I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank my colleagues who assisted me in drafting the legislation. This is one of a number of Private Members' Bills that have been published in recent times. I acknowledge the Ceann Comhairle's part in choosing to allow the Bill to be taken in the House today because there are a number of items of legislation in the queue. I am pleased that the Bill is being debated.
I wish to recap briefly on the current position on freedom of information legislation because some seem to believe it has been scuttled and is dead. I draw the attention of the House to the recent report published in May by the Information Commissioner, Ms Emily O'Reilly, in which she highlights the fact that 16,517 requests were made to public bodies under freedom of information legislation in 2011. This reflects a continuation of the steady upward trend in the use of freedom of information requests. I also highlight the fact that a large number of public bodies are included and that the purpose of the Bill is to include further publicly funded bodies. Of the approximately 16,000 requests received last year, 12,581, approximately three quarters, were deemed personal and 3,857, non-personal. The latter could be from people inquiring about issues in which public bodies are involved and include media requests. A small number, 79, involved a mix of personal and non-personal matters.
It is important to note that the legislation is having a good effect. A total of 58% of all requests received last year were granted in full, while 20% were granted in part. It is clear that more than two thirds of all requests were granted either in full or in part, while only 11% were refused. It is important to note that we have a 90% success rate. In the vast majority of cases requests for information from public bodies are being allowed.
Freedom of information legislation is working well. However, it can be improved, which is why we are in the House today. I wish to propose a number of amendments to the existing legislation. In the programme for Government the Government has listed freedom of information as one of the areas to be tackled. We are, therefore, starting from a good base. People might query certain aspects of previous amendments, but the evidence from 2011 speaks for itself and no contradiction of the facts is possible.
I will deal with specific sections because others might wish to speak more broadly on the issue of freedom of information. The purpose of section 2 is that if the head of a public body such as the Secretary General of a Department or a county manager believes the availability of information is in the public interest, it should be available publicly on its website without people having to go through the freedom of information process. At one time the only way one could obtain information on the expenses of Ministers and Oireachtas Members was by submitting a freedom of information request. The information is now published routinely every month and there is no need to go through the freedom of information mechanism. This represents a more open culture.
Section 3 deals with the organisations I wish to specifically include in freedom of information legislation. The two Government parties dealt with this issue in their manifestos and the programme for Government and there is general agreement in the House that this should be done. I include the administrative functions of the Central Bank which is part of a network which includes the European Central Bank and other central banks that have tighter freedom of information legislation and that would not be happy to share information with the Central Bank if it could be released. Sensitive information would, therefore, be excluded. The enforcement functions of the Health and Safety Authority should be included. In the Information Commissioner's report issued in May she specifically requested that the National Treasury Management Agency and the National Asset Management Agency be included in the legislation. I am happy to include them. At the Committee of Public Accounts the Chairman of the National Asset Management Agency, Mr. Daly, said he would have no issue with it. He is a former Chairman of the Revenue Commissioners and used to dealing with freedom of information legislation. Everyone knows there is no question of commercially sensitive information that could damage the organisation in question or the public interest ever being released under freedom of information legislation. The purpose is not to ascertain commercially sensitive information. Organisations must be allowed the freedom to operate in a commercially sensitive area.
The administrative functions of the Garda Síochána should also be included. The Garda Síochána is a large organisation and security and investigative matters would be excluded. Other bodies which should be included are the Property Registration Authority, the Road Safety Authority and vocational education committees. It might be a surprise to many that VECs are not included already. Local authorities are within the remit of freedom of information legislation and as VECs are almost an offshoot of local authorities, they should have been included years ago. I propose that they now be included. I hope this will be the case by next year when legislation is completed.
Section 4 is interesting. I ask that a request for information from an Oireachtas committee to a public body be given the same status as a freedom of information request. Some might be intrigued as to what this is about. I am a member of the Committee of Public Accounts which on several occasions has had difficulty in getting information, in particular on FÁS, but we could open the Sunday newspapers and find the information we had sought which had been made available to the
newspapers through freedom of information requests. In some cases public bodies appear to give a higher legal standing to freedom of information requests than they do to requests made by an Oireachtas committee. I ask that this issue be redressed. I do not ask that requests from Oireachtas Members or public representatives be granted but a formal request from an Oireachtas committee.
Another proposal is that there be a ceiling on search and retrieval fees of €500 per request. Three quarters of all freedom of information requests are for personal information and free of charge. It is important to make this known. People think the fee arrangement has been scuttled and that they cannot gain access to information, but that is not the case. A person can seek to discover the information on his or her file from any public body free of charge. However, an issue can arise where a public body can charge a search and retrieval fee. Earlier this year I tabled a series of parliamentary questions earlier specifically on this topic. It has not been picked up on to date, but people might be interested to note that in 2011 seven Departments charged more than €500 in a particular case in search and retrieval fees. As in six cases the maximum fee was under €500, I will pick that figure as being fair. Two Departments charged nothing. The reason is obvious in the case of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, but the Department of Social Protection did not charge anything either. It is to be commended for never charging a search and retrieval fee. It is not a big encumbrance on it. It probably has a good filing system which is the important issue and it does not need to spend a lot of time in responding to requests for information. The Department of Justice and Equality charged a fee of €15,000 in one case, which is extreme. There is a better way of handling such matters. One can go back to the person who requested the information to refine his or her request, limit its scope and be more specific in order to reduce costs. Last Christmas, I submitted a freedom of information request to seek information on a matter announced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, in the budget. I was told it would cost me €1,200 in search and retrieval fees. I abandoned the request. We do not know in how many cases something similar has happened. Some people are given such figures, yet the Minister once replied that the highest fee he charged for search and retrieval in 2011 was €83. He did not mention the €1,200 he charged me and that caused me to withdraw my request. It is important that people know about these issues. There should not be a large cost for members of the public.
