Freedom of Information Bill, 1996: Committee Stage.


I move amendment No. 1:

In page 5, lines 37 to 40, and in page 6, lines 1 to 3, to delete subsection (3).

I thank the Minister of State and her officials for the extraordinary courtesy and facilities they made available to any Member who showed an interest in this Bill. It would have been good if we had gone back to when the Dáil committee considered this. We could have done a lot of work if it had been a joint committee but that is now past.

A number of amendments follow this one directly. The offending section is subsection (3) of section 1. It provides that local authorities and health boards will be effectively excluded from the operation of the Freedom of Information Act, as it will then be, for three years. There is not only no good reason for that exclusion for three years to become a matter of legislation but there is every good reason why there should be no such exclusion. There is a compelling need to open the local authorities in particular to closer public scrutiny. I say this as a member of a number of local authorities and a health board. The problem is that since the 1940s there has been an inexorable move of power from the local authority members to the management. In some local authorities there seems to be a very serendipitous arrangement whereby the local authority members and the management keep very closely in touch with each other. Sadly, there is abundant recent evidence to suggest that matters are not as they should be and that information is not flowing freely within the local authorities, let alone between the local authorities and the general public.

On Second Stage, I pointed out that a colleague of the Minister of State's, Councillor Cullen, who is chairman of Wicklow County Council, had the courage to take an action in the High Court to discover certain matters relating to lands in Glending in Blessington, County Wicklow. It was to discover what arrangements had been made without the knowledge of the councillors or the public in relation to those lands, and I commend him. Since that action the local authority has rezoned the lands in question with, at best, possession of partial information. Since that rezoning, it has become public knowledge that a portion of the lands in question were subject to a study relating to archaeological and heritage remains. Correspondence between the Office of Public Works, the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications and Wicklow County Council, my own local authority, would suggest that we can now scrutinise it against the background of the new information we have found. That suggests that at a minimum the public and the members of the local authority have been fatally misled as to the heritage importance of the site in question. That should not have happened. It would not have been necessary for a local authority member to take legal against the council if they, as a citizen, had the right under a freedom of information provision to demand access to all information from the county manager.

This is not unique to Wicklow. Councillors throughout the country are at breaking point with frustration. They are being treated in an appalling manner by local government management which has become overbearing and too powerful. There is a need to return some balance. There is also a need for the general public to have access to local government and health board proceedings. The intention is not to threaten the privacy of matters which are properly kept private within the files of the health board.

The Health (Amendment) Bill, which is currently progressing through the Oireachtas, will put the members and executive of the health authorities in exactly the same legal relationship as exists between the members of local authorities and county managers. There will be functions which will be reserved for the members of the health boards and functions which will be executive or managerial and appropriate to the management of the health authorities.

There is an abundance of evidence that members of local authorities and health authorities are not kept as fully informed of developments in important areas as they should be. If the elected representatives are not being kept informed about what is happening in the offices of health authorities or local authorities, what chance have the public?

There is no compelling reason for excluding local authorities or health authorities for three years from the freedom of information legislation. This is reminiscent of the arguments which were made when the ombudsman legislation was first being discussed. The contention was that if the health authorities and local authorities were brought into his ambit, there would be such a huge number of complaints that the office would become unworkable. There is an element of the same argument here, an argument which stands logic on its head. If there is to be a strong demand for access to information which is in the possession of county councils, corporations, town commissions or other type of local authority, and health boards, then we should open the doors to them. I do not believe there will be an overwhelming demand for information in these areas except in issues of importance to local communities.

In County Wicklow some years ago I was told by a member of the public that there were secret negotiations between my council and a land owner to purchase a huge site for a dump. I asked questions at a local authority meeting and was told that there were no such arrangements. It was suggested that I should not listen to rumours. I moved a formal motion of section 2 of the 1955 Act because I believed the information I received was less than candid. There was a formal reply to that motion only after the manager took legal advice as to whether he should put a section 2 motion on the top or the bottom of the agenda. This fuelled my suspicions that something untoward might have been happening. We got a denial in response to the motion, but three years later, in a motion of discovery in the High Court, we discovered while discussing the contentious issue of siting a dump at Ballinagran, that there were not only discussions between local authority staff and the owner of the lands at Fassaroe, but that the heads of an agreement had been arranged.

These two cases are not peculiar to Wicklow, similar cases happen in every local authority. Council members who represent the people are being denied access to information and, if they are being denied access to information, the public is also being denied access. In Blessington the community council wished to oppose the rezoning of an incredible amount of land. It is an appalling travesty and I have asked the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for the Environment, to review the manner in which Wicklow County Council has handled it. Members of the community council found it at least as difficult as members of the elected council to get information relating to the nature of agreements that had been made in our name with the company concerned.

This offends me because the arrangements were made in my name behind closed doors. I am an elected representative of the people of Blessington and I represent all the people of Wicklow on the council. I could not get the information, nor could the Minister of State's colleague, Councillor Cullen, nor could the community in Blessington. A High Court action was required to secure the information. It is novel for a council member, let alone a council chairman, to feel compelled to go to the High Court to get action. I commend him as it was an act of tremendous courage. He stood to lose a great deal of money as the action cost £47,000. What community group could afford to take such an action? The same problem occurred a few years ago with Luggala when I and other representatives, including Deputy Kavanagh, were misled by the Office of Public Works.

This is a trend. There is a disturbing amount of evidence that local authority members are kept in the dark about serious issues and are treated, as somebody in Wicklow inelegantly put it, like mushrooms—they are kept in the dark and we know what they are fed. This is causing grave frustration in local authorities. I will press this amendment because it is a means of assisting colleagues in local authorities to do the job they passionately wish to do but currently do not have the tools or information to do it. There is discouraging evidence that secrecy is becoming endemic in some local authorities and health boards.

I wish to make a further point about the health boards. There are crises all over County Dublin about the acquisition of property for the use of health boards. Those crises need not occur if local authorities were open and discussed what is happening with the communities. The biggest fear communities have is fear of the unknown. If local authorities and health boards are not willing to be upfront and freely make information available to members of the public, people will expect the worst. When contractual negotiations are at an advanced stage there will obviously be difficulty in accessing information, but there is sufficient protection in the Bill to ensure that local authorities or health boards will not be disadvantaged if they are included under its provisions.

I am disturbed by the argument for exclusion of local authorities and health boards. According to hearsay information, the argument has gone forward from local authorities to the Department of the Environment that local authorities are in such a chaotic condition they could not withstand the public scrutiny that would result from the implementation of this Bill within three or even six years. That is nonsense. I do not believe the local authorities are in such a chaotic condition. If that argument is put forward by a group of managers to the Department of the Environment I hope the Minister will have sufficient strength to say "if that is your argument, it is bankrupt and it compels us to open up the local authorities to scrutiny".

On the Order of Business, Members spoke extensively about local government and a debate on that issue has been promised. We are concerned about the decline of local government. One means of redressing the balance is to ensure that this Bill will apply to local authorities. If it does, there will not be a huge influx of people into local authorities. Many of the sensitive local authority files, particularly those relating to planning, are already accessible under existing legislation. Under the 19th century legislation which established our system of local government, there is the widest possible range of access rights for the public to local authorities. The problem is the local authorities are not prepared to provide such access under current law.

The Minister of State has been willing to accept logical arguments. I ask her to accept this amendment.

Progress report; Committee to sit again.