gun for FOI requests and don't have the staff to fulfil them. We've just heard that staffing issues are a problem in fulfilling the increases in various FOI requests — in particular, political party requests.
If an under-resourced ministry is under the gun to perform according to the lower B.C. standard of 30 working days, rather than 30 calendar days, a "no records" request would, in effect, help them meet their requirement under that compliance standard but also be attributable to the low number of staff managing records.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I want to make sure that I'm clear about what the member opposite is asking. Is the member opposite asking if people who are public servants, who work for the people of British Columbia, within the ministry, are deliberately sending forward non-responsive requests? In other words, they are not doing their job? Is that what the member opposite is suggesting?
D. Routley: No, I believe that I'm suggesting that they can't do their job if they're under-resourced and that one of the responses that would comply with the requirements for timeliness would be "no records" or "no records found" — "no records" responses.
Since there's an increase in "no records" responses and since the minister herself has indicated that staffing is an issue when dealing with increased requests, could it be the case, as the commissioner has suggested last year, that the finding of "no records" would assist the ministries, particularly if they're under-resourced?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I'm not sure if the member opposite is familiar with the most recent commissioner's report from this calendar year, in January or possibly early February. The commissioner put out a report on the lack of government records. She was reviewing the number of requests closed as "no records released."
Just before I talk about her review, I'd like to state that the amount of time it takes in any given ministry to search for records…. There's not more time taken whether they find records or not, so the search time is still there even if they don't find any responsive records.
What the commissioner said was that the findings show that a significant number of the "no records released" responses were attributable directly to requests from law firms to the Solicitor General concerning specific residential school claims.
The commissioner provided us with a recommendation so that we could more accurately categorize these requests, and we've adopted that recommendation. It's been implemented already.
Further, in her report from this calendar year she stated that there does not appear to be a significant increase in the number of "no records released" responses issued from any particular ministry. She noted there was a small increase, about 4 percent, in the number of "no records released" responses, and that was in the categories separate from the residential school requests.
This is largely attributable to increased volumes of FOI requests and how easy it is for citizens to make a request, instead of to a specific ministry, across a whole bunch of ministries — so rather than sort of thinking through as to where the record most likely would reside, actually asking a whole host of ministries and, thereby, getting a number of "no records released" because there are no responsive records available.
D. Routley: What steps have been taken to increase the government's capacity to handle information? The fees for mainframe access in calculating FOI requests have remained at $9.60 per minute since they were introduced — oh, how long ago is it now? — 15 years ago, at least.
Given that technology has advanced and, presumably, the government's capacity for handling information has advanced but the fees have stayed the same, what steps have been taken to increase the efficiency of the handling of information within the government?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: With respect to things that have been done within the ministry to improve efficiency, focus has been made on improving business practices. There's been increased staff training to improve on efficiency. The team has been centralized.
Furthermore, a number of suggestions have come forward from the staff themselves as to how further efficiencies could happen. Those suggestions, in many cases, have been implemented. That's why we've made such improvements in our timeliness.
With respect to the fee policy. The member alluded to when the fees came into effect. The fees which can be applied to a request made under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act have not been changed since the act came into effect in 1993. Only large and complex FOI requests normally would generate a fee estimate.
The act does not permit fees to be charged when an applicant requests access to his or her own personal information. Unlike some jurisdictions in Canada, B.C. doesn't charge an application fee for simply making a request.
When a fee is appropriate, the head of a public body must provide the applicant with an estimate of the proposed fee and may waive the fee if an applicant is unable to pay the fee or if the requested records relate to a matter of public interest.
If we look at statistics from the fiscal year 2010-11, they show that of the 7,939 access requests that were processed, about 1.6 percent resulted in the payment of a fee. The average fee paid was $385, and approximately $49,000 in total fees was collected for a program that actually costs the taxpayer of British Columbia about $10 million to administer.
D. Routley: The minister wasn't a participant in the committee which reviewed the act recently or the previous committee which reviewed the act. Fees were definitely a major point of concern for many of the people who presented at that committee.
The minister seems to want to minimize the effect of fees. The second reading of the bill, when it was introduced, was very clear that fees should never become an obstacle to freedom of information, but in fact, that has occurred.
On the committee that reviewed the act, we heard from UVic Environmental Law about requests that had fees in excess of $100,000. The member for Vancouver–Mount Pleasant of the official opposition made a request for all the information regarding the torch run celebrations in various communities in B.C. and was handed a bill of approximately $10,000.
Fees were recognized by the committee reviewing the act as a major obstacle to applicants for freedom of information. We were told by environmental groups and by other presenters to the committee that fees had been an obstacle to them pursuing freedom-of-information requests. So for the minister to stand and say that fees aren't an issue, I think, is showing a lack of information. In fact, it's very clear that fees are a major obstacle to many freedom-of-information requests.
The minister has indicated that centralization has assisted in meeting the goals of the government's performance under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The centralization of staff was meant to provide efficiencies. How has the centralization of staff been dealt with in terms of training? What specific training programs have been offered over the past two years to bureaucrats to cope with the changes that have been brought forward?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The member opposite made some comments prior to his last question for me, and I just want to reference some of those comments.
The member was discussing fees. Again, I want to state for the record that where a fee is appropriate, the head of a public body must provide the applicant with an estimate of the proposed fee and may waive the fee if an applicant is unable to pay or if the requested records relate to a matter of public interest.
We are aware, from last year's report, from fiscal 2010-11, that only about 1.6 percent of the requests that were processed actually resulted in the payment of a fee. The average fee paid was $385, and the total fees collected for this program in that fiscal year were $49,000. I just wanted to speak to that. Further, government is developing changes to the schedule of maximum fees to implement recommendations that were made by the special committees that have reviewed the act in the past. So that work is underway.
The member opposite asked some questions about the centralization of services. This was done back in 2009.
There are a number of different kinds of training that are provided for staff. There recently was a two-day conference with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and staff from legal services. Their course is on archives best-practice training, on records management, on freedom-of-information training and on leadership training. There's also training that happens on an ongoing basis across government with respect to freedom of information, dealing with freedom-of-information requests as well as record management.
All new staff have a two-week orientation. Lastly, and this is something that is relatively new, the ministry is working with a post-secondary institution here in British Columbia on an IAO certificate or diploma. That work is underway, and people in the ministry are actually very excited about it.
D. Routley: What is the total amount of resources devoted to training programs?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The ministry allocates approximately $1,000 per staff person for training.
D. Routley: Is all that training devoted to freedom of information and information processing?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Every employee has a training plan that's individualized for them and for their needs. The investment in training…. As I mentioned, there are some areas.
Just to give a few examples again. It would be things like conferences, such as the conference with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and staff from legal services, things like training in archives best practice, records management, freedom-of-information training, leadership training and then training right across government in the area of FOI and records management.
D. Routley: I'd like to move on to some privacy-related questions. The integrated case management initiative has been the subject of considerable concern and huge investment on the part of taxpayers. What can the minister tell me about the current status of privacy impact assessments related to ICM?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The ICM…. The program lead for this is the Ministry of Social Development, and I understand that this matter was canvassed with the minister in estimates recently. So that's the area, that's the ministry where the responsibility lies.
What I can tell the member opposite is that this has been a very successful collaboration with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and that the current privacy impact assessments are publicly available. They're posted on the ministry website. There is also a link on the commissioner's website to those privacy impact assessments.
D. Routley: It's understood that the responsibility for implementing ICM within Social Development is their responsibility, and I presume within Health it's their responsibility. But the responsibility for policy development, as I understand, is with the Minister of Citizens' Services. In fact, the application of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act is with the minister.
What role does the minister see for herself and her ministry in the ongoing implementation and actualization of the integrated case management and other data-sharing initiatives of government?
There's also one specific area that the ministry is involved in, and that is through Shared Services. We provide the technical facilities that are required for ICM — for example, computers and other kinds of equipment — through Shared Services. Those would be the ways in which we would be involved.
What role does the minister have ongoing with data-sharing initiatives? What steps are being taken to ensure that privacy is adequately protected as government moves towards ever-greater data-sharing initiatives?
It's the responsibility of each individual ministry to be familiar with that, to understand it and to make sure that they're in compliance with it. That's the accountability that every minister and every ministry shares.
But again, I would say that certainly our ministry would be available to give advice about the policy. If there were questions that the Ministry of Social Development or other ministries had, we certainly would be available as a resource.
