The following opinion and response was published last week by the Western Australian Auditor General in relation to a decision by Fire and Emergency Services Minister Hon Fran Logan MLA to not provide Parliament with information about locations identified as the next priority for a Volunteer Fire and Rescue Station or Career Fire and Rescue Station.
The decision by the Minister for Emergency Services, the Hon Francis Logan MLA, not to provide Parliament with information about locations identified as the next priority for a Volunteer Fire and Rescue Station or a Career Fire and Rescue Station was not reasonable and therefore not appropriate as the information was already publicly available.
On 18 October 2017, as part of 2017-18 Estimates and Financial Operations Committee Budget Estimates Hearings, the Hon Martin Aldridge MLC, asked the Minister for Emergency Services for the following information (additional question 2a):
- I refer to any plans that the department has for assessing risk and other measures for the future location of fire stations and other emergency services and I ask:
(a) Which locations are identified as the next priority for a Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service Station or a Career Fire and Rescue Service Station.
On 8 November 2017, the Minister declined to give this information, replying:
The details requested are considered Cabinet in confidence. These decisions will be announced in due course.
As per the 2017/18 budget estimates, the Cockburn Central Career Fire and Rescue Service Station commencing 2017-18 is the next priority (this is a replacement for Success CFRS Station).
On 8 January 2018, the Auditor General received the Minister’s notification of his decision not to provide the requested information in accordance with section 82 of the FM Act.
The decision by the Minister not to provide the requested information was not reasonable and therefore not appropriate.
The Minister properly sought advice from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (Department) before responding to the request. The Department recommended that the Minister decline to provide the information as it formed part of the Department’s Strategic Asset Plan (SAP) which it considers Cabinet-in-confidence. The Department’s advice to the Minister did not consider the option of releasing information that was already publicly available, not commercially sensitive or would not reveal the deliberations or decisions of Cabinet.
In advising the Minister, the Department relied on June 2016 advice received from the Department of Treasury that a SAP, developed as part of the annual Budget process to inform Cabinet decision-making, is classified as Cabinet-in-confidence.
In considering the Minister’s decision, we followed the approaches laid out in our previous Opinions on Ministerial Notifications dealing with Cabinet confidentiality, the core principle of which is to protect information that would reveal deliberations and decisions of Cabinet.
We assessed the requested information against the following Cabinet confidentiality considerations:
- Is part or all of the information publicly available?
- Was the information created for the purpose of informing Cabinet or being discussed in Cabinet? Does it include policy options or recommendations prepared for submission to Cabinet?
- Does the information contain material that would reveal the deliberations and decisions of Cabinet?
- Did the Minister consider providing any sections of the information that would not reveal deliberations and decisions of Cabinet?
We found the information did not meet our first consideration. The Department told us that the information was contained in its SAP which it considers Cabinet-in-confidence. The part of the SAP the Department allowed us to view listed a number of locations for fire station redevelopments, refurbishments and new facilities. We found these had not been before Cabinet at the time the Minister declined to provide the information and that nearly all the locations had been disclosed to Parliament in 2015.
This Office has expressed a view in prior Opinions on Ministerial Notifications that consideration by Cabinet is only one of the purposes of a SAP. We recommend agencies assess what information contained in their SAPs can be provided to Parliament such as information that is already public or that would not reveal the deliberations and decisions of Cabinet.
During our inquiry the Department also directed us to Cabinet documents that listed 6 fire station locations. These locations were all generally known or ascertainable at the time the Minister declined to provide the information as they were listed in the Department’s 2017-18 budget papers, covering the period up to the 2020-21 forward estimates.
The Minister’s decision not to release the information was not reasonable and therefore not appropriate because the information was already publicly available.
The Office of the Auditor General, Report 18: Opinions on Ministerial Notifications, 11 August 2016.
Response from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) considers that the Minister’s decision not to disclose information contained within the Strategic Asset Plan as to future priority fire station locations was reasonable given that the information requested was prepared to inform decisions by Cabinet and the Minister.
DFES followed the advice provided by the Department of Treasury that the Strategic Asset Plan developed as part of the annual budget process is to be marked as ‘Cabinet-in-confidence’ and as such it was not appropriate to release the information requested.
DFES will continue to review its procedures regarding Parliamentary requests for information to ensure it meets its obligations to keep Parliament appropriately informed.