Thursday, 3 October 2013
Freedom of Information Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)
The increase in fees in 2003 was responsible for a marked tailing off in interest in and use of freedom of information for many years, although the economic crisis facing the country and efforts to gain an understanding of how this could have happened helped spark a new interest. There is a financial cost in search and retrieval, and this must be realistically assessed and made known, but there are also benefits in terms of correction and clarification of information stored when examined under freedom of information. That must also be considered.
In the week of the Seanad referendum, the passage of this Bill through the House, righting the wrongs of the 2003 Act, is highly significant. This Government has been elected partly on a platform of new and reformed politics and this Bill is part of an overall package of Dáil reform, and with the ongoing reform of local government it is strengthening our republic. It is helping transparency, accountability and the roots of inquiry needed to ensure the republic remains just and true to the people its serves and who give us power.
I was elected to the House in the "bought" election of 2002 which had such terrible consequences for the economy and the country so I commend the passage of this Bill through the House. At the beginning of my contribution I noted how public finances were used to buy the 2002 election and the changes to freedom of information afterwards prevented us investigating that properly. There was a repeat performance in 2007 and the same thing happened again. The country's current position is a result of mismanagement of public finances from 2001 to 2008, when money was misspent on long-term projects even though short-term taxes were coming in. We will pay a heavy price for such action in this country, and our citizens are paying the price because they are stuck with high mortgages and other debt that came from pretences of a bad Government and managers.
I hope Bills like this will go a great way to enhancing transparency and making it easier for politicians on all sides of the House and people in organisations to get the information they need. People must be able to judge and assess what the Government, Departments and State bodies are doing. We came here with a manifesto partly based on reform, and we are trying to carry that out as best we can. We wish some of the reforms could happen more quickly but bit by bit we are turning around how the country operates and is run. That can only benefit us all.
I spent time as part of the Opposition in the last Dáil and our way of working has changed much in the past ten years; we are now in a better place to be a Deputy, no matter what side we are on. In politics it is important to get a chance to be heard and put thoughts on the record, and that opportunity exists. With Friday sittings, a Member can bring forward a Bill that will be discussed, which was not always possible. When in opposition, people need to wait their turn to put forward a Bill on Tuesday and Wednesday, so the Friday sittings are good. Many people complain that few people turn up but that is down to individual choice. The opportunity exists nonetheless. These reforms are about strengthening politics and transparency, and I hope the country will see the benefit of that as the years go on. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to its fast passage into law.
In general terms I welcome the Bill, which is a positive development. The last Government rolled back the freedom of information legislation that was introduced by the Labour and Fine Gael Government.
Indeed, and there should be credit where it is due. The Bill's introduction is positive and freedom of information is being extended to more bodies. Nevertheless, amendments to the Bill are required, and the issues were discussed at the finance committee, of which I am a member. The first issue relates to fees. I accept that there are no fees for personal information but there is a €15 fee for non-personal information and an appeal fee of €50, which has been reduced from €150. There is also a €30 fee for an internal review, which has also been reduced from €75. It still costs money to access this information, which can have a chilling effect, particularly in a current climate where people are very strapped for money. This was noted extensively at Leaders' Questions earlier and people may have heard the rather disturbing reports of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul this morning about how many families are in dire financial positions. It should be fairly obvious that people in such cases would not have the money to access information they might want.
Having fees means there is essentially a two-tier access to information, which is not acceptable. If we are talking about freedom of information, it should apply to everybody and there should be no obstacle or deterrent to members of the public accessing the information. Their economic status should not be an impediment to having full access to information.
The Government's justification for not abolishing fees relates to the potential administrative costs and the Minister suggested that public bodies would not have the capacity or may have problems having the wherewithal to provide free access to FOI because of the loss of more than 30,000 workers from the public sector. That is not an acceptable justification. If FOI is a right that the Government seeks to vindicate for the public, then it can hardly say they have the right to FOI but because of other policies it has to cut the capacity of public service to deliver a service it says they should have and, therefore, they cannot have it or there should be an impediment to them having full and free access. That makes no sense whatsoever. If FOI is a public service the Government believes the public should have, it has an obligation to provide the resources to deliver it, otherwise it is not a service; it is just words on a page.
The public service has many aspects to it but surely one of the most important should be its role in providing information to the public. That is what democracy is about and that is what the public service should be there for. It is there to serve the public and a critical part of serving the public is providing people with information about what is going on and how public money is being spent. It is not good enough for the Government parties to say they do not have the means to provide free access and it makes a mockery of freedom of information if one does not have free access to information.
Furthermore, in Britain the possibility of charging fees was discussed and rejected on a number of grounds similar to those I have outlined. It was also pointed out, importantly, that the cost of levying fees might be greater administratively than the cost of not doing so. The UK Government decided not to charge fees stating,
Charging for FOI requests would have an adverse impact on transparency and would undermine the objectives of the Act. A charge would be expensive to administer and may result in increasing rather than reducing burdens on public authorities. This is particularly the case where a nominal charge rather than a much higher full cost recovery charge is being considered.It makes sense not to have loads of public servants billing people or administering a charging system for request, appeals or reviews.
Perhaps there is also an implication in the Government's decision to retain charges - an issue that was also raised at the joint committee - that there would be loads of frivolous and vexatious FOI requests. Expert witnesses who appeared before the committee rubbished that argument and said a high bar would have to be set to show that a request was frivolous because what the Government might consider to be frivolous, the member of the public seeking the information might consider to be important. It is not up to public bodies or the Government to decide that they do not like a particular request or find it irritating or annoying. If the person feels it is important, he or she has a right to that information.
The exemptions for commercial semi-State bodies are unacceptable. This catch all phrase "commercial sensitivity" drives me around the twist because it is a blanket, get out of jail clause for entities that are fully owned by the public in which significant public money and resources are at stake and the notion that they can get out of jail regarding FOI requests because of so-called commercial sensitivities is just not on. There may be instances where a semi-State body could make a plea that the release of particular information would jeopardise its financial position but the presumption in FOI is that all bodies in which there is substantial public investment or ownership should be subject to the legislation as a general rule and if they want to make an case to be an exception, they should have to do so and outline why particular information should not be given out. It should not be the other way around, particularly in the context of bodies such as Irish Water, which has a monopoly on the sale of water, itself an abomination.
I had desperate trouble trying to get information about industrial relations issues in Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company relating to pay, bonuses, executive expenses, huge sums wasted on ridiculous plans and so on. We need that information.
The joint committee also debated the issue of direct provision, the asylum process, refugee applications and son. Will FOI legislation be fully applied in this area? This is important. We have had a dark and shameful history in the context of the cover up of institutional abuse in the Magdalen Laundries, industrial schools and so on. It is only now that this terrible history is seeing the light of day and restorative justice being offered to those affected. Refugees and asylum seekers are a new version of the Magdalen Laundries survivors. They have been relegated to the status of non-people. Children are spending their entire childhoods in appalling conditions in hostels with no rights. It is vitally important that a light is shone on this area and that it be fully subject to FOI provisions.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Bill is also welcome, although I have concerns about a number of provisions but I hope that during its passage through the House they will be addressed and rectified. The purpose of the legislation is to reverse a number of the provisions in the restrictive 2003 Act, which dramatically changed elements of the original 1997 Act, and that is welcome.
FOI provisions will be extended to other public bodies but there are exemptions, with which I do not agree. The legislation has been welcomed cautiously by many commentators, including the former Ombudsman and Information Commissioner , Emily O’Reilly. She said it is positive for transparency but that the changes introduced in the Bill would only become clear when information was sought under the new regime. That is the critical question. Will there be a culture change? Will openness and transparency be embraced by officialdom and the various agencies covered by the Bill? When it comes to implementing the Bill, will we have that openness and transparency to which the public is obviously entitled?
The extension of the remit of freedom of information raises resource issues. The addition of further bodies will mean the Office of the Information Commissioner will come under additional pressure. It is vital that resources be made available to ensure the legislation is operated in a positive and timely fashion.
The principle of freedom of information encompasses public scrutiny of decisions made by public bodies, allowing for greater appreciation of the issues involved in public decisions and stronger public ownership and acceptance of decisions made. Those affected by decisions of public bodies should have the right to know the criteria used in making the decisions. Every individual should have the right to know what information is held in Government records about him or her, subject to certain exemptions, to have inaccurate personal material on file corrected and to obtain the reasons for a decision that affects them personally. Citizens, as stakeholders in public bodies, should have the right to examine and review the deliberations and processes of public bodies. We need a properly functioning system whereby the public has a right to know and whereby people have easy access to information and to the system by which it can be made available to them. As the previous Information Commissioner stated, the key test is not what is written down on the page or in the Act when passed, but how the provisions of the Bill will operate in practice on the ground.
One of the problems with the Bill relates to fees, which are a deterrent to the provisions of the Bill being widely available to the public. The issue has been discussed by various committees of this House and in other countries, as well as by professional individuals. Dr. Nat O'Connor of TASC, in a discussion paper entitled An Economic Argument for Stronger Freedom of Information Laws in Ireland, estimated that freedom of information costs in 2009 amounted to just 0.012% of total Government spending. He stated:
The argument that FOI is expensive is disingenuous. It seeks to reduce public administration to a simple bookkeeping exercise of balancing direct annual costs against revenue. In this simplistic account, the administrative cost of FOI is greater than the costs recovered through the fees regime. However, any serious cost-benefit analysis of FOI must include the estimated savings that are generated through preventing errors and wrong-doing. Therefore, we must include cost savings to the State which were largely brought about through information revealed by FOI requests.Other eminent individuals have come down on the side of not having fees, including in recent examinations of the issue in the UK. I hope the Minister will consider withdrawing the proposed fees in the legislation.