D. Routley: The minister seems to diminish the role of her own ministry in ensuring that privacy protection is adequately maintained. This government has a history of quite horrendous privacy breaches, from Wainwright, where 1,400 vulnerable British Columbians had their personal information stolen, to the dumpster breach of this past year. The B.C. Lotteries on-line gambling breach did huge damage to people's personal well-being.
The information officer at a recent conference pointed out, very rightly, that breaches of private information by government are even more serious than breaches of financial information by private companies. Private companies are increasing their privacy protections in order to protect their wallets — their assets, their liability — because they must make customers whole if they've had a privacy breach, whereas with government, if there's a privacy breach, the implications are much deeper and much more profound for individuals.
Their personal health information, for instance, might be breached. Their income information might be breached. Their housing or employment information might be breached. And that bell can't be unrung. It's an extremely important issue.
This ministry is responsible for protecting the privacy of the citizens of British Columbia. It's not good enough just to say: "Well, every ministry is responsible. They know they have to be responsible under the act, and that's good enough." Well no, it's not. It's not good enough because it hasn't been good enough. We've had terrible outcomes.
I'd like to know from the minister what she feels her role is in ensuring that recommendations from the investigations — into Wainwright, into the dumpster breach, into the on-line gambling fiasco…. How are those protections going to be increased, and how is the capacity of public servants within those various ministries going to be upgraded so that they can adequately handle information in a secure way?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: To the member opposite, I certainly agree with him that any privacy breach, particularly when it comes to people's personal information, is a very difficult thing. They shouldn't happen. Occasionally they do happen, but I agree with him that such things need to be taken very seriously. And we do take them very seriously.
Within the ministry we have a number of things. We certainly, as the member is aware, have policy. We have guidelines to help the ministries with the implementation of the policies. We have tipsheets for ministries that will assist them with the basics. There is a help line that people can call if they require specific assistance.
Also, ministries must do a privacy impact assessment on every systems project that they are going to undergo. Those privacy impact assessments come to our ministry. They are reviewed by the ministry, and until they are acceptable, the projects actually cannot proceed.
I certainly would want the member to know and would want everyone to know that this is an area that we take extremely seriously. It's one of the most important functions of the ministry. We take it seriously, and there are a lot of things that we do, some of which I've outlined here, to make sure that we're doing the absolute best we can with British Columbians' private information.
D. Routley: I believe it was the Canadian Medical Association that warned doctors of their increased liability if they didn't advise patients that they weren't able to control their information once it's given to them, given that with the integrated case management system, they lose direct control of their patients' medical records.
The notions of opt-out clauses from the system were discussed in its early days. The notion of building a wall around doctors' offices, in a sense, from the system was discussed.
Being a medical doctor herself, is the minister comfortable with the fact that there is a concern from doctors in terms of their ability to control patients' information, given the implications of integrated case management and other data-sharing initiatives?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: With respect to the integrated case management, I know the member opposite is aware that the responsibility lies with the Minister of Social Development. But what I can say is that our ministry does have a support and advisory role.
As the member opposite has mentioned, people's private information is part of this, and that's why the privacy impact assessments are so vitally important. Certainly, there's been very close work with the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
One of the things about this kind of case management is that when individuals do access records, they will only be able to access information that they are truly authorized to see. There could be sections of the information that some individuals are truly authorized to see, but there would be other parts that they couldn't.
Again, it goes to the importance of the privacy impact assessments. It goes to the importance of working with the commissioner. The ministry does have and will have an ongoing support and advisory role with this program.
D. Routley: The minister diminishes the role of her ministry. It seems odd, because the responsibility for the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act is with the minister. The responsibility for review of the act, the implementation of policy decisions from government, is with her ministry. The responsibility for management of information is with her ministry.
The chief information officer is the one who appears to be the office responsible for responding to recommendations from the investigations into the various privacy breaches. One of the recommendations from the investigations into the privacy breaches — the Wainwright breach in particular from a few years ago — was that government establish an independent chief privacy officer.
The government has refused up until now to do that, and those duties were being carried out by the chief information officer. Can the minister tell me why the government has refused to appoint an independent privacy officer?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I have to say that I think, really, what the member is doing is diminishing the responsibility that all ministries have. All ministries are accountable. They are obliged to understand the policies around privacy, and they're obliged to adhere to them.
There is definitely policy that comes from the Ministry of Citizens' Services, without question, and there is support that's available. I've outlined a number of the different kinds of support. As seriously as we take this, it has to be taken seriously right across government, and every ministry has to be very clearly accountable and understand their accountability.
With respect to the question the member asked about the chief information officer, in government we're not contemplating any change in this area. We believe we have a substantial and strong policy role with the government chief information officer.
To give just one example of something that has happened, to demonstrate how very seriously we take the protection of privacy and how deeply concerned we are about breaches, we have now…. Every government employee is required to take a mandatory training course on privacy and information-sharing.
The training for executive and managers is complete at this point. Training for employees is underway, and it will be completed by the end of the year. We're also developing training for contractors and for service providers.
We do take this very seriously, and we feel that what is present now in the office of the chief information officer is robust. We're not contemplating making a change.
D. Routley: I guess it would be logical to assume, then, that we can't ask questions about health spending of the Finance Minister. Of course, each ministry must be aware and responsible for their spending, so it would be inappropriate for us to ask the Finance Minister about health spending.
This is one of the core responsibilities of the minister — the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act. Its implementation and the adherence to it throughout government is a primary responsibility of her ministry.
It's clear to me that the minister would like to deflect her role or minimize her role and not be open to questions about integrated case management, even though for the past four years it has been the subject of debate in these estimates of this ministry, and the review of the act in the committee that reviewed the act that she's responsible for was one of the primary areas of concern. But the minister would like to share that responsibility rather than be the primary lead in being responsible for the adherence of her government to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
We have seen that the government's record has been abysmal when it comes to privacy breaches. There have been serious breaches, one after the other. Investigations have been carried out. One of the recommendations from one of the largest breaches was that the government appoint a chief privacy officer. The government had the duties recommended by the acting commissioner, Paul Fraser, who undertook the investigation. The government delegated those duties to the chief information officer.
Could the minister tell me if the chief information officer is still responsible for the duties that were recommended by Paul Fraser, acting commissioner, in his investigation into Wainwright?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I understand that the member opposite is referring to a report from 2010, although I wasn't the minister at the time. In the last couple of years I understand that this issue has been canvassed between the member and the minister of the day on at least one occasion, if not two.
The recommendation from that time is not an active recommendation from the current commissioner. Again, we're not contemplating a change.
I would like to just finish by once again saying, for the record, that we absolutely take privacy breaches very seriously. They are taken seriously by government; they're taken seriously by the ministry. I believe that the chief information officer has a strong and important policy role in government in this area.
D. Routley: The history is that they've been taken very lightly by the government, that in fact they haven't even been recognized by the government and that once recognized, huge mistakes were made in addressing them. In the case of Wainwright the notifications of the privacy breach were sent to the wrong addresses, so it even compounded the privacy breach. In the recent dumpster breach it took five days for the government to even respond to the person who found the files in the dumpster.
The minister speaks in ideals. It's idealistic to say that all of government respects privacy protections and adheres to them without fail, because that's just not the case. There have been notable failures that have been very costly to people's well-being. For the minister just to say simply that, you know, that's not an active recommendation, not of the current commissioner…. It's still a recommendation that came out of the investigation into probably the largest privacy breach in the history of the province, so it shouldn't be dismissed so lightly.
There is an issue of conflict when it comes to the chief information officer — not personal conflict, but conflict of the intent of his office to increase information-sharing and increase information availability. The chief information officer is one of the proponents of increased data sharing across the lines of government, whereas this can, at least, be said to challenge the government's capacity to protect privacy and could increase the potential for breaches. The chief information officer could be asked to be working at cross-purposes if he's also responsible for ensuring privacy protection.
So has the minister given any thought to what could be done to increase the capacity of government to protect privacy?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The member opposite has referenced amendments that were made to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in 2011, and among the amendments that we made in the act, the role of the Information and Privacy Commissioner was substantially strengthened. We worked collaboratively with her, and we continue to work collaboratively with her, with the new powers that she has that came into force with these amendments.
Some of the things that have happened as a result of Bill 3. We've increased the office of the chief information officer's budget to add additional resources to its privacy protection program.
With the additional resources that have been provided, the office is going to launch an expanded and proactive privacy program to support government ministries in meeting their increased privacy responsibilities, because this does go right across all of the ministries.
The expanded program includes: the development of privacy best practices, cross-government policies, guidelines and tools, and the delivery of ongoing training, project support and advice. I have already referenced some of those things, but it certainly doesn't hurt to say it more than once.
