Freedom of Information Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 815 No. 3
Unrevised

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick: Information on Peter Fitzpatrick Zoom on Peter Fitzpatrick] 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.

Deputy Seán Kyne: Information on Seán Kyne Zoom on Seán Kyne 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.

Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy 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.


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