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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 2 Oct 2013

Vol. 815 No. 2

Freedom of Information Bill 2013: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the opportunity to introduce the Freedom of Information Bill 2013 to the House. In line with the programme for Government commitment, the primary purpose of the Bill is threefold - it will restore the substance of the access to information regime put in place in the 1997 Act; it will extend freedom of information, FOI, to all public bodies, including some noteworthy long­standing exclusions, while providing the power to extend freedom of information to non-statutory bodies significantly funded from the Exchequer; and it will enhance our FOI legislation so that it works more effectively and is strongly consistent with the objectives for FOI set out in the initial 1997 legislation.

The Freedom of Information Bill 2013 is of course just one of a broad suite of political and legislative reforms which the Government has advanced. The reform of FOI legislation is central to the Government's goal of rebuilding public trust in the State and to enhance public governance through a significant strengthening of openness, transparency and accountability of government and public administration. It is worth recalling the critical role played by FOI since the enactment of the Freedom of Information Bill in 1997 in improving the quality of public governance. At that time government and public administration was steeped in a culture of secrecy reflecting the legal position under the Official Secrets Act that all official information was a secret and could not be disclosed unless its release was authorised. The introduction of FOI for the first time lifted this veil of secrecy, allowing light to shine on the conduct of government and administrative affairs and for information relating to the governing of the State to be made available to the public.

Over the years it is incontrovertible that FOI has made a major contribution in ensuring that public and political debate is better informed by the availability of official information relating to that issue under FOI.

FOI has underpinned a much more open and transparent approach to public administration overall, has been instrumental in bringing issues of vital public concern into the public domain and has facilitated stronger oversight of the actions of government and the public service. In a number of notable instances FOI has been put to good effect, mainly by the media, to unearth cases of maladministration and-or weak governance. I refer to the work of my former ministerial colleague, Eithne FitzGerald, who piloted the ground-breaking Act in 1997.

The key principle underlying the that Act, reflected in the Long Title of the Bill, is to enable members of the public to obtain access to official information to the greatest possible extent. Six years later in 2003 the then Government introduced substantive restrictions in access to information provided under the legislation, which represented a significant curtailment of the principle that the public has a "right to know". The assessment of the first Information Commissioner at the time, the late Kevin Murphy, who was a former distinguished civil servant, was that the Government had stepped back from the ideal of more open government. While falling short of repealing the 1997 Act, the amendments made in 2003 sought as much as possible to turn the clock back to the pre-FOI era by significantly shifting the balance against disclosure of official information.

The changes made in 2003, in addition to the specific restrictions introduced, sent out a powerful message to the administrative system that the Government wished to restore a significantly more opaque model of public governance where the public's right to know was circumscribed. The starting point for the reforms included in this Bill is essentially to reverse the 2003 changes to ensure Ireland's FOI regime is restored to the top tier of legal frameworks internationally for ensuring access to official information. In addition, through a number of important innovations included in the legislation, the Bill seeks to provide further impetus to the cultural shift towards more open government that the original legislation was intended to support.

The Bill also provides for the extension of the remit of the Information Commissioner to all public bodies, with some exemptions. The Bill introduces a generic definition, which will allow the Act to apply to all public bodies subject to strictly limited exemptions. This follows the approach taken in extending the remit of the Ombudsman, which I brought through the House last year. It replaces the cumbersome and inefficient approach used in the past of bringing bodies under remit by way of order from time to time. The principle is every body is in unless it is specifically excluded. Some 480 bodies come under the FOI Act and this extension will automatically increase that number by 100 bodies. Exemptions are proposed in the public interest for some bodies so as not to affect their ability to perform their core functions or in the interests of the security or financial position of the State. These include An Garda Síochána, the National Treasury Management Agency group, the Central Bank of Ireland, the industrial relations bodies and the Insolvency Service of Ireland. I adopted the policy, in overall terms, of providing for the exemptions from FOI for public bodies in whole or in part in a Schedule to the Bill, other than where the restriction was not expected to change for various public policy reasons. Inclusion of exemptions for specific public bodies in the Schedule is intended to facilitate scope for their removal or amendment if that decision was to be taken following review in the future.

It is important to stress that the original FOI Act clearly envisaged, consistent with international best practice FOI standards, that there would necessarily be constraints on the application of FOI to particular types of public bodies or to certain activities of specific public bodies in the public interest. Current policy is that commercial semi-State bodies with some exceptions are not subject to the FOI Acts. With the exception of Irish Rail, it is proposed that no new commercial State bodies will be brought within remit at this time other than where they provide services on behalf of public bodies. This is on account of the potential for negative commercial effects that could impact adversely on their competitive standing and commercial performance and to safeguard the State's economic and financial interests, a matter we discussed during the pre-legislative stage at committee.

The legislation also provides a power to extend the Act to bodies significantly funded by the Exchequer by way of ministerial order and my officials will consult relevant Departments regarding governing criteria to assess which bodies should be brought under the FOI Acts. In moving forward in this area, it will be a priority to balance the public interest with appropriate proportionality.

Notwithstanding the extensive reform of FOI proposed in this Bill and the wide extension in the scope of FOI to public bodies, the proposed retention of the €15 application fee for non-personal FOI requests has been a source of debate since the Bill was published. We also discussed this matter during the pre-legislative stage and I have given it a great deal of consideration. In assessing this issue, which the House will have the opportunity to debate in detail on Committee Stage, it is important to bear to mind that the application fee is not charged for the majority of FOI requests and, in any event, the application fee is only a small proportion of the estimated average total cost of dealing with a FOI request. The contention, which I have heard repeatedly, that Ireland is almost unique internationally in levying FOI fees is not correct. The practice of charging fees for searching, preparing and communicating the response to FOI requests is widely accepted internationally. However, the position in Ireland is that the charging of search and retrieval fees for FOI requests has in practice become the exception rather than the rule. Only €7.50 was paid in search and retrieval fees on average in 2011 from a total of 3,857 non-personal requests, which works out at considerably less than 25 minutes of search and retrieval time overall.

In addition to removing the restrictions, extending the Act and restructuring it to make it more accessible to the public, I want to introduce a number of important innovations to update, modernise and enhance our FOI legislation. For example, the Bill requires public bodies to prepare and furnish "publication schemes" consistent with international best practice in this area to promote the proactive publication of information outside of FOI. It sets out key statutory principles to guide public bodies in the performance of their functions under the Act including the need to achieve greater openness and to strengthen the accountability of public bodies. The legislation also provides an important provision to confirm that there is a general right of access to records held by public bodies and, in applying exemptions, the right of access should only be set aside where the exemptions clearly support a refusal of access. In the interests of minimising costs to requesters and to avoid administrative duplication, the Bill provides for a specific linkage to other access regimes such as the EU-based regulations on the reuse of public sector information and on access to information on the environment and there is also a provision which sets out the responsibilities of public bodies in dealing with records relating to data held electronically.

The changes I am introducing provide the quality of the legislation but its effectiveness will depend on how it is implemented in practice. Consequently in May last, I initiated a short, focused and targeted operational review of FOI with the objective of establishing a code of best FOI practice for public bodies. This emerged from the many advices we received from FOI Act users where they felt various public bodies treated requests differently. Some were open while others were less open. It is important to establish a common code of practice. The review was carried out by an external group comprising academics, journalists and other users and a public bodies review group consisting of FOI experts in the public service. Following Government approval, I proposes to publish the draft code shortly for public consultation, before finalising the code prior to or on enactment of the legislation. Implementation of the code will enhance the overall efficiency of Ireland's FOI regime and secure a sustained improvement in the performance by public bodies of their responsibilities under the FOI Acts.