D. Routley: When the minister says, "We've increased the budget of the OIPC," does she mean herself, her government, her ministry? Earlier in the estimates debate I asked the minister what she thought of the increased responsibilities to the OIPC and whether she would advocate for greater funding to support those responsibilities. Her answer was that it's up to the officer, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, to go to the appropriate committee and make a request on her own behalf.
Now that the question begs a different answer, it seems that the minister is saying: "We've increased the budget to the OIPC." What exactly does she mean?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We'll have to check the record to see if I misspoke, and if I did, I apologize.
Specifically, the budget that was increased was the office of the chief information officer's budget, and the different things I spoke about are being done by the office of the chief information officer.
The member opposite asked earlier about the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner's budget. That is a budget that is determined…. I do not have influence, and the ministry does not have influence or jurisdiction over that budget. There was a discussion that occurred with the Select Standing Committee on Finance, and that is where the direction comes for the budget for the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
D. Routley: So the chief information office budget was increased by how much to accommodate these extra duties? Can the minister describe the amount and how much was appropriated for the extra duties?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The budget has increased by approximately $500,000. We'll get you the exact number.
With respect to a previous question that the member opposite asked about. With respect to FOI requests on HST since April of 2010, which is almost two fiscal years, there have been a total of 100 FOI requests, 29 of those from a political party. On Enbridge, since April of 2010 there have been ten FOI requests, and one of those was from a political party.
D. Routley: One of the recurring recommendations throughout my experience as critic to this ministry — through the FOI review committee, the FIPPA review committee, and through the investigations that were undertaken and from the OIPC during the time that Bill 3 was debated — was that there be public consultations, in terms of the privacy amendment act that was recently passed, around the formulation of the regulations.
What steps has the ministry taken to engage in public consultations?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I understand that the member opposite is asking about the public consultations that occurred prior to Bill 3, the amendments of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. As I recall, this was discussed. This was canvassed at length during the debate on that bill. The government is not contemplating any further consultations at this time, given that the bill has been passed. Specific to this, we wouldn't be planning on any further consultation.
D. Routley: The minister did indicate that during the debate there was concern that so much of the detail of the bill was left to formulation and regulations, and so much of the impact, as was noted by the commissioner, would be only determined by the regulations that were put into place. During the debate the minister did indicate that there would be further public consultation around the formulation of those regulations.
Generally, in her ministry, what resources of money or staff time have been allocated to public consultations of any kind during the coming year?
[P. Pimm in the chair.]
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Our government has made a firm commitment to public engagement. The ministry itself does not have particular dedicated staff or a budget dedicated to projects like this. Within the government communications and public engagement area of the ministry, the jobs plan is already underway. That public consultation is already underway. The Justice Ministry is going to be doing a consultation on policing strategy. Within Citizens' Services there is going to be public engagement consultation on citizens' expectation of service delivery.
These would be a few examples. Some of them are within the ministry, and some of them are going to be supported by GCPE. But they will actually be run out of other ministries. Again, there is not a specific line item in the budget I can refer to, or dedicated staff. The department out of which the public engagement would be run will vary, depending on which ministry it's in and the specific public engagement. Certainly, I'm aware of a number of public engagements and consultation processes that will be happening over the year coming up.
D. Routley: How much of this ministry's budget is devoted to public consultations?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: This is not something that I can refer to a line item. There is not specific, dedicated staff. Even the department that's responsible for the public engagement will depend on the specific engagement that we're talking about. So it's not possible for me to give specific details such as the member has requested.
D. Routley: The government's public engagement unit controls approximately 22 percent of the STOB 67 budget, or about $3.5 million. What will this money be directed towards?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We're struggling a little bit with the question and hoping the member opposite will be gracious enough to clarify it for us. The ministry doesn't have a specific line item for public engagement. The member opposite referenced a STOB and 22 percent, and we're not clear. We wonder if the member would be kind enough to try to give us some clarity on what it is he's wondering about.
D. Routley: It's my understanding that the government's communication and public engagement unit has control or a role in the spending of $3.5 million of STOB 67 spending, which is information advertising. Where would that be directed?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The STOB 67 funding. The priorities within government that it would be used to support would obviously vary from year to year. This year, just to give a few examples of where funding is going, there's communication about forest fire prevention, a gaming review and also the B.C. education plan. Those would be some examples of government priorities that would be funded out of the STOB 67 funds.
D. Routley: Would another example be the jobs plan?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I'd just like to take a moment to introduce another one of the senior staff who've joined us: Denise Champion, the executive director from corporate services within the government communications and public engagement department area.
To the member's question with respect to the funding for the jobs plan advertising: this was announced by the Minister of Finance. It's within the budget for this year — $15 million over two years. This is not a budget item for GCPE. This would be something, if the member had further detailed questions, that could be canvassed with the Minister of Finance.
D. Routley: If the spending is not from this ministry, what ministry should I canvass? Which ministry is doing the spending?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I just mentioned that the Minister of Finance announced this in the budget, but the minister who's been speaking to the jobs plan and this funding, who's had responsibility for it, is the Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation.
D. Routley: Is the advertising for the jobs plan from the JTI budget?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The funding was announced in this year's budget by the Minister of Finance. The campaign is being led by the JTI ministry, and questions about the funding and the plans for the campaign would best be directed to the minister responsible. That would be the minister of JTI.
D. Routley: The government's communication and public engagement unit is responsible for government communications. Will there be activity in the Port Moody or Chilliwack constituencies in the time leading from now up until the by-elections?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Government is guided by the rules of Elections B.C., clearly, and would abide by those. The government, at the same time, will certainly continue to do work throughout the province in all ridings. That would include the places that the member opposite has spoken of.
D. Routley: The B.C. Liberals have made commitments in the past not to use government spending around elections. In fact, I think that former Premier Gordon Campbell committed to 120 days before an election, not to be spending government money advertising government.
So it seems an important question for these estimates. Would the government communications and public engagement unit be involved in any advertising in Chilliwack or Port Moody in the coming months? If so, what advertising is planned?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The previous question from the member opposite was with respect to government activity, and my answer to that question was that government will continue to do its work throughout the province, as is entirely appropriate.
To the specific question about advertising, there are some government initiatives underway at the moment: the jobs plan that we've talked about, the education plan. Those advertising campaigns are provincewide, and they're currently underway. So that's happening now, and that's happening in every part of the province.
With respect to what would happen going forward, again, we would absolutely abide by all rules of Elections B.C. when it comes to any by-election or any election in the future.
D. Routley: The promises of abiding by Elections B.C. rules from the current government are difficult to accept when now there have been very well-noted cases of failure to do just that in the recent provincial election and in the 2011 by-election in Point Grey. The previously public affairs bureau, the government communications and public engagement unit, was heavily involved in staging a cluster of announcements in the Point Grey constituency immediately before the by-election.
There were complaints made to Elections B.C. There were letters written. There were questions asked, and it's a matter of public interest. It's something that the government has promised not to do.
Leading up to the by-elections that are upcoming, it would be nice to know exactly what ad campaigns have been engaged. What ad campaigns have been contracted through this ministry over the next three months in the Chilliwack and Port Moody constituencies?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Again, the provincewide campaigns that I mentioned previously — the jobs plan and education plan advertising — are not specific to any riding. They are underway now. I'm not aware of any other…. There are no other advertising campaigns contemplated, and specific to those ridings, there are no advertising campaigns planned for those specific ridings that the member opposite has referenced.
D. Routley: So we will not see the government communications and public engagement unit involved in staging, say, an opportunity for the Premier to masquerade as a coffee shop waitress in Chilliwack over the next couple of months, or a special announcement of funding for other constituencies to take place in those constituencies and arranged through public resources by the government communications and public engagement unit?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The member's been talking about advertising and the advertising budget for GCPE and then talking about events and the work of government as if those things are interchangeable, and they very clearly aren't.
With respect to advertising and the budget for advertising, I've talked about a couple of provincewide campaigns that are underway. That information is going out to British Columbians right across the province.
With respect to the work of government — events, with providing information about programs to British Columbians — that work will go on. There's no prohibition for the work of government to go on. The work of government does go on, regardless of where we are in the election cycle. I know the member opposite is aware of that.
The specific rules from Elections B.C. about advertising clearly will be adhered to. We are aware of those rules, and they will be adhered to. But I do think it's important to distinguish between the work of government — events, providing information about programs — versus specific, targeted advertising.
