Ceisteanna – Questions. - Freedom of Information.

Enda Kenny

Question:

1 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests which were processed by his Department during 2002; the number which have been acceded to; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27080/02]

A total of 146 freedom of information requests were processed in my Department in 2002. Of these, 48 were granted, 35 were part granted, nine were transferred to other Departments, 15 were withdrawn, nine were refused, no records were held in respect of 26 cases and four cases are ongoing. All requests received in my Department are processed in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 1997 and its implementation in my Department is kept under constant review.

How do the numbers outlined by the Taoiseach compare with the previous year? The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste would like to double the period during which Cabinet papers are exempt from public scrutiny, but will this mean that the Freedom of Information Act 1997 will become less transparent? Will the public grow more sceptical about the way in which the Government does its business as a result? Is it not a fact that the public is entitled to this information? No objection was raised by Fianna Fáil when the Bill went through the House. If there is a curtailment or restriction of the present position, people will believe that the Taoiseach and the Government do not want the public to have access to information about decisions that were made and papers that were presented to the Government at the start of its term in office in 1997.

My Department dealt with 146 freedom of information requests in 2002, 279 in 2001, 187 in 2000, 207 in 1999 and 82 in 1998. In reply to Deputy Kenny's second question, it was agreed that a high level group would conduct a review of the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 1997. Most of the changes it will recommend will be of a practical nature. A decision has yet to be made on the five year issue. I have outlined my own view on this. Deputy Mitchell asked me this question last year. Five years was the period put into the original Act but, in effect, this is almost the same as the 30 year rule because if all Cabinet and related papers are left out, the process is not being moved from five to ten, 15 or 20 years but from 30 years to five.

I made it clear last year that I thought moving what was effectively available from 30 years to five was incorrect because five years is too short a time. However, this must be looked at in the context of all other matters with which the high level group is concerned. This is with the experience of how the Act has worked and those involved in the high level group have consulted those involved in the Act. That will improve the Act because there are some small issues to be dealt with. I have no problem with issues regarding diaries and expenses but Cabinet papers are different. Perhaps 30 years is too long but five is far too short.

There was no objection from any member of the Fianna Fáil Party when this Bill went through the House originally. In fact, Deputy McDaid said the Bill drafted in its current form was a fig leaf and did not go far enough. If a change is brought about based either on the Taoiseach's personal wish or on a recommendation from the group, it will lead to public cynicism and scepticism about the workings of the Freedom of Information Act. If the Government is as transparent as it says and does not have difficulties with regard to diaries and cheques – blank or otherwise – there should not be anything to hide.

Is the Taoiseach happy with the workings of the Freedom of Information Act in terms of its integrity? I say this because Deputy Jim O'Keeffe sought under the Act information relevant to appointments made on prison visiting committees. He was subsequently surprised to receive a telephone call from a journalist working with an English tabloid about representations the Deputy had made during his party's period in Government. Such information could only have come through the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform or some element therein where the information lay. Is the Taoiseach happy that the Freedom of Information Act is being implemented with integrity and that there are no shenanigans or looseness in the way it is operated by the officers given that responsibility?

As I have said many times, the Act is rigorous. It was agreed that there would be a review after five years and that ways of improving and streamlining it would be looked at. It is fairly rigorous in its application and there is no doubt about that. Those who exercise it are totally independent in their functions and provide for internal reviews and subsequent appeals to the Information Commissioner. No Minister has any role in this regard and all follow the Act.

I thought at the time that the Act was primarily for members of the public to access information about themselves and that turns out to be about 30% of the business involved. I have no difficulty with that but I have some difficulty with the way the information is used. For example, when information is given out about Deputies who were on Council of Europe or committee business – which is arduous work although some people want to cynically say it is just travel – all the figures are added in and calculated as salary. That is an abuse of the information and I feel bad about it because although I am not a backbencher currently, I may be at some time in the future.

The information can be abused; that is one example but there are others. The information provided under this process should be used properly and not distorted. I have a major problem with that because it creates huge difficulties for people. I do not condone anyone providing information other than in the proper way and if anybody is guilty of that, it is a serious breach. Information should be dealt with independently and not in any other way. However, by and large, we are now into this position.