At one extreme, the tribunals and claims against the State have shown that prevention is not just better than cure; it is also much cheaper than the costs of investigations and compensation.
I am concerned about exemptions, particularly of the Garda Síochána, other than administrative elements, and the widespread exemptions for NAMA and commercial semi-state bodies such as Irish Water. NAMA has been mentioned by a number of speakers across the political divide. Unfortunately, almost all documents of interest possessed by NAMA on the funds of companies and other entities in which NAMA has invested or could potentially invest are excluded. That is a difficult area and it should not be exempt. NAMA should be fully accessible to freedom of information requests. Issues have arisen in terms of NAMA's activity, the sale of property, dealings with developers, and staff of NAMA resigning, transferring and being re-employed by development companies. The Garda Síochána should come fully under the remit of FOI legislation. There is no good reason for excluding any portion of An Garda Síochána. That is also the case for semi-state agencies, including Irish Water. The public has a right to know what is going on in public and semi-state companies.
I very much welcome the opportunity to speak on the Freedom of Information Bill 2013. As we are all aware, it seeks to reverse much of the regressive, sinister legislation that was introduced by the former Minister, Charlie McCreevy, in 2003 which restricted the 1997 legislation that had been introduced by the rainbow Government.
It is interesting to note that, internationally, the very first freedom of information legislation was passed in Sweden in 1766. It has taken a long time for other countries to catch up. Between 90 and 100 countries have enacted freedom of information legislation, the majority of them doing so in the 1990s and the early years of this millennium. In this country, freedom of information legislation was first introduced in 1997 and, regrettably, in 2003 it was amended so as to inhibit the action of the original legislation. At the time we were in the middle of an economic boom. The country was awash with cash. It could be argued that the Government, politicians, civil servants and the Administration had taken their eye off the ball. The regulatory authorities had certainly taken their eye off the ball. One could question some of the Government decisions and mismanagement at the time. I refer to policy decisions such as the proposed move to e-voting, which has cost €16 million and counting; PPARS, which cost approximately €160 million; the residential institutions abuse deal, which has cost the State €1.2 billion, above and beyond what was predicted; the cost overrun for the East Link and West Link toll bridges, which was in the region of €407 million; the overrun for Stadium Campus Ireland - the Bertie Bowl - which was another €100 million; the overrun on the Luas project, which was €470 million; the overrun for the Dublin Port Tunnel, which was €350 million; the cost overrun and mismanagement of the construction of the five major inter-urban motorway projects, which we all use today, which amounted to €3.25 billion, and decentralisation, which has cost €900 million and rising.
In the context of these decisions, we had a Government that decided freedom of information was not as important as it should be and it restricted the terms. The projects I have listed and ten or 12 others cost the State just over €7 billion over a period of ten years, in the middle of which the 2003 legislation was introduced. This is an enormous sum. When one reflects on what our upcoming budget will try to achieve, one realises it is staggering.
The 1997 legislation introduced the right of access to records held by a public body, the right to be given reasons for a decision, the right to have records amended where personal information was incomplete, incorrect or misleading, and the right to information on acts of public bodies affecting a person. It is fundamental to efficient and transparent democracy to have the right to information on who signs off on decisions in Departments, be the signatories Ministers signing off on policies or civil servants proposing policies or initiatives.
Some speakers have mentioned fees. Rightly, the fees have been reduced in this legislation and I do not have a major issue with them. As freedom of information legislation is developed in conjunction with technologies to store, process and gain access to information, fees become irrelevant. Ultimately, they will not be an issue in accessing information. Departments should make it a policy objective and as easy as possible to make information available through technology and efficiencies to those who request it.
In the 1990s, while many countries were progressive in their legislation, Ireland was taking the opposite approach. There are concerns, however, with any freedom of information legislation. Regarding the 30 year rule about which we often read, we encounter examples of policy documents with annotations, notes or signatures of senior Ministers and civil servants. It is reasonably easy to see who knew what when decisions were taken. I hope this Bill and general freedom of information legislation will not make Ministers reluctant to take notes, sign off on or leave their fingerprint, as it were, on legislation or policy documents in the knowledge that it might be quite clear to historians and the public who knew what when. As we deal with the 30 year rule, it will be interesting to note how decisions from 1997 which will not be available until 2027 will be presented to the public.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by the outgoing Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly. While I am reluctant to name people, I wish her the very best in her new role as European Ombudsman. We share her concerns on the resources issue. There are 180 State bodies now included in the list of bodies included in freedom of information legislation. This is very welcome. The list includes major semi-State agencies and bodies such as the VECs and education and training boards. If we are to take freedom of information seriously, we must have properly funded freedom of information officers within the agencies. They ought to have proactive policies and should be trained. They should operate in an environment in which freedom of information fatigue does not set in. We have seen this phenomenon in some organisations because of the number of freedom of information requests. In some cases where budgets are contracting, decision-makers and financial managers are restricting funding for freedom of information officers. Each organisation falling under the freedom of information legislation does not necessarily need a dedicated freedom of information officer. The role could be shared among some of the organisations. Perhaps some work should be done on determining how such efficiencies could be introduced.
Information is power, as Sweden has realised since 1776. Proper and proactive compliance with freedom of information legislation, according to both the letter and the spirit of the law, will inevitably lead to more open and transparent decision-making, more efficient processing of information and the abolition of an environment characterised by secrecy and obfuscation that foster suspicion and mistrust, not only of public administration but also of politics. Progressive freedom of information legislation such as this Bill is vital to smooth governance and can only help to repair the damage done by the nod, wink and stroke politics that was the oxygen that kept Fianna Fáil in power for decades but stunted the legitimate ambition of the State to take its place among other nations in respect of transparency and open government. I very much welcome the Bill and regard it not as the last step in ensuring and enshrining openness and transparency in government but as part of a progressive approach that will enhance transparency and foster a culture of allowing the citizen to gain access to information and empowering the citizen in respect of decision-making.
In 1997 the then Government enacted the Freedom of Information Bill 1997 which was identified as a key to delivering openness and transparency in government. In April 2003 the Act was amended by the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003. The changes made in the Act were widely criticised. The Bill before us seeks to restore freedom of information legislation to its pre-2003 state and extend its remit to all public bodies, subject to some exceptions.
In the 2011 programme for Government the Government committed to introducing freedom of information reform legislation. The general scheme of the Freedom of Information Bill 2012 was announced on 25 July 2012. A pre-legislative scrutiny process was conducted on the general scheme by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform.
The Bill seeks to reverse certain provisions of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003. These include provisions on the mandatory protection of Government records but power is now discretionary, and the period of protection for Government records. Certain changes to the fees regime will be introduced by way of order following enactment of the Bill. Provision is made to extend freedom of information to public bodies, subject to some exemptions, and non-public bodies significantly funded by the Exchequer. For example, the Bill extends freedom of information to records relating to the administrative functions of An Garda Síochána. The Bill consolidates and updates freedom of information legislation. It has been cautiously welcomed by stakeholders and commentators. Ms Emily O'Reilly has said changes introduced by the Bill will only become clear once information is sought under the new regime.
Enacting the Bill may result in additional pressure on the Office of the Information Commissioner in processing appeals owing to the addition of further public bodies under the legislation. The reduction in fees will make information more accessible but will result in greater freedom of information costs for the State. However, it has been noted that a cost-benefit analysis of freedom of information arrangements must include the estimated savings generated through preventing errors and wrongdoing.
Freedom of information derives from the following broad principles. Decisions made by public bodies should be more open to public scrutiny, thus providing greater appreciation of issues associated with policy decisions and stronger public ownership and acceptance of decisions made.
Those affected by decisions of public bodies should have the right to know the criteria used in making those decisions. Every individual has the right to know what information is held in Government records about him or her, subject to certain exemptions to protect key interests, to have an inaccurate personal file corrected and to obtain the reason for a decision that affects him or her personally. Citizens, as shareholders in public bodies, should have the right to examine and review the deliberations and processes of public bodies.
The world's first freedom of information legislation was adopted by the Swedish Parliament in 1766. Key achievements of the 1766 Act were the abolition of political censorship and the granting of public access to Government documents. Over the past ten years, the right to freedom of information has been recognised by an increasing number of countries, including many in the developing world, through the adoption of a wave of freedom of information laws. In 1990 only 13 countries had laws providing for access to information held by public bodies. Today more than 95 countries, with more than 5 billion inhabitants, have laws granting a general right to access information held by public bodies. International bodies such as the World Bank and various regional development banks have also adopted information disclosure policies. There has been a variety of internal and external pressures on governments to adopt freedom of information laws, including the promotion of such laws by civil society, media and environmental groups, demands for improvement by international organisations as well as a recognition by governments themselves of the usefulness of freedom of information in the context of modernisation.
The Freedom of Information Bill should rightfully be renamed the freedom of information restoration Bill because it aims to restore the legislation to its original position, prior to its curtailment by the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats Government of 2002 to 2007. The Bill before us now actually goes further than the original 1997 Bill to provide a new, consolidated freedom of information framework.
