Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Freedom of Information Legislation
Securing greater public access to official information has a critical role to play in strengthening the openness, transparency and accountability of the Irish administrative and political system. The reform of the freedom of information legislation and its extension to all public bodies is therefore a central pillar of this Government’s political reform agenda. In its July decision on freedom of information the Government endorsed the principle that the Freedom of Information Act would be expected to apply to all public bodies consistent with the original objective of the Act to enable access to information in the possession of public bodies to the greatest extent possible.
Subject to some specific conditions, freedom of information legislation will be extended to a number of high profile public bodies previously entirely outside of the scope of the Act, including An Garda Síochána, public financial bodies, including the NTMA, NAMA, NPRF, and the NDFA, the Central Bank of Ireland, public bodies with important regulatory, quasi-judicial and investigative functions, to include the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Applications Tribunal, as well as vocational educational committees which are key bodies in the education sector. Any limitations to its implementation will apply only in the most exceptional cases where there is a clear public interest in safeguarding particularly highly sensitive and confidential information.
The Government has also agreed to significant reforms to restore freedom of information legislation in the following ways: reversing the very broad definition of Government records introduced in the 2003 amending legislation; curtailing the time period within which Government records cannot generally be considered for release from ten years to five years; restoring the discretion available in specific circumstances to release Government records within five years where they relate, for example, to factual information already in the public domain; prioritising the reduction of very high levels of internal review and appeal fees for non-personal requests; and the liberalisation of the mandatory class exemption put in place in 2003.
I have submitted the general scheme of the freedom of information Bill to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform for its views and recommendations. I believe the committee will have an important role in advising me in that regard and I look forward to hearing such advice. When I hear it I will be able to determine the timeframe for producing the final Bill.
I share the Minister's views as to the great importance of this legislation. My question follows remarks he made today around transformation, renewal and all the rest of it, in the public service. I suggest he reads an article in The Irish Times today by Simon Carswell who tells a very interesting story of a particular freedom of information request submitted by him to both the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Finance, in respect of the Personal Insolvency Bill and any lobbying that may have taken place between third parties and those Departments. He got short shrift.
In amending the legislation we must be mindful that government does not hide from disclosure behind technicalities. The challenge, as seen by some within the Civil Service, is to evade answering any questions and being very awkward in terms of how they "re-understand" a question and answer it. The FOI legislation is incredibly valuable but is only so if the system has undergone the kind of cultural change the Minister tells us he champions in order to ensure that the people concerned understand transparency, give the answers and let the information flow.
I look forward to getting the views of the committee, of which both Deputies opposite are members. Separate legislation on the register of lobbying is mentioned in the article in The Irish Times instanced by the Deputy. It, too, is groundbreaking legislation and will be important.
We have to see the entire suite of legislation as a new reform architecture. The last time my party was in Government we were anxious to do that and Eithne FitzGerald, as Minister at the time, introduced the freedom of information legislation, the Ethics in Public Office Act and the Electoral Act. We need to augment these with the lobbying Bill, further freedom of information legislation, the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act and all such others on the political reform agenda that, hopefully, will be enacted in the coming period.