I thank the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform for its scrutiny of the Bill. Deputy Sean Fleming, who is a member of the committee, is present. Its recommendations have informed both the Bill and the code of practice as it develops.

I will now briefly outline the main provisions of the Bill. Part 1 contains sections 1 to 5, inclusive, and deals with preliminary and general matters, including the Short Title, definitions used, commencement provisions and the power of the Minister to make regulations.

Part 2 which contains sections 6 and 7 is entitled "FOI bodies" - a new term we have coined to encompass both what we traditionally understand as public bodies and also to include significantly funded bodies prescribed under the Act. Section 6 enables FOI to apply to all public bodies, unless specifically exempt, while section 7 enables bodies funded from the Exchequer to be brought within the remit of the Act, either in whole or in part.

Part 3 contains sections 8 to 27, inclusive, relating to central elements of the legal framework encompassing general rights in relation to records and decisions, to rights of access under FOI to reviews of decisions and ultimately appeals to the High Court. Section 8 deals with the publication of information on FOI bodies. Sections 9 and 10 provide for the amendment of records relating to personal information and the right of a person to information on an act of an FOI body affecting that person.

Section 11 sets out details on rights of access to records from FOI bodies. It contains some amendments which I have mentioned, including the provision of key principles to guide FOI bodies in the performance of their functions under the new legislation. It also repeals a provision in the 2003 Act which limited the potential for access to records relating to services provided under a contract for services to a public body by a commercial State body or some private bodies.

Section 12 deals with requests for access to records and contains a new subsection enabling requesters to be advised of other regimes for access to official information, thus potentially reducing costs for the requester. Section 13 deals with decisions on requests and notification of such decisions. Section 14 relates to the extension of time for consideration of FOI requests.

Section 15 provides for a refusal of an FOI request on administrative grounds, while section 16 permits deferral of access to a narrow range of records. Section 17 covers the manner of access to records. It requires FOI bodies to take reasonable steps to search for and extract electronic data from databases. It also clarifies that where records are available in electronic form, they may be released in electronic and searchable format. Section 18 relates to access of parts of records. Section 19 provides that failure by an FOI body to reply to a request within the timeframe specified will be deemed to be a refusal.

Section 20 provides for delegation of functions relating to FOI to enable more effective operation of the FOI system. Section 21 provides for internal reviews against an initial decision by an FOI body, while section 22 provides for reviews by the Information Commissioner of decisions of an FOI body. A number of technical changes are being proposed to the section to improve the functioning of the Act. Section 23 allows the Information Commissioner to require an FOI body to provide more detailed reasons for a refusal to grant a request.

Section 24 provides for appeals to the High Court. Some amendments have been made, including broadening the grounds for an appeal. Sections 25 and 26 set out precautions against the disclosure of exempt information and a stay on certain decisions which may be subject to appeal.

Section 27 relates to fees. It was agreed by the Government that there should be a reduction from €75 to €30 in the fee for internal review and from €150 to €75 in the fee for an appeal to the Information Commissioner. These changes will be effected by way of order following the enactment of the Bill. Any legislative change needed for a reform of the search and retrieval fees regime which does not operate properly or on a consistent basis across FOI bodies will be introduced on Committee Stage.

Part 4 contains sections 28 to 41, inclusive, which provide for a series of exemptions to protect sensitive information. In section 28 the protection of records relating to meetings of the Government is restored, reversing the restrictions made in 2003. Section 29 relates to deliberations of FOI bodies, an exemption which had been strengthened in the 2003 Act. Again, this section has been restored to what it was in the original 1997 Act.

Sections 30 to 32, inclusive, largely re-enact the current sections 21 to 23, inclusive. Section 33 relates to security, defence and international relations. In overall terms, the absolute exemption for records relating to the tactics, strategy or operations of the Defence Forces and certain diplomatic communications is removed and made subject to a harm test. The mandatory exemption remains only for highly sensitive confidential communications relating to, for example, negotiations between the State and international organisations and for information on intelligence in respect of the security or defence of the State. Section 34 outlines the procedures in relation to the issue of ministerial certificates declaring a record to be an exempt record by reference to sections 32 and 33.

Sections 35 to 37, inclusive, retain the original exemptions in the 1997 Act for confidential information, commercially sensitive information and personal information held by an FOI body against third party access. Section 38 outlines consultation procedures to be followed if a head proposes to release, in the public interest, information referred to in sections 35, 36 or 37.

Section 39 maintains the original exemption for information on research and natural resources subject to certain conditions. Section 40 protects information where its disclosure could reasonably be expected to have serious adverse effects on the financial interests of the State or the ability of the Government to manage the economy. Section 41 upholds the operation of specific secrecy and non-disclosure provisions in other enactments, unless such provisions are listed in Schedule 3, in which case they are subordinate to FOI. Non-disclosure provisions in other statutes not included in Schedule 3 are being reviewed by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform.

Part 5 is a new Part containing section 42. Section 42 includes a relatively limited number of public bodies where under the original Act the application of FOI was restricted to administrative records. There are some additions to this section, including certain highly sensitive crime, security and intelligence activities carried out by, for example, An Garda Síochána, which are excluded from the scope of FOI. The section also excludes records held by the Central Bank of Ireland which are subject to professional secrecy obligations under EU law which cannot be overridden by national law.

Part 6 contains sections 43 to 47, inclusive, relating to the Information Commissioner in terms of his or her powers and reviews. Some new provisions are included in section 45 such as to allow the Information Commissioner to apply for a court order to oblige an FOI body to comply with a binding decision of the Information Commissioner where the FOI body has failed to do so.

Part 7 contains sections 48 to 55, inclusive. Section 48 is a new section providing the Minister with the power to draw up and publish a code of practice and guidelines to assist FOI bodies in the implementation of the Act. Public bodies shall have regard to the code and guidelines in the performance of their functions. This is an important innovation.

Section 50 is a new section which amends the Central Bank Act 1942 to allow the bank to furnish information to the Information Commissioner in the performance of his or her functions. Section 52 is a new section which provides that it will be an offence under the Act to wilfully and without lawful excuse either destroy or alter a record that is the subject of an FOI request and sets a class B fine on summary conviction.

Section 54 is a saver provision. Regulations made under the 1997 Act relating to the scope of the application of FOI legislation to particular public bodies, other than those listed in Schedule 5, will cease to be in operation on the commencement of this Bill.

Section 55 is another new section providing for transitional arrangements for actions commenced but not completed under the existing legislation. For example, if legal proceedings are pending to which the Information Commissioner is a party, the proceedings may continue as if the 1997 Act had not been repealed.

Part 1 of Schedule 1 includes details of the bodies included in part under FOI, while Part 2 includes a list of bodies exempt from FOI in full.

Schedules 2 and 3 re-enact current Schedules but have been updated. Schedule 4 details the repeals of both primary and secondary legislation effected under the Bill, while Schedule 5 lists the statutory instruments made under the 1997 Act that are to continue in force following enactment of this legislation, notwithstanding the repeal of the 1997 Act.