I have previously made use of Freedom of Information Acts to ask questions about processes and procedures at the then Department of Social and Family Affairs. The Act was the only real and substantive way of securing information on the IT system, for example, underpinning the social welfare system. This was information that I believed was of interest to any citizen concerned with how taxpayers' money was being spent by the Department. It revealed that several social welfare schemes were administered using a computer programme that was nearly 20 years old and that had been created for use on visual display units, VDUs, rather than personal computers, PCs. To the best of my knowledge, that system is still in place today. My experience is one of access to information in the public interest as distinct from personal requests for information held by public bodies. Both are equally valid, with one important difference - namely, that there should be no fees for requests for personal information.
When first enacted in 1997, the freedom of information legislation represented a significant departure from the historical norm in Ireland. It is fair to say that Government and, as we know now, other large and powerful institutions were troubled little by transparency and openness. Without doubt, the isolation experienced in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s created a very inward-looking Administration, with a suspicion of openness and public decision-making. Our membership of the EEC radically altered mindsets in this and so many other areas and gradually freedom of information became a necessity rather than an optional extra. Similarly, the Irish people began to demand answers and explanations on a variety of issues. It became unacceptable for administrators, representatives, civil servants and others to provide meaningless or scant answers, with little or no explanation of the reasoning underpinning decisions. In this context, the 1997 Act was transformative and was hugely welcome. However, the circumstances surrounding the decision to curtail the 1997 Act in 2002 and 2003 are themselves worthy of a freedom of information request.
Government must have the ability to govern, debate, reason and deliberate independently. That is democracy. The Government cannot and should not have to govern to the tune of the pages of newspapers or the web pages of social media. The concern that Cabinet records could become available under the Freedom of Information Act was genuine. The response, however, in the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act of 2003 was disproportionate and went against the spirit of the original Act.
This new Freedom of Information Bill achieves a number of important objectives. It reverses many of the objectionable amendments made in 2003 and extends the scope of the Act to a significant number of public bodies previously excluded, including An Garda Síochána, the National Treasury Management Agency, the National Asset Management Agency, the Central Bank, the Education and Training Boards and the Refugee Appeals Tribunal. It also extends the scope of the Act to non-public bodies which receive significant funding from the State, which is a very welcome development because State funding is, after all, public money.
While this Bill contains very important and positive measures, the objective of all public bodies and organisations providing services to the public should be one of maximum transparency and openness. We should aim for a reduction in the number of freedom of information requests, not out of secrecy or suspicion but because our Departments, State agencies and public bodies are more open and transparent and more willing to provide information from the outset. While there are many naysayers and detractors, we can already see the positive effects brought about by a new approach to Dáil business. This Bill has been subject to the new pre-legislative scrutiny which opens up consultation and brings in stakeholders at the earliest possible stage of law-making. The report compiled by the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform demonstrates the input of a wide range of interested parties from across society.
It is apt to note the interaction between this Bill and parliamentary questions. In a sense, parliamentary questions are freedom of information requests. In my experience, parliamentary questions, while much maligned because of their cost, are an invaluable way of seeking answers and information in a timely manner. I have learned from my time in this House that, just as with freedom of information requests, the effectiveness and usefulness of parliamentary questions depends very much on the contents of the question. The exemption of draft parliamentary questions and parliamentary briefings from freedom of information requests is important but must be considered in the context of the fact that all parliamentary questions are published within hours of their delivery.
I welcome this Bill for a variety of reasons. It promotes openness, transparency and better access to information. It also restores, as committed to in the programme for Government, Ireland's freedom of information laws.
The first principle underlying freedom of information is that public information does not belong to the Government nor to State agencies but to the public. Governments and State agencies work on behalf of the citizen. Undoubtedly there are positive aspects to this legislation. However, there are also a lot of get-out clauses in it which concern me greatly. Furthermore, there are aspects of the legislation that could be improved because of risks inherent in the way it has been drafted.
People often complain that politics is very inaccessible. That is the case even for those of us who are elected to this House. Very often Government is quite inaccessible in terms of determining how decisions are made. We frequently ask for the advice given to Government on various issues but the advice that the Attorney General gives, for example, is never released to anyone other than members of the Government.
I appreciate that many of the provisions of the original 1997 Act are restored with this legislation, provisions which were disgracefully taken out or altered, in particular those concerning the operation of government itself. However, it is worth noting that it will be up to Ministers themselves, as heads of Departments, to determine whether an item of interest is to be protected from release for five years. Clearly, these are judgment calls and one would have to question why that provision is inserted so stringently. A safeguard, in that context, could be a requirement that Ministers issue a detailed explanation as to why items cannot be released rather than simply responding with a cursory one-liner.
If one looks at how Ireland compares internationally, it is clear that we have an opaque system of Government which was inherited from the British model. It was our exposure to the continental style of openness and transparency, primarily through the European Union, that brought a realisation that transparency is good and that we need to operate in a more open way. As has already been said, the more transparent decisions are, the less will be the requirement to use the Freedom of Information Act.
The reality is that the transparent approach continues to be resisted at every level of administration from local government to central government and from the Civil Service to State agencies. This does the system a great disservice because when things are revealed, it can be very damaging in how it is perceived publicly.
The Cabinet operates under absolute confidentiality, which is extremely stringent. While I accept that in many cases maintaining Cabinet secrecy is in the national interest and can result in effective government, equally, in many cases, the national interest would be better served by having a more open and transparent process. We need only look at the budgetary process and the Economic Management Council. Such a process would not be tolerated in other countries. I do not see why we have to be different, because some of those countries are far better examples of how to do business and flourish. Why is putting Cabinet deliberations under the remit of freedom of information seen as a risk? What are we trying to protect the citizens from, if we are a true republic with government for the people by the people?
Some of these things will have to change in future - for example, the protection of advice from the Attorney General. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Community and Local Government has recently been debating the forthcoming climate change legislation, which is hugely important.
It is very annoying when one comes in here to make a contribution that there is only the Minister and one other Member, and one is not listened to. I and others put a bit of effort into our contributions and, at the very least, some attention should be paid to them.
With regard to the way we will deal with legislation in the future, including scrutiny of the heads of Bills at a pre-legislative stage, the joint committee spent three days at hearings on the climate change legislation over the summer and will shortly be putting a report together. However, different advice was given by two Attorneys General to two Governments on climate change targets. Whether to include targets in the legislation is not relevant to the point I am making. The point is that the committee did not have the benefit of the Attorney General’s advice, or in fact any advice - we had to go and look for somebody from the Library and Research Service. That will be a considerable difficulty when we are doing legislation in a different way. We are really doing it blindfolded. That will be problematic and will force a change towards better sharing of information if we intend to construct legislation differently.
The regulation of lobbyists is contained in another Bill, but there are two sides to lobbying. It is equally important that those who are being lobbied be subject to some scrutiny.
Dr. Nat O’Connor of TASC has shown that the fees regime for freedom of information does not lead to any cost recovery, as the cost of administering the fees more than absorbs this. The regime is a means of discouraging people from making freedom of information requests. The same happened with the €20 charge for planning queries. The intention behind that fee regime was to reduce public engagement. If anything, one could argue that public engagement was all the more needed, given the property market crash and the role that planning played in this. Far from being a nuisance, very often the points that were made and the proposed restrictions that were eventually rejected were positive rather than negative.
Genealogy is an area that has been of personal interest to me for a long time, and I have done a lot of work with regard to my own family. There are particular things in this legislation that could cause serious problems. Given the size of our diaspora, genealogy research could provide an economic opportunity. Let us not close off that opportunity. The first principle should be that of public ownership of the right to access. For those who are not related to a person whom they are researching, whether on a voluntary or a professional basis - we are seeing more and more professional genealogists, which is a welcome new industry - this is included in the Bill under section 2, which is assigned to the Data Protection Commissioner for definition. If we start to describe genealogical information, such as birth, marriage and death records, as private rather than public information, then the scope for genealogical research is closed unless one is connected to the people one is researching. This could be incredibly damaging. Other countries have decided that such information should not be deemed to be personal information after a certain number of years; for example, any information over 70 years old cannot be deemed as personal information and is, accordingly, open for historical research. Births, marriages and deaths could be stamped as research-only. There are ways of doing this that will not cause difficulty, and they absolutely need to be done. The Freedom of Information Bill presents several challenges in this regard. The drafters have failed to realise that there is a potential difficulty there. I have spoken to people who are very well respected within the sector, including John Grennan and Michael Merrigan of the Genealogical Society of Ireland, and they should be listened to. What appear to be positive aspects of the Bill may turn out to be negatives. We already have a difficulty because of the fragmented nature of our records, and indeed, the loss of our 19th century census records means that census substitutes such as birth, marriage and death records become all the more important. The more available they become, the bigger the benefits for those who are researching in this area. This could be a game-changer. In addition, there is not an integrated approach in terms of where these records are held, but that is a separate issue. We have a terribly bad attitude to such research, as though we consider it to be frivolous. The very fact that the General Register Office research facility has been moved from the Irish Life Mall to the old labour exchange on Werburgh Street demonstrates this, although I completely accept that it was costing too much. This site is protected by barbed wire and looks unsavoury. We should have a lot more regard for people who may have come here for The Gathering and are hoping to do research. Despite the fact that we have spent a fortune digitising these records, they are still not online and there do not seem to be any indications of when they will be. People have to physically go and get the records they need.
Has the Minister of State seen the site? It is an insult and he should not defend it. We could do better than that. I cannot stress strongly enough that we need to amend the legislation to deal with the issue of personal records.
