Improving the Wob [The Dutch FOIA]

In The Netherlands we are in the midst of a mini-tsunami of Wob [FOIA] developments. Three different types of lobby merge, and are now at the brink of enforcing each other:

  • Charging for processing Wob-requests
  • A new Wob
  • Convention on Access to Official Document of the CoE

All three types of lobby started last year, on different tracks, and are now enforced by different developments:

Charging for processing Wob-requests

About a year ago 15% of the municipalities suddenly started to charge for processing Wob-request. This move was based on an advice of a bit a peculiar municipality service body, the VNG, and not based on any legal ground [in fact nothing in the legal Wob framework including jurisprudence regarding costs changed during the last 30 years / in fact the memorandum of the Wob forbids to charge.]

The first court battle against this illegal charging is won. The municipality [Kaag en Braassem] decided not to appeal. They neglected the strong appeal lobby by the VNG.

A lot of charging cases are still in courts at this moment that is why answers, last week, by the minister of internal affairs in parliament on this topic are very remarkable. He does not yet say explicitly that the charging is illegal but his answers are hopeful and much more positive than answers to about the same questions about a year ago before the court battles started.

A new Wob

Since last autumn a parliament member of GreenLeft, Mariko Peters, worked on amendments to improve the Wob. Ten days ago she launched her 10 point plan. In the making of the plan she talked with a lot of experts in and outside The Netherlands, a.o. an information commissioner in the UK and CoE people, had an own assistant solely for this topic [quit unusual in my country] and two advisors: Administrative law professor Bern van der Meulen [write of a draft for a new Wob a couple of years ago, called Awo, which for imperious governance reasons and because of strong opposition of a Labour minister, Guusje ter Horst, ended in an archive without ever being on a parliament or cabinet agenda] and me.

Mariko’s plan has found a warm welcome, amongst requesters, legal people, lots of Wob-servants and in parliament [among them even members of Labour].

A lot of work, the largest part even, still has to be done. It will take 1-2 years to implement improve-ments in the Wob or the replace the Wob by a better one. The 10 points plan are just a start. Topics now starting being debated are for instance:

  • Active transparency level declined under the very imperious cabinets of the christian democrat prime minister Balkenende
  • Aarhus is not fully implemented
  • The administrative complaint procedure is not strong enough and is in urgent need of the information commissioner
  • Notification system
  • More power for the Wob-servants
  • More Wob servants [of the matured FOIA countries we have the fewest]
  • Less and better defined exemptions
  • Not only in charge for public bodies, but also for bodies with a public task [like public transport, hospitals, catholic schools [public school are under the power of the Wob], etc]

Convention on Access to Official Documents of the CoE

The Netherlands was a couple of years ago one of the initiators of what is now this new convention. October last year the minister of internal affairs Guusje ter Horst announced in parliament that The Netherlands was not going to sign the convention [in het remark was for formal reasons a backdoor, but het statement was very very clear].

For other reasons she had to step down a couple of months ago. Immediate after this happy event civil servants started preparing for signing the convention. This process will take about a year. First of all some changes have to be made in our Wob but second we have now a collapsed government with next week elections and after that we will have to face a months consuming coalition making festival.

I am sorry to say but the Dutch Labour party [PvdA] is THE enemy of the Wob, not their individual parliamentarians but their transparency footprint in cabinets is terrible. That was in the seventies of last century the case: For years and years Labour, and especially Joop den Uyl [a.o. Prime Minister] in person delayed approval of the Wob which came into power at last in May 1980 via a christian democrat Prime Minister. Since than Labour stood up against transparency several time with as champion the recently stepped down minister Guusje ter Horst.

Some similarities with the situation in the UK is striking, see other articles in this issue of Fringe Spitting on Cons/LibDem FOIA initiatives.

As said: Three merging and each other enforcing lobbies

Almost all is looking good, but al lot of work has to be done and results will be reached not within a year. The research, litigation and lobby to enforce this al started by

  • GreenLeft [now supported by members of other parties] advised by Bernd van der Meulen and me;
  • Requesters/practitioners like Brenno de Winter and me.
  • All from the beginning on the background supported by the NVJ, and a bit by the VVOJ [both organizations of journalists] is now gaining support, for instance of the organization of chief editors.

But there are also problems which have to be addressed. For instance: The university of Utrecht is studying so-called misuse of the Wob. The stepped down minister, yes her again!, wanted this study in order to create tools to decline the number of Wob-requests. First she asked the university of Leiden to do the survey, but they refused!. Second she found the university of Utrecht willing to search for munition to fight…. vexatious requests.

Resume

The sun is shining [next year].

2 reacties op Improving the Wob [The Dutch FOIA]

  1. Is er enige informatie over wie het genoemde onderzoek naar ‘Wob-misbruik’ bij de Univ Utrecht uitvoert en wanneer het klaar zou moeten zijn?

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