I trust Deputies will support the Bill. From our pre-legislative scrutiny, I know there is a positive welcome for the measures taken. There are issues we will discuss, both on Second Stage and, more formally and in more detail, on Committee Stage to help to strengthen further the governance of institutions and significantly expand the role and remit of the Information Commissioner.

I apologise as I must leave. I did not actually expect to be here to introduce the Bill. I have another commitment that I must honour. I will read with care all of the contributions made by Deputies.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I have quite a number of observations and will ask the Minister to read specifically what I have to say. I will be proposing a number of amendments on Committee Stage.

The Minister has published new legislation on what he calls the restoration and extension of freedom of information. He has made a number of claims about the benefits of the new legislation. Legislation on freedom of information needs to be updated regularly and in this regard, the initiative of the Minister is welcome. There are a number of important changes to the legislation, but there are some clear omissions from the Minister's proposals. I will deal with the latter at length.

In July 2012 I proposed during Private Members' time the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2012. It included provisions to extend the scope of freedom of information legislation to the administrative functions of the Central Bank of Ireland, NAMA, the NTMA, the administrative functions of An Garda Síochána, the Health and Safety Authority, the Property Registration Authority, the Road Safety Authority and educational committees. In my legislation I proposed a cap on search and retrieval fees. I was very pleased last July when the Minister agreed to allow a Second Stage reading of the legislation. I am very pleased that he accepted the principle of what I was saying through the legislation. Quite a few of those principles are incorporated in the Bill before us. My legislation will now lapse because we are dealing with that of the Minister, but much of what I said is included in his.

On 6 July 2012 the Minister tabled an amendment to the motion for the Second Reading stating:

noting the intention of the Government, as committed in the programme for Government:

— to legislate to restore freedom of information;

Those were the Minister's words last year. He has referred to restoring freedom of information for quite some time in the House. He has done so on several occasions today and almost on every occasion on which he has spoken on freedom of information in the past 12 months. His statement on restoring freedom of information is extraordinary. One would almost believe there has been no freedom of information in Ireland for the past decade considering that the Minister stands up time and again to say he wants to restore freedom of information.

The Deputy's party did a lot of damage to it when it was in government.

We will come to that issue and debate it. I listened carefully to what the Minister said and I am responding to it. It is clear that nobody told the public that freedom of information was abolished and that nobody told the Information Commissioner. The Minister considers he has to restore freedom of information. In that context, let me refer to the annual report for 2011 of the Information Commissioner. I do not know whether the report for 2012 has been published yet. It is stated on page 3 of the 2011 report, "Some 16,517 requests were made to public bodies under the FOI Act in 2011". Obviously, the 16,517 people were not aware that freedom of information had been abolished and that the Minister considered there was a need to restore it. I challenge the spin in the Minister's statement that he is restoring freedom of information. Of the requests made, 12,581 were for personal information, while 3,857 were for non-personal information. A small number of requests, 79, were for mixed information. It is clear that two thirds of all requests under freedom of information legislation were for personal information. There has never been a charge for personal information, either before or since the amendments in 2003 and the Minister does not propose to introduce any charge for obtaining personal information. Clearly, there was never a change in any respect in regard to access to freedom of information in the overwhelming majority of cases. We will deal with some of the changes the Minister referred to in particular. Some 58% of the requests to which I refer were granted in full, 20% were granted in part and 11% were refused. Approximately 11% were withdrawn or otherwise dealt with. Clearly, there has been a very healthy use of freedom of information legislation in recent years and since its inception. I give credit to former Minister Eithne Fitzgerald for what she did many years ago, long before I became a Member. The legislation was and is good. I support its principle but believe some of the changes introduced in 2003 have been exaggerated.

Having referred to the annual report, I take the opportunity to congratulate the Information Commissioner, Ms Emily O'Reilly, on her appointment as European Ombudsman. As a consequence of her appointment, she will be retiring as Information Commissioner and Ombudsman in Ireland. I wish to talk about the process of filling the vacancy which is specifically omitted from the legislation. The process of appointing an Information Commissioner should be dealt with in the legislation. There is an entire Schedule on the role and responsibilities of the commissioner in the legislation. Despite this, there is no specific provision on the appointment. If the Government is serious about political reform and making the Dáil relevant, an Oireachtas committee should interview the prospective candidate. It is a matter for the Oireachtas to decide which committee. The prospective appointee should be endorsed, or otherwise, by an Oireachtas committee and, if endorsed, appointed in due course by the Government and the President, as the case may be. That would be a very important change. If the Government is serious in saying it does not want to withhold all power from Parliament, it should carry out this very important initiative. Parliament must have a real role in the appointment of a new Information Commissioner.

I touched on the question of fees for personal information. It is important to note that the Minister is continuing to allow in the new legislation the charging of a fee for an application for information. It is €15 in normal cases and €10, I believe, if one has a medical card. The Minister also retains the review and appeals fees for non-personal requests but at a lower level. I accept that there was a lot of criticism of the 2003 Act. The main criticism concerned the introduction of the fee of €15 for gaining access to non-personal information. There was never a charge introduced for gaining access to personal information. The Minister is retaining this arrangement. The main thing he could do at this stage, if he is sincere about “restoring” freedom of information – I do not believe his view on restoration is correct based on the 15,000 people who make requests each year – is abolish the fee entirely. I will be proposing amendments to this effect on Committee Stage.

During our discussion at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform many members referred to the cost to organisations of processing the fee. In many cases, the cost of setting up a computerised system for processing fees pertaining to freedom of information requests is far greater than the income earned from the fees.

Not only is it not right to have a fee in principle, it is also an inefficient method of raising funds. I ask the Minister to take this into account when we are considering the matter on Committee Stage.

Section 27, the heading for which is "Fees", begins thus: "Subject to this section, a fee of such amount as may be appropriate having regard to this section shall be charged by the FOI body concerned and paid by the requester concerned to the body in respect of the grant of an FOI request". The Minister has put it in black and white that he is retaining the fees and I ask him to withdraw that provision on Committee Stage. It is identical to what is contained in the previous legislation and he has done nothing to make a change. If he were to do so, I would compliment him on improving the legislation. As I said, reduced fees for those with medical cards is another administrative issue and given that the difference is only €5, it would actually be easier to get rid of the charge altogether.

I keep emphasising that there never was and I hope the Minister has no intention of introducing a fee for requests for personal information. That has always been the case and long may it continue. The majority of cases never attracted a fee under freedom of information legislation. Having said that, I accept that there was a lot of negative publicity about the legislation to the extent that the number of people making requests for personal information reduced for a couple of years. Such was the controversy over the introduction of fees for non-personal information that people believed the fees also applied to requests for personal information. Many held back from making a request when they should not have done so because there was actually no fee chargeable.

I will move on to the issue of search and retrieval fees, to which I specifically referred in the legislation I put forward in the House last year when I proposed that a cap be applied. There are two comments in the Minister's opening statement which link with this issue and I ask him to consider it further. When I was preparing the draft legislation last year, I submitted a parliamentary question to every Minister about freedom of information search and retrieval fees in their line Departments and the information I received was quite extraordinary. I will elaborate on the replies I received for the benefit of those listening to this debate who would not otherwise have this information.