There is no definition of genealogy in the Bill, and that is a problem. That definition needs to go in. Section 37 protects personal information from third-party access and that is my point. I do not believe the Minister wants to inadvertently cut off this great opportunity. As someone who has done such research, I know the places where I have dug out records and found a connection to a place to which I did not know I had a connection. I go back over and over again. That is what people do and we want to encourage that. Not only does it produce a fund for this kind of research, but it produces returns to the local economies, for example history books written from an area. It is important in terms of building on our heritage.
A piece of European legislation, 10227/13 ADD 1, poses a risk to that aspect of research. We are different in that we have a very big diaspora relative to the size of our population. It seems to position such records in the area of darter protection. We must voice some concerns at European level about that. There must be a second definition that will overcome that.
The definition of electronic and paper records is another area of concern. That requires clarification in the language used in section 17. The wording of subsection (4) is very vague and we must address this on Committee Stage, when I will propose some amendments. Paragraph (b) states that it is considered reasonable grounds to refuse information if it would lead to considerable and onerous work in preparing that information, enormous records which have not been collated, for example. It seems to define it as though everything is in paper records, and that seems to be the difficulty. However, much information is held in digital format, and that is the case more and more. We should future-proof this legislation to take account of that.
Under section 17(4)(b) the FOI body shall take steps that “would be considered reasonable if the records were held in paper format”. The Minister does not mean a body may refuse a request to release electronically stored information in cases where if the information were theoretically in paper format it would result in an onerous amount of work. A solicitor, Mr. Simon McGarr, contacted me and raised this as an area of concern. Mr. McGarr contacted the Information Commissioner, who said he considered the wording very badly drafted. That needs to be examined given that it will cause problems into the future.
I can table an amendment but it would be better if the Government tabled it. Regarding exempt and partly exempt agencies, NAMA has been raised. People feel an overly cautious approach is being taken. I can understand there is commercial sensitivity but this could be relaxed in a number of aspects in the broad strategic area.
I welcome that there are some changes regarding the Garda Síochána, for example in human resources. On a more strategic level there is a very unequal distribution of resources around the country. I have complained that this for a long time. There is no rational reason for it. My area, Kildare, has half the ratio of gardaí to population of Sligo-Leitrim, which does not have a higher crime rate. I see no reason why I cannot enquire into the strategic reasons why that is so. That is the kind of freedom of information that would be useful for me in my work. It would be useful in holding these agencies or organisations to account so that they make different decisions if there is a valid reason to do so.
At local government level where, say, a third party makes a submission regarding a county development plan and the county manager makes a decision on it, the third party has no right to an explanation as to why the county manager came to that decision. If we are going to encourage people to engage fully as citizens, how we do business is important. That is the kind of area where we need to do things differently. We might not need FOI if we do things differently, but in the absence of this, having a provision that would allow the kind of measure to be open to FOI would be an improvement.
There are positive measures in this legislation and I welcome them. There are a lot of get-out-of-jail provisions in this which are not needed. I will propose some amendments on Committee Stage.
I welcome the Minister to the House and, like my colleagues, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Freedom of Information Bill 2013. As many Members have said, this is a very important Bill which seeks to restore the FOI legislation to its pre-2003 state and to extend its remit to the vast majority of public bodies. Under the 2011 programme for Government this Government committed to introducing FOI reform legislation to restore the Freedom of Information Act to its pre-2003 status and to extend its remit to other public bodies including the administrative side of the Garda Síochána. A commitment was also given to extend the Act to ensure that all statutory bodies and bodies significantly funded from the public purse are covered. This is right.
This legislation brings a raft of public bodies under the ambit of FOI for the first time, including the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, the Central Bank, and the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA and the Garda Síochána. The enactment of the Emergency Powers Act 1939 and the amendment and strengthening of the Official Secrets Act in 1963 are examples of a traditional lack of transparency on the part of a centralised and secretive State. Ireland joining the European Economic Community, EEC, in 1973 and in particular the attendance of Irish civil servants at EEC meetings have been credited for creating a cultural shift within the Civil Service, with greater recognition for the need for a more open bureaucracy within the service. Certain EU legislation, in particular directives on access to environmental information, contributed to the shift, as these required Ireland to make all information relevant to the environment available to the public. Further measures leading to greater transparency included the strengthening of the powers of Comptroller and Auditor General.
In 1997, under the Fine Gael-led rainbow coalition, the Freedom of Information Bill was brought into law. At the time its enactment was seen as the key to delivering openness and transparency in government. The Freedom of Information Act 1997 established a right of access to records held by a public body; a right to be given reasons for a decision; a right to amend where personal information in a record was incomplete, incorrect or misleading; and the right of a person to information on acts of public bodies affecting him or her. In April 2003 the Act was amended by the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003. That happened at a time when the Fianna Fáil-led coalition was run with the support of many others. Many things happened in that era that would be best forgotten, although they left a legacy with which the people must live. Key changes made by the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003 were: the extension of the period of protection for Government records from five years to ten; mandatory protection of Government records or records to be submitted to the Government; full protection of communications between Ministers relating to issues under consideration by the Government; protection of records relating to the workings of committees of officials and advisers assisting the Government in carrying out its work - many of the things that happened secretly behind the scenes at the time left the country in the state it is in today; and a provision enabling the Minister for Finance to prescribe fees for the making of a request for access to non-personal records and for any subsequent application for internal review and or review by the Information Commissioner.
The introduction of fees, in particular, was a barrier to the seeking of information and was predicted to result in fewer FOI requests. There was a substantial drop in FOI usage after the introduction of the 2003 Act and this is attributed in the main to the introduction of hefty fees at the time. The 2003 changes were made to the Act by the then Fianna Fáil-led Government which was determined to bring back the shroud of secrecy that had hidden the dealings of that Government. There is no doubt that the inadvertent release, under freedom of information legislation, after the general election in 2002 of records covering Government spending is noted as a possible factor in the decision to amend the Freedom of Information Act in 2003. The released information under the FOI Act showed that the Department of Finance and the then Minister for Finance were warning about the deteriorating economic situation and the need for cuts across all Departments. However, in the run-up to the election Ministers publicly and repeatedly denied that spending cuts were necessary. The embarrassment caused by the release of the information was a driving factor in the revision of the 1997 Act.
There seems to be a common pattern - a Fianna Fáil Government comes to power and interferes with the system to suit itself and then Fine Gael has to come in to fix the mess. We are fixing the mess the country was left in and reforming a system that demands reform. We are creating a system the people deserve because they certainly did not deserve the one that led us into one of the worst economic crises to hit the nation. The Freedom of Information Bill 2013 seeks to restore freedom of information legislation to its pre-2003 status and extend its remit to all public bodies, subject to some exemptions. Citizens, as shareholders in public bodies, should have the right to examine and review the deliberations and processes of these bodies.
To return to the issue of fees, the introduction of steep fees in 2003 severely affected the number of FOI requests from citizens. On top of this, many records had mandatory protection, while others which should have been accessible to citizens were not accessible until ten years after their relevance had faded. This was serious. Deputy Catherine Murphy said modern technology should make it easier for people to obtain information and I agree. I also welcome the Minister of State's agreement to make improvements to the draft legislation, where necessary. There is a need for tweaking and I have no doubt that he will deal with it competently.
I thank Deputy James Bannon for his contribution and facilitating mine.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this new legislation. I welcome the Bill as it will restore the freedom of information legislation to its pre-2003 state and extend its remit to all public bodies, subject to some exemptions. It will also seek to provide a framework for the extension of freedom of information to non-public bodies in receipt of significant State funding. This is a positive development, which it is important to hear from the Opposition benches.
In any open and democratic society the words "freedom" and "information" are keys that state the State cares about and is honest with its citizens. This is the reason this legislation is so important and relevant to the Ireland of today and the past ten years. The people want accountability and transparency. Sadly, they do not get enough of them, particularly in the case of the Government and public bodies. Therefore, I welcome this legislation.
Huge mistakes were made in the past and we need to ensure they will never happen again. Reform and change are important. The Bill is part of that reform, but we all need to go further than this. We need to ensure we will have a more open, inclusive and democratic society, with proper checks and balances. For that reason, I am sad that this week the Government is about to close down the Seanad and spending €14 million to do so. The Seanad abolitionists are opposed to reform and change and real democratic accountability.
I urge the public to vote "No" on Friday. A "No" vote will bring huge reforms. A "Yes" vote will abolish part of our democratic system. I link this to the Freedom of Information Bill as I care passionately about democracy, reform and change.
The Freedom of information Act 1997 established statutory rights, including the right of access to records held by a public authority, the right to be given reasons for a decision, where personal information in a record is incomplete, incorrect or misleading the right to have the record amended, and the right to information regarding facts about public bodies affecting the person seeking the information. The 2003 regulations included a range of fees including a €15 fee for a freedom of information request, €75 for an internal review application and €150 for an application to the Information Commissioner to review the decision of a public body.
The Bill will reverse certain provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2003, including provisions on the mandatory protection of Government records which power is now discretionary and the period of protection for Government records. Certain changes to the fee regime will be introduced by way of order following enactment of the Bill. It will extend coverage of the freedom of information legislation to public bodies, subject to some exemptions, and to non-public bodies significantly funded by the Exchequer. We must have accountability and transparency. The Bill extends to the administrative functions of the Garda Síochána. These are the bones of the legislation and the main provisions of the Bill.
