Thursday, 18 October 2018
Freedom of Information (Oversight of the Office of the President) (Amendment) Bill 2018: First Stage
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2014 to allow for the Office of the President of Ireland to be subject to freedom of information requests; and to provide for related matters.
This Bill proposes to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2014 to make the Office of the President of Ireland subject to freedom of information requests. In 2014, the then Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, amended our freedom of information legislation in ways which have helped to shine a light on the operation of politics and the spending of public money in the State. Sinn Féin welcomed that legislation which was a positive move in circumstances in which we need to see the highest levels of accountability and transparency. However, the then Minister exempted the Office of the President from such requests. Constitutionally, the President is not answerable to the Houses of the Oireachtas or the courts, although this right is not absolute as the President can be investigated and impeached by the Oireachtas if need be. Having said that, the President is answerable to the public and there is no reason the President should not make public what he or she does with public funds. Sinn Féin does not believe there is any constitutional impediment to subjecting the Office of the President to freedom of information. In reality, it would be an Accounting Officer or management in Áras an Uachtaráin who would respond to freedom of information request, not the person holding presidential office. Having information made publicly available about the expenses of the Office of the President and the President being answerable to the Oireachtas for what that information reveals are two different things.
The Freedom of Information Act is about transparency and that should exist in relation to the spending of all taxpayers' money. The public has a right to know and, along with journalists and other organisations, to ask questions and get responses. Since the Act has been in force, there have been numerous requests from journalists for information on spending by the Office of the President. On each occasion a request has been made, it has been denied on foot of the exemption in the Act. This is not about the incumbent or the person who currently holds the office. It is about whether this should be the case. This matter has arisen because of the work of the Committee of Public Accounts which examined recently the spend relating to the Office of the President's account. One of the issues which arose was that the office was not subject to freedom of information. That is not right. The idea that millions of euro in public money received by the President is somehow exempt from public scrutiny is a throwback to the days in which public accountability was not seen in the right way. There is a fundamental philosophical principle that the public has a right to information. It is the people who put us into these positions and elect Presidents. No information should be secret or kept from the public. No information should be outside the purview of journalists, politicians and those whose responsibility it is to hold people to account. That may be the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Committee of Public Accounts, the Dáil, committees of the Houses, the courts or members of the public.
We all accept that there is a clear separation of powers between the President and the Oireachtas in respect of the President's role and duties. However, there is no impediment to making the Office of the President and its spending subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I do not know why Deputy Howlin exempted the Office of the President when he was Minister. It may have been due to advice from the Office of the Attorney General. In any event, it was wrong and it should be corrected. This Bill is an opportunity to do that. I appeal to parties across the House to support the Bill. It is important. There has been an issue of public scrutiny and people believe this should be subject to freedom of information.