D. Routley: Can the minister assure me that there will be no increase in the rate of placement of ads in those constituencies, Port Moody and Chilliwack, and no increase in the frequency of government announcements coordinated by her ministry and the government communications and public engagement unit in the time leading up to the by-elections?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I can assure the member opposite that government will continue to do its work over the next while, and I can assure the member opposite that the rules that are in place by Elections B.C. will be adhered to.
D. Routley: The rules that are in place from Elections B.C. pertain to the time immediately prior to the by-election. Between now and when the writ is dropped, will there be any increase in the rate of government-placed ads or government-coordinated announcements of funding? Will there be an increased rate of those ad placements or funding announcements in those constituencies?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I really can't think of anything to add to my previous answer that government is going to continue to do its work. I've already referenced the provincewide campaigns that I'm aware of that are underway, one of which is the education plan, and the other is the jobs plan.
Across government these two campaigns are underway currently. They're provincewide campaigns. Those are the advertising campaigns that I know about at this moment.
But with respect to the other question from the member, again I would say that government is going to continue to do its work and continue to keep the public informed about government programs and other similar things that we do throughout British Columbia.
D. Routley: The minister is referring to provincewide campaigns. I'm referring to ad placements and announcements and press opportunities for the government to showcase its programs in those two particular constituencies in this time leading up to the dropping of the writ.
Can the minister just say no? Can the minister just say: "No, there will be no increase in those ad placements"? Can the minister just say: "No, there will be no increase in the number of government-coordinated announcements or functions in those constituencies in this time leading up to the dropping of the writ"?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Again, I would say to the member opposite that there are some provincewide campaigns underway now, which I've spoken about. The advertising in those campaigns is going to every area of the province. If people have a television, it would be on their television station around the province.
The government is continuing to do its work and will continue to do its work around the province, and the rules that are in place from Elections B.C. will be adhered to.
D. Routley: Can the minister provide me an itemized list of costs for any work done by the government communications and public engagement unit related to the jobs plan?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: With respect to the jobs plan, I'm not sure exactly what the member is getting to, so I'm going to answer this in two ways.
With respect to the jobs plan, it's a key priority of our government. It actually is part of the work of a number of different ministries. There's work being done on the job plans in, for example, JTI, Advanced Education, our ministry, the Ministry of Education, and Energy and Mines. That's just to name some of the ministries. There would be many staff across many ministries whose work has been impacted.
I think it would be very difficult to give an itemized list of time spent and those kinds of things. Suffice to say, with this being a key priority of our government, there is work underway across many of the ministries.
If the member opposite is specifically talking about the advertising budget, we certainly can work with the Ministry of JTI and come up with a detailed list of the expenses to date for the member, if he wishes.
D. Routley: Thank you for that offer. I would like to know from the minister how much resources, how much money from her ministry and from the government's communications and public engagement unit will be spent on the jobs plan, either in promoting the jobs plan or coordinating the communications of the jobs plan. How much has been spent to date? How much will be spent in the coming fiscal year?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Within GCPE we don't have any staff that are dedicated to the jobs plan. The responsibility they would have would include that, but there would be many, many other areas that they would have responsibility for. With respect to the advertising budget, it's very transparent. It's $5 million allocated for this fiscal year and $10 million for next year.
With respect to the work right across government, the majority of ministries have got some responsibility for the jobs plan. It impacts on and is being worked upon in the majority of ministries. So there would be staff within GCPE assigned to ministries. That would be part of their responsibility. There would be other people working on policy. We are not aware of anyone that is specifically tasked to the jobs plan — certainly not in our ministry. I guess it's possible there might be in other ministries, but we're not aware of it.
D. Routley: Does that mean that the commitment on the part of the Citizens' Services ministry and government's communications and public engagement unit to the jobs plan is simply insignificant, and it's not relevant? Can the minister tell me how much resources are being directed to supporting the jobs plan?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Certainly, I think in every ministry people would say this is a very significant part of their work. It's the key priority of government. We believe it's making a difference in the lives of British Columbians, and it will continue into the future. All of us, I think, think this is very important and very significant.
In our ministry, and I believe this would be true for others, we don't allocate time the way that lawyers do, with billable hours to files. That is not something that we do.
While there are people certainly working very hard on the jobs plan — the communication, the policy around it — because it's so important to the future of the province, it just is not something that's possible to say…. At least within GCPE, there are not any individuals that are tasked purely with the jobs plan. They are doing other work as well.
D. Routley: Well, it seems the minister wants her cake and to eat it too. You can't, I think, have it both ways, where the jobs plan is such a hugely significant component of our future and our present and the government's overall plan, yet we have no idea how much we're spending on it. We have no idea how much staff time we're allocating to it in the minister's own ministry.
It seems that on the one hand, it's not important enough to say: "Well, we're spending X percent of our time devoted to supporting the jobs plan. We're devoting this many people, this many hours or this many days to the jobs plan." But on the other hand, it's the most important thing that government is doing, and it's very significant and will have an ongoing impact on people's lives from now and into the future.
We have it both ways: it's hugely important, hugely significant, but on the other hand, not significant enough to have had time allocated or budgeted. The resources haven't been accounted or audited or planned.
So to the minister: what is the plan? How much effort from her ministry is being put into supporting the jobs plan?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I think the question the member opposite is asking really illustrates a difference between the philosophy that our government has and the philosophy that the members opposite would have.
The member opposite is asking about input: how much time, how much money, how many people, how many FTEs, and why don't we use government resources to track that? What we are doing is we're actually looking at output.
For example, what has happened is we've released a sector strategy on tourism. We've released a sector strategy on LNG. Today there was a six-month progress report released with significant detail in it.
It is very clear that there is a great deal of work going on across government with respect to the jobs plan, and it's making a difference. We really ask the people working on GPCE to do a lot with limited resources. This is a group that has considerably fewer resources than the same department had under the NDP. We have 197 FTEs with an estimated operating budget of $26.1 million compared to the NDP, where there were 322 employees and $40 million.
Just to give another example of inputs versus outputs, the Leader of the Opposition has talked about what his goal would be if he was governing with respect to health. His goal would be to be the province that spends the most money on health care, whereas our goal is to use taxpayers' dollars as wisely as possible. We're looking at the outcomes. We're looking at some of the best cancer outcomes in Canada, some of the best cardiovascular outcomes in Canada. It's a different way of looking at things.
[D. Horne in the chair.]
D. Routley: Yes, it's a different way of looking at things. We'd rather on this side have some accountability from the government. The government's way of looking at things is: "We'd rather not be accountable. We'd rather just spend the money and not keep track of where it's gone. We'd rather just have you forget that we promised to put a roof on B.C. Place Stadium for $150 million and that it actually cost $570 million. We'd rather just not bother with that nasty little thing called accountability."
It seems to me that's the role of opposition, particularly in estimates. Yeah, I'd agree with the minister. It does display an absolute stark difference between this side and her side. In fact, her leader promised to do politics differently, to govern differently, to listen to people, to communicate more.
Yet what do we see here? We see a minister who's unwilling to commit or to say in estimates how much her own ministry is going to work in a certain area. It's just too expensive for us to keep track of how much we spend or how many staff hours are appropriated to whatever project. That would be just too bothersome, wouldn't it?
I think the sarcasm of my answer suits the implied arrogance of the answer that the minister gave me: the Leader of the Opposition would like to commit the most resources to health care in the country. Well, what a terrible thing to say. It must indicate that all he wants to do is spend money. It must do, I'm sure. Whereas the stellar B.C. Liberals, who have the record of having engaged in a half-billion-dollar overrun on the convention centre, want us not to think about those things. "We just don't want to measure. We want to measure outcomes, not what it costs us to get there."
It seems it was a disrespectful answer, and I apologize for the disrespect in the question that I'm asking. But it seems hard to resist, given the answer that I just got from the minister, which was disrespectful not just to the questioner but to the people of B.C. who expect that we will be accountable for their tax dollars.
For me to stand here and be insolent enough to ask the minister questions about how her ministry is going to spend money, how she's going to devote resources of her ministry to something that she says is the most important core program of her government…. Somehow there's a problem with asking a question as to how the resources will be allocated.
How much time on the part of the government's communications and public engagement unit will be spent supporting the government's jobs plan? Apparently, it's just not a relevant question. I would ask it again of the minister. Does the minister know how much her own ministry is going to be spending supporting her government's core program, or is that just something her ministry doesn't keep track of?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Again, I will say that within the ministry of GCPE there are no staff that are specifically dedicated to the jobs plan. There is no FTE I can point to, and there is no specific part of the budget.