When dealing with the Freedom of Information Bill it is important to examine Ireland's history. Many of us feel that since its foundations Ireland has been centralised and too secretive, and far from a model of openness and transparency. The enactment of the Emergency Powers Act 1939 and the amending and strengthening of the Officials Secrets Act in 1963 are notable examples of the traditional lack of transparency on the part of the State. We can learn from history and try not to repeat our mistakes.
We also have major issues with regard to our justice system. Each week I received five or six calls from people to the Dáil or my constituency office in Donnycarney asking about major miscarriages of justice and seeking accountability and information. We had the James Sheehan case in Ardfert in County Kerry and the Fr. Niall Molloy murder case. We have also had the great work done by Gemma O'Doherty on this issue. Another issue which has emerged, and I fully respect one must be sensitive to certain aspects of policing, is with regard to the Garda Síochána. Many families have approached me with regard to young vulnerable people on the fringes of gangs in Dublin city, who might be involved in a small bit of smoking illegal substances. They are encouraged by some members of the Garda to get involved in gangs so they can give information. The families are very worried they will be sucked into more dangerous situations. We must be conscious of this and it must be examined very carefully. Many people have major concerns about the Omagh bombing and I strongly support the families. These are all examples of where the State did not do its job in a professional and objective manner and raise issues of openness and transparency. Those Independent Deputies who ask these questions should not be dismissed. They should be examined seriously because they come from citizens of the State who deserve accountability and transparency.
It is important that we reflect on the issue of information. According to the Information Commissioner at the time, the single biggest contributory factor to the drive for the freedom of information legislation was the conclusion of the beef tribunal which made quite unsavoury findings about the behaviour of certain Ministers and Departments with regard to the beef industry. Favourable treatment was given to a particular operator at the expense of other operators and, more particularly, at the expense of taxpayers. This is why I support the legislation. I hope it is part of the reform agenda.
We were all elected through a change in Irish politics. We all made commitments on the doorsteps in 2011 that we would push for reform, change, openness and accountability. People told me to go in there, do my best and be honest. Everybody in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and Independent Deputies gave this commitment. If we are serious about this we will support the legislation. Of course it can be tweaked and amendments can be made and we will do this also. The Minister indicated he has accepted some of the sensible proposals made by the Technical Group. I know Deputy O'Donovan has problems with this at times but he can get over it.
Tony Gregory was our Whip. I ask Deputy O'Donovan to get his facts right and get over it. When one is wrong one should put up one's hands and one will learn in time. To return to the real issue-----
To return to the legislation, as I stated it is very important because it deals with fundamental issues of reform, change, accountability and transparency in the country. In 1993, long before I was elected, the Let in the Light campaign was founded by a number of journalists and other interested parties to address issues of censorship and secrecy in Irish society and increase the momentum and growing campaign for greater governmental transparency. I remember the campaign very well because I was not even elected to the Dáil or Dublin City Council at the time. I was elected to Dublin City Council in 1999 and the Dáil in 2002 as an Independent Deputy.
Another important part of the debate on freedom of information is access to environmental information. The European Union's regulations on access to information on the environment provide additional means of access to environmental information and are important. Dublin Bay is a major national asset. The Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, knows this very well as he was born and bred near the bay. I know he will do his best to protect it from those who want to destroy it. For many years people such as Sean Dublin Bay Loftus fought hard and I will continue this tradition of protecting and defending Dublin Bay.
We must be vigilant and have constant information and keep a close eye on the Dublin Port Company. It has greedy little hands and is looking at 52 acres and it will not go away.
I wish to announce some good news. A packed meeting in Clontarf was held recently with various residents and community groups. We will have fantastic celebrations and will work with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and various Departments in 2014 to commemorate the battle of Clontarf. I invite all my colleagues from various parts of the country, even colleagues such as Deputy Kevin Humphreys from the south side of Dublin, to come to Clontarf in 2014 and join in the six to eight week celebration. There will be artists, musicians and environmentalists-----
Yes, they will be on at the same time. We will deliver and bring people from Norway, Sweden and Denmark to Clontarf for those eight weeks. The Barbarians rugby club has already agreed to come.
We are going to bring tourism. Do not say we are not coming up with ideas.
I thank the Chair for the correction. To go back to the legislation, section 27 relates to fees and is similar to the provision contained in section 47 of the 1997 Act. Certain changes to the fee regime have been agreed and these will be introduced by way of order after the Bill is enacted. There will be a reduction from €75 to €30 in the fee for internal review and from €150 to €75 in the fee for an appeal to the Information Commissioner. I welcome this given that, as was pointed out earlier, the issue of fees was preventing people from accessing the information. Section 27 is important.
Section 48 allows the Minister to draw up and publish a code of practice and guidelines to assist FOI bodies in the performance of their functions under the Act. The code may include provisions to promote the publication of official and other information held by FOI bodies that might otherwise be the subject of FOI requests.
Overall, I welcome the broader debate on the Bill. I know some aspects can be looked at and tweaked but, generally, it is an important development. This is part of a reform agenda. I know many of my Independent colleagues in the Dáil will be supporting this legislation because it is important. We gave a commitment that we would have reform, accountability and transparency. If somebody comes up with legislation that is sensible, accountable and transparent, as an Independent Deputy, I will support it, no matter what side of the House it comes from. If it is good for Ireland, I will support it.
The purpose of this Bill is to provide for the commitments in regard to freedom of information contained in the programme for Government by removing the main substantive restrictions in access to official information introduced in 2003. Freedom of information will be extended to all public bodies and will provide a framework for the extension of FOI to non-public bodies in receipt of significant funding from the Exchequer. The legislation also provides an opportunity for a necessary consolidation that modernises and updates the legislation.
The original Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1997, when Labour was last in government. Amendments made in 2003 by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats involving six sections of the 1997 Act have been characterised as representing a significant curtailment of the principle of the right to access to records provided for in the original freedom of information legislation. I am very pleased that this Bill essentially reverses those restrictions, which I always believed were introduced for dubious reasons by Fianna Fáil and the PDs. These restrictions relate mainly to the treatment of Government records - section 28 - restrictions in regard to records under the deliberative process exemption - section 29 - and exemptions for categories of records relating to security, defence, international relations and Northern Ireland.
Certain exemptions will be provided for some bodies so as not to affect the ability of these bodies to perform their core functions, or in the interests of the security or financial position of the State. The Bill exempts most commercial State bodies in full from FOI. Other bodies are provided with exemptions in part, including An Garda Síochána, the National Treasury Management Agency, the Central Bank of Ireland, various industrial relations bodies, the Insolvency Service of Ireland and the various ombudsmen. New public bodies will automatically be subject to the terms of the FOI legislation as they are established, but provision is made for the Minister to make an order specifically to exclude them in whole or in part, if required.
As I stated earlier, the legislation will replace the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003, which are being repealed under this Bill. The structure of the Bill is also being revised to seek to improve the accessibility and comprehensiveness of the legislation for the benefit of FOI bodies and citizens alike. Section 8 provides that each FOI body will publish a publication scheme to replace the section 15 and 16 manuals required under the 1997 Act. Given technological and ICT developments in the 15 years since FOI was first introduced, the migration of such information to websites and international best practice, these manuals were no longer considered fit for purpose.
In keeping with this aspect of the legislation, I would like to take the opportunity to express concern at the wording of section 17(4)(b) of the legislation. This could be seen as being rather ambiguously worded and should, in my view, be amended. The paragraph reads as follows: "...the FOI body shall take reasonable steps to search for and extract the records to which the request relates, having due regard to the steps that would be considered reasonable if the records were held in paper format". While I know it would not be the intention of the Minister or the Department, I would have a concern that this wording might be used as a basis for minimising the execution of FOl requests where digital information is concerned. I would be concerned the wording may infer that a "reasonable" step would be deemed as such only if everything was printed out on paper and not reasonable if data was held on a database or other digital storage. A more explicit wording is required to take databases and other forms of digitally stored data fully into account in terms of providing information requested under FOl legislation.
I am aware from reports that individuals at the Office of the Information Commissioner have contacted the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and suggested to them there may be concerns in this regard, and I am aware the Department has been considering the matter. I would be interested to know if there have been any developments on this aspect of the legislation.
That said, I am happy to see this legislation come forward. We need greater transparency in our public bodies than we have at present and I feel this legislation provides an improvement over the current situation. I was very unhappy to see the legislation which I helped to pass as a Member of this House between 1992 and 1997 undermined by Fianna Fáil as soon as it came back to power. I find these actions to be a damning indictment of the political culture of the Bertie Ahern-led Fianna Fáil Governments. I hope that such actions do not happen again and that this present legislation, if it is ever amended, is amended to provide even greater transparency in public life, not less.
In recent weeks we have had a lot of debate about reform and a certain amount of criticism regarding how long that takes. However, this Bill is a key commitment from the programme for Government and one we are delivering on. I commend the Minister, Deputy Howlin, who has been leading on this Bill, and his officials for the work they have done to bring the Bill to the House. I believe the Bill will increase transparency and accountability in regard to how the State does its business and reverse the damage done by Fianna Fáil and the PDs in 2003 to what was ground-breaking legislation which had been brought through by Eithne Fitzgerald.
