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

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 815 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy] There is no definition of genealogy in the Bill, and that is a problem. That definition needs to go in. Section 37 protects personal information from third-party access and that is my point. I do not believe the Minister wants to inadvertently cut off this great opportunity. As someone who has done such research, I know the places where I have dug out records and found a connection to a place to which I did not know I had a connection. I go back over and over again. That is what people do and we want to encourage that. Not only does it produce a fund for this kind of research, but it produces returns to the local economies, for example history books written from an area. It is important in terms of building on our heritage.

  A piece of European legislation, 10227/13 ADD 1, poses a risk to that aspect of research. We are different in that we have a very big diaspora relative to the size of our population. It seems to position such records in the area of darter protection. We must voice some concerns at European level about that. There must be a second definition that will overcome that.

  The definition of electronic and paper records is another area of concern. That requires clarification in the language used in section 17. The wording of subsection (4) is very vague and we must address this on Committee Stage, when I will propose some amendments. Paragraph (b) states that it is considered reasonable grounds to refuse information if it would lead to considerable and onerous work in preparing that information, enormous records which have not been collated, for example. It seems to define it as though everything is in paper records, and that seems to be the difficulty. However, much information is held in digital format, and that is the case more and more. We should future-proof this legislation to take account of that.

  Under section 17(4)(b) the FOI body shall take steps that “would be considered reasonable if the records were held in paper format”. The Minister does not mean a body may refuse a request to release electronically stored information in cases where if the information were theoretically in paper format it would result in an onerous amount of work. A solicitor, Mr. Simon McGarr, contacted me and raised this as an area of concern. Mr. McGarr contacted the Information Commissioner, who said she considered the wording very badly drafted. That needs to be examined given that it will cause problems into the future.

Deputy Brian Hayes: Information on Brian Hayes Zoom on Brian Hayes We can examine that.

Deputy Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy I can table an amendment but it would be better if the Government tabled it. Regarding exempt and partly exempt agencies, NAMA has been raised. People feel an overly cautious approach is being taken. I can understand there is commercial sensitivity but this could be relaxed in a number of aspects in the broad strategic area.

I welcome that there are some changes regarding the Garda Síochána, for example in human resources. On a more strategic level there is a very unequal distribution of resources around the country. I have complained that this for a long time. There is no rational reason for it. My area, Kildare, has half the ratio of gardaí to population of Sligo-Leitrim, which does not have a higher crime rate. I see no reason why I cannot enquire into the strategic reasons why that is so. That is the kind of freedom of information that would be useful for me in my work. It would be useful in holding these agencies or organisations to account so that they make different decisions if there is a valid reason to do so.

At local government level where, say, a third party makes a submission regarding a county development plan and the county manager makes a decision on it, the third party has no right to an explanation as to why the county manager came to that decision. If we are going to encourage people to engage fully as citizens, how we do business is important. That is the kind of area where we need to do things differently. We might not need FOI if we do things differently, but in the absence of this, having a provision that would allow the kind of measure to be open to FOI would be an improvement.

There are positive measures in this legislation and I welcome them. There are a lot of get-out-of-jail provisions in this which are not needed. I will propose some amendments on Committee Stage.

Deputy James Bannon: Information on James Bannon Zoom on James Bannon I welcome the Minister to the House and, like my colleagues, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Freedom of Information Bill 2013. As many Members have said, this is a very important Bill which seeks to restore the FOI legislation to its pre-2003 state and to extend its remit to the vast majority of public bodies. Under the 2011 programme for Government this Government committed to introducing FOI reform legislation to restore the Freedom of Information Act to its pre-2003 status and to extend its remit to other public bodies including the administrative side of the Garda Síochána. A commitment was also given to extend the Act to ensure that all statutory bodies and bodies significantly funded from the public purse are covered. This is right.

This legislation brings a raft of public bodies under the ambit of FOI for the first time, including the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, the Central Bank, and the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA and the Garda Síochána. The enactment of the Emergency Powers Act 1939 and the amendment and strengthening of the Official Secrets Act in 1963 are examples of a traditional lack of transparency on the part of a centralised and secretive State. Ireland joining the European Economic Community, EEC, in 1973 and in particular the attendance of Irish civil servants at EEC meetings have been credited for creating a cultural shift within the Civil Service, with greater recognition for the need for a more open bureaucracy within the service. Certain EU legislation, in particular directives on access to environmental information, contributed to the shift, as these required Ireland to make all information relevant to the environment available to the public. Further measures leading to greater transparency included the strengthening of the powers of Comptroller and Auditor General.

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