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Thursday, June 08, 2006

NSW FOI Act new exemption on back of tough juvenile detention law

There has been a little publicity about the passage of legislation this week described as “toughening up” the NSW juvenile detention system. Buried away in the fine print of the Children (Detention Centres) Amendment Bill, and not mentioned in the media report is a provision that will add a new exemption to the FOI Act for documents held by the Drug Intelligence Unit of the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Parliament’s Legislation Review Committee made no comment on this aspect of the Bill – it did draw attention to the fact that new powers to hold juveniles in solitary confinement could be seen to be a breach of Australia’s obligations under international law regarding the treatment of children; and wondered whether compulsory drug and alcohol testing of staff was an invasion of privacy.

In any event the Bill sailed through the Assembly, was the subject of more spirited debate in the Council but nevertheless was passed without amendment.

The only Government speaker who commented about the FOI Amendment was the Member for Peats Marie Andrews who said in the Legislative Assembly debate that the new exemption would bring the Unit into line with the State Crime Command of NSW Police, and the Corrections Intelligence Group at Corrective Services that were already exempted through special provisions in the FOIA. It would ensure the consistent and free flow of information among three intelligence units “and ensure that intelligence is not compromised, especially in regard to counterterrorist measures”.

In the Council Lee Rhiannnon of the NSW Greens said that the exemption was another illustration of government preference for secrecy. She said that any highly sensitive document could be claimed to be exempt in the usual way -“providing a blanket exemption is just lazy administration and is symptomatic of a Government fearful of scrutiny”.

There is not much of an explanation available publicly about what, if any problems Juvenile Justice faced in dealing with FOI applications without the benefit of this specific exemption. The Department’s annual reports for the last three years reveal about 20 applications a year with a fairly high percentage refused in full or in part but only two internal review requests in three years, one complaint to the Ombudsman and one ADT review. The three reports all include a comment that the FOIA has had no adverse effect on operations.

Yes, there were a few voices of concern raised during Council debate about the effect of harsher detention laws on children held in detention but its now the law.

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