I asked what was the highest fee charged because I was interested to know how excessive the fees were. I posed that question because two budgets ago the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, introduced one taxation measure about which I was very curious, in terms of its origins. I submitted a freedom of information request to the Department of Finance, seeking the documentation, information and representations that had been made on the particular change. The reply I received from the freedom of information officer in the Minister's office was that the search and retrieval fees would be €1,257. That stopped me in my tracks straightaway and I never proceeded with my request. I was shocked that what I had thought was a simple request could attract such a fee. It was a scandal. I did not proceed and believed it was unreal. That is one of the reasons I followed up on the search and retrieval fees issue with each Department.

In his parliamentary reply to me last summer the Minister for Finance said the highest search and retrieval fee charged in his Department that year was €83. Obviously, people like me who submitted requests for information and were given figures of €1,200 or more did not proceed with those requests. They were effectively withdrawn. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport replied that the highest search and retrieval fee it charged was €41.40. The highest fee in the case of the Department of Health was €1,676, with the average fee amounting to €261. At that stage the Department of Children and Youth Affairs had received no FOI requests. The highest fee at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine was €301, while the figure for the Department of Defence was €523. The Department of Justice and Equality had charged somebody who obviously had paid the fee because it was listed €15,664 in search and retrieval fees in a particular case. However, the Department did point out that the average fee was only €130, but there was one particularly high fee charged that year. The highest fee in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government was €3,142, while the highest fee in the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources was €1,487. The highest fee in the the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht was €15.70, while the highest fee in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation was a mere €8.30. The highest search and retrieval fee charged by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform was €4.81, while the highest fee charged by the Department of Education and Skills was €1,046. I have already mentioned that the Department of Finance indicated that the highest fee it had charged was €83. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade indicated that the highest search and retrieval fee for that year was €7,961. The star Department as far as I am concerned is the Department of Social Protection. It is the absolute star Department and a model for every other Department. It did not impose search and retrieval fees on anybody seeking information during the course of the year.

I referred to the Ombudsman's report for 2011. That report indicated that the Department of Social Protection had received well over 1,000 freedom of information requests. Obviously, over three quarters or 80% of these requests were for personal information, but there had to be 100 or 200 for non-personal information. We all know from dealing with the Department by way of parliamentary questions how quick it is to access the information requested. It can furnish responses to Deputies in no time. It has everyone's file on computer, no matter which part of the country one is from. It seems to be a model in how to handle information. Obviously, search and retrieval fees were not a big issue, even when the Department was asked to provide non-personal information. A policy decision was made not to charge. That is the model we should be considering and if one Department can do it, there is no reason others cannot. The Minister referred to inconsistencies on this issue and I have just highlighted some of them. All of the information I have imparted is already on the Dáil record by way of replies to parliamentary questions that I asked in February 2012.

I proposed a maximum search and retrieval fee of €500. In that context, I am very intrigued by the information supplied by the Minister. He said that, on average, €7.50 was paid in search and retrieval fees in 2011, for a total of 3,857 requests for non-personal information. We are talking about the average fee. Obviously, the Department of Social Protection is at one end of the spectrum, while the Department of Justice and Equality would be at the other. The average fee works out at €7.50 and I am very glad that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform provided that information. I ask him to reconsider the point he made later in his contribution when he said that any legislative change needed for a reform of the search and retrieval fee regime which did not operate properly or in a consistent way across FOI bodies would be introduced on Committee Stage. I put it to him that the average fee is €7.50. In that context, I ask him to do the decent thing and not waste Oireachtas time in passing legislation to regulate something that yields €7.50. I ask him not to belittle the national Parliament by spending time discussing what is a trivial amount of money. If that is the average fee - the Minister supplied the figures - and that is all that is involved, it is not worth the administrative hassle to try to collect it. Not only should he move away from charging €15 for the initial application, or €10 for a person with a medical card, he should also move away from charging a search and retrieval fee. He has said the average fee is €7.50 which is so small that he should forget about it. He should not waste Oireachtas time on this issue. I ask him not to write memos, draw up codes of practice or devise regulations aimed at consistency and on how to charge when the amount involved is only €7.50. It is a trivial amount and it is often said the law should not concern itself with trivial matters. The sum of €7.50 is not one we should be discussing in the national Parliament. There is only one way to deal with this issue and that is to abolish the charge entirely. I am very pleased that the Minister gave the information which I did not have previously.

The question of search and retrieval fees is not really about money but about the rights of citizens to access information. I know there are public servants who will say that if the fee is abolished, some citizens will abuse the system and because they believe two or three citizens will abuse the system by asking for reams of information, they will try to put in place an enormous bureaucratic regime in every Department for search and retrieval fees which will only yield, on average, €7.50. If officials use the legislation correctly, they can deal with vexatious, trivial and repeat requests. There are several ways for them do deal with such issues, instead of running to the Minister to ask him to draw up a new bureaucratic regime. I hope common sense will prevail on this issue. I also hope people will find the information I imparted useful because it complements what the Minister said about different approaches being taken across the various Departments.

The Minister is playing to the big boys who want to be involved in PPPs and bringing in new restrictions on information on PPPs. Last year he announced €800 million in PPPs for health centres, but it has not yet happened. We want to know what is happening with some of these health centres where Ministers are involved. The provision being introduced to prevent people from getting information on PPPs is a scandal and if the Minister thinks about it, he will have to reverse it. We want to see that happen. I want the code of practice, to which the Minister has said staff shall have regard, to be mandatory.

On page 73 there is an item which I am shocked the Minister has included in the legislation. I have said this several times. Regarding the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court, as part of the Haddington Road agreement, the Minister's Department issued several letters on public sector management to the different sections and they are all hidden from the public, even though it pays for this.

My most serious concern in the legislation concerns the new provision regarding staff at the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, which covers the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, the National Pensions Reserve Fund, NPRF, and the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA. It is a shock that the Minister is doing this. The big boys, the money people, have got the Minister. Regarding these organisations, he is excluding from FOI information "concerning the terms and conditions on which a person holds a position as a member of staff of the agency, other than when that information is contained in records in summary or collective form such that individuals cannot be identified from the record". He is providing for the highest paid public servants to have a new exemption under freedom of information legislation in order that their terms and conditions cannot be made public. It is a disgrace and the Minister will have to reverse it. The financial sector has got to him to protect the people concerned. He must withdraw this new secrecy provision for those involved in NAMA, the NPRF and the NTMA. I will include all of these items as amendments on Committee Stage.

I am deputising for my colleague Deputy Mary Lou McDonald who has other engagements.

This is good legislation. Coupled with the Protected Disclosures Bill, or the whistleblowers Bill, and the lobbying Bill, it goes some way to recognising the heightened expectation of accountability and transparency from the political system. The programme for Government committed to restoring the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before Fianna Fáil butchered it in 2003. Naturally, the Labour Party in government has sought to undo the damage done to the legislation it first introduced in 1997.

My colleague, Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, described Fianna Fáil's gutting of the legislation in 2003 as a major step backwards for our democracy. He was correct and let us not forget that Deputy Micheál Martin was a senior Government Minister when he and his colleagues discussed and agreed to hollow out the 1997 FOl legislation. Last night the current Fianna Fáil leader blamed complacency for his party's failure to introduce the kind of political reforms for which he now calls. What a crock. The Deputy and his then Cabinet colleagues very deliberately sought to restrict democratic oversight of public spending and Government policy making. That is a fact and the Deputy's actions speak much louder than his words. The Government's record on reform is not exactly something to write home about.

