Howlin gutted over filleting of Information Act

Labour Minister can’t see what all the fuss is about

Wed, Nov 13, 2013, 01:00

Brendan Howlin is “surprised” and “bemused” by the controversy that has blown up over his Filleting of Information Act.

In Leinster House yesterday afternoon, the Minister for Public Expenditure sounded rather hurt by the notion that last-minute amendments to his much vaunted Freedom of Information Bill appear to have holed it beneath the waterline. Such a suggestion, he loftily told the finance committee, “suits some people’s agenda”.

These must be the people who welcomed the draft Bill when it first appeared but are now crying foul following the sneaking in of his two little changes. The Labour Party Minister can’t see what the fuss is about. All he is doing is trying to weed out the timewasters. He merely wants to abolish the media fishing industry and put information trawlers out of business by pricing them out of the market.

In the current economic climate, argued Howlin, Ireland needs every €15 it can get. That small figure is the starting cost for a simple query under the current Act. Although, in practice, journalists have been presented with final bills for many hundred of euro as a result of their investigations. But there are people abusing the system, it seems. The ones, presumably, who trawl the deep waters of Government and public bodies in search of rotten fish and have the cheek to cast their nets too widely.

Stunning catches
In the past, this has resulted in some stunning catches translating into savings to the exchequer running into millions. It has also yielded very embarrassing consequences for politicians and senior executives in State organisations.

So Brendan, at the 11th hour, has increased the cost of banging in these multilayered questions. His mission, as he repeatedly told the committee, is to “disaggregate” these portmanteau requests which are “manifestly separate questions which are being lumped together”.

You could see it pained Brendan yesterday to have to listen to people dissing his Bill. The Labour Party, one must remember, introduced the first FOI legislation back in 1997. They were, and still are, very proud of it. The party roared to the rafters when Fianna Fáil came along in 2003 and neutralised it. Labour couldn’t wait to get back into power and restore their Bill to its former glory.

“Fianna Fáil attacked the principle of Freedom of Information by introducing a prohibitive fee structure. The watering down of the Freedom of Information Act, along with the rise in number of quangos, served to build a barrier between Government and the public,” they said before the last election. They vowed to reinstate and extend the Act and do away with that fee structure.

That was then. Things are different now. Opposition TDs on the committee were only too happy to remind Brendan about this. But we can’t afford it now, he protested. How would it look if he didn’t charge people seeking information on the administration of government and State business when a poor widda woman down the road has to pay more for her medicine prescription?


Open goal
The Opposition took a different view. In their opinion, we can’t afford to have a situation where we can’t afford to ask questions. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald couldn’t believe her luck at Labour’s gift of an open goal, despite Brendan’s protestations about his legislation being “groundbreaking”.

“For you to include prescription fees as cover is really, really dishonest,” she thundered, pointing out that the Minister was shifting the ground at the last minute.

“You are doing it at the 11th hour in a way that I think is most unedifying of you as a Minister. There is nothing open and transparent about this.” She reminded him of his party’s reaction in 2003 when Fianna Fáil “gutted” the legislation.

“You and your party were absolutely vociferous in opposing this. You were right then. You are wrong now.”

It didn’t help Howlin to have Fianna Fáil’s Seán Fleming harking back to 2003 and recalling that the excuses given by his government for curbing FOI were the very same as the ones the Minister was trotting out yesterday. “It sounds to me like the same official has written your script.” Brendan was highly insulted at the implication that, between the draft legislation and yesterday’s version, he had been nobbled by the civil servants.

“I don’t want to get bogged down in this one net issue,” he sniffed, adding that the controversy was taking away from all the good things in his Bill. “The one thing that I am bemused about,” he huffed, “is that it has taken a year to get any traction in the media in relation to this. When it was all about good news, I was hard set to get a line in any paper about the restoration of the FOI Bill.”

This is not true. Among the articles written our own Harry McGee penned a long piece welcoming the draft measures. These, though, were all done before Brendan snuck in his two amendments. Why so, wondered Independent TD Stephen Donnelly, were “respected experts” in the area of freedom of information calling his changes a disaster?

“We should pause and call the experts back in,” he suggested. But Brendan didn’t see any reason to “derail” the process because of the concerns about increased fees and the exclusion of certain State agencies from scrutiny. His is a “reasonable” proposal “if you look at it in the round”. In the current economic climate, what’s a “token” levy on people seeking information in the public interest?