Freedom of Information Bill, 1996 [Seanad Bill amended by Dáil] : Report and Final Stages.

Acting Chairman

This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 85, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question "That the Bill be received for final consideration" the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil and this is looked upon as a report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. The only matters, therefore, which may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil. For the convenience of Senators, I have arranged for the printing and circulation to them of those amendments. As Members are aware, they may speak only once on the question.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be received for final consideration."

I am pleased to return to the Seanad with a Bill which emanated from here. Most of the amendments are technical in character. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 to section 2 are technical. Amendments No. 3 to 7, inclusive, are minor drafting amendments. Amendment No. 8 requires that where there are voluminous requests the body will give reasons for the refusal. Amendment No. 9 is consequential to that provision. Amendment No. 10 is a minor drafting amendment. Amendment No. 11 ensures that the records will be preserved and the Director of the National Archives will be consulted.

Amendment No. 12 requires a report to be made to the Houses of the Oireachtas on the measures taken by public bodies to comply with the Act, improve record keeping, manage records, etc. This can be referred to a committee of both Houses.

Amendment No. 13 is a tidying up provision which applies where information is incomplete, incorrect or misleading. The effect of the two amendments to section 17, amendments Nos. 13 and 14, is that a person can seek to have a record amended even where it was not used for administrative purposes.

Amendment No. 15 is a minor technical amendment. Amendment No. 16 tightens up the provisions on Cabinet disclosures. It provides that the only information to be excluded is that excluded by the Hamilton judgment. Amendment No. 17 is technical.

Amendment No. 18 is included on advice. It removes the information commissioner from involvement in confidential agreements as we feel it would prejudice his or her subsequent role as adjudicator — it may bind him or her to such an agreement. There is provision for review by the information commissioner of what is involved.

Amendments Nos. 19 to 21, inclusive, are technical. Amendment No. 22 concerns information given in confidence. Amendment No. 23 to section 34 prevents people adjudicating among themselves. It is another technical amendment. Amendment No. 24 covers the same point. Amendment No. 25 is technical. Amendment No. 26 to section 46 is included in response to a point made by Senator Roche. It tightens up the exemption for courts, tribunals, etc. and narrows the scope of what is included in the exemption.

Amendments Nos. 27 and 28 to the First Schedule add An Bord Pleanála and the Environmental Protection Agency to the list of public bodies to which the Act will apply from the date of commencement. The National Sports Council was wrongly included in that list, the correct name is the Irish Sports Council — this change is made by amendments Nos. 29 and 30. Amendment No. 31 ensures that we can include among the public bodies those which are indirectly as well as directly funded by the public purse.

I commend the amendments to the House. We had a constructive debate here and I was happy to be able to accept many amendments proposed by Senators. I hope they agree we have further strengthened the Bill with a number of technical and other amendments as it proceeded through the Dáil.

It is significant that this legislation was initiated in the Seanad. As the Minister said, we had a constructive debate and a great deal of interest in the legislation was shown. This is an historic day. We are enacting legislation on freedom of information, which has been demanded for years by many sectors and I am pleased to welcome its passing. Of the amendments made by the Dáil, I welcome in particular the inclusion of An Bord Pleanála and the Environmental Protection Agency. Perhaps the Dáil discovered something we missed, although this House made important amendments also, especially those to apply the Bill to local authorities and health boards at an earlier stage than originally envisaged.

A considerable amount of work has gone into the legislation and it is now both strong and workable. We were promised that it would be fully explained both to the public and to those who will have to operate it within the system. I have no doubt that when that is done it will be effectively used by citizens.

I welcome the Minister and support the amendments. She dealt with the Bill in a very open manner in this House and it was amended in a substantial way. I am glad that the outstanding issues remaining from the debate in the Seanad were dealt with in the Dáil, in particular the provisions concerning confidential information, which have been improved.

I congratulate Senator Roche for his input on the sections regarding the courts and applaud what has been done regarding An Bord Pleanála, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Sports Council.

