Tuesday, 3 October 2006
Ceisteanna — Questions
Freedom of Information.
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department during June 2006; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25551/06]
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department since January 2006; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28208/06]
Question 4: To ask the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department to date in 2006; the estimated revenue generated by payments relating to these requests; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30650/06]
Question 5: To ask the Taoiseach the number of applications received by his Department to date in 2006 under the Freedom of Information Acts; the number of applications acceded to; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30870/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
I propose to circulate with the Official Report the information requested by the Deputies on the statistics regarding freedom of information requests received in my Department. In 2006, a total of €690 was received in respect of application fees. No charges were levied in respect of costs relating to the search and retrieval of records. All FOI applications received in my Department are processed by statutorily designated officials in accordance with the 1997 and 2003 Acts and, in accordance with those statutes, I have no role in the processing of individual applications.
I was going to suggest that there could be an increase in the number of requests for information from the Department of the Taoiseach. There were 142 requests in 2003, 45 in 2004 and 61 in 2005. It appears the decline will continue in 2006, probably due to the nature of the charge and the restrictions introduced by the Minister for Finance. Will the Taoiseach comment on this matter?
Is it a general principle for new agencies set up by the Government to automatically be covered by the freedom of information legislation, such as a new agency under the Taoiseach's Department?
On the first question, the Deputy knows from the charts that the figures go up and down. While they came down initially after the changes in 2003, they wavered up and down in the period since then. At the beginning of this year, the figure was high and it was high in April. Some months the figure is low and some months it is high. It has levelled out at a trend over the past few years.
In May of this year, 130 additional public bodies and groups were brought within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. Generally, unless there is some particular reason it should not be the case, any new agency would be covered by the Act.
Does the Taoiseach have a breakdown by category of the freedom of information requests to his Department? Is that something his Department does? Does the Taoiseach have a breakdown of the number of requests from journalists and those from members of the wider public? If so, will he indicate the numbers approved or refused in each category? In respect of the Taoiseach's Department and the wider context, has he taken on board the concerns expressed by the Information Commissioner going back over the past couple of years at least?
We have taken them on board. Changes in direction by the Department of Finance are taken on board. We follow them and do not alter them. A significant majority of requests — 62% — to my Department are submitted by journalists, others account for 25%, business interests make up 8% of applications and Oireachtas Members have submitted 5% of applications. That has been the consistent trend.
Can the Taoiseach estimate whether the increasing number of requests is linked to the increase in the number of bodies covered by the FOI Act? In respect of the Department of the Taoiseach, for example, the Law Reform Commission is not covered. Is there any good reason for this, given that the commission is his Department's responsibility? Has the Taoiseach taken the advice of the Information Commissioner, who points to South Africa's wide-ranging and liberal legislation in this regard? Would the Taoiseach consider any recommendation in respect of the Law Reform Commission, given that many people believe it should be covered by freedom of information provisions?
When the last review was done in May and the 130 additional bodies and groups were brought within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, the bodies under the aegis of my Department, with the exception of the Law Reform Commission, were already within the scope of the Act. The question of extending the Freedom of Information Act to the Law Reform Commission is under consideration, but no decision has been made yet.
Given the Taoiseach's substantial experience in government and recalling the debate that surrounded the introduction of the original freedom of information legislation where those opponents articulated a view that it would hamper decision-making and reduce the quality and clarity of the decision-making process within the confidentiality of the public service, what is the Taoiseach's view on whether the Act has reduced the quality of decision-making or made it more tortuous?
I remember the debates and the various arguments. Following the initial rush when there was an enormous number of queries, particularly from the public, about various issues, the number of freedom of information requests has settled down to an even keel. I have been very much in favour of its extension to other bodies. It has not created any difficulties that are readily apparent. The system operates well.
There has been a rumour to the effect that in some cases civil servants are reluctant to commit to paper opinions or options, and that there has been a vast increase in the purchase of Post-its within the Department of the Taoiseach and other Departments. Is there any substance to that rumour?
It is not just a matter of FOI. The change I have seen over the years is one with which Deputy Quinn will be familiar. In the old days, a long time back, a file was circulated to sections. As Deputy Quinn will recall, the opinions of EOs, HEOs and assistant principals tended to be written in manuscript on files. I have not seen a file like that in a long time. I would put it down not just to FOI but to the committee system, various investigations and other issues. Under the old system, I enjoyed following the train of an argument through the relevant sections and picking up what middle-ranking people would say as distinct from what others would say. It was always an interesting read, but I have not seen such a file in a long time.