Tuesday, 28 September 2021
Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2021: First Stage
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2014 and to provide for related matters.
Tá an-áthas orm labhairt faoin mBille seo. I am delighted to be introducing, alongside my colleague, Deputy Clarke, our Bill. This is the fruit of a year’s work and as today is International Access to Information Day, I feel it is the perfect day to introduce this amending Bill.
Since being elected I, alongside my colleague, Deputy Clarke, have been making the case that our freedom of information, FOI, regime is in crisis. This is something that transparency campaigners and investigative journalists have been highlighting for some time. At times it felt as though we were ploughing a lonely furrow and calls for reform were falling on deaf ears. However, recent events brought into sharp focus the crisis we had been describing. To be clear, we knew prior to these events that urgent action was needed. This was as a result of a year's work conducted by Deputy Clarke and I and as a result of a survey we conducted. The Bill seeks to strengthen the Act and I hope we will receive Government support.
The Bill would enhance the powers of the Office of the Information Commissioner to allow it to refer complaints under FOI legislation to the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, for investigation where it is believed that the relevant person has failed in their obligations under the FOI Act. It would ensure all public bodies established under the Companies Act are immediately brought under the remit of FOI legislation upon establishment. This would prevent bodies, including, for example, the Land Development Agency, being exempt from FOI for the first six months of their existence. That is an important amendment. It would also empower the Minster to conduct an annual review of all bodies to which FOI legislation applies, including any bodies to which a partial exclusion currently applies and whether this is consistent with the Act's principles of oversight, transparency and accountability. This is to ensure that we are adhering to best practice and transparency at all times. It would also bring back information on pension payments related to former taoisigh, Ministers, Presidents and office holders within the remit of the FOI legislation. I am delighted to move this Bill, alongside my colleague, Deputy Clarke.
I am delighted to introduce this important legislation, alongside my colleague, Deputy Mairéad Farrell. The Bill seeks to strengthen the FOI regime, which has been eroded in recent years, and to ensure that what we have, going forward, is fit for purpose. It is most timely, given recent events, and because it is International Access to Information Day. However, long before those events, freedom of information was under attack and legitimate concerns were being raised by those who should not have been encountering barriers to access information, including journalists, researchers and victims of institutional abuse. Instead of building on the 1997 introduction of FOI and ensuring a complete and robust mechanism to access information, what has emerged is a flawed system that feeds directly into a lack of transparency and accountability. That needs to be addressed urgently. Instead of shortcomings being exploited in a manner that is simply wrong and leading to a perception of a culture of loophole-seeking to block the provision of information, the fundamental principle that the public has a right to know must be put back at the centre of freedom of information because the public has a right to know.
The public has a right to know when their tax payments are being used for pension entitlements for former taoisigh, Ministers and the President under current expenditure. There is not, nor can there ever be, justification for any period of exemption under FOI legislation when a private company becomes a public body, as happened, for example, with the Land Development Agency. The powers of the Information Commissioner need to be enhanced to ensure that a body is able to refer complaints under FOI to the Standards in Public Office Commission where a Minister or relevant person has intentionally or recklessly failed in his or her obligations. As a democracy, we need an FOI regime that is consistent with the principles of oversight, transparency and accountability. It is also vital that, where policies are introduced or put in place, a method to monitor compliance is also put in place. Where non-compliance is identified, it must be rectified and appropriate steps taken within a reasonable period to ensure non-compliance does not recur. We spoke about freedom of information in the House quite recently. The Bill Deputy Farrell and I have laid here today is somewhat compatible with what the Minister said that evening. I very much look forward to future debates on this issue because it is of vital interest to both Members of this House and the public.