This is important legislation, as is the whistleblowers Bill currently before the Seanad and the lobbying Bill, yet to be finalised. If we are honest with each other, these items of legislation have long been sought and are hardly at the cutting edge of open government. We are bringing ourselves into line with other developed democracies. However, legislation is not enough. As former Information Commissioner Ms Emily O'Reilly has warned, this legislation is a good move for transparency, but its full effectiveness will only become clear when people start using the laws to make requests for information. I add a further word of caution. If public bodies are not adequately trained and resourced to deal with FOl requests, the shift to an open government culture will not happen. We also need to see Ministers take a full and active role in oversight. Open government strengthens democracy and empowers citizens, bringing them into the political system. People's increasing disengagement from politics is a problem and challenges social cohesion in a particularly corrosive way that can take decades to reverse. There is no questioning the fact that decades of Fianna Fáil-led Governments fundamentally damaged the State. Money was squandered, social solidarity was hindered and the culture of a nod and wink and looking after one's own man bedded itself into political life and beyond. Things have changed, but we need to harness that change if we are to show we are serious about opening up government and politics to all citizens.

The Government's reputation on reform is not good, as the Minister knows. It is the sharpest criticism of decision makers and opinion formers, even those who are generally well disposed to both parties. Take the current debate on the Seanad. The Labour Party and Fine Gael have again limited their vision to the bottom line and merely rejigged the Dáil schedule and tinkered with the committee system. That is the best they can rustle up on Dáil reform. Sinn Féin has published a package of Dáil reforms as part of its campaign to abolish the Seanad. We are serious about Dáil reform and committed to giving citizens a real say in how politics works. We want to open up government. That is why we believe the scrapping of freedom of information fees will lead to better governance. As was stated by Mr. Gavin Sheridan, journalist and open data advocate, during the hearings of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform Committee, Ireland is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to fees. This is one of just three countries that charge upfront fees for access to information where FOl or similar legislation is in place. This is the only country in the European Union to do so. The British House of Commons justice committee reviewed existing British FOl legislation last year and its conclusions on costs and fees are instructive. They state FOl legislation is a significant enhancement of democracy, giving people a right to access information on the way public institutions are governed and taxpayers' money is spent. This can act as a deterrent against wastage of public moneys or deliberate wrongdoing. It is a health check and balance in the political system. It is recognised that the focus of the legislation is on whether the disclosure of information is justified, not on who is asking for the information. This is a really important point. The media's use of FOl is sometimes portrayed by decision makers as a problem, a hindrance to the system. Much of the information journalists seek through FOI requests can and should be put in the public domain as a matter of course. Regardless, it should not matter who has made a request for information on the work or spending of a public body or Department. The citizens put us here and pay our wages. We would be horrified at the prospect of a company deliberately withholding information on fundamental business decisions from shareholders. Why should we take a different view on the media or others seeking similar information from public bodies?

The British justice committee recognised that fees at a level high enough to recoup costs would deter requests with a strong public interest and defeat the purpose of the legislation, while fees introduced for commercial and media organisations could be circumvented. It also found that future reconsideration of the economic argument for charging would need significantly better data for the numbers of requests made under the Act and the costs incurred in responding to them. This is of particular relevance as the Minister told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform that his Department had not carried out an analysis of the fee regime in place. In March last year the British Information Commissioner, Mr. Christopher Graham, told the Commons justice committee:

It is a bit rich to have public authorities saying, "We are assailed by unreasonable freedom of information requests," when they do not have an adequate publication scheme, they have not got their act together in terms of records management and they have a rotten website and so on. There are things that you can do before you ever get to charging.

Our former Information Commissioner, Ms Emily O'Reilly, speaking in 2011 on publication of her annual report, said, "The punitive regime relating to fees should be overhauled so as not to discourage people from seeking out information." It is worth remembering that following the introduction of increased fees by Fianna Fáil, the number of freedom of information requests halved, which was, of course, the desired effect of the legislation. I acknowledge that the Minister has reduced fees for an appeal to the Information Commissioner from €150 to €75 and promised a review of search and retrieval fees. However, he did commit to restore the freedom of information legislation to what it was before it was undermined by Fianna Fáil and application fees remain.

TASC estimated in 2010, based on figures provided by the Government, that the cost of freedom of information requests to the State was 0.012% of overall expenditure, correctly noting that this was far from an exorbitant price to pay for stronger democratic oversight. Then there is the cost of administering the application fee, a cost the Minister has been unable to provide as such data are not collated centrally by his Department. There is a real problem with open data formats which are currently limited to budget and expenditure data, as the Minister has acknowledged. Again, TASC noted in its 2010 discussion paper that it was highly probable that the fees regime was counterproductive and cost more money to operate than it generated in most cases.

Retaining application fees also tells us that the closed culture associated with Fianna Fáil prevails within the Government and across the civil and public service. The retention of application fees tells us that the Government and the senior civil servants who advise it still perceive freedom of information legislation as a gifting of information, rather than a fundamental right of citizens in a mature democracy. This is a problem. If the Minister cannot shift his mandarins on this issue, what hope does Ireland have of full participation in the open government partnership when and if it happens?

Moving on from fees, there is much in the Bill that is welcome. The reduction of the period of exemption for Cabinet papers and the extension of freedom of information legislation to a new layer of public bodies significantly funded by the State are welcome. The restriction on information on the Garda is something at which we need to look, as we need to look at some of the other exemptions. There are provisions in the Bill that appear to facilitate refusals, but we can explore these matters on Committee Stage. The obligation on public bodies to produce a "publication scheme" to replace previous freedom of information manuals will not in itself shift the culture to an open government environment. I cannot emphasise enough the real need for resourcing, training and oversight. This is a theme to which we must return.

The introduction of the Bill is a positive step and I look forward to dealing with the issues raised on Committee Stage. I hope the Minister will come to it with an open mind. We will submit a number of amendments at that stage.

On the surface, the apparent move in the proposed Bill to undo the draconian amendments made to the Freedom of Information Bill by the Fianna Fáil Party in 2003 represents an improvement in Ireland's freedom of information legislation. However, within the proposed Bill there are striking conditions that undermine its integrity and reveal that the apparent move of good faith, as professed by the Minister, is an illusion.

Among the welcome measures are a reduction in fees, the provision of access to Cabinet papers after five years instead of ten, that communications between Ministers are no longer de facto to be off limits to disclosure, while the scope of records covered by exemptions is to be narrowed. We also see the inclusion of a number of previously exempt statutory bodies under the Bill such as the Garda Síochána and the Central Bank. However, woven into the fabric of the Bill are conditions that make a mockery of these welcome moves. Furthermore, even if these measures were not undermined by the internal logic of the Bill, they would not go far enough to stay in keeping with the internationally understood spirit of the freedom of information movement, or for that matter with the proclaimed purpose of the Bill which states it is being enacted "to enable members of the public to obtain access, to the greatest extent possible consistent with the public interest and the right to privacy, to information in the possession of public bodies and other bodies in receipt of funding from the State".

