Written Answers. - Freedom of Information Act.

Trevor Sargent

Question:

514 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Finance his views of the operation to date of the Freedom of Information Act, 1997; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1985/99]

I am pleased to take this opportunity to set out some details on the operation of the Freedom of Information Act to date.

Regarding the scope of the Act, as the Deputy will be aware the Act commenced on 21 April 1998 for Government Departments and offices. Subsequently the local authorities and health boards come within the scope of the Act on 21 October last. The Deputy will also be aware that my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, has recently announced the extension of the Act into the wider health sector over the coming months.

Regarding usage of the Act provisional figures for the end of 1998 suggest that approximately 3,200 FOI requests have been received by public bodies. Of these approximately 62 per cent were from individuals seeking information about themselves; approximately 18 per cent were from journalists; approximately 14 per cent were seeking business information; and approximately 6 per cent were from Oireachtas Members.

Figures suggest that 65 per cent of requests were granted in full or in part, 20 per cent refused and the balance were being processed.

Regarding the level of appeals the Act provides for internal review of initial decisions made by a public body. Internal review must normally be undertaken before an appeal may be made to the Information Commissioner. Of the order of 13 per cent or requests have been the subject of internal review. In general, review at this level has been quite effective. It provides public bodies with an opportunity to monitor the quality of their primary decisions and to identify and correct problems or inconsistencies with their decision making process.

The Act establishes the Office of Information Commissioner to act as the independent review mechanism for FOI. The number of appeals to the Information Commissioner have been quite low. Of the requests made under the Act, of the order of 6 per cent FOI requests have been appealed to the Commissioner. The IC has made approximately 20 findings to date. Over the coming months, the findings of the commissioner will provide a valuable source of guidance as to interpretation and understanding of the various provisions of the Act.
Regarding experience to date with the Act it is fair to acknowledge that, in its early days, FOI poses considerable challenges for public bodies. Our experience to date suggest that it is the complex nature of requests rather than the number received which has proved challenging for public bodies. The Act requires public officials to balance carefully the access rights in the Act against public interest considerations and individual's right to privacy. This has proved to be a complex task, particularly where the decision maker is called upon to decide on competing rights which are finely balanced.
Departments have found that many requesters are willing to enter into dialogue with FOI officers on the scope and nature of the information sought. This results in benefits for everyone.
Fees charged under the Act to date have generally been minimal.
Overall, there is considerable interest in and usage by the public of the Act. This trend seems set to continue for the future in line with experience abroad.