Freedom of Information Bill suggests we are still stuck with old-world attitudes
Opinion: Minister was right to respond to objections to proposed fees amendment
Brendan Howlin: Digging in would have taken from some of the positive things he is doing in the Bill. Photograph: Frank Miller
A new series of the political satire Yes Prime Minister was launched on the Gold television channel earlier this year. In one of the new episodes Jim Hacker, played now by David Haig as a more manic leader of a coalition government, goes into a meltdown about a controversy that threatens to precipitate his resignation. This, Hacker verbalises, could be the worst disaster to hit Britain since Dunkirk. Hacker is quickly rebuffed by Sir Humphrey, played now by Henry Goodman, who says he can think of worse crisis to befall the country since the second World War, suggesting “The Freedom of Information Act, for example”.
This notion that the British civil service viewed the introduction of freedom of information as a calamity has that proximity to reality that made the original Yes Minister series so cutting and so iconic.
Ireland this week had its own freedom of information controversy and it broke out, once again, along the traditional fault line between the public and journalistic interest in transparency and the tendency of many in government and the Civil Service to favour maximum secrecy.
Serious concerns were expressed by journalists and online commentators about a late amendment proposed by the Minister for Pubic Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin at the committee stage of the Dáil debate on the Freedom of Information Bill 2013. This amendment would have allowed for multiple fees to be charged for a single freedom of information request if answering it required the involvement of different parts of a department or agency. Many of those who utilise the Freedom of Information Act best, including the people behind thestory.ie and kildarestreet.com, argued that these multiple charges would have effectively rendered the FOI system unworkable.
There followed a three-day squabble between Howlin and many people who had until then been most supportive of his efforts in the new legislation to improve and extend the operation of Freedom of Information. The Government’s cause in the argument was not assisted by some comments on and off the record from the department and from other Ministers designed to characterise the concerns raised as overblown and those raising them as overly intense. The Government sought to defend the amendment as designed to contribute to the costs of such requests whereas in reality it was designed to reduce the cost and hassle of FOI overall by deterring such requests.
Ultimately Howlin came to appreciate that the amendment was drawn overly wide and he withdrew it while suggesting that he would reintroduce a reworded version on report stage. It was a wise move on Howlin’s part not least because an unseemly row about the cost for such requests, albeit one confined as it was to narrow political and media circles, would have taken from some of the positive things he is doing in the new legislation.
This Freedom of Information Bill 2013 significantly extends the range of bodies likely to be covered by FOI and the categories of documents affected. It goes much, although not all, of the way to removing the severe restrictions on the original Act introduced in 2003.