Ceisteanna – Questions. - Freedom of Information Act.

Michael Noonan

Question:

6 Mr. Noonan asked the Taoiseach the total number of freedom of information requests received by his Department during 2000; the number of such requests granted; the proportion of requests made by members of the media; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6722/01]

Denis Naughten

Question:

7 Mr. Naughten asked the Taoiseach the number of applications made to his Department under the Freedom of Information Act, 1997, in the past 12 months; the number of applications outstanding; the average time taken to process and adjudicate on applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7578/01]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 7 together.

A total of 187 freedom of information requests were received in my Department during 2000. A further 65 applications were received in January and February 2001, making a total of 252 applications received in the 14 months ended 28 February 2001. A decision was taken to grant the request in 100 cases and to part grant it in 46. Of the remaining 106 cases, 18 were refused, no records were held in respect of 46, 18 were transferred, 12 were withdrawn and 12 are ongoing.

I do not have an exact average of the time taken to process and adjudicate on applications. However, in most cases the statutory 28 days are required to process a request. The number of requests made by journalists in 2000 was 99 or 53% of total applications. Requests received by my Department are processed in accordance with the Act, the implementation of which in my Department is reviewed on an ongoing basis.

The Taoiseach will recall that last April, after a number of civil servants destroyed their 1999 diaries which had been requested under the Freedom of Information Act, he gave a commitment that the Government would consider new guidelines on record keeping for civil servants. Has the Government done so?

As I understand it, departmental diaries were to be retained while personal diaries were a matter for the individuals concerned.

The Taoiseach promised he would introduce a directive which would establish new guidelines for the keeping of records by civil servants as there was concern at the time—

Under the Freedom of Information Act.

No. The problem arose from the fact that civil servants had destroyed diaries which were requested under the Freedom of Information Act. The Taoiseach gave a commitment that new guidelines would be brought in to deal with the keeping of records by civil servants. Have such guidelines been introduced?

This question relates to the Freedom of Information Act and to what matters should be held as coming under the Act so that it is fully complied with. I do not recall the details concerning the destruction of diaries last April. If the Deputy wishes, I will consult on what action has been taken. The personal diaries of civil servants are not available under the Act. The departmental diaries—

I am not asking about that.

The Deputy is asking whether I issued a directive that departmental diaries or records be maintained. The answer to that is yes in relation to the Freedom of Information Act, which is complied with. Last April it was said that departmental diaries should be maintained. I can confirm that for Deputy Noonan if he wishes.

The Taoiseach's reply is tending to confuse rather than elucidate. Has the Taoiseach issued guidelines on record keeping in the Civil Service which he committed to issue at the time there was controversy about diaries?

The question refers to requests, not to guidelines.

If Deputy Noonan puts down a question on the subject I will answer it. I was trying to help, not confuse.

These questions clearly relate to requests.

Is the Taoiseach aware of the concerns expressed on a number of occasions by the Information Commissioner regarding the serious backlog in processing requests under the Freedom of Information Act, not only because of the increase in applications but also because of the chronic shortage of staff? Is the Taoiseach aware that within the Information Commissioner's office there is now a two-year delay in processing and dealing with appeals due to staff shortages? What measures are to be put in place to ensure that this matter is rectified?

I can only answer for my own Department, but this does not seem to be the case. The Department of the Taoiseach has only two cases where the standard 28-day period has elapsed. This delay has occurred where the officials dealing with the matters have had to consider the implications for third parties of the release of material in accordance with the requirements of the Act. If the difficulty which Deputy Naughten refers to arises elsewhere, it does not do so in the operation of the Act in my Department.

In view of the foot and mouth crisis and the widespread concern about animal health, is the Taoiseach concerned about the recent refusal of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development to identify the location of 536 BSE positive cattle carcases under the Freedom of Information Act? Does the Taoiseach think it is in the public interest—

The Deputy should put down a separate question on that issue.

The Taoiseach might like to reply.

That is not the point. The question is out of order. The Deputy should comply with the Chair's ruling.

It is a legitimate supplementary question.

The Chair has ruled that it is not and the Chair's word is final on the matter.

In relation to the information commission, does the Taoiseach believe the ongoing delays of up to two years in dealing with appeals are acceptable? The commission deals with all Government Departments, including the Department of the Taoiseach, if an appeal is made. What measures will be put in place to ensure appeals are dealt with swiftly?

There should be as much haste as possible in dealing with appeals. I am not aware that delays are arising. That is not the information I have in relation to my Department where only two cases went outside the 28 days limit and there are no appeals. The number of staff in the information commission office was substantially increased last year. I would be disappointed if that increase was not ensuring that cases are addressed. The problem does not arise in my Department but, to be helpful to the Deputy, I will have the position checked to ascertain whether there is a difficulty. The staffing problem last year was dealt with through the recruitment of additional staff and I hope that is having a considerable effect.

The problem persists. Does the Taoiseach agree that such delays negate the reasons people apply for information in the first place and contradict the principle of the Freedom of Information Act? Will he ensure the issue is resolved?

Has the Taoiseach's attention been drawn to anecdotal evidence that hand-written records are not being kept in various Departments because of the threat that this information may be sought under the Freedom of Information Act? As a result, some people cannot access information that could be valuable to them in terms of appeals they may lodge or other matters.

There is no difficulty in my Department but, to be helpful to the Deputy, I will make inquiries about it.

I do not have any evidence regarding the second matter mentioned by the Deputy. However, following the changes, people are more efficient in terms of writing briefing notes than they may have been in the past.