The process of bringing through a suite of legislative reform will make the Government and the State much more open to scrutiny, which I welcome. We have to look at what is coming down the line, for example, the legislation on whistleblower protection, the inquiries Bill, the extension to the powers of the Ombudsman and legislation on a planning regulator. All of these are very necessary reforms and I look forward to them being implemented. I believe they will go a long way towards preventing the mistakes of the past being repeated. One of the most important things this Government can do is to put in place a body of legislation that will prevent any future Government - God forbid that Fianna Fáil would come back to power again - running this country into the ground.
Having been involved in this Bill at many stages, I have to say that reform is slow, is not glamorous and gets very little coverage in the media. However, the reform measures are exactly what we need. When this Bill is passed, it will apply to bodies funded by the State, unless there are specific reasons such as State security or commercial sensitivity. I welcome in particular the extension of freedom of information to aspects of the Garda Síochána and to the Central Bank and the NTMA. I ask that, at the next stage, we reconsider the position of the Central Bank and the NTMA to see whether we could go further. I agree with Deputy Catherine Murphy, who pointed out earlier that we might need to take this a little further.
The introduction of this Bill comes within a broader context of Dáil reform. In fact, it is one of several key reforms we have had since the election. There has, unfortunately, been a certain amount of belittling of the improvements made to how we do our work in this House, particularly in regard to the Friday sittings. The reality, however, is that those sittings allow backbenchers to bring their own legislative proposals to the House, some of which have been very interesting. Indeed, several of the Bills introduced by colleagues touched on the freedom of information issue, and the debate thereon helped to shape the development of the proposals we are discussing today.
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform was responsible for the pre-legislative scrutiny of the heads of the Bill. I very much welcome this new aspect of the legislative process, the usefulness of which was also clear in the case of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill and the Climate Change Bill. In each of these cases, the heads of the Bill were published in sufficient time to allow a comprehensive debate at the committee. Unfortunately, however, this and other changes to the process of our parliamentary work have been widely ignored, notwithstanding the heavy focus on the debate surrounding the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. In the case of the Bill before us today, the pre-legislative scrutiny stage afforded the finance committee an opportunity to hear the views of experts from home and abroad, journalists and representatives of communities affected by the proposals. It was an excellent template of how things should be done and very useful in terms of allowing us to outline to the Minister what needed to be covered in the legislation.
A concern I have in regard to the Bill relates to the application of its provisions to the semi-state sector. We had extensive discussions on this issue at the finance committee, and there was broad agreement that the freedom of information provisions should apply where a monopoly exists. The last thing any of us wants is for semi-state companies to be hindered in their commercial operations. We all accept the rationale for ensuring that commercially sensitive information remains beyond the remit of the legislation. However, where semi-state companies have a monopoly, it is vital that they be open to scrutiny. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, to raise this issue with the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, as I intend to do myself. Irish Water and the gas network will function as monopolies, as does EirGrid. Where there is a monopoly, it is important that the companies in question are held to account. In the absence of market competition, we must ensure taxpayers get the full benefit of their investment. The ability to submit freedom of information inquiries would be helpful in that regard, as will the forthcoming regulation of lobbying Bill. I understand a certain amount of lobbying went on to ensure the State monopolies were excluded from the freedom of information provisions. That Bill will be very helpful because it is an area in which accountability and transparency are badly needed.
There are several agencies which, because they are North-South bodies, must, I understand, be excluded from the provisions of the Bill before us today. However, oversight of these bodies is important. We should examine whether safefood, Tourism Ireland and Waterways Ireland, for example, might be brought within the scope of the legislation. My experience of dealing with Waterways Ireland on several occasions is that it is extremely difficult to extract information from it. Including it and other bodies with a North-South remit in the freedom of information regime would be useful for citizens, Members of this House and journalists.
Overall, this is an excellent Bill, although there is a need for some amendment. I hope the Minister will take those changes on board on Committee Stage.
At my first English lecture as a student in UCD, the lecturer, who was the head of the department, stood in front of 300 students and referenced a song by the Manic Street Preachers when he told us that libraries give us power. I thought this was quite cool at the time, even though the members of the band in question were a bunch of lefties - no offence intended to anybody in this House.
I agree, despite their political convictions.
The idea that we are empowered by knowledge is incredibly important. I agree with much of what Deputy Kevin Humphreys said in this regard. In the course of the campaign leading up to tomorrow's referendum to abolish the Seanad, the Government has been criticised for seeking to centralise power. In fact, as we can see from the provisions set out in this legislation, we are trying to do the complete opposite. These proposals seek to give power to the citizens. It is our responsibility to them to give them that freedom of information. That is what we are about here and it is important to acknowledge it.
Deputy Humphreys referred to other reforms introduced by the Government, including the Friday Dáil sittings. Those sittings afforded me the opportunity to introduce legislation on tax transparency, which is another issue we should consider in this context - namely, the right of citizens to information on how the Government is spending their money. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, on the huge amount of work he is doing, through the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, in getting that information out to people. I remain of the view that we should be more proactive in providing it. It is an excellent first step to ensure the information is there should people seek it out, but I would go further by giving every taxpayer an outline of exactly how their contribution was spent in a given year. That was the thrust of the Bill I introduced. Although I have been critical of some of the reforms that have been introduced, the Friday sittings, in particular, have empowered us as parliamentarians to bring forward further reforms and new ideas.
I welcome anything that returns to citizens the power that was taken from them in the past. It is useful to examine what our role as public representatives should be. Is it to include people in the decision-making process, to give them information so that they understand what is going on and, in that way, to bring them with us? Or is it to keep them out of the process and ignorant of what is going on? The latter approach serves nobody's purposes, nor is it within our rights to adopt it. When speaking in this Chamber I try not to criticise former Governments, including members of those Governments who remain Members of this House. On this occasion, however, it must be noted that the need to introduce this legislation is a real indictment of what was allowed to happen in the past in this area of public life. The 2003 amendments to the freedom of information provisions represented a retrograde step which infringed on people's rights. They amounted to a dereliction of duty on the part of those who led this Parliament on behalf of the people. Citizens elect us to represent them on the national issues of the day and to exercise our judgment in making decisions on their behalf. What judgment was it on the part of the politicians at the time who decided that people should be kept ignorant by restricting their access to information? These are basic rights, which could even be classified as human rights in the political sense. We should not have to introduce this legislation to restore people's rights to freedom of information, but it is good that we are. It is especially welcome that those rights are being not only restored but extended. As Deputy Humphreys observed, there is scope to extend them even further. I welcome that process and the opportunity we will have to go further with the legislation in the future, as required. The balance of power is shifting back to citizens in terms of their right to know. In addition, we are seeing improvements in technology all the time which are helping people to access information more easily, and more of it. All the excuses given in the past as to why information could not be given out, including the amount of time and money involved, are falling away. It is all moving in a very positive direction, and the Government has done an incredibly important piece of work in steering us in that direction as best it can.
It comes back to the basic principles of open government and transparency leading to accountability. Everybody wins with this legislation. Deputy Humphreys mentioned the position at local government level, which is an important aspect of this issue. Many local authorities own companies, because that is their way of doing business. However, the freedom of information provisions do not apply to them. I was not aware of this until Councillor Kieran Binchy brought it to my attention, and I subsequently sought clarification from the Minister by way of parliamentary question. This legislation is vital because it will shed new light on an entire area of public work. It is incredibly important that this should happen in the case of local government given that so much of the work done at that level does not make it into the public domain. This legislation gives us an opportunity to ensure that is done.
I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister on its introduction.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. When in the Chamber earlier I listened to some of the other contributions. All of the contributions of Deputy Finian McGrath are notable, but in his contribution today he referred to the campaign in the early 90s to let in the light, as he called it. However, he failed to remind us that he had turned off the light in 2002 as part of his cosy arrangement with the then Taoiseach, former Deputy Bertie Ahern.
Absolutely. Not only did he sign up to the withdrawal of what we had become used to in the Freedom of Information Act, another cosy little arrangement on which we never received any information was cobbled together by him and a few Independents with Bertie Ahern, leading to the formation of the Government in 2002. This articulates the point on why the Freedom of Information Act is needed as much today as it was then.
There is a common thread running through the Freedom of Information Act from its inception in 1997. It was spawned from decisions made primarily by Fianna Fáil-led Governments that resulted in the collapse of the Government in unusual circumstances in 1994 and 2011. In 1994, when the Government collapsed without a general election, the rainbow coalition introduced the mantra of openness and transparency. That is from where freedom of information from. What was regrettable was that people in Fianna Fáil realised freedom of information was a weapon for journalists and Opposition Members to aim at the inadequacies of the Government. Rather than rectify what they were doing, the people concerned decided to close off information and continue what they were doing. That is the reason for the mess we are living with today. Before he was sent to the gulag, the European Commission, in 2002, Charlie McCreevy had identified serious issues looming for the economy. Rather than deal with them, he was dispatched to the European Union and the Freedom of Information Act was dispatched with him. That is the legacy of that Government.
It is a pity that Deputy Finian McGrath has come into the Chamber to say he is a great proponent of freedom of information, as well as this, that and the other. It is a pity he did not use the opportunity to apologise for the fact that he and the people who supported the Government at the time got it so wrong by removing that provision. Were it not for the fact that journalists and Opposition Members had been prevented from having access to information that would have exposed what two successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments had been trying to do to the country, namely, inflict economic misery that we must clear up after the collapse, we might not be where we are today.
