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Freedom of Information

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 3 July 2012

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Questions (25, 26)

Micheál Martin

Question:

1Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests received in his Department in the past year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16220/12]

View answer

Gerry Adams

Question:

2Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the freedom of information requests that have been received by his Department in 2012; the number that have been granted; the total fees for search and retrieval; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23769/12]

View answer

Oral answers (20 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

My Department received a total of 120 freedom of information requests in the year from 1 July 2011 to 30 June 2012. A total of 80 requests were granted or part-granted. In 12 cases the Department held no records. Six requests were refused and seven were withdrawn. A total of 15 requests are currently being processed. A total of 76 freedom of information requests were received by my Department from 1 January to 30 June 2012. Of those, 45 were granted or part-granted. In five cases the Department held no records. Four requests were refused, seven were withdrawn and 15 are currently being processed. To date, the Department has received €831 in search, retrieval and photocopying fees in respect of freedom of information requests made in 2012.

We are still waiting for the Government's proposals on the production of legislation to reform and extend freedom of information legislation, a clear commitment given in the programme for Government which committed to restoring the Freedom of Information Act on the basis that it had been undermined by the previous Government, a dubious proposition. When will this occur? Alternatively, Deputy Sean Fleming is introducing a Fianna Fáil Bill to extend the legislation to the National Asset Management Agency, the National Treasury Management Agency, the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and other bodies. That Bill which will be debated this Friday will address many of the concerns the Government held in opposition. I invite the Taoiseach to support it in so far as it would meet the many concerns articulated by other Deputies.

What was the basis for the six refusals and are they being appealed? Despite the hue and cry about the Freedom of Information Act, the Taoiseach and the Government have relied on it a fair bit. For example, I sought information from the Taoiseach in the House on the pension levy, but I needed to use freedom of information provisions. I received the information months later. It seemed to be a deliberate ploy to delay giving me the information. I made a freedom of information request regarding the famous Van Rompuy compromise. Despite the European Union not having a difficulty with my request, the Taoiseach's Department refused me access to the documentation. I can list several examples of Deputies who needed to take the freedom of information route to access behind the scenes information. Hence, 80 freedom of information requests were submitted. Unfortunately, we are not getting answers through the parliamentary system and people are being economical with information. There is an unhealthy reliance by the Government on the freedom of information system to delay providing information on important matters of public interest for Deputies and the public generally.

I do not know the reason for the refusal of the six requests, but I do not have any hand, act or part in dealing with freedom of information requests. I will ask the section that deals with this issue - people do it in addition to their normal work - if there was a specific reason the six requests were not granted. I do not know what they were about or whether personal information or information that might have been particular to the Department or the State was asked for. I will have the Deputy's question referred to the freedom of information officer in the Department. If there is a specific reason they were refused, I will have it forwarded to him.

What about the utilisation of freedom of information legislation as a ploy to delay giving information to Deputies?

No. The vast majority of freedom of information requests are answered on time.

The Deputy mentioned Deputy Sean Fleming. I am aware of his Private Members' Bill which proposes to extend the remit of the Freedom of Information Act to include a number of other agencies. Clearly, there are some considerations in that regard. The Government has reflected on the issue and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will make an announcement shortly. He is dealing with the broader remit of the Freedom of Information Act.

It was mentioned in the reply that there had been 80 requests. Will the Taoiseach comment on this? The number and cost of freedom of information requests could be reduced if Ministers replied to parliamentary questions. The pension levy is a classic illustration, in that a simple question on whether the Taoiseach had received advice could have been answered in the House. However, he chose not to do so and we needed to go through the arduous freedom of information process to find out the answers. Lo and behold, we found out that he had received plenty of advice from the Department of Social Protection and other Departments and agencies. This cuts to the core of the lack of transparency.

We need to have a discussion about this matter in the House when the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform brings forward his memo on re-examining the Freedom of Information Act in general.

We can do it now.