On the 30 year rule, for all kinds of reasons it would be wrong to change the timescale with regard to Cabinet papers to five years. Perhaps 30 years is too long with regard to the historical aspect but if full Cabinet papers are given out under this in the same way, it would create a lot of problems. It might be good fun for some people but I do not think it was ever intended by the legislation.

Am I to understand from the Taoiseach's reply that he will amend the legislation to prevent misrepresentation of the expenses of Members? It is about two weeks since it was reported that the legislation would be brought to Cabinet. Does it propose the excision to which Deputy Kenny referred with regard to Cabinet papers after five years? This Bill is accepted as a model in South Africa and around the world. Why is it considered necessary to make such a dramatic change to something that had the assent of all parties in the House at the time?

The high level group is reported as recommending additional restrictions. Can the Taoiseach give the House an idea of what those additional restrictions are? Apparently, I have done the Taoiseach an injustice although I do not often do that. However, I did him an injustice by saying that he told me last week the Bill would be published. When I read the record, it did not quite say that. Would it not be an irony if a report on the operation of the Freedom of Information Act, on which Members are supposed to make decisions, is not made available to them? Will the report of the high level group be made available to Members in the normal way?

I hope Deputy Rabbitte got it right the first time because I said that it would be made available when the Act was published

When the Bill is published.

That is correct. It is still the position. I think we should wait. The high level group went through the Act and got the views of those who worked with it. Many of the issues are technical and involve situations where people think things could be done in a different way. It is not correct, as Deputy Rabbitte well knows, that Cabinet information is given out after five years in other countries; it may be up to 40 years in some countries.

Effectively, that is the same as the historical position on records. One could get any record if the period was reduced to five years. That is too short although I accept that 30 years is too long. I have little involvement with the 30 year papers but they are organised in my Department each year. To do that for five year papers would be wrong and I will give an example with regard to that. Later today, I am dealing with Northern Ireland matters and the Good Friday Agreement which was negotiated five years ago. If the papers were available about the same issues being negotiated today, there would be major difficulties. It is not possible to reduce the period to five years when one is dealing with the same people, process and issues.

I am not arguing that the period should be 30 years. The Act came in and I did not take issue with it at the time but five years is too short. On all other matters, no matter how inconvenient, such as how many telephone calls I made or what restaurant I went to, if I had lunch with somebody, or how much petrol my car uses-—

The Taoiseach could find himself in trouble at home.

If that is of interest to the public, I have no problem with it because it involves public money. Every day, I am asked questions about how many dinners I had and how many courses there were.

Deputy Callely used to be a devil for it.

I was on the mobile phones.

This is mobile nonsense.

If people want to waste their Sunday mornings reading that stuff, it is their business; I would rather watch the under eight's playing football. I do not have a problem with any of those matters, but it is only that point and only for that reason.

I will allow questions from Deputy Sargent and Deputy Kenny before proceeding because, strictly speaking, this is a statistical question.

Information on Northern Ireland should be covered, but it can be refused on good grounds if it is a sensitive matter. Will the Taoiseach indicate if intolerable problems, as opposed to inconvenience or irritation, have arisen regarding the Freedom of Information Act? If there are no intolerable problems why is it recommended that access to information should become more expensive and that the grounds for refusal be increased? If this happens does he accept it will increase the cost and the burden on those seeking information and that this will increase alienation of people from the Government?

This matter will be addressed in a Bill to be introduced to the House. This and the previous Government established a new system and dramatically extended the number of agencies which come within the remit of the Act. I understand a few hundred agencies are now covered. Perhaps Members should await introduction of the Bill when the recommendations of the high level group can be debated.

Will the Taoiseach confirm that there is no difference in the treatment of requests for information from members of the public and the media? Allegations about this difference have been made in the media, despite the relevant provision in the Act providing that there should be complete disregard for the status of those who are the source of requests.

The case to which I referred could amount to a serious breach. Will the Taoiseach confirm that he will investigate the matter with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to ascertain if the argument made has validity?

I will ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to consider that matter. There is no distinction regarding the status of those making inquiries. Requests are dealt with by designated civil servants and they treat all cases separately. In my case, I receive a quarterly list of requests that have been dealt with. I am not involved and I believe the same procedures apply in other Departments. The organisation and management section of the Department of Finance circulated guidelines on this to Departments.