Attempt to postpone changes to FoI regime unsuccessful
Brendan Howlin to introduce additional fees for applications with multiple requests
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has defended an amendment to the proposed Bill. Photograph: PA
An attempt by opposition TDs to postpone consideration of fee increases for freedom of information requests has been voted down by the Government.
Amendments added to the Freedom of Information Bill over the weekend by Labour Minister Brendan Howlin will introduce additional fees for applications with multiple requests which require separate retrievals within the department. The standard fee of € 15 will be increased by € 15 for each of the separate requests under the plans of Mr Howlin, who is Minister for Public Expenditure.
The late amendment has been met with a volley of criticism from media organisations, the NUG and media academics.
At Committee stage of the Bill yesterday in the Oireachtas, it was also strongly criticised by opposition TDs. Independent Stephen Donnelly, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Fianna Fáil’s Sean Fleming who each charged that it was regressive and would act as a dampening effect on those who sought information.
Mr Donnelly, supported by Ms McDonald, suggested that the matter be adjourned for two weeks as there was a conflict between the Minister’s views and those of experts and interested parties such as the NUJ; the blogger and FOI expert Gavin Sheridan; and academic Dr Jane Suiter.
Mr Donnelly said the experts should be allowed appear before the sub-committee considering the legislation before any decision was made.
However, when the matter was put to the vote by committee chair Ciaran Lynch of Labour, the committee decided by seven votes to three to proceed with committee stage immediately.
Audio: Harry McGee on the FOI changes
Mr Howlin made a strong defence of the amendment and said it was a minor part that should not distract from what he described as groundbreaking legislation.
Mr Howlin said he was surprised at the controversy that it had evoked and said it had been included to prevent multiple requests running over many pages but contained in one letter.
He distributed a short report giving examples of some of the complicated and multifaceted requests that had been submitted purporting to be one request and with a fee of € 15.
Mr Howlin said in less straitened economic times he would have not have retained the fee structure or would not have advocated a charge for access to any information.
“You cannot in all conscience have that (charging) regime and allow people put in an entirely different set of requests and then call it one,” he said.
He said the report outlined the examples of “how completely extraneous things are bolted together and made into one.”
Mr Fleming of Fianna Fáil said the amendment was trivial and should not even be discussed and would involve a handful of the 10,000 per year. He said it seemed that the same language that was used by the civil service when advising Charlie McCreevy in 2003 that this would prevent egregious and vexatious requests was not been employed again. This contention was rejected by Mr Howlin.
Mr Donnelly read out out some of the criticism that had been made by Mr Sheridan - that it would put his blog, thestory.ie out of business - and by the NUJ and asked the Minister to adjourn the debate until the committee could hear the views of the experts.
Ms McDonald reminded Mr Howlin that he and the Labour Party had been “vociferous in opposing those charges. You were right then and you are wrong now,” she said.
The Sinn Féin Deputy leader said that this should have been a good moment for the Minister, with a progressive piece of legislation. “Yet by your own actions at the eleventh hour you have derailed what was a good news story for yourself,” she asserted.
The Committee is continuing its deliberations on the Bill
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has defended the amendment to the proposed Bill . Speaking yesterday, Mr Gilmore said that, over a period of time, there had been attempts to “get round” the Freedom of Information by including multiple queries in one request.
“I think it’s reasonable that a reasonable charge is paid where there are multiple requests and where very considerable resources sometimes have to be mobilised in Government departments and State agencies to respond to the FOI request,” he said.
“But I think you have to understand that this is in the context of the Freedom of Information Act being restored and information being made available to the public.”