On closer inspection, the Bill is not about transparency and openness; through a lack of definition and wildly liberal interpretations of the notions of "public interest" and "right to privacy", it manages to uphold a culture of secrecy and deception that seems to be inherent to modern Irish politics. We are at a critical juncture. With the advent of new technologies that have a massive impact on how societies are informed, monitored and organise themselves, we see a massive international discussion about the role of government in people's lives, its relation to international capital and, ultimately, what a government would actually look like in a genuinely inclusive democratic state. Yesterday, at the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Mr. Edward Snowden, referring to the vibrant discussion taking place worldwide, said: "We see brave executives remembering that if a public is prevented from knowing how they are being governed, the necessary result is that they are no longer self-governing. And we see the public reclaiming an equal seat at the table of government." A few of us had the opportunity to meet Mr. Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London this summer, which was interesting to say the least. While the state seems keen to interfere and record the private correspondence of citizens, it seems more reluctant than ever for citizens to see or understand what it actually does.

Article 40.6.1°..i of the Constitution maintains that the State guarantees liberty for the exercise of a citizen's rights to express freely their convictions and opinions, including criticism of Government policy, while highlighting the grave importance of the education of public opinion. With this in mind, it is fascinating to see how much of the proposed Bill reads like a veto of that enshrined right. In section 6(3) it states the Minister may, by order, declare any public body or any other body covered by it exempt from freedom of information, something the Minister has already done with the exclusion of, for example, An Post, Dublin Bus, CIE, ESB, the National Oil Reserves Agency, Tourism Ireland and VHI. Section 34(1) goes on to allow the Minister to declare any record exempt from disclosure, if asked to do so.

Another provision which has already been substantially fulfilled, with section 40(1)(a), among others, discloses a long list of exemptions that prohibit the people from understanding how the Government conducts its financial affairs. Great noise has been made about the inclusion of NAMA and the NTMA in the Bill, but then in Schedule 1(n) the Minister exempts almost all documents of interest that these bodies possess. The people are very interested in knowing how NAMA operates. They have every right to know how it operates. That might help them to understand some of the blatant inconsistencies in how it deals with different individuals.

Section 42(j) states the Bill does not apply to documents given by an FOI body to a member of the Government or a Minister of State for use by him or her for the purposes of proceedings in either House of the Oireachtas or any committee of either or both such Houses or any subcommittee of such a committee. This section essentially states the Government thinks lobbying, one of the most underhand activities in modern politics, should go unchecked. Running counter to what the Government desires, the truth is that policy making does not and should not take place in a vacuum. There is too much at stake and far too many people are affected by the Government's decisions. Accordingly, the activities of lobbyists and the lobbied should be transparent, in accordance with the public interest, as any reasonable person would interpret freedom of information.

The recommendations of the open government partnership with regard to lobbying are particularly interesting in this respect. It states that the regulation of lobbying Bill should be strengthened to ensure it regulates lobbyists and the public representatives and officials who are the subject of lobbying. The proposed Bill focuses on transparency on the part of lobbyists, but the lobbied - public bodies, public officials, and office holders - should also be subject to enhanced transparency requirements, including default publication of written submissions on public policy by lobbyists; an updated code of conduct for elected representatives and public servants at national and local level; publication of ministerial and advisory diaries; and requirements for all policies and legislation to include details of the organisations with which the Department or Minister has been in contact during the preparation of the proposal. It is almost laughable that if the Bill comes into force the first object of the regulation of lobbying Bill, which is to ensure there is an appropriate degree of transparency in the development of public policy, the preparation of legislation and public administration and decision-making, will effectively be null and void.

Although the reduction in fees is to be welcomed, a paper by TASC's Nat O'Connor has shown that the fees regime does not lead to any cost recovery and is in fact likely to add to the total administrative costs. If this is the case with the outgoing fees system, then the proposed fees structure makes even less sense and simultaneously reveals clearly the purpose of the fees, which is plainly and simply a tactic to discourage the public from using this invaluable service. Gordon Brown's comments in October 2007 are instructive on this point. He stated that when anything is provided without cost it risks being open to abuse. He also stated that his government did not believe more restrictive rules on the cost limits of freedom of information requests were the way forward. He stated that the government had dropped its restrictions proposal because of the risk such a proposal might have placed unacceptable barriers between the people and public information. He stated that public information does not belong to the government but to the public on whose behalf government is conducted, and wherever possible this should be the guiding principle behind the implementation of the UK's Freedom of Information Act.

Since the publication of the Bill earlier this year, the Minister has portrayed himself as the great agent of the restoration of progressive freedom of information legislation in Ireland, and much of the Irish media has, for the most part, faithfully regurgitated this line. The truth is that the proposed Bill is riddled with get-out clauses which in effect undermine the championed moves towards improved transparency, accountability, and the citizen's right to know what happens in his or her name.

Under the proposed legislation there is simply too much of which the public will be kept in ignorance, but this is no earth-shattering surprise. This is the status quo in the relationship between power and truth. The 2005 Nobel laureate, Harold Pinter, reflected acutely on this failed marriage when he stated there are many truths which rebound off each other, challenge each other, and demand teasing out. He said:

Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

Thomas Jefferson once stated that every day a citizen must be a participator in the government of affairs. The Bill in its present form effectively discourages and limits the scope of the Irish citizen's participation in our so-called democracy. Inscribed into the Bill is a consolidation of the secrecy of the State and how it operates. This represents a cowardliness on the part of the elected towards the electorate, and also an act of supreme arrogance by the Government. The information in question is the property of the citizens of the State. For the Government to be able to effectively pick and choose what, when and how the people of Ireland learn about what the elected Government does in their name flies in the face of any professed notions of inclusiveness, openness, and transparency - notions that should be the bedrock of any democracy worthy of the name.

If democracy in Ireland is to flourish, and the trust the Government has lost by repeatedly testing the patience of this country's citizens is to be restored, much more transparency, openness, and inclusion should scream from the Bill, but I am afraid it does not.

I welcome the discussion of this legislation. There is no doubt that the butchering of the 1997 Act by Fianna Fáil was absolutely and utterly reprehensible, and it was somewhat amusing to listen to its spokesperson's contribution earlier in this context. That said, the idea that the Minister has moulded himself into some great liberator and defender of democracy, going boldly where nobody else ever has, is really stretching it a bit and does not stand up to any serious examination. In his press statement at the launch of the Bill last week, the Minister stated that the legislation would strongly complement the substantial progress made on a suite of significant Government reform measures to achieve greater openness, transparency and accountability and strengthen public governance and good governance throughout the system. People reading this would have been amazed, wondering what he was speaking about and where this openness and transparency was. He went on to tell us where it was, with a few pretty unfortunate examples. He started with the Bill regarding Oireachtas inquiries into the banking sector, with which problems have already emerged, with talk of the exclusion of Anglo Irish Bank and much other evidence, and people who have authority in these matters have stated that an Oireachtas inquiry will not get to the bottom of what went on. He also cited the whistleblower legislation which has been published. This is also an unfortunate example because the treatment of the most prominent whistleblowers in the State in recent years - namely, the two Garda whistleblowers on penalty points - proves that transparency and openness is not alive and well under the Government, particularly in view of the way in which they were treated by the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Garda Commissioner. These people who had information and wanted an open and transparent society used the mechanisms they had and went to the confidential recipient. The information was brought to the Minister and then went to the Committee of Public Accounts, the Comptroller and Auditor General, Members of the Oireachtas and members of the Road Safety Authority. They should not have had to go to any of these organisations. In any case, their efforts resulted in the unearthing of the scandal of termination of penalty points. They were proved accurate in this sense, and the loss of revenue to the State and the loss of credibility of the system has been exposed. The only people who suffered for it were those who blew the whistle. If this is the openness and transparency we are speaking about, and this is the context in which we are putting the Bill, it really falls short of what is possible and necessary.