As a matter of course, it is important that all new bodies should be subject to freedom of information requests. The Government's amendment to the Second Reading motion will acknowledge that public bodies that are significantly funded by the Exchequer should be covered by this legislation in due course. Bodies such as Irish Water or, as mentioned on Second Stage of the Personal Insolvency Bill 2012, the new insolvency services agency should be covered from day one.
I welcome the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform's amendment, which agrees to a Second Reading. I am pleased the Government accepts the principle of this legislation. The amendment reads:
-- to extend its remit to other public bodies including the administrative side of the Garda Síochána, subject to security exceptions; and
-- to extend freedom of information to ensure that all statutory bodies, and all bodies significantly funded from the public purse, are covered under the legislation;
resolves that the Freedom of Information (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 be deemed to be read a second time this day nine months.
I look forward to working with the Minister on refining this legislation or his proposals during the autumn and winter so that everything is taken into account on Committee Stage. Agreement is important. No party is opposed to the principle of public bodies providing information. As such, this legislation is sensible, practical and right. No party politics are involved in this proposal.
The one comment I would make is that, according to the amendment, the Government wants "to legislate to restore freedom of information". I will allow the Minister that slight indiscretion. If he believes it has been abolished and needs to be restored, he should at least inform the Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, who outlined in her report that there were 16,000 freedom of information requests last year. Those people know that freedom of information does not need to be restored. Answers were provided in 90% of cases. The Minister probably believes he is making a point, but freedom of information legislation is alive and well. I have a graph showing a steady increase from 10,000 requests in 2007 to 16,000 last year. Due to the recession, people need to use this legislation more.
If freedom of information legislation is to be practical and workable, proper files must be kept by relevant public bodies. I can cite an example. I helped a constituent, who was experiencing difficulty getting files from a public body, to submit a freedom of information request. I drafted the request and the person signed and sent it. One month later, I received a letter from the public body to the effect that it had received a request from so and so, that there was a representation from me in the person's file from some months ago and, as a matter of courtesy, the body wanted my consent to release the file. Either someone telephoned me after I received the letter or I telephoned the body and I said I had no problem giving my consent, but I asked about the three other letters I had sent on the exact same case in the preceding 12 months. The public official replied that the letters were not in the file in question. I asked whether a new file could be compiled, as the letters were in the office somewhere, but I was told that only one file would be issued and the letters were not in it. I let the issue rest as it was not of any major consequence and the member of the public knew of my representations, but it shows the importance of keeping cohesive filing systems within Departments.
I found a recent example of a freedom of information request useful. A person applied for disability allowance. I had a copy of the doctor's letter that was written for the person which stated that the person should be supported because of certain chronic conditions - I forget the particular medical issues. When the application was refused, we appealed, but the appeals officer refused the application on medical grounds based on the information received. I told the person that the only option was to make a freedom of information request to see what was in the file that warranted a refusal. I drafted the letter, the person signed it and we sent it. When we received the full file, we found the doctor's letter about the person's medical conditions in the confidential part of the application form. The form normally asks whether a person's condition is normal, mild, moderate, severe or profound. The general practitioner, GP, had ticked each one, yet the letter on the other side of the page stated that the person should have been supported. The person did not understand the file and brought it to me. I explained that it was a clear-cut case, as the appeals officer could have made no other decision than to refuse the appeal based on the form filled in by the GP, but the person had not been aware of it and probably would not have had access to the information. I will not mention what the person said to the GP subsequently, but perhaps the GP had been right to do so. The point is that the person spent one year not knowing the reasons for refusal until a freedom of information request revealed what was on the relevant medical file. I may exempt the Department of Social Protection from my remarks, as it is good at handling information and would probably have supplied what the person was seeking without the need for a freedom of information request. However, this example shows the value of freedom of information legislation.
The purpose of my Bill is to open up to freedom of information requests bodies that everyone believes are operating in the public interest. We want more accountability and transparency. Nothing in the legislation suggests the Garda's security or the commercial confidentiality of the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, and the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, should be breached. Rather, it relates to the general principles of how they administer their business and deal with cases. We are used to making exceptions, as they are already provided for in current legislation.
I thank the Government for agreeing to accept this Bill. Since it wants to wait nine months to move the Bill to Committee Stage, we will be able to discuss the legislation in further detail during our next session. As the Minister wants to include all statutory bodies, he goes further than my modest proposal. I look forward to working with him in the coming months in order that, when we amend the legislation on Committee and remaining Stages next year, our freedom of information legislation will be at the top of the range globally.