What I can say is that there are a number of people that are working on this, not only in this ministry but across government. The evidence of that is very clear. There has been tremendous work done, there has been product of that work, and there will continue to be work done in this area. We will continue to see the output, things such as the sector strategy which, so far, we have seen for tourism and liquefied natural gas, but which we'll see in other areas.
There are many people across multiple ministries who are working in this area. But the detail that the member is asking for…. Again, because the ministry does not function on a billable-hour model such as you would see in a law firm, it is not possible to give that kind of information. We don't track it in that way.
D. Routley: Well, you know, I don't think I asked for the billable hours or an exact number of hours. I asked for what amount of resources — a general question. What percentage of the time or what percentage of the resources of the ministry will be devoted to supporting the jobs plan?
The minister has indicated that it's a core program. It has an enormous significance to British Columbians both now and on into the future. If that's the case, it seems only reasonable to think that there would be a plan. The plan would say: "We're going to spend this much time and devote this many people generally for this period of time to support that program." Or are we just doing things as they pop up — shooting from the hip?
Are we just responding as needed, or do we have a plan? Is there a plan? Is there a plan for exactly what the government communications and public engagement unit's role will be in promoting the jobs plan, in communicating to British Columbians the jobs plan, the education plan? Or are we just sort of waiting and seeing?
I mean, we have a budget. There must have been consultations with all of these bureaucrats at various levels as to what their needs would be in terms of meeting the goals put in front of them by the government. I think that it's reasonable and responsible for me to ask the minister to detail those plans, but the minister does not seem to want to be accountable for those plans.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Government released a very detailed jobs plan some time ago, and in that jobs plan it's laid out very clearly what the expectation is, what will be done, what has been committed to.
The staff at GCPE understand what their roles and responsibilities are. They certainly are accountable. There are key deliverables for the various people that work in GCPE, but there are other things that they do as well. So this is part of their responsibility. They do have other responsibilities.
But if the member opposite is wondering what the plan is, it is all laid out very clearly in the jobs plan. It's easily accessible, and I would refer him to that.
D. Routley: Well, I've seen travel brochures thicker than the jobs plan that was released. To say that what has been released as the jobs plan is a detailed document that can suffice to be accountable to the estimates of billion-dollar budgets is laughable. What has been released is a promotional document.
The purpose of estimates is to drill down into the detail of the projections of the government and its planning. So I would assume that a government that has staked claim to be the only credible fiscal managers that B.C. can ever, ever have or hope to have would have had adequate plans in place and could describe them in detail, could describe how that program would be supported ministry to ministry, how it would be communicated, how it would be implemented.
But that would be assuming that the government has any interest in being accountable to the people who are actually paying for the jobs plan. It's not their jobs plan. It's not their government. It's not their money; it's the taxpayers' money. I think the minister has a duty to those taxpayers to be accountable, so asking questions about how the minister plans to carry out the goals of government seems reasonable, but maybe I'm wrong.
Are we going to adjourn then, Mr. Chair?
The Chair: We're going to take a recess for about half an hour.
Do you want to take a recess now? Okay.
This committee will recess for about half an hour. We'll reconvene it at 7 p.m.
The committee recessed from 6:28 p.m. to 7:05 p.m.
[J. Thornthwaite in the chair.]
The Chair: Good evening. We'll resume our debates for the Ministry of Labour, Citizens' Services and Open Government. I believe that the member for Nanaimo–North Cowichan was speaking.
D. Routley: I'd like to ask the minister some questions about Shared Services B.C., and I'm not sure if that requires a change in staff or not? No? Okay, thank you.
In the 2012-2013 fiscal plan there is an indication of a $700 million sale of assets. I'm wondering what role Shared Services will have in the disposition of those assets?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: While there is staff that is assigned to this project, the accountability is with Treasury Board and the Minister of Finance. I would invite the member opposite to ask these questions of the Minister of Finance during those estimates.
D. Routley: The Provincial Capital Commission was moved into the ministry recently. Will the Provincial Capital Commission be the agent or the vehicle of sale of the assets?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The responsibility for this particular project lies with the Minister of Finance through Treasury Board. I would invite him to ask these questions of the Minister of Finance.
D. Routley: What role will the Provincial Capital Commission have in the sale of any assets in the coming year?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: While there is staff that's assigned through Shared Services B.C. to this project, the accountability is through Treasury Board to the Minister of Finance. I would invite the member opposite to canvass these questions with the Minister of Finance, who is accountable and responsible for this area.
D. Routley: The branch of Shared Services called asset investment recovery is responsible for the disposal of surplus tangible assets of the province of British Columbia, such as buildings, vehicles, boats, heavy equipment and office furnishings.
What can the minister tell me about the activities and plans for asset investment recovery?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I'm not sure if the member opposite has moved on to a new area or if he's still canvassing what he was canvassing previously.
With respect to the asset investment recovery area, they're functioning in the same manner as they always have. They're doing their work as they always have. There hasn't been a change in that area of the ministry.
D. Routley: There are no particular special projects in asset investment recovery? There will be no change in the historical operations of asset investment recovery?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: There are no changes contemplated at this time. There's nothing planned. This area of government is functioning the way that it has in the past.
D. Routley: What was the purpose of the move of the Provincial Capital Commission into Shared Services?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: By spring of 2012 Shared Services B.C. is going to assume property management and leasing responsibilities for the Provincial Capital Commission, including the visitor information centre, Crystal Garden and several parks and green spaces. The Provincial Capital Commission is going to continue to hold title to the properties.
Shared Services B.C.'s assumption of these services, along with the transfer of financial operations to the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, is expected to save the Provincial Capital Commission about $200,000 annually. Shared Services B.C. provides real estate services to broader public sector clients, including health authorities and the RCMP, on a fee-for-service basis and will enter into a similar arrangement with the Provincial Capital Commission.
Shared Services B.C. is working closely with the Provincial Capital Commission to develop a transition plan that does not impact existing site operations. During the transition it will be business as usual for tenants of the Provincial Capital Commission properties.
D. Routley: The minister doesn't appear to have responsibility for the Provincial Capital Commission's role in the disposal of assets in the coming year or is not willing to share that information. If the Provincial Capital Commission is part of Shared Services, it appears, at least, that it would be under the minister's responsibility.
So is the minister not able to share any information as to what plans she has or what plans the Provincial Capital Commission has in terms of property disposal?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The responsibility for the Provincial Capital Commission falls under the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development. What Shared Services B.C. is going to be doing is assuming property management and leasing responsibilities, just as we do for some other clients, such as health authorities and the RCMP.
D. Routley: In a previous answer the minister included the words "real estate services," I believe, not just the leasing services. So can the minister describe exactly what type of services her ministry and the Provincial Capital Commission will be responsible for in terms of management and disposal?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Real estate services would include things like property management and leasing responsibilities. It would be things like janitorial services, upkeep, routine maintenance — those sorts of things.
D. Routley: It's been understood by several journalists writing about the transfer of the Provincial Capital Commission, as well as other commentators, that Shared Services B.C. was taking over the responsibility for that agency, which would presumably include the disposal of assets and sale of property. So the minister is telling me that that's incorrect — that there is no role for Shared Services in the disposal of properties?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Our general rule, the general rule of Shared Services B.C., as I've said, is to assume property management and leasing responsibilities for the Provincial Capital Commission. However, as I've also said, there is a part of Shared Services B.C. that is involved in the project that the member opposite has mentioned previously. And he is correct. I'm not responsible for that project. The responsibility for that project lies directly with the Minister of Finance through Treasury Board.
D. Routley: Will Shared Services play a role in the asset sale of the Liquor Distribution Branch?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Yes, we have been asked to be involved with the procurement.
D. Routley: And what involvement would that be?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The ministry has been asked to assist with developing and evaluating the RFP.
D. Routley: Will the ministry be involved in any way in the promotion of these assets? Or will, perhaps, the government communications and public engagement unit be involved in the sale in any way, in terms of promoting the sales?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Again, I would say to the member opposite that we do have staff assigned within the ministry, but I'm not the minister responsible. The minister responsible through Treasury Board is the Minister of Finance. These questions need to be asked of the Minister of Finance during his estimates.
D. Routley: So does that mean that staff and resources from the Ministry of Citizens' Services are, in effect, being seconded to another ministry without actually transferring the responsibility for the budget, without actually transferring the functions? Is the minister's ministry simply providing services to other ministries — accountable in terms of a budget item but not accountable in terms of answering questions as to how those resources are being used?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The nature of Shared Services is that that's exactly what Shared Services does — provide services across government. With respect to this particular project, the accountability is very clear. It is through Treasury Board with the Minister of Finance. So in this case, the staff are working on that project, but the minister responsible is the Minister of Finance. The staff remain within the ministry. They've not been seconded or removed from the ministry.
