In attempting to draft this amendment I would have gone further than Senator Roche. Even section 1 (2), which provides that "this Act shall come into operation on the day that is one year after the date of its passing", does not go as far as I am prepared to go. I would have reduced the time period but, on Second Stage, the Minister of State referred to the difficulties that would be encountered by certain Departments and I am prepared to concede to her argument.
However, to provide three years for a local authority or health board to come within the remit of the Bill is excessive. It is particularly excessive in the context of modern communications and the existence of the information highway, computers and other information technology. It is not as if all the documents held in county council offices will be made available. My reading of the Bill suggests that documents which existed before the implementation of the Bill will not be subject to the same scrutiny as those that are generated after its implementation. That suggests that, following the commencement date, the onus will be on the local authority to ensure that every file it prepares is properly assembled and accessible to the public.
On Second Stage the Minister of State said, in the Official Report, 19 December 1996, Vol. 149, column 1293:
What is contained in the Bill represents the outer limit, that is, that health boards and local authorities will come under its remit by a certain date so there can be no delay beyond that. If it is possible to bring the date forward, we will do so...I will explore bringing forward the date because I agree with the Senators that the sooner we get the information the better.
I ask the Minister of State to deliver on that commitment and accept the amendment. If section 1 (3) is deleted the local authorities and health boards will be treated in the same manner as other agencies which are expected to comply with the provisions of the Bill within one year of its passing. That is a reasonable course of action.
It is unacceptable for a local authority, whether it be a county council or district council, or a health board to seek three years grace before complying. I watched a television programme about the Connemara-Clifden railway recently. A lady could remember leaving Euston Station in London at 6 p.m. and travelling by train to Holyhead, by boat from Holyhead to Dún Laoghaire and by train from Dún Laoghaire to Clifden and all in less than 24 hours. If it was possible to do that at the turn of the century one wonders how much progress we have made in the meantime.
We are treating local authorities like newspapers by giving them a deadline. My experience as a practising journalist would be that one does nothing until the deadline is very near. On some occasions the deadline will have passed before one does anything, so the further away the deadline the less activity there will be. Then there will be a flurry of activity within the last few weeks which we might as well have now rather than in three years' time.
I recognise the Minister's intention with this Bill and the difficulties involved in achieving a balance so that we protect private individuals and sensitive information. However, this is a "yes, but" Bill. Yes, we agree that information should be available but those responsible for distributing information will be able to find reasons why they should not do so. Unless there is a will on the part of these people to disseminate information, be they local authorities or Government Departments, it will be easy for them to find provisions within this Bill to refuse to do so. Both the Minister and I know that would be undesirable. The question is: how can we frame legislation to prevent it happening?
In Scandinavian countries there is an insistence on information being freely available. We could learn many lessons from them. It is possible for a citizen in Sweden, and possibly Norway, to see the Prime Minister's correspondence. This has become a tourist attraction. We are a very long way from that and it is a direction in which we must move. To allow three years for a local authority or health board to get their act together is to allow them too much time and this needs to be restricted.
I endorse Senator Roche's point about the availability of information to members of local authorities. If they cannot get information then what chance has the ordinary citizen? Within some sectors of local authorities there are those who are actively obstructing the issuing of information. This must be done away with and the Minister is to be commended if she can achieve this. I want to improve the Bill to ensure that people will not be allowed to be obstructionist.
We have to draw a distinction between two groups when it comes to matters of a sensitive nature. Firstly, there is the individual who is entitled to see what is written about themselves and, secondly, the individual who wants to see what is written about others. For instance, it should be possible for an individual to see information in a health board file as to whether they are entitled to local authority housing. However, that file should not be available to members of the public. I realise that sections of the Bill attempt to achieve this balance. I know from meetings of my local authority where houses are being allocated subject to the advice of the health board and county council officials, that information can be very delicate. There have been calls for the press to be admitted to these meetings but these calls have been properly rejected. The information discussed should only be available to the individuals concerned.