It is ironic that we are discussing the Freedom of Information Bill today. There was a discussion on radio earlier about emergency powers legislation which was introduced during the Emergency in the Second World War. While we are very fortunate to have access to information to the extent promised in the Bill, we must bear in mind that certain agencies in the State must keep information secret. Some information cannot be placed in the public arena for State security reasons.
While we call it the Freedom of Information Act, access to information is anything but free. Sometimes the more vexatious and spurious requests for information can tie up officers in local authorities, State agencies and public bodies for a huge amount of time. This costs money. To those who are having a go at the fees charged, the real cost of accessing information is far in excess of the fees charged. The research conducted for us shows that the vast majority of freedom of information requests come from journalists and that some of them are convoluted and complicated. They take time and it costs money.
Politicians and people working in the public service of my generation have become used to the idea of freedom of information, which is good. That means that when decisions are being made, or when people are acting in a public agency or making representations, they are conscious that whatever they say or commit to in writing or an e-mail might end up in the public arena. That is good because it means that, as we go about our work, we are conscious of the fact that we are representatives of the people. Whatever we have to say on their behalf should be capable of being reproduced in public.
I welcome the provisions of the Bill which is long overdue. Great credit is due to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The people who bemoan the Bill and say the Government has delayed it should look back on their own record and ask whether it was appropriate to do what they did in 2002 in reducing the scope of the Freedom of Information Act and whether they should have left it as it was.
I am glad to contribute to the debate. I welcome the content of the Bill and the reasons for its implementation. A more mature nation is one that is open, transparent, fair and accountable. Thankfully, we are moving away from a society in which secrecy breeds suspicion and a lack of trust and accountability. A Fine Gael and Labour Party Government introduced the original Act in 1997 and the same parties are now restoring it to what it was. Freedom of information from public bodies and all bodies funded significantly by the State is an integral part of any normally functioning democracy and, as such, information should be accessible and available in a cost effective way for those who require it.
When first introduced in the late 1990s, freedom of information requests provided a window to the workings of State bodies for the ordinary citizen. For the first time, we discovered the inner operations of bodies and organisations that previously we had been unable to access. Between the introduction of the Act in 1998 and the more restrictive and costly Freedom of Information Act 2003, many significant issues of public importance were uncovered. Media outlets, in particular, benefited by informing the public of what was important.
The previous Fianna Fáil-led Government was obviously uncomfortable with the way the Freedom of Information Act had evolved and in 2003 introduced a series of amendments at odds with the spirit of the original Act as it was first introduced. There was general disquiet about the system under which the Freedom of Information Act operated. As there are no Opposition Members in the Chamber, I will not get answers, but it would be interesting to hear how they defend their actions in 2003. I welcome the restoration of the original measures. The changes made it mandatory to refuse access to Government records, even though the information was only remotely connected to a Government decision.
That brings us to the fulfilment of a programme for Government commitment with this Bill. I am delighted to note the significant reduction in fees for requests. It would be ideal if fees were abolished, but that is not possible in the circumstances. We will see an increase in the number of freedom of information requests, which I see as a strength rather than a weakness. An open and transparent nation is a stronger one. A commitment was also given to restore the bodies made exempt in 2003. Full Cabinet papers will be released after five years, which is welcome. This will restore trust and confidence in the system as it will be seen to protect the rights of ordinary citizens.
A recent Supreme Court decision is relevant to the Freedom of Information Bill. The court held that a Garda Síochána superintendent investigating a case could not be the one to issue a search warrant for a house because his concern in the matter was not independent and impartial. Therefore, he could not act judiciously. With regard to a freedom of information request, any person concerned with the decision should not be appointed as the decision maker as the person cannot be considered to be independent or impartial and he or she cannot act judiciously. Such a person should be excluded from making decisions under the Freedom of Information Act. The practice in Ireland is that the person concerned with the matter is generally appointed as the decision maker.
This should not happen and I ask the Minister to look at that area again. I also hope that, because of the increased future demand, there will be sufficient staff and resources to get the information that is requested.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this particularly important and sensitive piece of legislation.
I can reminisce on all the times that some of us spent on the other side of the House, which happens to be vacant, and to remember the number of occasions on which we were excluded from access to information which was urgent, relevant and relative to the running of the country. I remember being the victim of expulsion from this House on numerous occasions in the period between 2002 and 2007, and after that, purely on the basis of being refused access to information to which I was legitimately entitled and which referred to public expenditure and information which would enable a legislator do his or her job better.
Deputy O'Donovan made reference to Deputy Finian McGrath's contribution which I viewed on the monitor. No doubt it was interesting. I remember, following the 2002 general election when it became obvious that the incoming Government decided to tighten up the avenues of information, both outside and inside the House, being on a programme where somebody quoted James Joyce and I thought that Seán O'Casey was more appropriate: "The blinds is down, Joxer, the blinds is down!" The blinds came down then, really and truly, and they put a curtain over the ability of the Opposition and the general public to get information. One could have the information afterwards but one could not inquire about it. It was sad that so much happened in that period which was relevant and for which the people are now paying the price, and that we could not gain access to the information. We were shunned. In fact, this House became an area where less information was made available than ever before and whatever chance there was of gaining information outside of this House through freedom of information, there was no chance inside the House at all. That is sad to say. It is probably a criticism of myself and of everybody else, and we can say we could criticise the system, but the legislation to amend and restrict the Freedom of Information Act 1997 at that time was introduced by the Government of the day. Nobody wants to accept responsibility for it now and the empty benches opposite are a fitting testimony to the fact that they do not wish to debate the issue.
When the history books come to be written, people will look back on that period and they will be able to re-examine all the occasions where information, that should have been made available, was available but was not made available to the general public or to the House of Parliament. I draw the distinction here. Meaning no disrespect to the general public in respect of freedom of information, information must always be available to the House of Parliament. That is particularly pertinent at present when the Opposition suggests on a regular basis that there has been no Government reform and we are operating a secret society. "They do not know where they are," is the answer to that question. If they were here during a previous regime, they would know exactly what was happening and they would know the vast difference between then and now. There are now put in place numerous ways of involving the Opposition in the running of the country and getting information at an earlier stage. First, on parliamentary questions, on a regular basis it was obvious that a Member on that side of the House could get 20 questions refused every day on the basis that the Minister had no responsibility to the House for the matter, and the only hope was to go outside the House and try to get the same information through the Freedom of Information Acts, and it should not have been so. The information must be available to parliamentarians in order for them to do their work and to make a worthwhile contribution to the debate, but at that time it was snuffed out. Nobody accepted responsibility for that. Everybody thought it was great fun, and a laugh. They see the price we paid for it. When I hear criticism coming from that side of the House as to a lack of openness, lack of information and lack of participation in the procedures, I must smile to myself because if they were sitting on the Opposition benches during the period to which I refer, they would have got no information and would not have been included in anything and their only hope would have been to appeal through freedom of information, and then that was snuffed out as well by virtue of what happened after the 2002 general election. It is so sad to see what happened and how it happened, and to see the way that Parliament was side-stepped in that time.
Incidentally, in the context of the debate that continues to take place, the present Government rightly involves the Opposition, through the committees, in taking submissions and listening to Members' views prior to a Bill coming into the House. That did not happen previously. One or two former Ministers were helpful, but they were the exception rather than the rule. It is so sad that the Members on the other side of the House, who still remain absent, do not acknowledge the fact that the changes have taken place. The shock of being in opposition is too much for them. Sadly, they would like to be able to control, the way they did when they were in government. They feel that they should still be controlling and have their hands on the tiller guiding the ship, when they guided it onto the rocks previously. It is a sad reflection on society as well that society allowed them to do that. Society approved it more than once. On three occasions, society approved that. When blame is being apportioned for what went wrong in this country, we should remember that it was not because the House was not present, it was not because the Members were not present and it was not because the Opposition was absent, as it is now. It was because the Opposition was snuffed out, manacled, silenced and gagged.
Apropos of looking for justice in the context of the present debate on the Seanad, Parliament has always been where the debate takes place and should take place. It is not a matter of whether the Opposition or the Government has the most influence. It is the degree to which that debate takes place and the Members of the elected body have access to and the right to have that debate. If the debate takes place in the normal way that it should, then the public can make up its mind afterward. If the Members of the House have ready access to the information that they need, then the debate can take place and it is a worthwhile debate. If, however, they have no access to information, if the areas of information are sealed off from them, then they cannot have an informed debate and it does not work. I would pay tribute to the Members of the other House who have always used their experience and expertise to further examine the legislation in so far as they saw it. While they do no have access to parliamentary questions, they have access to debate, which they have conducted effectively and repeatedly.
The amazing point about it is that while people have always known that information is power, one must have the information and the means of getting it. In so far as public representatives are concerned, we are really caught in an area almost like a spotlight. We are caught by the right to use the Freedom of Information Acts to gain access to information, which we should not have to do. As Members elected to a House of Parliament, we should be able to get that information readily without any difficulty at all and information that is available outside of that by whatever means should be equally readily available to us. However, there are increasing instances of where the Data Protection Commissioner appears on the scene and states that a Member cannot ask a question, needs permission from the constituent to ask it or needs permission from the body to ask it, and that is untrue. Members have the right to raise any question, on behalf of anybody, for or against a matter, and to be able to do so without reference to data protection or otherwise - hence, the necessity for Parliament. There is increasing evidence to suggest that Members are being restricted in the degree to which they have access to information or the right to make representations on behalf of groups or individuals.
