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Freedom of Information should be extended to all new bodies – Finance Committee report

Freedom of Information should be extended to all new bodies and certain existing exemptions (see note for editors below) should be removed, according to a report from the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform.

26 June 2013

This is a finding in line with the Information Commissioner’s Report: Third Report of the Information Commissioner to the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform for the purpose of Review of Non-Disclosure Provisions in accordance with The Freedom of Information Act, 1997 [section 32] – May 2013.

In the Committee’s report on the Draft Heads of the General Scheme of the Freedom of Information Bill 2012, the Committee said there should be two principal forms of exception under the Freedom of Information Act:

  • There must be absolute exceptions for national security and;
  • There must also be qualified exceptions which are the subject of a Public Interest Test. This test should require the public body to state publically the reason why it should not release information.

The legislation must make decision makers recognise that Freedom of Information is about public interest and the presumption must be that openness is better than non-disclosure, according to the Committee report. As Irish Secretary of the National Union of Journalists Séamus Dooley commented at the Committee hearings, while FOI legislation is useful for journalists, it is not designed for them – rather it is designed for all citizens.

The Committee recommends separate legislation for access to both public and official information held by public bodies as distinct from legislation for ‘personal information’ held by both public and private bodies – thereby mirroring the UK where data protection is used for ‘personal information’ and FOI for access to public and official info held by public bodies. As  Ed Hammond from the Centre for Public Scrutiny in the UK advised the Joint Committee “It is about getting public servants and elected officials to realise that freedom of information legislation sits as part of a wider landscape of transparency and accountability.”

The Committee agreed that monopoly semi-state providers should have to comply to the rigours of the FOI, new bodies should have to comply with FOI from day one and commercial semi-states where there are alternative providers should have a limited inclusion. Irish Water is an example of a new body which should have to comply with FOI legislation.

If fees are to be continued, consideration should be given to a one-off registered user fee which could be renewed each year. This is particularly important for freelance journalists and regional media.

Committee Chairman Ciarán Lynch said: “This Report forms part of the initial stages of a wider legislative process. The Joint Committee considers that information given in isolation and with no context is worse than useless because it encourages complacency and the misapprehension that we are being transparent. Freedom of Information is about culture. Opening up is as much about linking data as it is about publishing more data. Government and public bodies possess enormous amounts of data. The challenge is about linking the data so as to make it more useful and accessible, allowing policy makers, those who invigilate policy makers and legislators to draw the correct conclusions.”

Among the report’s other conclusions are:

  • The Committee recommends that the legislation addresses inconsistencies in the application of FOI among state bodies and that a subsequent oversight group be established to make recommendations for the training of officers and interpretation of the legislation.
  • The Committee recommends that the legislation should include a requirement to have ongoing training for all FOI officers.
  • The Committee said there must be a consistency of interpretation, standards and application across all Government Departments and public bodies covered by the  legislation.
  • The Committee recommends the implementation of a ‘review process’ so as to avoid the ‘big bang’ approach of new legislation every five or ten years.
  • The Joint Committee favoured fines over the binary restrictions of a criminal charge and  recommends that the legislation should have the power to sanction and fine bodies when they are deemed to be non-compliant.

The Joint Committee recommends that any legislation should address the provision of information in machine readable formats.

Download Report on hearings in relation to the Draft General Scheme of FOI Bill

Committee Chairman Ciarán Lynch TD outlines the report’s findings in this YouTube clip.

For further information please contact:

Ciaran Brennan,
Houses of the Oireachtas,
Communications Unit,
Leinster House,
Dublin 2

P: +3531 618 3903
M: 086-0496518
F: +3531 618 4551

Note for Editors

As an example - the Dentists Act and Nurses Act and information relating to fitness to practise inquiries should be removed. The Department hold that the non-disclosure provision should remain whereas the Information Commissioner considers that fitness to practise inquiries has a major public interest element.


Committee Membership

Deputies

Richard Boyd-Barrett, People Before Profit
Michael Creed, Fine Gael
Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein
Stephen Donnelly, Independent
Timmy Dooley, Fianna Fáil
Sean Fleming, Fianna Fáil
Simon Harris, Fine Gael
Joe Higgins, Socialist Party
Heather Humphreys, Fine Gael
Kevin Humphreys, Labour Party
Peter Mathews, Fine Gael
Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein
Ciarán Lynch, Labour Party (Chairman)
Michael McGrath, Fianna Fáil
Dara Murphy, Fine Gael
Kieran O’Donnell, Fine Gael
Aodhán O Ríordáin, Labour
Arthur Spring, Labour Party
Brian Stanley, Sinn Féin
Billy Timmins, Fine Gael
Liam Twomey, Fine Gael

Senators

Sean D Barrett
Thomas Byrne
Paul Coghlan
Michael D’Arcy
Aideen Hayden
Tom Sheahan