We hope the Bill will have the effect of making information accessible to the public and that people will have, as a right, access to information. I know this is the Minister's intention.

I congratulate the Minister on the way she handled discussion of this Bill. It was laudable that she gave Senator Roche credit for the work on his own Bill and his co-operation on this Bill. We have been a very secretive society and this will not make us the most open society in the world but it is an enormous improvement.

I welcome the Minister. I apologise on behalf of my colleague, Senator Roche. He was not aware that I would agree to the amendment to the Order of Business allowing this Bill to be taken today. The Minister has kindly referred to the role he has played in this area in initiating his own Bill and then contributing to this Bill. The co-operation between the Minister and Senator Roche has improved the Bill.

I welcome the provisions relating to An Bord Pleanála. There is a view that it is composed of faceless people. While people may have criticised the old system in terms of politicians making decisions, at least they were accountable. The ordinary person in the street would not know the membership of the bord. I welcome the fact that decisions relating to planning will now be accompanied with the availability of as much information as possible.

I am sure my colleague, Senator Roche, will have another occasion to speak on this matter and I wish to reiterate that he was unaware we were dealing with this legislation today.

I think the Opposition for facilitating us in taking this Bill today. The Bill began its life in the Seanad following a Private Member's Bill introduced by Senator Roche. I pay tribute to the input of Senator Roche and other Senators who contributed to the debate.

This Bill is a tribute to the Minister. It is another piece of major legislation steered through by her. It is historic, enlightened and badly needed legislation. I congratulate the Minister and her officials on her achievement.

Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank the Senators for their courtesy to me and my officials and for facilitating me in the final stages of the Bill. The Bill will now go to the President for signature.

It is an important day for democracy as the Bill opens the doors and lets in the light. It ensures, in line with the wishes of all parties, that citizens can see what public bodies are doing in their name and that they have access to information. I particularly welcome the all-party consensus which was forged in this Chamber. It is fitting to finalise the legislation in the Chamber which saw the first freedom of information legislation introduced by Senator Brendan Ryan in 1985. Senator Roche put much effort into his own Bill and we had a very good debate on it. Senators Dardis, Lee, O'Sullivan and McGennis all contributed to the Bill in a positive manner.

The most significant changes made to the Bill were made in this House in relation to bringing in the local authorities, for example. With great attention to detail the House looked at how the mechanisms of the Bill would work. Senators, particularly those with experience in local authorities, understood that unless those details and mechanisms were correct, people's access could be blocked by those less enthusiastic then politicians.

I wish to thank my officials — Gerry Carney, Áine Stapleton, Noreen Egan — and others who worked on the legislation, including Finbarr O'Malley, our legal adviser, Julie O'Neill, Therese Cummin and Pat Kinealy. They worked very hard. People who let in the light were of enormous support to us in processing this legislation.

A number of people from abroad were of enormous help, including Robert Hazel of the constitution unit of University College, London, who studied the implementation phase of freedom of information legislation in New Zealand, Australia and Canada. That knowledge was of enormous use. Maurice Frankel of the campaign for freedom of information in the UK was very helpful, as was the Minister with responsibility for freedom of information, the deputy Minister for Justice, in Sweden. I wish to thank in particular the people we met in Australia and New Zealand, including Madeline Campbell of the Attorney General's department in Australia who was of enormous support. We faxed Madeline with various queries from Departments and individuals to get practical advice. She provided endless advice and support throughout the preparation and progress of the Bill on its technical and practical application. On behalf of everyone who has benefited from the wisdom and insight which she generously and freely gave, I express our thanks. She was one of the silent ghosts in the background behind the gestation of this Bill.

It is a proud and important day for us in the Office of the Tánaiste and it is an important day for citizens. I look forward to opening the windows and doors and transferring the power from behind closed doors to the wider community. Democracy thrives in openness and today is a major step forward in openness in our society.

Question put and agreed to.

When it is proposed to sit again?

Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.