D. Routley: That concludes my questions of the minister related to Citizens' Services, that portion of her ministry. But in concluding those questions in this session, I would first like to thank the staff for attending these estimates. I know how exciting it is and how fun that must be for them. For the lack of interest and engagement that I could provide them, I apologize, but I do thank them for the information that they provide to me and the service they give to British Columbians.
British Columbia is fortunate to have excellent people working at all levels of government. I've been here long enough to realize the great capacity of these people and how dedicated they are to serving British Columbians and how lucky we are that they choose public service when so many of these people, including the people sitting across from me now, could probably become more wealthy working in the private sector but have chosen to serve the people of B.C. I think they all deserve to be congratulated and thanked for that. So I thank them on behalf of the opposition.
In terms of the minister, I thank her for her responses. I'm unsatisfied with the responses. I think that the ministry needs to be more accountable for the resources it receives and that simply referring the accountability to other ministries to which it provides services is, I don't think, an adequate satisfaction of our duty to these budget estimates.
Personally, I thank the minister for her willingness to participate and her patience with me. I would close my remarks with that and hand it over to the member for Burnaby-Edmonds.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: First, I'd like to acknowledge the member opposite who was previously questioning about Citizens' Services and say to him, through you, Madam Chair, thank you very much for acknowledging the hard work of the staff of the ministry, both those who are here with me and those who are behind the scenes. They certainly are a wonderful, dedicated and talented group of people, and it's great to hear them acknowledged.
I would like to take a moment just to introduce some staff from the Ministry of Labour who've joined us. Barb Walman is the assistant deputy minister for labour programs. Trevor Hughes is the assistant deputy minister for industrial relations, and John Blakely is the executive director, labour policy and legislation.
R. Chouhan: Maybe you can instruct some members to be quieter, Madam Chair.
The Chair: I would like to remind some of the members that are in the gallery right now to be a little bit more quiet, please.
Go ahead, Member.
R. Chouhan: Thank you, Madam Chair. I look forward to engaging myself and engaging with the minister and the ministry's staff to talk about the budget estimate portion of the Labour Relations Board, employment standards and Workers Compensation Board.
I also want to thank the staff for taking time to be with us today. I'm sure that you are going to enjoy every moment of it as we will be, the minister and myself.
I will ask the first question. What is the budget for the Labour Relations Board this year under the new budget?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The total gross expenditures for the ministry are $4,181,000. There are total recoveries of $275,000, so the net expenditures estimates are $4.206 million.
R. Chouhan: Could the minister also tell me how many FTEs there are, including the chair, vice-chair, mediation department and support staff. What is the total number of people that work for the Labour Relations Board?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: There are a total of 39 FTEs, and eight of those are OIC appointments.
R. Chouhan: Is there any difference between the FTEs and the OIC appointments this year from the last year?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: There is no change from last year.
R. Chouhan: One more question I was supposed to ask about the budget. That $4-point-some-million budget that we have this year for the labour board…. Is there any change from the last year to this year, or is it the same?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The budget is unchanged from the previous year.
R. Chouhan: Under the eight OIC and other staff that we have at the labour board…. Is there any increase in their compensation this year or any increase in their compensation contemplated in the near future for any of those 47 people who work there?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: To be clear, it is 39 FTEs, of which eight are OICs. There has been no change in the compensation for any of those people and no changes contemplated.
R. Chouhan: Now, how many unfair labour practice complaints were filed last year at the labour board?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: For the calendar year 2010 there were 361. For the calendar year of 2011 we have just information up until September, so I'll give the member opposite the 2010, the full-year number.
R. Chouhan: How many complaints were until September last year?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: There were 166.
R. Chouhan: So that was not even a full year — 166 until September. Could the minister provide me a breakdown of these unfair labour practices and under what section they were filed for last year and also in 2010?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: There are four different categories of complaints of unfair labour practices. The first is "Complaints regarding internal union affairs" — that's under section 10; then "Complaints regarding duty to bargain in good faith," which is section 11; "Complaints regarding duty of fair representation," section 12; and then "Other unfair labour practice complaints," which are sections 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.
R. Chouhan: Could the minister tell me: how many complaints were filed under each of these sections that you have illustrated?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Just to make, actually, not only the member aware but others aware as well, this information is all publicly available on the website, the LRB website. From the period of January 1 to September 30 of 2011, under the category of "Complaints regarding internal union affairs," there were two. Under the "Complaints regarding duty to bargain in good faith," there were 17."Complaints regarding duty of fair representation" — there were 49. And then in the category of "Other unfair labour practice complaints," there were 98.
R. Chouhan: How many applications were made for new certifications for last year?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: For that same time period, from January 1 to September 30 of 2011, there was a total of 96 certification applications.
R. Chouhan: And how many out of 96 were granted?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I'm going to give the member a little bit more information than he asked for, which is quite unusual. So the number of applications that were granted — I'm in a really benevolent mood this evening — was 44. The number that were withdrawn was 25. The number dismissed was 29.
R. Chouhan: I thank the minister for her benevolence. Could the minister be more benevolent and give me the five-year trend, please? How many applications were made, and how many were granted in each of the last five years?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: So on the number of certifications granted, in 2006 there were 89; in 2007, 121; in 2008, 96; in 2009, 88; in 2010, there were 72; and in 2011 there were 58.
R. Chouhan: In the budget, is there a sort of departmental allocation of money for mediation, complaint investigation and adjudication? Or is there just one global budget for LRB, and the chair decides where the money is to be spent? Or is there a division of or allocation of funds for different departments?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The budget is a global budget, and the chair determines where the allocation will be throughout the year.
R. Chouhan: The current location where the Labour Relations Board is situated — how long is that lease for? When is the lease expiring at that current location for LRB offices?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I'm advised that a long-term lease has been signed and that there are either eight or nine years remaining on that lease.
R. Chouhan: Just a couple of questions on that area. Even though there is no change in the budget this year from last year, there is no change in the number of FTEs working there and there is no change contemplated in the compensation for these employees, what about other expenses like hydro, gas, and all that? Those rates must be increasing, as we have seen in other areas.
How will the board budget out of the global budget to deal with those kinds of inflationary costs that they will be experiencing over the next year?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We don't actually have details on the specifics of the budget that the member is alluding to, but the expectation is that the chair would manage within the budget that's been allocated, and it hasn't changed.
R. Chouhan: The eight order-in-council appointments that we talked about earlier — what is the process to make those appointments?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Just like other OIC appointments, or many of them, these appointments are advertised. The board resourcing and development office assists in the selection of candidates, and then those are brought forward to cabinet.
R. Chouhan: In the appointment of the chair of the board, Mr. Brent Mullin, what process was used and what steps were taken when he was reappointed?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: In the case of the chair of the board's reappointment, I was not the minister at the time. I am advised that the minister at the time brought forward the name for reappointment. The decision was made by cabinet, and Mr. Mullin was reappointed.
R. Chouhan: In 2006 when Mr. Mullin was appointed to a second term, that appointment was not supported by either labour or employers. Then the Liberal government told the labour relations community that next time an appointment took place, both the stakeholder communities would be consulted. This time when Mr. Mullin was reappointed, again the labour and employer communities did not approve his appointment. Why was that appointment made again?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: My understanding is that the minister of the day brought forward this appointment, and a decision was taken by cabinet. I don't have any further details than that.
R. Chouhan: The Labour Relations Board regulations state that the chair of the tribunal of the board "may be appointed by the appointing authority, after a merit-based process, to hold office for an initial term of three to five years." What steps were taken to make sure that it was merit-based, when all the stakeholders were saying that he was not suitable for that position?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Hon. Chair, this was a reappointment, and I've given the member opposite as much detail as I can. The reappointment would have been brought forward by the minister of the day. The minister responsible at the time brought it forward to cabinet, and the appointment was made. The decision was made.
R. Chouhan: Could the minister tell me how much the chair is paid, please?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The total compensation is approximately $220,000 annually. I don't have it down to the penny, but this information, again, is publicly available on the website.
R. Chouhan: Are there any other senior officials up for their contract renewals?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: There are three of the OIC appointments that are going to be posted shortly.
R. Chouhan: Could the minister tell me what those positions are, please, so we know on the record?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The positions that will be posted shortly are three of the vice-chair positions.