When we are discussing the Bill we must start with the absolute right to information. The only information that should be withheld is information which relates to an individual's privacy, and nothing else counts. In some instances one could say that the security of the State should be considered, but in an Irish context this does not count for much. If we were adhering to our role as a neutral country it would matter even less.

We have a peculiar situation in Ireland in which most people get their information from the media. The media have an incredibly cavalier approach to people's individual privacy. They have no problem with invading it every day of the week in circumstances, and with information, of no relevance to the public whatsoever. This same media have no appetite whatsoever to unearth and uncover information that would be in the public good. The days of investigative journalism have been sadly diminished. We had a classic example in which an investigative journalist who did this job was forcibly made redundant - the case of Gemma O'Doherty from the Irish Independent. This is a reflection of the fact that the media is owned by a small number of private individuals who carry enormous political sway and who do not call the Government to account. I am not surprised by this, given the bailouts Independent News & Media has received.

In this context of the privatisation of media information, the State's handling of public information is even more important because it is the people's information. I agree with Deputy Wallace. We had the privilege of meeting Julian Assange during the summer, and what Wikileaks has done shows the power of information. Information released by Wikileaks on corruption and deals behind the scenes in Iceland between the politicians and the banking sector led to the Icelandic people coming out on the streets, which prevented the scenario we ended up enduring here, in which our banks were bailed out.

They are much better off as a result. Information is good and if people are doing their jobs properly, they should have no problem with it being unearthed.

The problem with the Bill is exactly as Deputy Mick Wallace outlined. The Bill in its entirety gives the Minister massive powers to exempt organisations and documents from disclosure. Other sections suggest it is a case of "You do not have to give information if it is a bit too much work for you," "If it is a little bit tedious and if you have to analyse the information, no, you do not have to do that", or "You do not have to disclose the liabilities of State or public bodies." The Bill is based on curtailing information and making excuses in that regard.

We already have a very difficult climate. While it is very good that the fees are being reduced, all of the methods which have been used to prevent people from getting information are alive and well in the Minister's proposals in this new legislation. I know residents who have spent years and probably hundreds of euro - they have been asked for thousands in some instances by the local authority, Fingal County Council - to find documents relating to the planning of homes which have been proved to be a fire safety hazard from a developer who has been engaged in such practices in other jurisdictions also. The idea that somebody should have to pay all that money and be met with the response, "No, we cannot do all that work and we cannot unearth those documents," or "If you really want them, it is going to cost you a couple of grand," is completely unacceptable. I do not believe the Bill breaks from that spirit. In fact, it enshrines that mentality which curtails rather than frees up information.

There are a number of other weakening measures in the Bill which are not to be welcomed. The current position requires bodies to maintain an index of precedents. This is important because it empowers the public to access these precedents and ensures the decisions being arrived at are made in a fair and impartial manner, that like cases are treated consistently and so on. This is the very essence, if one likes, of freedom of information. However, the Bill curtails this. It extinguishes the right to have this record of precedents held, which goes against the grain in terms of what freedom of information should mean. Moreover, it unmasks the Government's intentions in that regard because if people do not know whether they have been treated in an equal fashion, how are they to get the documentary evidence which they can obtain at present? Under this new legislation, they will have to go before the courts to seek discovery. What citizen can do this against the backdrop of austerity?

That brings me to a really important area which is exempt from the legislation, which is, of course, the courts. I cannot credit why they would be excluded from this process unless, of course, one is dealing with sensitive family law or in camera cases. Anything else should be open to the public. This is an enormous area which is in the spotlight because of the backlog of appeals to the Supreme Court. Questions have been raised by some citizens as to why we have such a volume of appeals. Is it, perhaps, that the work being done in the lower courts and the judgments being made are not the best, that more people are looking for appeals as a result and that, therefore, they are looking for relevant information. The State spent €16 million on a digital audio recording system for the courts which has been in place in the Supreme Court since 2005, the High Court since 2009 and the District Court since 2011, but we do not use it. We do not give people access to that information which could validly record what actually goes on in court and undo many of the mistakes which ultimately lead to appeals being taken. Given that the State has invested in a digital recording system to record what goes on in the courts, surely all court documents and information on the courts should be open to the public also. If we were serious about it, we would be looking at these areas.

Another loophole stems from the way in which the Minister has formulated the legislation in that, for the new organisations that have been added on - the Central Bank and the Garda - only records since 2008 will be obtainable. Obviously, the justification is that they did not know they would have to produce them; therefore, it would be a bit hard for them to go back any further. I do not accept that and we now have a problem. What about all the records dating from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s? Obviously, under the 30 year rule, some Government records do become available. However, we are going to have to wait for all the documents between 1984 and 2008, which were very interesting years, that will effectively remain secret. There was no need to do this. We could have included them in the legislation and this should be done on Committee Stage.

A radical overhaul of the freedom of information system is necessary and would have been very welcome, but that is not what this is, unfortunately. It is putting a little sticking plaster on some of the butchery conducted in this area by Fianna Fáil.

That is hardly fair. It does a lot more than that.

It does not restore the system to one of best practice, of which a civilised society would be proud. Every public body and citizen knows, if they are doing their job properly and are prepared to be accountable and as long as we respect an individual's privacy, giving that information is good. Information is empowering and belongs to the people. It should not be given at the diktat of individuals, be they Ministers or senior civil servants, who would have the power to decide "No, you lesser person are not entitled to know that." Having an educated population, an informed people, is the best way to govern and is the only way in which we can really talk about reform. Based on the legislation as it is framed and based on the lack of success by the Opposition in being able to get the Government to take on board the amendments we will table, it is a missed opportunity also.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. In researching for this contribution one of the things that stood out the most and which the last two contributions highlighted very starkly was the caution with which the Bill was welcomed by those such as the Information Commissioner and other commentators. It is very telling, when legislation is brought forward, that it can only be welcomed with caution. How we will gauge the success of the Bill depends on how its spirit is implemented after it is enacted. When we are introducing legislation, we should be very clear on what it seeks to achieve and what needs to happen with it. We should not see caution expressed in welcoming a Bill and the changes to take place. This is particularly the case with something as important as a freedom of information Bill which is one of the few ways in which citizens can acquire information to see how decisions which affect their daily lives are being made in their names or on their behalf. The Bill needs to be amended on Committee Stage to remove some of the uncertainty and some of the get-out clauses that the Minister and public bodies have with regard to the information they can release to members of the public. This is very important and the issue needs to be addressed.

When the original Freedom of Information Bill was introduced in 1997, it started a real culture of change within public bodies. I was working with Donegal County Council at the time and remember that it caused a lot of concern for council officials because they would have to be accountable, keep records and be able to stand over decisions they had made. It did start that process of cultural change and changed how bodies dealt with matters and operated their decision making processes. It opened up decision making to transparency such that it could be looked at by citizens who could gauge whether it was effective and it made officials do their jobs properly.

