Thursday, 19 January 2023
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Freedom of Information
114. To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when he will publish legislation informed by the recent review of the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2014; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2205/23]
I am seeking an update on when the Minister plans to publish legislation informed by the review of the Freedom of Information Act that was initiated back in September 2021. We are a year and a half out from the commencement of that review and we have yet to see a draft Bill. The then Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, indicated to me late last year that the review was at an advanced stage and would be concluded in early 2023.
We would appreciate an update on progress, therefore.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 114 and 126 together.
I thank the Deputies for giving me the opportunity to address the review of the Act. I want to acknowledge the work that has been put into this project by the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. Under his guidance, an update setting out the current position in the review was brought to Government and subsequently issued to stakeholders and published late last year. Given the breadth and complexity of the issues involved, it is envisaged that the review will be completed and the report brought to Government for approval in the first quarter of the year.
My Department is continuing its engagement with key stakeholders in the public sector on draft preliminary recommendations. I expect shortly to be presented with final findings and recommendations in the form of a draft review report. In turn, I expect to present the review report to Government for approval and publication before the end of the first quarter of this year. At that point, subject to Government approval, amending legislation will be tabled if required and an implementation plan will commence.
As Deputy Nash is aware, we have received 1,200 submissions in the consultation phases and we received a further 1,100 returns to a customer satisfaction survey. I thank all who gave their time in this process.
In the open review and the general review after that there were a total of about 2,400 responses received. That is an indication of the public interest in freedom of information, FOI, legislation and greater moves towards transparency. The Minister will accept that the FOI system needs to be modernised. Would he agree as well that the default position of Government Departments and agencies should be to publish online and make available to the public as much information as possible, outside of personal information? That has been the cornerstone of the campaign run by organisations like Right to Know and I would advocate that the default position should be to publish as much information as possible. As part of that review and any new legislation that might be introduced, is the Minister considering, for example, reducing or abolishing the fees for retrieval of information? The fees can act as a deterrent for citizens who are seeking to access important information.
I understand that it is possible to submit FOI and general data protection regulation, GDPR, requests verbally under the legislation. Can the Minister explain that process to me? Can the Minister explain to me where the line is drawn between professional and private records from a ministerial perspective under the FOI legislation? For example, could I ask the Minister for copies of emails, texts and WhatsApp messages relating to his non-disclosure of a donation that was made to him by Michael Stone and the communications he has had with the Taoiseach on this issue under the Freedom of Information Act 2014? The Minister might discuss that. I ask him also to consider this to be a verbal FOI request to him and his Department on all of that information.
Freedom of information is a tool of transparency that is used to make sure politicians do their jobs according to their citizens' needs and not according to the needs of big business etc. We have a history in this country of business buying influence in terms of politicians and we need to make sure we have a transparent system so that does not happen again.
I was not aware of the option to make oral FOI requests but I am familiar with the operation of the legislation. As the Deputy will know, Ministers do not play a role in determining what information goes out. On the access that FOI legislation has to the records of a Minister, there should be nothing in your private communication that refers to Government business. My phone and any electronic device I have are subject to FOI legislation and I am careful to use official communication channels for Government business and only for Government business.
On the points that were made by Deputy Nash, I am aware of the importance of this legislation and what a fundamental role it plays in providing openness to our society. On the Deputy's point on what information should be made available, in a default way and publicly there is a balance between allowing Government Departments to do their work in a deliberative process while recognising private security and data privacy, and also making an appropriate amount of information available publicly and digitally on a regular basis. For example, the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform get that balance right.
The Minister is right that the deliberative process is important but far too often we see peculiar responses coming from Government Departments where they are hiding behind the deliberative process and where there is no reason in this wide world why they should not be more open. It depends on the particular request made but there is far too liberal use of the black marker and there are some extraordinary circumstances that are not justified. I hope the review will be conscious of that.
There are many additional bodies that are heavily funded by the State but that are not under the remit of FOI and I urge the Minister to consider that in the context of his review of the development of legislation. In the middle of this year it will have been two years since the review started. It is quite likely now that it will be 2024 or late this year before we will see draft heads of a Bill. We need to move with greater pace to reform the FOI system. Information is key and it is a fast-moving world we are living in. We need to modernise our system and we need to do that urgently.
I would like the Minister to look into the issue of verbal FOI requests and to consider what I requested in my last contribution as an official FOI request. A Minister who is in charge of standards in public ethics should be the engine of transparency in terms of ethics in the public sphere. Everybody knows that too often we see that procedure and the FOI system itself can be used to hide things. For example, my office has put in FOI requests to the Department of Health and the HSE. The Department of Health will come back to me and say it does not have any correspondence on that subject in the given timeframe and then the HSE will come back to me and give me the correspondence with the Department of Health on that subject in the given timeframe. What recourse do I or any other citizen in this country have to chase up when we have the public system not being open with citizens?
As I said, I am not aware of the ability for FOI requests to be granted and issued orally but I accept that the Deputy is raising important matters on governance, transparency and standards in public life. To go back to the FOI request that is at the heart of this parliamentary question, as I have said, this is an Act that works well. I heard Deputy Nash refer to the black marker and I want to reaffirm to the House that the black marker is not wielded by Ministers when it comes to FOI requests that come in about them. That is decided by others. However, what we will be doing is continuing to assess the FOI legislation. As I said, we have received a variety of different submissions. I will be giving that consideration and seeing if amendments, improvements or changes to the scheme are needed.