For instance, individual letters are coming in with ten, 15 or 20 requests, which are treated as one request. The impact of a letter with an individual request could be very significant in terms of the time taken to address it. I would like to think that, in general, we give every Member of the House as much relevant information as is appropriate.

That does not happen.

I do not want the Deputy to believe there is a "they will not ask it under freedom of information legislation" mindset. If the request is reasonable and the information is available - if it is not sensitive to the State or a person and can be given - the response should be reasonable and appropriate.

Ministers refuse to do this.

The Deputy mentioned the savings that could be made. We will examine that matter in the context of what the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is doing in respect of the Freedom of Information Act in general.

Why examine it? The Government just does not do it.

Let us revert to the kernel of the issue. As the Taoiseach acknowledged, the Government committed not just to restoring the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was, undoubtedly, undermined by the previous Administration but also to extending its remit to capture other public bodies, including the administrative side of the Garda Síochána. What progress has been made in this regard? The Taoiseach referred to the work of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, but how stands the legislative process and the commitment to broadening the remit of the Act? To what extent does the Taoiseach believe it should be broadened? For example, should its provisions be applied to the Central Bank, the Financial Services Authority, NAMA and the NTMA? Sinn Féin published a Bill on how the Act should apply to NAMA. When will the Government's legislation be introduced? I hope the former has a sense of urgency attached. As the Act is restored and broadened, which public bodies does the Taoiseach believe should be covered by it?

I must remind Deputies that questions on the widening and deepening of freedom of information legislation should be directed to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

The Taoiseach referred to it.

I used to ask these questions when in opposition. As I told Deputy Micheál Martin, there will be a Private Members' Bill before the House on Friday, to which the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will respond. He has done a great deal of work on the Freedom of Information Act generally and will outline his response in some detail.

Most of the complaints received in respect of the Freedom of Information Act relate not to the processes by which information is obtained but to the restrictions that apply to the information that can be released. That is why the Government undertook in the programme for Government to restore the Freedom of Information Acts to what they were prior to 2003. We intend to expand their remit to include additional public bodies.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform deals with the general scheme. This matter was discussed today by the Cabinet, but I will leave it to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to respond to Deputy Sean Fleming's Bill on Friday and take the discussion and strategy from there. Suffice it to say, we intend to adhere to the commitment in the programme for Government to restoring the Acts to what they were prior to 2003 and extend them to include a number of other public bodies.

The Taoiseach simply echoed what I had said. I understand a commitment was given. I also understand Deputy Brendan Howlin is the line Minister responsible in this respect. I asked the Taoiseach about the public bodies he believed should be under the umbrella of the freedom of information legislation.

I specifically mention the likes of the Central Bank, the financial services authority, NAMA and the National Treasury Management Agency because there has been a real and perceived lack of information and transparency with these key public institutions that were at the heart of very many decisions and the economic catastrophe that came to pass. There is a sense, grounded in reality, that these institutions are somehow in the shade and outside the Freedom of Information Act. I do not see any argument for maintaining that position.

I appreciate that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, will deal with the detail of this matter but I cannot see how the Taoiseach would not have a view. What about bodies like the Central Bank, the financial services authority and NAMA? Should those institutions fall within this remit and have the freedom of information process applied to them? The Taoiseach should have a view and answer the question.

I speak from this position as Taoiseach and Head of Government and my personal views are completely irrelevant. I speak from here about Cabinet responsibility and decisions, and in that sense it is my duty to let the Deputy know that the line Minister has done a great deal of work on this and will respond to the Private Members' Bill on Friday. It is not a case of an individual Minister having a view about what may be included in expanding the remit of the Freedom of Information Act. The Government will make a decision and explain it to the Deputy and everybody else when it is delivered by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

We intend to deliver on what is in the programme for Government and put these Acts back doing what they were supposed to prior to 2003. The Act will also be extended to a number of other public bodies. The Government will make a collective decision on the matter, so it is not a question of anybody's individual focus on an organisation or public body.

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