In 2003, however, Fianna Fáil infamously amended the Freedom of Information Act, put all of the restrictions in place and introduced fees which undermined all of the provisions included in what had been progressive legislation. While this Bill undoes many of the amendments brought forward by Fianna Fáil, which has to be welcomed, again, we come back to how its spirit will be implemented after it becomes law. That is the key point. It will probably only be in two or three years time that we will actually be able to see how effective this legislation has been, if at all, and how it has opened up decision making in the State to transparency.

I welcome some of the Bill's provisions, particularly the inclusion of a range of new bodies under the remit of the freedom of information regime. The Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal are especially important inclusions given that the operation of the refugee system in this country in the past 11 or 12 years has brought the State into disrepute. There has been no transparency or openness, with decisions apparently made on an entirely arbitrary basis. Some of the most vulnerable people in the State have been left in a state of uncertainty for long periods, with no access to recourse. Some have been living in direct provision for more than ten years without any sign of a decision being made to clarify their status. If the possibility had been there to submit freedom of information requests on behalf of these people, it might have speeded up the entire process.

I also welcome the inclusion of the Garda Síochána under the remit of these provisions. Again, however, the question arises as to why that remit is limited to the force's administrative records. There are already sufficient provisions in the existing legislation in terms of State security to allow Garda authorities ample scope to refuse requests. That safeguard is already in place. The Garda Síochána should be opened up fully to freedom of information scrutiny. No public body should be afraid of accountability. Rather, all public bodies should be striving to provide as much accountability as possible. This particular restriction is perhaps reflective of the power of the Garda Síochána to insist that its role in our society, as it sees it, be protected.

The omission of Irish Water is puzzling. The reason given is that to include it would potentially lead to the release of commercially sensitive information. Consider, however, that Irish Rail, which, like Irish Water, is a semi-State monopoly operating on behalf of citizens, does come under the remit of these provisions. It does not make sense that one should be included and the other omitted.

I welcome the removal of the restriction which precluded the provision of information regarding the deliberative processes operating within Departments. It is important to see how particular decisions are arrived at and ultimately agreed. In that context, will the Minister indicate why the exemption in regard to parliamentary briefings and draft replies to parliamentary questions is to be retained? It would be very interesting to have access to the original drafts of replies before they go on the record. I am not convinced by the argument that the Official Report provides all the accountability that is required. It seems very likely, for example, that some parliamentary question replies would go through several drafts before being released. Removing this restriction would open Departments up to a great deal of welcome scrutiny in terms of how decisions are made and how replies can be made woolly by filling them up with useless information in order to disguise the failure to provide the information that is actually being sought.

While I welcome the reduction in fees, the provision in this regard does not go far enough. If we want to be entirely open and transparent, there should be no charge associated with the submission of a freedom of information request. In particular, Departments should no longer be allowed to set their own retrieval fees. If there is to be a fee at all, it should be a set fee.

As I noted earlier, it is interesting to see Members on all sides welcoming this Bill with caution. Unfortunately, however, it will take at least two or three years before we can really see how it is working in practice.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this legislation. In its short time in office the Rainbow Government of 1994 to 1997, led by a fellow Meath man, John Bruton, achieved great strides in opening up and modernising the State. The Freedom of Information Act 1997 was an important part of that programme. In introducing the Bill to the Dáil, the then Minister of State, Eithne Fitzgerald, stated:

Information is power and access to information is fundamental to the reform of our democratic institutions to create genuine openness and to empower the ordinary citizen.

This achievement, which was motivated by the greater public interest and was primarily for the benefit of the people but also of voluntary organisations, academics and the media, suffered a serious setback with the introduction of the 2003 Act. It is important to reflect on the reasons that the great strides we had made should have been pushed back. The 2002 general election was fought against the backdrop of an Irish and global economy still trying to process the consequences of the attack on the Twin Towers and the earlier dotcom crash. Ireland was and still is a small open economy positioning itself to take advantage of favourable head winds. At that time interest rates began to tumble in an effort to keep the global economy afloat, a dangerous prospect for a country like Ireland where home ownership is paramount owing to our experiences in the land war.

These realities did not sit well with the electoral plans of the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and were ignored in the lead-up to the 2002 general election. Public spending not only increased dramatically in line with the election cycle, it was also front-loaded into the first five months of 2002. This meant that cuts in the second half of the year were inevitable and, by the standards of that time, traumatic. This was clear to be seen but forcefully denied by members of the Fianna Fáil-led Government until such time as freedom of information requests under the 1997 Act proved otherwise later in 2002. Those revelations angered the public, which rightly felt that it had been conned. Having been elected to the Dáil for the first time in 2002, I have vivid memories of these events. In fact, the demise of the freedoms given in the 1997 Act by its amendment in 2003 was one of the main political controversies in my first year in this House.

I am proud to be part of a Fine Gael-Labour Party Government that is fulfilling its general election and programme for Government commitments to political reform by putting a new freedom of information Bill before the House. It is a Bill which rightly and justly restores the pre-2003 position. By its openness and transparency, it puts to bed the more idiotic Fianna Fáil and media commentary around the forthcoming referendum on the abolition of the Seanad which seeks to suggest that this Republic is slipping into a dictatorship. That is far from the reality. This Government is not afraid to operate in a transparent way. We are not hiding anything from the people. We do not operate from one election to the other, unlike previous Governments which brought us to where we are today following their actions in the 2002 and 2007 ballots. We are restoring the Republic, stone upon stone, as Michael Collins might have said, after 14 years of Fianna Fáil misrule which saw a squandering of resources and opportunities and of people's hopes and their potential. That party in government failed during the boom years to prepare this country, with its small open economy, in such a way that might have made it capable of handling the effects of international crises. Indeed, I often wonder whether things would have got quite so out of control between 2000 and 2008 if there had been access for Opposition politicians and journalists to a more open freedom of information regime.

This Bill goes further than a mere restoration of the pre-2003 position. I welcome, in particular, the extension of its remit to other public bodies and bodies in receipt of significant public moneys. The inclusion of non-security sensitive elements of the administrative functions of the Garda Síochána is especially welcome. There have nevertheless been claims that the legislation does not go far enough. The reality is that we have advanced significantly from the position of the past ten years and are now on a totally new level of accountability compared with the pre-1997 position. We must, at the same time, be hard nosed and realistic in terms of protecting commercially sensitive information.

I note and welcome the input into the Bill of the many interested parties who attended the public hearings of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform in the first quarter of this year. It was very encouraging to hear Emily O'Reilly's comments that the Bill represents a positive step towards greater transparency. The people of this country can be very proud of Ms O'Reilly as she assumes her new role as European Ombudsman.

I also welcome the move to reduce some of the fees associated with freedom of information requests and to review the search and retrieval costs. Some people have expressed the view that the remaining fees are excessive, but we must bear in mind that the fulfilment of any freedom of information request will carry some cost. The new charges are certainly more realistic and fair compared with what went before. The increase in fees in 2003 was responsible for a marked tailing off in the general interest in and availing of the freedom of information regime for many years. In more recent times the economic crisis and the desire to gain an understanding of how it could have happened has helped to spark a new interest.

Debate adjourned.