Canada’s Information Commissioner says the integrity of the access-to-information system is deteriorating, and warns that without immediate substantive repairs, “the health of our Canadian democracy is at risk.”

In her annual report to Parliament, tabled Thursday, Suzanne Legault says federal institutions are taking too long to respond to information requests, and in some cases are not responding at all, which is a violation of the Access to Information Act.

Legault put responsibility for the problems squarely on Treasury Board President Tony Clement, saying it is he and his department “that should be accountable for the performance of the access to information system.”

Legault said in her near seven years with the department, she has not seen erosion in the system as great as what has occurred in the last year.

“The faltering in the system is actually quite dramatic and it’s not getting better,” Legault told reporters at a news conference on Parliament Hill.

“That is what my concern is, that is what I said to the minister, and I said to the minister that I would hold him accountable publicly.”

Clement defended the government’s “very, very good” record on access to information when asked by reporters about Legault’s comments.

He said government departments received a record 54,000 requests last year, totalling six million pages of information.

"We take the law seriously, and of course we'll always look for ways to do better,” Clement said.

Legault said there are many occasions when federal departments are not following the requirement under the Act to respond to a request within 30 days or indicate whether they plan to seek an extension to deal with the request.

In other cases, she said, it takes as long as six months to acknowledge a request, or as long as three years.

Yet other cases included departments missing deadlines they had negotiated with her office for handing over information on requests that were long overdue. Other institutions denied requests without having first reviewed the documents in question.

In addition to poor leadership from the government, Legault blamed the problems with the system on budget cuts that have left institutions too under-staffed to deal with requests in a timely manner.

Legault said the problems have led to a spike in complaints to her office. Complaints were up by nine per cent in 2012-2013 and were up 50 per cent in the first quarter of this fiscal year.

Legault’s recommendations include:

  • greater accountability for the system by the federal government;
  • increased funding for staff to handle access-to-information requests;
  • an overhaul of the Access to Information Act itself, including extending its mandate to cover parliamentarians.

On Thursday, Legault also said the Treasury Board could have a kind of “SWAT team” that could assist departments when they are swamped by a high volume of requests.

Clement told reporters that he has asked his deputy minister to look into that particular recommendation.

“If there are some staffing issues that we can deal with, we can deal with those,” he said.

NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus noted Thursday that Legault’s report is “some of the strongest language we’ve ever seen from a parliamentary officer.”

Earlier this month, Legault told CTV’s Question Period that parliamentarians’ expenses “should be covered” by the legislation, so Canadians can see exactly what lawmakers are spending their tax dollars on.

"I think there should be protection for parliamentary privilege, and I think that can be provided for with appropriate exemptions under the Act," Legault told Question Period. "But yes, definitely, I think the public has the right to know how their dollars are being spent by our parliamentarians."

Currently, the annual House of Commons Members’ Expenditure Report breaks down expenses in six categories, but only the total amount is listed. The report does not include information about exactly where that money went.

On Thursday, Legault said she was disappointed that government’s Speech from the Throne was “silent on matters of transparency and accountability.”

She said she is preparing to table recommendations to upgrade the Act, which will include a recommendation that the law be changed to include parliamentarians.