Freedom of Information Bill, 1996 [Seanad]: Committee Stage.

This meeting is for the purpose of taking Committee Stage of the Freedom of Information Bill, 1996. I welcome Deputy Eithne Fitzgerald, Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise and Employment and her officials — Mr. Gerry Kearney, Ms Áine Stapleton and Ms Noreen Egan. On 1 March 1995, Dáil Éireann instructed this Committee to review the Official Secrets Act and other statutory provisions which restrict access to information on an ongoing basis. As part of that review, Members will recall that the heads of the Bill before us today were considered by the Committee in late December 1995. In early January 1996, when the committee was first to avail of the new powers to consider proposals for legislation which had been granted to a number of Select Committees by order of Dáil Éireann on 1 March 1995, the Minister and her officials attended a meeting of the committee for what was very much a mould breaking exercise. The Committee was very glad to have the opportunity to discuss the heads of the Bill, in draft form, with the Minister at that time. Our consideration of the Committee Stage of the Freedom of Information Bill is a further step in that overall review.

Since our consideration of the draft heads of this Bill, the committee has comprehensively reviewed the Official Secrets Act, 1963, and has reported thereon to the Dáil in January of this year. The main recommendation of the committee's report was that the 1963 Act should be repealed at the earliest opportunity and be replaced by criminal sanctions in relation to espionage and the unauthorised disclosure of specific categories of information, the disclosure of which does or may cause serious harm to the national interest. We further recommended that circular 15/79 be withdrawn and that the circular issued to the Civil Service to replace it, following the introduction of the freedom of information legislation, should clarify the position in relation to disciplinary proceedings arising from unauthorised disclosure of information which would no longer be a criminal offence under repeal of the 1963 Act. The Department of Justice bears responsibility for the Official Secrets Act and I believe I speak on behalf of Members of the committee this afternoon when I say that I look forward to early and positive action on its implementing the findings of our report. I welcome Minister Fitzgerald's support and am grateful for the welcome she gave to the committee's report on the Official Secrets Act earlier this year.

Consideration of the Committee Stage of the Freedom of Information Bill is an important step in the committee's ongoing review. The main purpose of the Bill is to provide a right of access to information held by public bodies, its principle features being the establishment of a legal right for each person to access information held by public bodies, a right for each person to have personal information relating to him or herself held by a public body amended where it is incomplete, incorrect or misleading and a presumption that official information should be available to members of the public. One of the Bill's most important features is that there would be an independent appeals system established to oversee decisions by public bodies under the Bill. I look forward to an interesting and constructive debate today.

As regards our timescale, today's meeting is open ended in that we can stay in these premises for as long as we wish. I understand Deputy O'Donnell wishes to be excused so that she can be present for the close of the hepatitis C debate in the Dáil this evening and the Minister has an engagement in the Dáil at 7.30 p.m. I suggest that we continue this session until 6.45-7 p.m. and review the situation at that stage. We have arranged to meet in this room at 10.45 a.m. tomorrow in the event of our not concluding matters this evening.