From 1 January 2017 to the end of May this year, the Department received 1,069 freedom of information requests. Of these, 230 were fully granted, 502 were partially granted, 89 were refused and no records were held in relation to 182 requests. A total of 62 requests were either transferred, withdrawn or handled outside the freedom of information process, while four requests are ongoing.
There has been a significant increase in the number of freedom of information requests received in the Department since the new Act came into operation in 2014. In 2013, the Department received 92 requests, while this figure rose to 290 in 2015 and to 490 in 2018. This represented an increase of 533% in the five years since 2013 and the upward trend is continuing this year.
Regarding records part granted or refused, material is redacted for a variety of reasons, as provided for under the Act. Examples of grounds commonly used by freedom of information decision makers in the Department for withholding material include where Government records are less than five years old, where the material, if released, could have an adverse impact on international relations or the economic interests of the State, where commercially sensitive information is involved and where it is necessary to withhold personal information, such as personal email addresses or mobile numbers.
The majority of requests submitted to the Department are non-personal requests from the media. All requests received in the Department are processed by designated officials in accordance with the Freedom of Information Acts. If a requester is not satisfied with a freedom of information decision he or she can seek an internal review, followed by appeal to the information commissioner. The freedom of information statutory framework keeps the decision-making process at arm's length from the political head of the Department. Despite what is often reported, I have never personally refused the release of any document under freedom of information. I have no role in the decision-making process for requests received in the Department nor do I see copies of decision letters issuing.
There are two members of staff working in the Department’s freedom of information unit, both of whom perform other duties. Staff from throughout the Department are also involved in processing requests in addition to their routine duties, for example searching and retrieving records and making decisions on requests received. At times, complicated and detailed freedom of information requests are received, which involve significant time and resource implications for the staff involved.
Section 8 of the Freedom of Information Act 2014 requires each freedom of information body to prepare and publish a publication scheme. The Department's scheme is published on gov.ie and sets out a range of information about the type of records it holds.