Dáil debates

Friday, 6 July 2012

Freedom of Information (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012: Second Stage


12:00 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)

I congratulate our colleagues on bringing the Bill before the House. Much has been stated on the adequacies and inadequacies of the legislation as it stands and on how it was amended in 2002, as we all remember. It was restricted in 2002 and, as has been referred to, the discussion went on well into the night. I recall it well because I was Opposition Whip at the time. It is relevant and opportune that we deal with the issue now.

Freedom of information legislation has basic principles. It allows the citizens access to information held by the State or State institutions on those citizens, and this is very important. It is equally important a citizen has access to information about him or her held by semi-State institutions and other institutions in the private sector, such as banking and lending institutions. Notwithstanding that we live in an era when the view is that all relevant information should be made available, this is not the case. It has become more restrictive and difficult and the Data Protection Act is invoked regularly to prevent information being put in the public arena. Conflict exists between the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act regarding to whom information should go and to what extent it should become available.

The greatest sufferers of all in this particular battle are the Houses of Parliament. Never was it more difficult to gain information through the normal parliamentary question system than has evolved over the past ten years. Some improvements have been made since the current Administration took over, mainly due to the fact the Ceann Comhairle has taken a different attitude. When I was in opposition in the previous Dáil, every day I was told 20 times by the Ceann Comhairle that the Minister did not have responsibility to the House. One could hardly raise an issue that did not carry with it an admonition from the Ceann Comhairle that the Minister had no responsibility to the House. We know how this happened. In the first instance a question was referred to a Department and the Minister or Department responded by stating it was not for them but for somebody else and that it did not have responsibility to the House. In other words, the people involved did not want to answer the question and suggested the person asking the question did not have the right to do so. This is wrong. An elected Member of Parliament has every right to ask any and every question pertaining to anything done by any Department, whether relating to information, expenditure, a sequence of events, or responsibility, devolved or otherwise. It is the right of a Member of Parliament to gain access to this information through the Houses of Parliament.

Any diminution in the role of Parliament is to be decried. We should never accept it. However, in recent times we have seen a belief that parliamentarians cannot really be trusted to obtain information and that they are not really qualified to obtain information. This is the rock on which we will all perish. We are heading in this direction and it is not in the interests of public administration, public accountability or democracy. I particularly mention the period from 2002 to 2011, and not for political reasons. Never have I known in my time in the House a trend that became more obvious than the various Departments pulling down the shutters and squeezing the doors shut to ensure the minimum of information got out. This has led us to where we are now and brought us to this juncture, where we have a failure to disseminate information which should be rightfully in the public arena and available through the Houses of Parliament.

In any other democracy in any other part of the world where freedom of information has been discussed, it has always been in conjunction with information through the parliamentary system. We know the usual response which comes from some areas is that parliamentary questions are very expensive. I do not buy into that malarkey at all. It is very important that we re-assert ourselves as Members of the national Parliament, here and throughout the world. It is important to make it absolutely certain and clear in everyone's mind that election to the national Parliament gives to an elected Member the right to a response from all Departments, State and semi-State bodies and the right to any information that is rightfully in the public arena. I can show countless instances over the years where for one reason or another people tried to withhold information, claiming it would be inappropriate to give it out. When is it ever inappropriate to give information? Information, they correctly say, is power. Lack of information leads to a serious diminution of power, power that should be rightfully in the hands of Members elected to the national Parliament.

Will the Minister examine the extent to which there has been a diminution in the degree of information available to Members of this Parliament? On the first day I was elected to this House, the late Oliver J. Flanagan, a former Member, told me not to allow anyone to erode the right of a Member of the national Parliament to ask pertinent and relevant questions about any subject that entails or incurs public expenditure or the right to information on major issues of national or international importance, including local issues. Again, Oliver J. Flanagan was conscious of the fact that information is important and is power, and that failure to get information shows a distinct lack of power. If we allow ourselves to be corralled into that kind of arena, we will find Parliament will not matter anymore in the future. Then it will be unnecessary to attend the House as we can stay at home to make phone calls.

Nothing can or should supersede the primacy of the national Parliament. The emphasis, now and in the future, must be to ensuring information is readily available to the national Parliament and parliamentarians without exception or obstruction.


No comments

Log in or join to post a public comment.