It is a very important issue which I have brought to the attention of the Data Protection Commissioner many times in the past, as have other Members. Nobody has the right to restrict the ability of a Member of Parliament to represent his or her constituents whether it be to gain information, to give information or whatever the case may be. I ask the Minister of State that if any additions are made to the Bill it should be remembered that Members of Parliament are given their permission to represent on the day they are elected. If they abuse the system then the public will deal with them but they need to have the right to raise questions about bodies or individuals with impunity otherwise they are restricted in their ability to represent their constituents. I emphasise the necessity to recognise the supremacy of the Houses of Parliament; whether there be one or two Houses, the same supremacy prevails.
I have concerns about the names on the list of witnesses for the public consultation process on the draft heads of the general scheme of the Bill. The witnesses include the Minister and the Information Commissioner, Ms Emily O'Reilly and Stephen Rafferty of the Information Commission. I note a large group of journalists were listed but that is fair and appropriate because journalists are in the business of information. However, the process should not be organised in such a way as to facilitate journalists alone. I am a little concerned that there might be an over-emphasis on the necessity to facilitate journalists only. I do not see any names of public representatives listed in that group except for the Minister and I know the Minister will adequately and truly represent us. I note names of witnesses from the Anti-Deportation Ireland group, which is fine and also representatives of the newspapers. I note Mr. Ed Hammond from the UK Centre for Public Scrutiny is also a witness.
I am concerned at the over-concentration on the media in the consultation process as everyone in that group would have a similar line of thought. I would be the first in the world to respect the right of the media as well as the right of the public representatives to be able to access to the maximum amount of information in order to make a judgment on the job we do. However, we have equal rights. It was not always the case in the past that our rights have been facilitated. I refer to what happened after 2002.
I ask the Minister of State to bear in mind during the course of any further discussions of amendments that due regard should be had to the fact that we as elected Members of Parliament need to be able to at least be assured that we have equal access to information the same as anyone else inside or outside the House. I acknowledge that some information is sensitive and that there are rules governing Cabinet confidentiality beyond which we cannot expect to go. However, by the same token, we need to be sure that the information is only made available selectively. For example, I do not necessarily believe it is in the public interest for me to know private or personal information about anybody in this Chamber, even though the opposite side of the House is completely vacant and it would be impossible for me to point the finger at anyone. Such information may be of benefit to news media but it is of no benefit to me.
There is a need for the general public to be able to have some access to or knowledge of what information about individuals was held by the State. For example, I was dealing with a loan application on behalf of some unfortunate citizen in recent weeks and I discovered that the application was refused on the basis of an intervention from the Irish Credit Bureau. This body has information on every citizen in the country who ever opened a bank account or had business difficulties. I support all the current measures to create jobs and to regenerate the economy. However, this does not necessarily apply to the operations of the Irish Credit Bureau which imposes a blanket ban of five years, virtually, on any transaction for any individual who may have committed some sin of failure to pay his or her bills. This is a common practice in the present climate simply because in the economic circumstances it became very difficult for many people such as small businesses and householders, rich, poor and otherwise, to meet their commitments in the same way as previously. They should not be punished indefinitely nor should they be punished for a period of five years. The Irish Credit Bureau holds incriminating information on individuals for which they have to pay in order to access it. In my view this is in breach of freedom of information legislation and it is also in breach of the data protection legislation. I ask the Minister of State to level the playing pitch and to at least give the citizen some reasonable chance of knowing what the system holds on him or her. It is now the case that Big Brother controls everything and everybody. A new type of phone is activated by use of a fingerprint. I wonder what happens to that fingerprint and how that data is handled and to whom that information is made available and how it could be used or abused. This could and will result in the erosion of people's rights and entitlements by unscrupulous people who access the information. I refer to the manner in which advertisers glean information of a confidential nature and use it for their own benefit and commercial use. In my time in public life I have seen countless instances of serious deficiencies in the degree and the extent to which information necessary for a legislator is made available and has been restricted. This needs to be emphasised and addressed.
I welcome the Bill which at least recognises that the blanket of secrecy that was spread over the accessing of FOI in 2002 to 2003, was not good. I remind the empty benches across the floor that I spent seven or nine years of my political life on those benches. During that period we were subjected to all those restrictions and now we hear the howls of derision from that side of the House now when they claim there is no openness and transparency and they cannot participate. They should have been here then.
I thank Deputies from all sides of the House for their constructive, informed and insightful contributions to the debate. I thank colleagues for their positive proposals. On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin and the Government, I assure the House we will consider all those proposals on Committee Stage to see if they can be worked into the general scheme of the Bill in order to improve it.
It is very much an open view we have with regard to improving the legislation.
Given the scale of the collapse in this country because of what happened, we need to construct not just our political system but our regulatory and banking system in such a way as to encourage contrary people with ideas to challenge us all the way. I am not referring to my erstwhile colleague as a contrary individual at all.
Being contrary must be a fundamental part of what we are trying to do because too much groupthink was a feature of the time. Freedom of information, the extension of the Ombudsman's power, the work done to regulate lobbyists and whistleblowing legislation is a fundamental part of the reform that will lead this country back to health. We must radically overhaul the way in which we view information for people because, as Deputy Durkan rightly stated, this is the public's information and we must encourage absolute accountability at all levels of government.
Major international companies consider the openness of a country's public administration system so this is not just good for ourselves and our citizens, it is also good for the reputation of this country abroad as a place for people to come to do business. Companies will not invest in a country with restrictions on information and which does not operate to international norms, which is also important. I am a great believer in giving the public as much information as possible, which takes away the sometimes distorted view of information that elements of the media sometimes like to present.
The firm view of the Minister, Deputy Howlin, and the Government is that this is an essential part of our programme of reform and the negotiated programme for Government. Some colleagues suggested that this is simply restoring the status quo that obtained before the previous Government butchered the legislation some years ago. We contend that this is not a restoration of the status quo but an extension of those rights and that legislation. There is a significant number of improvements and enhancements in the Bill which we will have the opportunity to go through on Committee Stage. Some very fine contributions have been made on all sides and it is the firm intention of the Minister to consider those ideas on Committee Stage to see if we can improve the Bill according to what colleagues are suggesting. With freedom of information, there must be a general right of access to records, which should be released unless they are found to be exempt. That is the cornerstone of the legislation and what we are trying to achieve.
Many contributions referred to implementation issues. People want to see much better record management across public bodies and there should be proactive publication of information in an open format. There must be a consistency of approach in dealing with freedom of information requests across the public administration system and there must be adequate training on freedom of information. With this in mind I inform the House that it is the intention of the Minister, Deputy Howlin, to shortly bring before the Government a draft code of practice for freedom of information for the first time. That is important to note as we often see a different approach with freedom of information, depending on the public authority with which one deals. This will provide more streamlining and consistency in the approach, which I know colleagues have sought, and it comes on foot of some significant work on the advisory group, which is composed of experts on freedom of information drawn from some of the groups referred to by Deputy Durkan. The work is not yet completed and we hope the code, which is to be approved by the Government following the Minister's proposal, will help to bring about consistency in the area.
The issue of fees has been raised consistently and we have attempted in the legislation to apply the international standard to the matter. The application of fees applies in a minority of cases and not in personal cases whatever. Our view is formed by the 2002 report of the Canadian access to information review task force, which states:
Fees were not intended as a cost-recovery mechanism and should never be an obstacle to legitimate requests. They should act as an incentive for focussed requests and as a safeguard for the sustainability of the system.In the way we are focusing the legislation, fees are not supposed to be a disincentive to people obtaining information. There must be some balance with regard to the non-personal information being sought, and we believe we have obtained that balance. We will discuss the matter in greater detail on Committee Stage.
With regard to exemptions, Deputies have welcomed the provision included in the legislation which ensures that freedom of information applies automatically to all public bodies. It is worth saying that exemptions form part of a Schedule to the Bill, which is important. Based on our experience of how this works, rather than waiting for a new piece of legislation, the Minister can by ministerial order take out some exemptions. Essentially, if a Minister believes the exemptions should be amended, he or she can do so by means of ministerial order; the issue would come before the House but would not require separate legislation. This is a realistic approach to the exemption question based on the experience of the legislation and how it works in a real sense.
There was a third discussion across the Government with regard to commercial State bodies and the Minister spoke with Cabinet colleagues before the Bill was published. There is now a regulatory oversight with regard to semi-State companies, which are key strategic assets for the country. They are not normal public bodies, as some would suggest, and much of the information is commercially sensitive; therefore, there must be a balanced view on how much information would go into the public domain. It should be said that representatives of virtually all these bodies now come before committees of the House and make their information available to us. Such information is also obtained by regulatory function in one shape or another. As they are assets of the people, we cannot limit the potential growth of commercial State bodies by making it so onerous as to give all information to the public domain.
This has been a useful and fair debate, and I know it is the firm intention of the Minister to deal with all these issues on Committee Stage. Points were made about genealogy etc. and we will have the opportunity to debate those in greater detail at the next Stage. This is a key part of what the Government is trying to do in freeing information and ensuring the public has access to that information. We must send a strong signal across public institutions that the public has a right to know what is going on. I take the point made earlier by Deputy Eoghan Murphy that by giving the information to the public in the first instance and making it available through the web and other sources, the number of requests for freedom of information will be diminished. That is the gold standard we must obtain and the Government is setting it now. There is major support for this legislation, which is not just revisiting the original amendments to the law but rather it is setting out a vision for freedom of information into the future.