Newspapers object to FoI exemptions

Fri, Feb 8, 2013, 00:00

The “extremely wide range of exemptions” from Freedom of Information applications for bodies such as the National Asset Management Agency included in new legislation should be reconsidered, an Oireachtas committee was told yesterday.

Frank Cullen, co-ordinating director of National Newspapers of Ireland, said the inclusion of bodies such as Nama and the National Treasury Management Agency under FoI legislation was welcome. However, exclusions in the new legislation would mean, for example, that records relating to developers working with Nama would not be accessible, making information with a strong public interest unobtainable.

Exemptions should be “clear” and “narrow” and subject to strict harm and public interest tests, he said.

Semi-State bodies

Appearing before the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, he said commercial semi-State bodies and quasi-judicial bodies, such as the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, should also be included in the new legislation.

Provisions in the proposed legislation extend the number of statutory bodies which will be subject to FoI scrutiny. The Bill also repeals some aspects of amendments made to the legislation in 2003 and reduces some of the fees associated with appealing refusals.

Mr Cullen welcomed the removal of some of the 2003 measures and said public bodies should be encouraged to publish and disseminate information proactively, as well as responding to FoI requests.

Training should be given to staff in public bodies to deal with FoI requests following the introduction of the new legislation, he said, not only in “the letter of the law but also the spirit of openness” the law espouses.

“The culture of resistance to releasing records experienced by journalists needs to be addressed through training.”

‘Onerous’ fees

He also raised concerns about delays in the system and suggested there should be incentives to encourage timely responses. He said “onerous” search and retrieval fees were being used as a deterrent.

Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh said State bodies were “coming from a secretive system of government” and there had been progress but it was difficult to change that culture.