AN additional 70 state bodies are to come under the ambit of the Freedom of Information Act in reforms planned by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin.
Speaking at a conference at the University of Limerick this week, Minister Howlin also pledged to “row back on restrictions” introduced by the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats government in 2003 which critics have blamed for a significant drop in freedom of information requests made to public bodies.
This included the “substantial reduction” in fees for internal appeals against refusals to release records and for appeals to the Information Commissioner.
Minister Howlin was addressing the “Right to Know” conference at UL, which looked at the impact of 15 years of freedom of information legislation in Ireland and was attended by students and academics, civil servants, journalists and other users of the act.
In his opening remarks, Minister Howlin compared the culture of secrecy that prevailed within government and the civil service prior to the 1997 legislation to that of the Sicilian mafia.
The government supported the “commitment embodied in FOI legislation to openness and transparency and the seismic shift it represented from the pre-existing omerta-like adherence to the traditions of confidentiality and secrecy in the affairs of government”, he said.
While the legislative agenda has recently been dominated by the financial crisis, Minister Howlin said a new Freedom of Information Bill was now being afforded the highest priority and would be published during the current Dail sessions.
NAMA, the Central Bank and VECs were among 70 public bodies that would “come under the purview of the act” for the first time, although many have criticised that restrictions around commercial sensitivity will remain with regard to financial bodies.
Once the act is passed, the gardai will be subject to freedom of information, again with exceptions.
“An Garda Siochana will be included in FoI although obviously not for their criminal investigations but on their administration,” Minister Howlin said.
He also indicated he was not disposed towards extending the act to commercial semistates where the disclosure of information could put them at a disadvantage relative to the private competitors. But the new state water services company could be subject to the act as it will have no competition.
“As a minister coming from a party that is very supportive of commercial semi-states, I have to tread very carefully. But I think there is an argument in relation to Irish Water, where there is a monopoly. There is certainly a case for its inclusion,” he said.
Among the restrictions in the 2003 amendment was the introduction of fees of €75 for an internal appeals and €150 for an appeal to the Information Commissioner. Minister Howlin said the proposal was to reduce these fees to €30 and €50 respectively but the upfront €15 charge for all FoI requests is likely to remain. With the public service being reduced in number by 30,000 and the extra bodies being brought in under the act, the Government was acutely aware of “the risk that the abolition of all fees” could swamp the public service with requests, he said.
Irish Examiner investigative correspondent Conor Ryan gave examples on how exemptions around personal information and commercial sensitivity were often used by public bodies to refuse access to information that was ostensibly in the public interest.
But Mr Ryan said journalists did themselves few favours by using the act to root out “salacious rubbish serving very little purpose” and there remained “a huge gap” between the potential of the legislation and how journalists often used it.
Mark Mulqueen, head of communications at the Oireachtas, took on this theme and challenged the media to “balance its commercial imperatives” with the new opportunities that the reform of the act represented.
The media remain “the gamekeepers to the public understanding of parliament,” said Mr Mulqueen, a native of Parteen, and now had “the opportunity to present the public with information that is balanced or present it in a one-dimensional, negative way without context”.