Wednesday, 27 April 2005
Ceisteanna — Questions.
Freedom of Information.
Question 6: To ask the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department during the first quarter of 2005; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8770/05]
Question 7: To ask the Taoiseach the number of applications received by his Department under the Freedom of Information Act 1997 during the first quarter of 2005; the way in which this compares with the same period in 2004, 2003 and 2002; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11819/05]
Question 9: To ask the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests to his Department in 2005 which were refused in cases in which the Secretary General has issued a certificate stating that the record contains matter relating to the deliberative process of his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11937/05]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 9, inclusive, together.
A total of six requests were received in my Department in the first quarter of 2005. Of these, two were granted, two were part granted, one was withdrawn and there are no records in respect of one request.
In the first quarter in 2004, 11 requests were received. In the same period in 2003, 80 requests were received. In the same period in 2002, 47 requests were received.
A total of 1,095 requests have been received in my Department since the Act came into operation in April 1998. Of these, 128 were refused.
There have been no requests refused in 2005 on the basis that they relate to the deliberative process of the Department and so the Secretary General has not issued any certificates in that regard.
All requests received in my Department are processed in accordance with both the 1997 Act and the 2003 Act and their implementation is kept under constant review.
The former Secretary General of the Department of Health and Children recently appeared before the Oireachtas committee to speak in respect of the Freedom of Information Act. He said that unreserved acceptance at political level of the findings, for instance, of the Travers report, would result in great relief for public servants who often found themselves torn between their public service obligations and their professional need to maintain a constructive working relationship at political level.
Is the Taoiseach happy that the Freedom of Information Act operates in his Department on the sole basis of the legislation and that considerations of political manoeuvrability do not arise? Does he accept that the amending legislation with regard to the Act, as pioneered by the Government, was solely designed to facilitate such political movement and to spare the embarrassment of whichever Minister might be under the spotlight?
People make requests for information from my Department and others and the functions of general examination and primary decision have been delegated by order as envisaged in the Act. With regard to my Department, these functions are generally delegated to those in the grade of assistant principal officer, although a number of cases are reviewed by those in the grade of principal officer. Some 18 staff across all divisions of my Department are allocated to deal with requests as key decision makers in addition to their normal duties. These staff are mainly at the level of assistant principal officer grade 1 and higher executive officer and are the freedom of information liaison officers responsible for receipt and monitoring of requests and co-ordination of replies. Two assistant secretaries and four principal officers are responsible for internal review processes.
The information is gathered, presented and dealt with without any involvement by myself or any political people who work for me. I am lucky if there is a list——
There is a list of monthly requests for information. Sometimes I see the list and sometimes I do not. However, I have no involvement in the process whatsoever.
The changes do not help in any way other than in the improved working of the system. People who seek information about themselves can still do so for free. The €15 charge for making a freedom of information request cannot be considered a major deterrent to the responsible use of the Act. The changes have not affected that in any way.
What the Taoiseach has outlined appears to differ from what applies to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who, when I asked a question about freedom of information last year, said that he was quite entitled to release the information to the media before the response to the freedom of information request was released by the section of his Department. In his reply the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform said: "Where a request is submitted in respect of records directly held by my office, my officials will bring the matter to my attention so that both I and my office——
——can fully comply with the requirements of the Act." When a freedom of information request is made to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the relevant section brings it to the Minister's notice so that he and they can fully comply with the Act. This means that the Minister, in his capacity, can feel quite free to release that information, if he feels it appropriate, before the freedom of information officer sends it to a Deputy. However, this does not seem to apply in the case of the Taoiseach, where there is no political involvement from the Taoiseach as head of his Department. Does this apply across all Departments or just to the Department of the Taoiseach?
If I had some information in my Department, which I believed should be in the public domain and would be of some relevance, we would release it. It is not a question of waiting for a freedom of information request. We might have background data to report and we might decide to release the whole lot including case studies etc., which happens all the time. It is not triggered by a freedom of information request. While I cannot talk for every Department, I would not be aware of a freedom of information request being made. I can remember the cases where somebody might have mentioned to me that a freedom of information request had been received.
I have sympathy with the Taoiseach in that matter.
Has the Department of the Taoiseach carried out any assessment of the dramatic fall-off from 80 freedom of information requests in 2003 to six and the character of the applications that have been weeded out? Has such an analysis been carried out across Departments generally? What proportion of them was mischievous or trivial? What proportion of them was for commercial purposes, with commercial entities getting the Department to do their preparatory work, supplying them with data that otherwise would need to be compiled at some cost? This is apart entirely from applications that Members on this side of the House might believe to be meritorious but which the Government felt it appropriate to shut down.
Overall that might be an interesting study for the Department of Finance to carry out. In the early years my Department received an enormous number of requests relating to historical issues. People were going back using procedures, even current ones, to find out what the procedure might have been in the past. It was obvious they would go through the system and after a few years fall out. So there was that period of historical interest and there was considerable public interest in it. The cost of €15 will not put off those seeking the information for commercial purposes. Regarding the people who were using the system — it would be wrong to say abusing it totally — to get information and were submitting enormous numbers of freedom of information requests within the law, those requests have declined. I do not know why those people were doing it, or whether they were using the information or passing it on. However, some of the people who were at this on a regular basis seem to have tired of the system. They were probably not making much use of the material.
The number of requests for personal information has not changed. The media requests have fallen off. That has been the change. The early years were about people who had waited for a long time. We had a long debate about the matter over three years and people were waiting to submit their requests. I will keep a monitor, perhaps to the end of the year, in my Department and produce a brief report to check on the matter. I would be happy to do that.
In his answer the Taoiseach stated that six requests had been received. He then proceeded to tell us that two had been granted, two had been part granted and one was withdrawn. Does the Taoiseach want to tell us about another one or do we need to submit a freedom of information request to find that out?
I did not hear the final piece, go raibh maith ag an Taoiseach. Given the sizeable decrease in the number of freedom of information requests, from 143 in 2003 to 45 in 2004, and given that the Department of the Taoiseach has collected €525 in fees in 2004, does this match or exceed the cost of processing freedom of information requests? In other words does the freedom of information legislation represent a profitable enterprise? Has the €35.5 million cost of setting up Media Lab been the subject of any freedom of information request to the Department of the Taoiseach, given the Taoiseach's involvement in the establishment of that project?
The average cost as calculated by the Department of Finance is approximately €425 at 2004 levels. As the fee for each request is €15, it is a very unprofitable and costly business, and the fee represents a very small fraction of what it costs to process requests.
I believe there have been freedom of information requests regarding Media Lab. This information was either released following freedom of information requests or otherwise. I have read all about the matter in the newspapers. That information is in the public domain. Responsibility for that unit is now with a different Minister. All the information has been released and there were no secrets about that issue.
I seek clarification on one aspect of my Question No. 9. In any case did the Secretary General issue a certificate stating that the record of the subject matter of the request related to the deliberative process of the Department? Have any appeals been made to the Information Commissioner on any of the requests that were refused? Last year the Information Commissioner asked for a reappraisal of the €150 fee that applies to reviews carried out by her office.
The Deputy asked specifically about 2005. We have not issued any certificate in 2005 and the Secretary General of my Department has never signed a certificate relating to the deliberative process. While the provision exists, we have not used it.