I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his elevation. I am sure he will do a good job.
This House has a fine record in pioneering change and has consistently been to the fore in promoting Bills for reform of our public bodies. Freedom of information is a case in point. As far back as 1985, a small group of Senators presented the first Freedom of Information Bill to this House. Subsequently, Bills were presented in 1988, and more recently, we had an excellent debate on a Bill presented by Senator Roche. Given the foresight of Senators and their persistence for over a decade in pursuing this key change, I have great pleasure in coming here today to speak about the Government's Freedom of Information Bill.
I have no doubt that Members of the House on all sides support the objectives of freedom of information. Our purpose is ensure that we adopt the most effective mechanism for ensuring the culture and practices of secrecy in public bodies are set aside for good. There has been a consistently high standard of debate in this House on the issue, and I look forward to hearing what Senators have to say. I will be open to constructive suggestions which may be made and which could further improve the public's right to know.
Freedom of information gives every person a legal right to ask for and get access to records held by public bodies. It creates a new legal right for citizens to see public files. It recognises in law that public bodies should be directly accountable to the public they are there to serve. Freedom of information overturns the presumption of official secrecy set out in the Official Secrets Act, 1963, and replaces it with the legal presumption that the public has a right to know. The Bill contains a mandate for the public service to provide the public with access to information to the greatest extent possible consistent with the public interest and the right to privacy.
This Bill will mark a permanent change in the way public business is done. Giving people a legal right to know what public bodies do and what information they have is extremely important because public services touch every aspect of our lives — as parents, patients, residents, when we pay tax or draw a pension.
The public bodies to be covered under the Bill include Departments and their subsidiary agencies, including the Blood Transfusion Service Board, county councils and health boards, other public boards, semi-State bodies, organisations which are substantially publicly funded, such as secondary schools, voluntary hospitals or organisations contracted to provide services for people with disabilities.
Lest there be any confusion — and there has been some public comment which appears to be so confused — the list of bodies in the First Schedule to the Bill are those which are to be included, not those to be excluded.
When this Bill is in force, every person will have a legal right to see what is on his or her files held by public bodies and to correct that information if it is wrong. The Bill carefully protects personal privacy and personal information will not be available in the normal course to third parties.
Pensioners and unemployed people will be able to look at their welfare files; taxpayers will be able to see their tax records; people who have applied for grants will be able to see how their application was handled; homeless people will be able to find out where they are on the housing list; parents will be able to see their children's school assessments.
Community groups will be able to look at policies and plans which affect their community and at information on road repairs, waste disposal and recycling and issues which are important for the quality of daily life. People will be able to see how public bodies spend their money, how priorities are set and reasons for delays. Freedom of information will give the public the right to know how and why decisions are taken. Public bodies will have to give answers to the public they serve.
Governments and Government bodies will become more accountable when all the information is out in the open. Everywhere freedom of information legislation has been introduced, it has brought about more open government and better administration of public services. Doing business in the open is the best guarantee of efficiency.
At the very heart of freedom of information is the creation of a new legal right for every person to access any information held by a public body. This right will place an obligation on public bodies to provide the public with information when they look for it. Complementing this, a powerful mandate for openness and access to official information is set out in the Long Title. This establishes that the Bill is "to enable members of the public to obtain access to the greatest extent possible consistent with the public interest and the right to privacy".
Since the foundation of the State, public bodies have worked in a culture where secrecy was the norm. Overturning the practice and philosophy of three quarters of a century involves radical change. For this reason, the Bill sets out a range of key measures to enable, support and enforce this fundamental change.
Recognising that the public need information to get information, the Bill requires that each public body must publish information on its structures, functions and the categories of information it holds. This is so that members of the public can find out which public body has the information they are looking for and can learn what kinds of information are available.
The Bill places a legal duty on public bodies to help members of the public in making requests so the public can pinpoint the information it wants to see. It imposes a specific duty to help those with disabilities find what they are looking for.
When this Bill is in force, every person will have a legal right to correct any personal information on them in public files where it is incorrect, incomplete or misleading.
Internal rules, guidelines and criteria must be published. In addition, the Bill provides that each public body publish all its internal rules and guidelines which it uses in decision making. In this way the public can be informed in advance of the ground rules and basis on which its application for any grant or benefit will be judged. So, for example, the guidelines used by community welfare officers in deciding on whether the amount of help with an ESB bill and the detailed criteria for assessing income in means tests will be publicly available. The Bill provides that, where a public body fails to publish such guidelines in full, nobody can be placed at a disadvantage where they might have been able to qualify for something if they had known the full rules.
The Bill requires public bodies to give reasons for the decisions they make to the individuals concerned. When a public body refuses a grant, a medical card or welfare payment or says a child is not a priority for orthodontic care, those affected will have a legal right to the reason for that decision. The Bill also requires that people are told the appeals mechanism for challenging any such decision.
Taken together, these changes confer important and powerful new rights on individuals in their day to day dealings with public bodies. The Bill sets out important guarantees that public bodies are fair and seen to be fair in their dealings with the public. This openness is the best guarantee of efficiency and fairness.
The public's right to know will be backed up by a powerful and independent appeals system which is the cornerstone of the Bill. Experience abroad has shown that an effective appeals system is the best guarantee that the public actually get the information it is looking for and that public officials carry out to the full their legal duty to provide information.
The Bill establishes the office of Information Commissioner which will act as an independent watchdog to ensure the public's right to know is upheld and not blocked. The commissioner will have power to issue binding rulings and to overturn decisions to withhold information. He or she will have power to examine all the documents in any case and to send for and examine witnesses. These are powers akin to those of a High Court judge.
In the normal course of events an unfavourable decision on a request for information will be reviewed in the first instance by a higher official in that organisation. If the decision is still not satisfactory, there is a right of appeal to the Information Commissioner. The onus of proof is on the public body to show why the information should not be released. Therefore, the onus of proof is in favour of the person looking for information. Given the fine track record of the Ombudsman as the people's champion, the Government has asked Mr. Kevin Murphy to be the first Information Commissioner.
The commissioner will develop, protect and enforce the legal right of the public to get information. He will enforce the legal duty of public bodies to supply information. The office of Information Commissioner will be a separate and independent one with its own staff. The commissioner will have power to report to the Oireachtas on how the legislation is working and on its operation in any case to which he wants to draw attention. He will have a role in promoting a more open attitude to the release of information generally by public bodies, irrespective of whether it has been requested. He will be able to investigate how any individual public body is meeting its legal obligation to provide information to the public.
There are certain exceptions to the automatic right to see information. These are similar to those in comparable legislation elsewhere, for example, Sweden, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. These are areas which common sense requires should remain confidential, for example, information which could jeopardise security or law enforcement, breach legitimate personal privacy of individuals or where, for operational reasons, release of the information at a particular time would be premature.
The Bill will not be a charter for crime bosses or drug barons and will protect the criminal investigation process. It will not disclose the code to the combination locks at the Central Bank for tell speculators how currency strategy will be managed. Next year's leaving certificate papers will not be available at Easter.