Tuesday, 27 May 2008
Ceisteanna — Questions
Freedom of Information.
Question 4: To ask the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department during February 2008; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10013/08]
Question 5: To ask the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department in the first two months of 2008; the way this compares with the same two-month period in each year from 2002; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11368/08]
Question 6: To ask the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department in the first three months of 2008 compared to the first three months of 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15230/08]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, together.
I propose to circulate in the Official Report a table showing the figures requested by the Deputies regarding freedom of information requests received in my Department. All FOI applications received in my Department are processed by statutorily designated officials in accordance with the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003. In accordance with those Acts, I have no role in processing individual applications.
Does the Taoiseach agree that the changes introduced by the Government to the Freedom of Information Act have seriously curtailed the right of the citizen to find out what is going on in certain areas, agencies and organisations? The Taoiseach is always interested in outcomes and delivery. Is he happy that many of the Departments in the public service fail consistently to provide on time the information sought under the Acts? There is a specific requirement that even if the information is restricted, it should at least be delivered on time, but that is not happening in a range of areas.
The Information Commissioner issued a report at the tenth anniversary conference on 15 May. She stated there is no good reason that key bodies, such as the Garda Síochána, the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, vocational education committees and their schools, the State Examinations Commission and the CAO, should not be subject to the scrutiny which is provided for under the Freedom of Information Acts. She says there is no justification for this state of affairs in Ireland and that we are the only country where practice is significantly out of line with virtually all of the 70 other countries where freedom of information legislation applies. It is not that these bodies are deliberately doing something illegal but should it not be the citizen's right to find out what is going on, why and how decisions were made?
Does the Taoiseach agree with the Information Commissioner's report on the tenth anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act that it should be extended to bodies such as those listed so that this can be made more open? We are campaigning in favour of the Lisbon treaty on the basis that the Council, the Parliament and the Commission will sit in public and let people see what is going on and how decisions are made. In our country, we are out of line with 70 other countries where freedom of information applies. While nothing illegal is being done, does the Taoiseach agree it should be made more open?
I remind Deputy Kenny and other Members that freedom of information issues are a matter for the line Minister, the Minister for Finance. The Taoiseach is not the line Minister but if he has a contribution to make I will not prevent him.
I was about to make the point that the Minister for Finance is responsible for its implementation, review and extension. When freedom of information legislation was first introduced, it applied to 67 bodies or agencies. The largest extension took place in 2006 when I was Minister for Finance and I extended it to a further 137 bodies, giving a total of 502 regarding the number of bodies to which freedom of information applies. It has increased from 67 to 502 bodies in ten years. While the Information Commissioner speaks of it being out of line with 70 other countries, my recollection of the Bill being brought before the House by a previous Administration was that it was quite progressive in terms of the method by which information can be sought. My recollection is that it is far less restrictive than is the case across the water. I cannot discuss that in detail today but I can give my impression.
There has been a broadening of the bodies to which this legislation applies and whether and how it should be extended beyond the current number is a matter for ongoing consideration by the Minister for Finance. There is nothing axiomatic about the figure of 502 at present. It may well be extended in the future. The report to which the Deputy refers was issued recently and may obtain consideration within the Department and by the Minister in due course.
I do not agree that the 2003 changes greatly restricted freedom of information. It is quite the contrary; there are far more bodies to which it applies. The idea was to bring balance to the situation and ensure that we have appropriate use of the Act. Personal information is available in all situations for people to whom the Act applies. It is important that this is done in a timely manner, that there is an internal review situation and that appeals can be made. I am not aware of the specifics to which the Leader of the Opposition refers. In the main, the Act, as applied by various officers in charge of its implementation, is applied at arms length from the heads of the organisations concerned and works quite well.
The Taoiseach referred to the Minister for Finance, who attended and spoke at the tenth anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act event. He caused a great deal of depression by his refusal to countenance any reversal of the charging regime for the making of applications under the Freedom of Information Act and for——
Yes. I am drawing the two issues together. The Minister is refusing to change the fee regime. The Information Commissioner has stated that the fee regime is causing people not to make applications. The table which the Taoiseach promised to circulate, of which we have not yet had sight but which I presume will be in line with previous replies, will show there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of applications made under the Freedom of Information Act since the introduction of the fees.
Another aspect of this is the review of the legislation. The Information Commissioner has asked for the extension of the Freedom of Information Act to additional bodies and the Taoiseach has responded to that request. The commissioner, in the course of her address to the tenth anniversary event, asked for a thorough review of the Freedom of Information Act. Does the Government intend to carry out a thorough review of that Act? What direction will such a review take? Will it focus on increasing or further restricting application of the Freedom of Information Act?
I do not accept application of the Act has been further restricted given we have been extending the numbers of bodies to which it applies. I have just explained to the Deputy that in 2006 alone, during my time as Minister for Finance, I extended it to a further 137 bodies. I do not accept, therefore, that our attempt is to restrict it.
