Thursday, 20 June 2019

Ceisteanna (2)

Jonathan O'Brien

Ceist:

2. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if legislative changes are planned to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act 2014; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25966/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Public)

In light of recent court cases, is the Government planning to propose changes to the existing freedom of information legislation?

The Freedom of Information Act 2014 revised, updated and consolidated the freedom of information regime in this country, removed the upfront fee for requests and made the system in general more user-friendly.

The success of this initiative is illustrated by the fact that between 2014 and 2017, the latest year for which figures are available, there was a 67% increase in the number of requests made to public bodies. It is expected that the Information Commissioner's next annual report will show that the number of requests in 2018 exceeded the 33,979 received by civil and public sector organisations in 2017 as part of a consistent upward trend.

Some 85% of the freedom of information requests decided on by public bodies in 2017 were granted in full or in part. Just 3.5% of those who made freedom of information requests in 2017 sought an internal review, which involves a reconsideration of the request at a higher grade in the organisation, after the initial decision was made. Almost 60% of requests in 2017 were for personal information, with the majority of those who made requests being clients of the public body concerned.

The Deputy will agree that by any objective standard, all indications suggest that the freedom of information regime is robust and effective in delivering on the objectives of openness, transparency and accountability of public bodies. However, the success illustrated by the recent year-on-year increases in demand has been accompanied by significant challenges, particularly with regard to the demands placed on public resources.

Against this backdrop, the Department's central policy unit for freedom of information has continued to work closely with stakeholders throughout the Civil Service and the public service with a view towards improving freedom of information practice.

Our aims are to ensure that the objectives of those who make freedom of information requests are met as efficiently as possible, to build technical knowledge capacity and to develop an appreciation of the broader significance of freedom of information legislation for the business of relevant organisations.

I agree that the changes have led to a dramatic increase in the number of freedom of information requests. While the Minister is correct in stating that there has been an increase of approximately 60%, I would like to take issue with the figures he cited when he spoke about requests that are granted. According to information we received in response to parliamentary questions, the percentage of requests that went on to be granted decreased from 62% to 51% between 2014 and 2017. Some of them may have been successful on appeal. In light of recent court cases in this area involving the Information Commissioner, one journalist has described the Freedom of Information Act as being "dead". There is concern following two recent court rulings. Can I take it from the Minister's reply that there are no definitive proposals to look at the legislation? The Minister is looking at the capacity to deliver on the existing Act. Is that correct?

That is correct. I am aware of the evaluation that has been formed by some people in respect of the operation of the freedom of information legislation. I do not have any evidence to corroborate the suggestion that predictions of the demise of the freedom of information legislation are being borne out. I have monitored what has happened following the three court judgments to which the Deputy refers, one of which relates to the Department of Health. At this point, it is not clear that the consequences of these judgments will affect the operation of the Bill. It is something I will keep under review. I understand that the Deputy's party is considering the introduction of legislation in this area.

That is correct. We signed off on our Bill yesterday and we look forward to submitting it. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is now denying more requests than it is granting. We are concerned about that trend. The Department received 207 requests last year. Sixty were granted and 67 were refused. We are seeing a gradual trend towards more requests being refused than granted. That is borne out by the figures. As already stated, the percentage of requests granted decreased from 62% to 51% between 2014 and 2017. The trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. That is why we are proposing legislation. I understand that the Minister is looking at this matter and will keep it under review.

I look forward to seeing and considering the Sinn Féin legislation. The fact that there has been a change or an evolution in the number of requests being granted or denied does not mean that the legislation is no longer working. Rather than believing that the legislation is in some way failing to meet its objectives, surely we should be open to the view that officials who make their own independent decisions on these matters are acting in a way that complies fully with the spirit and the letter of the freedom of information legislation. This important legislation plays a really important role in public life. I will look at the consequences of the relevant judgments in order to determine whether they are having any effect on the operation of the legislation. At this time, my assessment is that they are not having any such effect.