That Dáil Éireann:
recognises the importance of a well-functioning Freedom of Information (FOI) regime in establishing trust and transparency in public life;
notes, with concern:
— the recent admissions that the Tánaiste and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have both deleted relevant material from their mobile phones; and
— that public confidence in political life has been eroded and will continue to be eroded without action; and
calls on the Government to:
— establish robust procedures in each Department to ensure that Ministers are no longer destroying records that should be maintained by the Department;
— ensure that all Ministers are aware of their responsibilities under FOI legislation, all relevant documents and materials are retained as required and all FOI requests are appropriately dealt with, and all relevant material is provided when requested;
— enhance the powers of the Information Commissioner’s Office to allow the Commissioner to refer complaints under FOI legislation to the Standards in Public Office Commission for investigation, where it is believed that a public body, Minister or relevant person has intentionally or recklessly failed to fulfil their obligations under FOI legislation;
— ensure that all public bodies, including those established under Companies Acts, are immediately brought under the remit of FOI legislation upon establishment;
— commit to an annual review of all bodies to which FOI legislation applies, including any bodies to which a partial exclusion applies and whether this is consistent with the Act’s principles of oversight, transparency and accountability; and
— bring pension payments related to former Taoisigh, Ministers, Presidents and Office holders under the remit of the FOI legislation.
Beidh mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama le mo chomhghleacaithe, na Teachtaí Doherty, Ó Broin, Munster agus, sílim, Cronin.
If the events of tonight have taught us anything, it is that we clearly need to restore public confidence in political life and that we need robust procedures to ensure public accountability and absolute transparency. The debate we had earlier is a perfect example as to why we need to enhance our freedom of information, FOI, regime. The reality is that in this State for most of its history there have been very significant concerns as to transparency and access to records and data. Some would tell us this was all in the past and ancient history, so to speak.
Let me remind those people that this time last year the Government was attempting to lock away for 30 years records involved in the mother and baby homes scandal. It seems ancient history continues to manifest itself in contemporary policy, and that is precisely why the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act in 1997 was such an important moment and was, indeed, a watershed one. It was one of the first big steps in transparency to give our citizens three new legal rights. These were, first, the right to consult official records, excluding those relating to internal security and foreign relations; second, the right to update and correct personal information that was inaccurate; and third, the right to be given reasons public decisions are made when they affect the person in question.
Freedom of information has been essential for journalists, political researchers, concerned citizens, NGOs, historians and victims of State abuse. It has been a means to get access to information on politicians’ expenses and to gain access to reports on scandals in our nursing homes, hospitals and industrial schools. It has played very significant roles in sagas that have been detrimental to this State.
Many transparency campaigners and journalists have been saying for a very long time that they have very significant concerns as to the ability of the FOI Act at this time. John Devitt from Transparency Ireland said it played an essential role in underpinning our faith in public affairs but that it has been deliberately diluted in recent years. That is its importance here in that it has an essential role in underpinning our faith in public affairs.
This time last year I began researching the problems that currently exist in our FOI regime because not only were we hearing it from the transparency campaigners and journalists but so many other people were coming to me on this issue. It was because of those concerns that I conducted a survey with those who often and regularly use the freedom of information mechanism. The results were absolutely damning. Any of us who has tried to use the freedom of information regime can very much relate to what these results say.
What we saw was that almost 80% felt that the regime was performing poorly or very poorly and 86% said it had seriously declined in recent years. I raised this with the Minister repeatedly but his response in June was that the regime was "robust and functioning well" - famous last words because the events of Zapponegate, or whatever you want to call it, soon overtook matters and have raised serious concerns about adherence to FOI and the importance attached to the FOI regime within the Government.
Those events really show the attitude towards the FOI regime and the fact that it needs to be strengthened. We know that deleting official correspondence is a clear offence under the Act, but this seems to be disregarded again. Public bodies were claiming that correspondence did not exist only to show later that it did. This is nothing new, however. Anyone who has been using FOI can tell you that this happens regularly. We know from Right to Know that Ken Foxe has said we have public bodies failing to meet their obligations time and time again, and it is the same organisations year after year. They seek time extensions for routine requests, do not bother answering requests, refuse access to everything and fail to find records that are later shown to have existed. Some of this may be cultural or educational, and some are resource-based and cannot be tackled through legislation, but many of the current weaknesses of our FOI regime can be tackled through legislation: the lack of accountability for those who fail to fulfil their obligations under the Act; the failure to bring new public bodies immediately within the scope of the Act; the failure to extend the remit of the Act more fully to certain public bodies that are only partially covered; and the refusal to grant information on the pensions of retired Taoisigh, Tánaistí agus Airí, which once was available.
The Act has, in addition, a lot of shortcomings. For this reason my colleague, Deputy Clarke, and I felt that urgent action was needed. That is why we drafted our forthcoming FOI (amendment) Bill, much of which is included in tonight's motion. To be clear, this is not something we have conjured up in the past few days; it is something we have been working on consistently over the past year. We need urgent action. I have seen the amendment the Government has proposed. We do not need more reviews and delays. What we need is action. I hope this second legislative attempt by me to increase transparency and accountability will not be pushed down the road like the Regulation of Lobbying Act, which we also need to see implemented. We were told the Government would create its own Bill in the intervening period but, thankfully, now we can deal with this Bill and it can move to Committee Stage.
I often hear and heard again tonight - and it does my head in, for want of a better term - Government party spokespeople say the Opposition should offer solutions. Well, here I am. Here we are. We are offering solutions and I have been here before offering solutions. We are seeing delay after delay by the Government. It wants us to offer solutions. We are doing so. This motion would deal with some of the very real issues we need sorted. First, with the admission by a Government Minister in recent weeks that he deleted text messages, we very clearly need to establish procedures in order that each Department ensures that Ministers no longer destroy records that should be maintained by the Department. Second, either FOI does not seem to be taken seriously by the Government or it is not aware of its duties. The Government must therefore ensure that all Ministers are aware of their responsibilities under FOI and that all documents are made available. Crucially, we need to enhance the powers of the Information Commissioner to allow the commissioner to refer complaints under FOI legislation to SIPO for investigation. If there is a concern that a public body or a Minister or relevant person has intentionally or recklessly failed to fulfil their obligations, there needs to be consequences.
It has been said that democracy dies in darkness. An FOI request is a way to shine the light into the darkest corners of our political systems. It is time to recharge the batteries of FOI. I implore the Minister to support the motion.