R. Chouhan: Section 110 of the Labour Code requires appointment of members from the community to participate in the adjudication part of the board work. Are there any members appointed under section 110 currently working for the board?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: There are not currently any community members, and there have not been since 2006.
R. Chouhan: If that section has not been utilized since 2006, I'm sure the labour relations community has been asking for that. Are there any steps the ministry is contemplating or thinking about to make sure that the community's participation is considered under that?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Certainly, with respect to members, I understand that there is interest in seeing members reintroduced on these panels at the LRB. My staff are continuing to review this, looking at some possible options to move forward but recognizing at the same time the difficult fiscal times that we are in at this moment.
R. Chouhan: Now, just about a month ago we have seen the Minister of Labour appointing the assistant deputy minister to assist the teachers and their employers to resolve their dispute or make recommendations as a fact-finder. Under what section of the Labour Code was he appointed?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: This appointment was not done under the Labour Code. This was a request from the Minister of Education, and the assistant deputy minister was asked by me to do an inquiry. So it was not a fact-finder, as we use that language in the code.
R. Chouhan: Would the minister share with us her understanding of section 74 of the Labour Code, please?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Section 74 refers to the ability of the minister to appoint a mediator or, if parties in a dispute request a mediator, for the LRB to appoint a mediator.
R. Chouhan: So when the teachers, their employers, trustees, all asked a mediator to be appointed under section 74, why did the minister not take that opportunity to appoint a mediator under that section?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I believe that this is not a line of questioning that we are actually at liberty to pursue, given that the legislation is currently before the House.
[D. Horne in the chair.]
R. Chouhan: Just one more question. I know we are debating Bill 22. Section 79 also provides opportunity to appoint an industrial inquiry commission in a dispute arising of any nature if parties ask for that. I'm sure that the minister will consider appointing certain individuals under that. Were there any appointments made under section 79 in the last three years?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: In the last three years there's one time that an industrial inquiry commission has been appointed. That was to review service delivery models with respect to the Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia.
R. Chouhan: That for the time being concludes my questions about the Labour Relations Board, so we can move on to the employment standards branch. Do you want to change staff or should I continue?
I have several questions about the Employment Standards Act. Let me go over the list of issues that I have, and then we'll explore them one at a time, individually.
Since 2001 the B.C. Liberal government did a complete overhaul of the B.C. Employment Standards Act by using the term that they wanted to bring more so-called flexibility into the system.
The government reduced the minimum shift from four hours to two. They introduced new overtime-averaging agreements which meant a person could be pressured to work 12 hours a day for seven straight days without being paid any overtime.
The B.C. Liberals also changed the criteria to qualify for statutory holidays with pay. An employee now had to have worked at least 15 of the previous 30 calendar days to qualify.
The government withdrew the requirement for employers to post notices of employees rights in workplaces. They also mandated that any employee who wished to report a violation of the act must first confront their employer on their own, using the complicated 16-page so-called self-help kit, before being allowed to file a complaint with the branch. Complaints plummeted by 46 percent the year these provisions were introduced, and the following year the complaints dropped further, by 61 percent.
The Liberals eliminated the requirement for the director of the employment standards branch to investigate every complaint received. The Liberals created a new fee for persons wishing to appeal a determination of the employment standards branch, and they substantially restricted the grounds for appeal. The government also terminated the skills development and fair wage compliance program, eliminating proactive enforcement of working conditions in the construction sector.
They also reduced the labour protection for children, aged 12 to 15. In the previous government, under the NDP, an employer could not hire a child without first obtaining a permit from the director of the employment standards branch, which required parental and school consent as well as an assurance that the workplace and working conditions would be safe.
The B.C. Liberals replaced this permit system with provisions that allowed children to be hired so long as they had obtained the consent of one parent. This shifted the burden of assessing the safety of working arrangements to parents.
Between 2001 and 2004 the employment standards regulations were amended several times to exclude occupations from some or all of the protections under the act. For example, foster care providers were added to the list of excluded occupations.
Overtime rates of pay were reduced for long-haul truck drivers working more than 60 hours per week. Short-haul truck drivers were excluded from core provisions of the act. Fish farm workers and livestock brand inspectors were excluded from hours of work and overtime provisions. Oil and gas field workers and surface miners were excluded from core provisions of the act. Police recruits were excluded from the prohibition against deductions from wages of employers' costs for training.
The last one that I have on my list: overtime rates of pay were reduced for several categories of oil and gas field workers working 24-hours shifts, taxi drivers working more than 120 hours within a two week period and silviculture workers required to work on statutory holidays.
All these changes took place over the last ten years or so. Is the minister contemplating any action to restore any of these cuts and services that were taken away in the near future?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We're not contemplating making the kind of changes that the member opposite has alluded to in his comments. Certainly, as minister and previous ministers before me we're always interested in hearing from workers and employers regarding improvements that we could make. We're anticipating that we will be hearing ideas and engaging with both employers and workers in the year coming up.
R. Chouhan: We'll explore that further in a few minutes. Let me ask first, what is the budget allocated for the employment standards branch in this year?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The budget for this year is $7.8 million.
R. Chouhan: I assume this is the same as it was from previous years — no change. If that's the case, is there any room for addressing the inflationary costs that may occur this year?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Yes, the budget is the same as last year. Just like other programs and other ministries across government, the expectation is that managers will manage within their budget.
R. Chouhan: How many FTEs are there in the employment standards branch?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: For the most recent five-year period, including 2012-13, the salary budget for the employment standards branch has been relatively consistent. It's been averaging about $6.2 million annually, and the planned resourcing levels over the next three years continue to be stable.
We have a staff complement that has fluctuated between 94 and 105 over the recent five-year period, so it's been a little bit up and down over the last years, including 2012-13. But the average budget has been stable at $6.2 million.
R. Chouhan: Could the minister tell me how many — total number — employment standard branches we have in B.C. now?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The employment standards branch is in nine communities across the province, and those include Victoria, Nanaimo, Richmond, Langley, Kelowna, Nelson, Prince George, Terrace and Dawson Creek.
R. Chouhan: Could the minister give me the number of employment standard officers and industrial relations officers we have, total, in B.C.? Give me the total number.
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The total number of officers is 44.
R. Chouhan: Could the minister provide information about their workload, number of complaints that each officer has dealt with — I hope that information is also publicly available — for the last five years? Has the number of complaints per officer gone up or down? If that information is available, could the minister share that with me, please?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We don't keep these numbers per officer. Some of the issues are much more complicated than others, so we don't do it that way.
What I can tell the member is the complaints received annually. So in 2006-2007 there were 6,540; in 2007-2008 there were 6,359; in '08-09 there were 7,100; in 2009-2010 there were 7,183; and in 2010-11 there were 6,607.
R. Chouhan: How many of these complaints were dealt with directly by an officer, and how many of them were dealt with through a self-help kit?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: We do have information about the self-help kit downloads from the website. I won't read all these numbers into the record, but for the 2010-2011 year, there were 13,139 downloads.
If the complaint is able to be resolved between the employer and the employee using the self-help kit, then those don't ever go forward to become a complaint. So the other numbers I've read with respect to the complaints received doesn't include…. They're separate, in other words. There may have been some people that downloaded the self-help kit, weren't able to accomplish what they needed to and then came forward with the complaint, but they are separate.
R. Chouhan: Can the minister provide me any information breakdown on how many of these self-help kit complaints were resolved? Was the percentage available?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: This is a resource that can be used by employers and employees to resolve disputes directly in an informal way. There is a step-by-step guide. If that process is not successful, then workers can make a formal complaint to the employment standards branch.
We actually don't do any kind of research or monitoring as to what happens when people download the self-help kit. They download it. They are helping themselves. In some cases they may come forward and make a formal complaint. In other cases they may not, but we don't have the data that the member is asking for.
R. Chouhan: So that means the branch will not have any idea about the success rate under the so-called self-help kit mechanism. If there is information available, could the minister share that with us? About how many people would have dropped out of frustration? How many people continued to pursue their case and contacted officers? Were they able to get help when they were helped by a living person rather than the computer self-help kit?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: What I can tell the member opposite is that the vast majority of feedback that we've received on the self-help kit has been very positive. The branch is, however, continually reviewing the kit to see if there is anything that could be done to change it, any changes that would be appropriate. But the vast majority of the feedback has actually been very positive.
