Deputy Howlin gave examples of some progressive legislation introduced by the previous Government - often by himself as Minister - relating to FOI, protected disclosures and the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015. In time, people will see how progressive that legislation was, and many people now look to us as an example or world leader when it comes to some of that legislation, particularly around lobbying. It is not perfect, but no legislation ever is, and we will need to amend it as we go along. Other example of reforms put in place by the previous Government that are worthy of mention are further restrictions on political and corporate donations, and spending limits on local elections, which had not existed previously.
Stamping out corruption and the perception of corruption is something in which I take a personal interest. We produced a white-collar crime and anti-corruption package approximately two years ago, and we review its implementation on an ongoing basis. Some of it is legislative, involving legislation on money laundering and corruption. We are also transforming the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, ODCE, into a much stronger body. Rather than being an office of the Department, it will be a stand-alone agency in its own right and will be a much tougher, much better resourced body, which will be able to pursue and prosecute white-collar crime. On foot of the planning tribunals, we will also bring in an independent planning regulator.
My general approach is to be transparent with requests as much as I can. If something is published on a Department's website, there is no need for an FOI request, and no need for anyone to claim it is some sort of big reveal when they are issued with a rather mundane document. That is why information on expenses, Government jet use and so on are regularly issued, rather than needing to be subject to an FOI request.
I was asked my opinion on a few judgments, but I have not read them so it is probably better that I do not express an opinion on them. It is, of course, up to the Information Commissioner to take an appeal should he choose to do so.
Regarding the procedures to deal with FOI request used by my Department, we follow the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's code of practice in dealing with FOI requests, and I am satisfied that the Department is following the code. It is a long-standing practice that successive taoisigh, including myself, as political heads of the Department, have no role whatsoever in processing FOI requests. When one reads in the papers that I refused to release something or tried to block its release, that is always untrue. Every request received under FOI is assigned to the FOI unit and the decision-maker in the relevant section of the Department. The functions of general examination and primary decision-making have been delegated to assistant principal officers, and a few administrative officers, AOs, or higher executive officers, HEOs, in specialist areas who do this in addition to their normal duties. The function of internal review has been delegated to officials of not below principal officer grade, and all requests are monitored by the Department's liaison officer.
Replies are sometimes issued outside of the normal four-week deadline, and this can happen for a variety of reasons. Some involve a large number of records, and third parties are sometimes involved who have to be consulted. In many instances ,the deadline is extended by modest periods by agreement with the requesters, for example, when the decision-maker is busy attending other duties, or for pressure of work reasons. My Department is committed to meeting its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2014, including responding to FOI requests within the specified time frames, and it makes every effort to ensure that the volume of late replies is kept to a minimum.