Friday, 6 July 2012
Freedom of Information (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012: Second Stage
Mary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
The introduction of application fees was a barrier to freedom of information requests, as borne out by the figures. In 2003, the last year before the fees took full effect, 7,216 non-personal requests were made. In 2004, after the fees were introduced, 3,191 non-personal requests were made. Therefore, the number of applications was halved. In 2002 the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government received 368 requests. In 2011 it received just 100. The Department dealing with enterprise issues received 205 requests in 2002. In 2011 it received 70. The number of requests made to the Department of Health dropped from 997 in 2002 to 150 in 2011. The trend is clear that application fees are a barrier to access to information and their removal would send a positive message that the State was open to full disclosure. It would be a clear signal to citizens that open government was the order of the day. Deputy Pearse Doherty's Bill, if enacted by the Government, would have been a small step forward, but it is up to the Fine Gael and Labour Party Government to make the necessary leap.
Sinn Féin wants to see the Government move towards a position where all State information would be made public, where acceptable to do so, without a request having to be submitted. The public has a right to know how institutions are operating, particularly those which are incurring massive costs for taxpayers and citizens. This week the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, published his policy proposals for the regulation of lobbyists. Up front and centre stage should be a public database of lobbyists to register all interactions between them and Government officials.
Unfortunately, if the Minister's form to date on these matters is anything to go by, I doubt that is what we will get. Sinn Féin representatives have repeatedly called on the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to compile and make public a database of all State agency board members, their qualifications, their experience and the remuneration they receive. This request has been consistently denied, in part because the Department, despite its responsibility for reform, does not collate such data. The Minister regularly extols the increased amount of data uploaded onto the websites but one would forgive the suspicion that much of what is put up is window-dressing. When it comes to the substance of accountability the Government has been found wanting.
All said, Deputy Fleming's Bill is to be welcomed, but the citizens of this State need and want Fine Gael and the Labour Party to deliver on their programme for Government commitment to restore and extend the provisions of the 1997 freedom of information legislation.