Civil society groups decry N’Assembly’s refusal to disclose own budget details
SOME civil society organisations are posed for a showdown with the National Assembly over its alleged refusal to make public its budget details on the basis that they contain personal, third party-related and privileged information.
BudgIT, in collaboration with Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC), said it made a Freedom of Information
(FoI) request to the Clerk of the National Assembly (NASS), requesting information about the performance report for National Assembly budget of N150 billion for 2011, 2012 and 2013.
The groups said the request was made following the long-standing secrecy around the budget of the National Assembly.
Operations Lead, BudgIT Nigeria, Stanley Achonu, said: “From 1999 to date, an estimated budgetary provision of N1.26 trillion has been made to the National Assembly, with Nigerians kept in the dark on what or how this huge sum was spent.
“On April 27, a response letter, dated March 23, 2015, was received from the Legal Services Department of the NASS refusing this request on the basis that some of the information in the National Assembly budget for 2011-2014 is “personal, third party-related and privileged and are all exempted under Sections 14 and 15 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 and that the other information you requested for are published and available in public libraries and cannot be applied for by virtue of Section 26 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011”
On its decision to go to court, BudgIT said: “Section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011 exempts personal information, including ‘files and personal information maintained with respect to clients, students, patients, residents, students or individuals receiving social, medical, educational, vocational, financial, supervisory or custodial care or services directly or indirectly from public institutions, personnel files and personal information maintained with respect to employees, appointees or elected officials of any public institution or applicant for such positions, files and personal information maintained with respect to any applicant, registrant or licensee by any government or public institution co-operating with or engaged in professional or occupational registration, licensure or discipline; information required of any tax-payer in connection with the assessment or collection of any tax unless disclosure is otherwise requested by the statute; and information revealing the identity of persons who file complaints with or provide information to administrative, investigative, law enforcement or penal agencies on the commission of any crime.”
The statement noted: “Although it is inconceivable how a budget would fall under these categorisations in Section 14 or 15 of the FoIA that have been relied on by the National Assembly, it must also be noted that the Act in Section 14 (3) requires disclosure of personal information as described in Section 14(1) quoted above if such disclosure would be in the public interest and if the disclosure clearly outweighs the protection of privacy. Likewise, Section 15(4) also requires disclosure of information in Section 15 (1) if the public interest in the disclosure clearly outweighs in importance any financial loss or gain to, or prejudice to the competitive position of or interference with contractual or other negotiation of a third party.
“BudgIT and PPDC categorically state, with great professional restraint, that the response by the National Assembly is outrageous as there are no grounds (even Section 14 and 15) to deny the information requested. Rather, all elements of public budgets fall squarely under information that are statutorily required to be proactively available as provided by Section 2 (3) of the Freedom of Information Act 2011.
“Both organisations are shocked at the reasons put forward by the Acting Director for Litigation and Counselling, Mr. Charles Yoila, on behalf of the Clerk of the National Assembly. It is a basic fact that the budgets of public institutions are public documents and generally contain no personal, third party or privileged information.
Detailed breakdowns of all budgetary allocations to the Presidency are publicly available on the BudgIT website and contains none of the data stated in the section Mr. Yoila has quoted. In the most extreme circumstances worldwide, information released under FoI, which contains sensitive information like individuals’ personal addresses or financial information, may have only these sections redacted prior to release. But usually, nowhere in budgets does such person-specific information exist, and neither did the NASS proffer specific examples.”
The groups, therefore, described the response by the National Assembly as “yet another crutch”, saying: “BudgIT and PPDC are shocked that four years after the FoI Act was passed into law, this puerile response is coming from an institution no less than the NASS, which itself passed this law.
In the strongest terms, we condemn the Clerk of the National Assembly for persistently treating the NASS budget as a secret document, and for blindly reeling out words from this law to deprive the public of vital information.
“BudgIT and PPDC put it on the record that because the era of treating the public’s requests for information with disdain must end, this is a challenge we relish and will see to its logical conclusion.” On behalf of every Nigerian, see you in court.”