Parliament approves wide-ranging legislation including Freedom of Information Act
The Gibraltar Parliament passed several substantive pieces of legislation yesterday including ‘ground breaking’ freedom of information laws.
The House also unanimously passed nine pieces of legislation including amendments to the Tobacco Act and European Parliamentary Elections Act as well as a new Heritage and Antiquities Act and a Cemeteries Act.
The GSD Opposition abstained from the vote on an overhauled Immigration and Asylum legislation, citing the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo’s explanation on certain aspects of it.
The legislation was nonetheless passed by government majority.
The Government first published a Bill for a Freedom of Information Act in December 2015.
Explaining why the legislation had not been taken sooner, Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Gracia said its passage to the statute books was held up largely as a result of representations received from the UK Government.
These centred on the application of the legislation to the office of the Governor and to communications between the Convent and the UK.
This led to “lengthy discussions” before a new wording was agreed between the two governments.
But its passing yesterday means Gibraltarians will have access to a mass of government information held by public authorities.
The legislation will allow access to data held by the government and will establish a ‘right-to-know’ legal process where requests for government information may be made.
“We are breaking new ground here in Gibraltar with this legislation,” Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Gracia said in presenting the Bill to the House.
“This is the first time that Freedom of Information will go down on our statute books.”
He further explained that Gibraltar’s legislation, like that of the UK, will not be set in stone.
“It is essential that the workings of the Act are properly monitored,” Dr Garcia explained.
The GSD supported the Bill although Leader of the Opposition Elliott Phillips commented that as currently drafted the Bill could do with “more fleshing out”.
IMMIGRATION AND ASYLUM
New legislation updating and streamlining Gibraltar’s immigration and asylum legislation was also passed yesterday, despite the GSD’s six MPs abstaining from the vote.
The Act is intended to provide a clear and positive framework for those foreign nationals who represent key contributors to Gibraltar’s workplace and economy.
In presenting the Bill to the House Mr Picardo said it would provide an asylum and humanitarian protection regime based on the highest international standards but at the same time provides a robust system for the refusal of entry and residence and the removal of those persons whose contribution to or presence in Gibraltar is not acceptable or a threat to the safety and security of the community.
Setting out the GSD’s stance on the updated legislation Daniel Feetham said there was much to be welcomed given that the Bill modernises a “woefully out of date” piece of legislation.
But he flagged how Gibraltarians have an automatic right to live and work in the UK and expressed unease that this would not be reciprocated here after the Bill becomes law.
Currently, EU nationals also have the right to live and work in Gibraltar by virtue of EU law.
He suggested that it has been possible for Gibraltar to discriminate against British nationals because EU law only protects against discrimination on the grounds of nationality and not own nationals, although this has not been done.
“What happens to a British national that is resident in the UK, that wants to come to Gibraltar and reside in Gibraltar,” he asked.
Mr Feetham said the GSD abstained because it was not satisfied with Mr Picardo’s explanation as to why it is necessary to potentially discriminate against British nationals or what steps the government will take to prevent this.
Additionally, he questioned why it was appropriate to do this at this stage when it is still unclear what level of access British citizens will have in the EU post-Brexit.
Mr Picardo underscored that there is “absolutely no desire on the part of the government to send any signal to the UK and its citizens other than that of deep friendship and continued partnership going forward.”
Nor, he said, was there any intention to change the right of abode that UK born British citizens may have in Gibraltar in the future.
Legislation to strengthen anti-smuggling laws and aid the authorities in combating illicit tobacco activity was also unanimously passed by Parliament yesterday.
The Bill amends the Tobacco Act, 1997 to extend the power to search without a warrant to premises that are licensed under the Act.
Additionally, government projects will now be subject to the full planning process under the Development and Planning Commission.
This follows the passing of legislation revising the law governing planning and development.
The legislation modernises and strengthens the law on Town Planning with the majority of changes concerning development controls.
Changes include amendments to the publicity of applications in order to provide a clear step by step procedure to applicants intending to apply for planning permission – something that was absent in the present Town Planning Act 1999.
Offences of carrying out a development without full planning permission is also contained within the legislation as well as failing to comply with any condition subject to which planning permission has been granted and carrying out development in contravention of any regulations made under the Bill.