Deputy Gilmore referred to fees which are, in the first instance, a matter for the Minister for Finance. I understand there are no plans to review fees. The current system of fees was introduced in 2003. A fee of €15 is modest particularly when compared with the estimated average administrative cost of €485 for processing a freedom of information request. I do not believe anyone could argue this is unreasonable or that it discourages responsible FOI requests.
It is important to point out that there is no charge for the time taken to examine the records sought with a view to determining whether they should be released. There is no charge for access to personal information. The fees have not been increased since their introduction in July 2003. Regarding appeal fees, it is €75 for an internal appeal and €150 for an appeal to the Information Commissioner. There are significant reductions for medical card holders, the fees for whom are €25 and €50 respectively. Appeals concerning personal information are entirely exempt from these fees.
An appeal to the Information Commissioner is a quasi judicial process that can require many months to complete and can entail a considerable amount of work. The fee in this regard is a fair reflection of the nature of the appeals process and of the costs and time involved. It is important to note that a person who appeals to the commissioner receives a preliminary decision which is a fairly good indication of the likely final outcome. Even at this late stage in the process, the requester can withdraw an appeal and obtain a full refund of fees paid. I understand that approximately 30% of appeals made to the Office of the Information Commissioner are withdrawn.
Arrangements are in place to examine whether the Act can be extended to other groups of bodies including the Law Reform Commission, the last remaining body under the aegis of my Department to be included. The Minister for Finance reviews these matters on an ongoing basis. As I understand it, there are no proposals to extend the Act to the Garda Síochána. While this has not been ruled out in the future, the matter is not currently under consideration.
Is the Taoiseach considering any changes to the Freedom of Information Act, in particular, in respect of the claims expressed in the OECD's recent report that requests for freedom of information should be free? Has that particular section of the OECD report been brought to the Taoiseach's attention? It acknowledges that applying fees has addressed some of the frivolity involved in requests but it also knows and has evidence that it is a prohibition to genuine information being sought and accessed. I know the Taoiseach is holding to one line of reply, but this is not only about the Information Commissioner. The OECD report and substantial independent opinion believe the fee structuring is prohibitive. How will the Taoiseach reply to the OECD report recommendations?
Is the Taoiseach aware of the issues highlighted by the Information Commissioner with regard to the roles and functions of Departments or other bodies prescribed under the FOI Act being moved to newly established bodies with the records moving with them? Heretofore, the records were under the attention of the FOI Act and were accessible. Now that they are under a new body not yet listed they are not accessible for FOI inquiries.
Two examples were cited. Records previously held by the Department of Transport transferred to the Road Safety Authority on its establishment in September 2006. The Road Safety Authority is not one of the listed bodies. Records once accessible under the FOI Act are no longer so. The establishment in 2006 of the Property Registration Authority which took over the functions of the Land Registry and the Registry of Deeds is another example of public record information previously accessible under the FOI Act no longer being the case. Does the Taoiseach consider that part of the core criteria of establishment of new bodies such as the Road Safety Authority and the Property Registration Authority should be that they are automatically registerable under the terms of the FOI Act?
Having held the office, in fairness I suppose the point made by Deputy Ó Caoláin should receive due consideration. If records were available under the FOI Act and are now held by new bodies not in the existing orders I am sure the Minister for Finance will examine the logic of having people in the new agencies competent to deal with the matter. This may involve a short period of training people and acquainting them with what is required and in due course bringing them into the FOI regime. I do not see any reason this should not be the case.
One of the Taoiseach's responsibility is contact with Northern Ireland. Under the Freedom of Information Act in Northern Ireland, there is widespread availability of information for citizens on the PSNI. This is denied only in specific and exceptional circumstances. Now that the Garda Síochána is being reformed, does the Taoiseach have a view on whether the FOI Act should be extended to it?
I look forward to the Minister for Finance coming to the House with a new and broad range of proposals on the Freedom of Information Act. In the past, he expressed himself as a liberal on these issues, stating that people should have access to this information, that the Government, its agencies and public departments do not do anything illegal and therefore citizens should be aware of these things. I look forward to the Minister for Finance, with the imprimatur of the Taoiseach, telling us what he will do.
I welcome the Taoiseach's reply which indicated an acceptance of the merit of what I sought to establish out of the question concerned. Will the Minister for Finance heed the point on the establishment of these new bodies? My supplementary question was not answered. While the Information Commissioner's position has been discussed, will the Taoiseach take on board the OECD report recommendations? Does he intend, on the collective weight of all these independent views, to re-examine the FOI legislation?
As the Deputy will be aware, I have established a task force to advise us on how we should go about implementing the OECD report and we should await the outcome of its deliberations. We want a situation where public services are provided as efficiently and effectively as possible and in the spirt of FOI legislation, which balances the issue of people having access to information in the public interest and preventing a range of requests that put the public system to considerable expense and time, but may not have a public interest element. The information might be interesting to some people but whether it is of public interest in the wider commonly understood sense of that term is a different question