Howlin moves to dilute new FOI rules on increasing fees
Right of public bodies to refuse requests on cost grounds will also be removed
Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin: defended the principle of charging for requests on the basis of the State’s straitened finances and the reduced number of staff in public bodies. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin has moved to dilute new Freedom of Information rules which would have increased fees levied for the submission of requests to the Government. The right of public bodies to refuse requests on cost grounds will also be removed.
The unexpected development marks an attempt by the Minister to defuse attacks on his overhaul of the FOI regime from the Opposition, journalists and transparency campaigners. The Minister’s critics had claimed that the new fee regime would undermine his effort to strengthen the FOI legislation, and make requests “unaffordable.”
At an Oireachtas subcommittee hearing yesterday evening, Mr Howlin rowed back on two aspects of his proposal. However, he defended the principle of charging for requests on the basis of the State’s straitened finances and the reduced number of staff in public bodies.
The measures to increase FOI fees were repeatedly attacked at the subcommittee by Independent TD Stephen Donnelly, Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin, Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit and Seán Fleming of Fianna Fáil.
The first change mooted by the Minister centres on new rules which would empower the Government to levy a €15 application fee on each “separate and distinct” element of a single request, which was previously subject to a single €15 fee for the entire request.
Mr Howlin told the select subcommittee on Public Expenditure and Reform that he was withdrawing this amendment to the Freedom of Information Bill with a view to submitting a refined version further on in the legislative process.
His aim was to provide absolute clarity that a single €15 fee would apply to a request raising several related questions on the same topic.
His intention remains to levy a €15 fee on each overall element of a single request which deals with a separate topic. He said the refined amendment was not ready so he would introduce it at a later date.
The National Union of Journalists said this was was a “welcome first step” but said it remained concerned at the possible use of the fees structure as a means of deterring FOI requests.
The second change suggested by Mr Howlin centres on new rules already proposed by the Government which will impose a €500 cap on fees for the search and retrieval of records.
In addition to this measure, the Minister now wants to remove from public bodies the right to refuse a request on grounds that it is too costly.
“I’m proposing . . . to retain the €500 cap on search and retrieval fees, but to remove the provision allowing a public body to refuse the request on the basis that that the search and retrieval costs to the body would be above €500,” Mr Howlin told the subcommittee. “This will complement the further provision introduced in this amendment to provide that the first number of hours search and retrieval time be free of charge to the requester as I’ve indicated.
“This is a significant confirmation of the fundamental objective of the legislation to facilitate access to public information to the greatest extent possible consistent with the public interest.”