R. Chouhan: Let's talk about the self-help kit. For an employee who may not be literate in their own language and has no access to a computer, or is working so long, like a farm worker…. In that case, what steps or what mechanism is available if they need help? They cannot really go to a computer, or they don't know how to use a computer. So what other steps are available for them to help themselves?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Vulnerable employees and those who have language barriers are exempt from the requirement to use the self-help kit. There are various categories of employees that have been exempted from the requirement to utilize the self-help kit. These would include children, agricultural workers, domestics, garment textile workers, or where the issue relates to a leave entitlement.
R. Chouhan: Some people who work in the hospitality industry and restaurants…. I have received some complaints. They are not excluded from that category. When they contacted the employment standards branch to seek repayment of their wages or to recover their lost wages that their employer refused to pay them, they were told they have to go and have a self-help kit and download it from the computer. They had no access. Some of them didn't know how to do it.
So in that situation, could they not also be exempt, and could somebody be available to help them?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: It's not necessary for a worker to download this using a computer. There are hard copies available through the mail or through any of the employment standards branch offices. There is help available for employees either in the offices or via the 1-800 number. In the event that a worker is having a difficulty, they certainly can receive an exemption from using the self-help kit.
We certainly are continuing a number of ways to support education and awareness of employment standards in British Columbia. We collaborate with stakeholders on a variety of education initiatives so that we can increase awareness and compliance, including existing memorandums of understanding with the B.C. Agricultural Council and the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association.
Just to give the member opposite a bit of a highlight, in this past fiscal year the employment standards branch delivered 82 education seminars on the Employment Standards Act to both employer and employee groups. That was as of January 31 of this year. We've got fact sheets and guides available on ESB topics in ten languages. There is information available for teachers to use in the planning 10 course so that high school students will have some knowledge. And we have that 1-800 toll-free information line, which is responding to over 100,000 inquiries each year.
R. Chouhan: I think there is one requirement in this self-help kit that the employee must go back and try to negotiate some kind of a settlement with their employer. In one case, this individual who contacted me was working for a coffee shop — I won't name that place — and she was a young worker. The employer told the employees they must share their tip money with the employer, 50 percent of it. When the employee refused to do it, they threatened to terminate her.
She contacted the employment standards branch, and the employment standards branch said: "Here's the self-help kit. You go try to negotiate with your employer. If you can't do it, come back to us." How can, in this case, an 18-year-old, 17-year-old with the kind of intimidation that she had already experienced with her employer, do that? So she dropped it out of frustration. She didn't pursue it. She contacted me.
So in a situation like that, what is the ministry prepared to do to assist these employees who may not be able to deal with their own employers? What should they do in a situation of that nature?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: What we hope would happen in that situation is that the worker, if they're not able to resolve things using the self-help kit and talking things through with their employer, would come back to the employment standards branch and pursue a complaint if they haven't had a satisfactory resolution.
What we understand from some people who use this kit is that in some cases there is just a misunderstanding of the act between the employer and the worker and that they are able to resolve these just by getting some plain information. In some cases there's an actual misunderstanding of what the act says, and so resolution does come. But in a case like this, what we would hope would happen and what we'd encourage the worker to do is to come back to the branch for assistance, and it would be pursued.
R. Chouhan: I have also had some employees contacting me who, when they contacted the employment standards branch, were told: "Sorry, you have to wait for a long time. We don't have enough staff to help you right away." So the question was asked: how long did they have to wait for this? And they said: "We can't tell you. It could be a week, or it could be weeks."
Can the minister enlighten us? What kind of help is available for an employee who needs immediate help but can't get it?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: My understanding is that the complaints, as they come in, are dealt with in the order in which they came. The target for the employment standards branch is that files will be closed within 180 days. In fact, over 80 percent are, and many of them are resolved much sooner than that.
R. Chouhan: Were there any orders written by officers against any employers in the last year to recover lost wages or compensation?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: In fact, yes. Orders were written regarding recovery of wages. I'm just going to give the member the numbers for the last three years. In 2008-09 the amount of wages recovered was $6.568 million. In 2009-10 it was $7.177 million. And in 2010-11 it was $7.11 million — actually, to be precise, $7,110,651.
R. Chouhan: How many cases were there where the order was written and money still not recovered?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: I'm not going to be able to answer the member's question exactly in the specific way that he's asked it. What I can say is that there are some complaints where money is found to be owing, and it is paid. There are some cases where, in fact, money is not found to be owing when there's a complaint. And there are some cases where money is owed, but it's not collected.
The employment standards branch is extremely diligent, and I think the member opposite is aware of this. They pursue very fiercely moneys that are owed on behalf of employees — where money is owed. But we don't have a specific breakdown in the way that the member has asked.
R. Chouhan: In the past we used to have a practice that if the employer was not willingly paying the wages owed to their employee or employees, the officer or the director had the ability to seize their assets. Do we still have that ability — the director? If he or she does it, how many orders of that nature were written last year?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Yes, the power to seize assets, where assets are available, is definitely still there. We don't have the specific numbers that the member is asking for, but we will try to get those for him and provide them to him.
R. Chouhan: In 2010 Khaira Enterprises, which employed workers in the silviculture industry, had a camp near Golden, and 57 workers were employed. It was found that they were living in squalid conditions, and they were not paid. When that case became public, the employer declared bankruptcy.
In a situation like that, what remedy do employees have to recover their wages from an employer like that?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: In this case there were some assets that the employment standards branch went after. They obtained some moneys, but the member opposite has rightly stated that the business in question is out of business, bankrupt, and there are not any known assets. Neither the organization nor any of the directors is known to have any assets that could be sold in order to provide the outstanding balance to these workers.
Certainly, the employment standards branch vigorously pursued payment on behalf of these workers, and approximately $126,000 has been disbursed to date — all the moneys that we were able to obtain.
R. Chouhan: My understanding is that only $105,000 was recovered and $130,000 is still owed, outstanding to the workers. That money has not been paid. What steps is the minister taking to ensure that the remainder of the wages is recovered and paid to the workers? Are there any steps being taken?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The numbers that I have are that $126,000 has been disbursed to the 46 workers. There is an outstanding balance of $115,000, and the branch is continuing to pursue this outstanding balance. However, there is a bankrupt business, and there aren't any other assets that we know of. So at this point there's no other money that can be disbursed to these workers.
R. Chouhan: Are there any other companies in situations similar to Khaira Enterprises that we have seen?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: The answer is yes. There have been circumstances like this before. I don't have any specific examples, but there have been cases where moneys have been owed to workers and assets have been seized to pay them. There have been cases where there has been a bankruptcy or there were not enough assets to cover the costs, so there has been money owed to workers which has not been paid to them.
R. Chouhan: Can the minister advise us if there is any system in place or if there are any steps that the minister is taking to ensure that when an employer like Khaira Enterprises declares bankruptcy, the workers' wages are secured and they are able to get that money back? Is there any ability that these workers have, under the current system, to help themselves?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: Just speaking specifically about the situation with these employees at Khaira, on March 8 of 2011 the employment standards branch issued determinations for personal liability against two of the directors of the company because there were insufficient assets recovered from the company to cover the total amount of wages that were found owing to the workers.
In the event that there aren't sufficient corporate assets to satisfy the claim once the appeal's been resolved, the director of employment standards can pursue collection against the personal assets of the company directors. A director and/or officer of the company can be liable for up to two months' wages owed to each employee.
When one of the directors in this case tried to transfer his assets, namely his home, into the name of his spouse, the director of employment standards immediately filed a court action to have the transfer of the assets declared invalid. The branch has now settled the court case and received payment, and the amount of payment that was available was disbursed to the employees.
There are situations where there's bankruptcy or there are inadequate assets or some combination thereof, and at times workers do not receive all of the wages owing to them. What I'd like to be really clear about is that the employment standards branch does everything they possibly can. Understanding how important this is, they're very diligent in really leaving no stone unturned in order to obtain payment for workers when it's owed to them.
R. Chouhan: Does the B.C. government require a bond in this case, when silviculture employees are hired, employers hire them to work for them…? In the U.S.A. some states require 10 percent of the amount of the contract to be deposited as a bond. If the employer goes bankrupt, then the workers' wages will be paid out of that money that they have deposited in advance.
Are there any steps taken like that? Do we have a situation in British Columbia where employers are required to deposit a bond so workers' wages can be safe and secure?
Hon. M. MacDiarmid: In the area of silviculture, such bonds are not required to be posted. However, under the Employment Standards Act with respect to farm labour contractors, it is required.
Noting the hour, I move that the committee rise, report progress on the Ministry of Labour, Citizens' Services and Open Government and seek leave to sit again.
The committee rose at 8:44 p.m.
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