Public sector ‘bastions of secrecy’ criticised

Information Commissioner urges Government to scrap fees for FoI requests

Part of an FOI response from the Department of Public Expenditure concerning details of 2014 Budget discussions. The Information Commissioner said secrecy prevails in some areas of the public sector.

Part of an FOI response from the Department of Public Expenditure concerning details of 2014 Budget discussions. The Information Commissioner said secrecy prevails in some areas of the public sector.

Wed, May 7, 2014, 15:27

The Information Commissioner has criticised “bastions of secrecy” within parts of the public sector who continue to refuse access to information which is in the public interest.

Peter Tyndall, who took over the role from Emily O’Reilly earlier this year, said today he was encouraged on the whole by greater moves towards openness and transparency.

But he said there were still pockets of the public sector where a culture of secrecy prevailed.

Last year the Office of the Information Commissioner was forced to use special powers under legislation to compel five different public bodies to release information on foot of “poor co-operation”.

These bodies included the National Maternity Hospital, the Irish Greyhound Board, Cork County Council, the Department of Finance and University College Dublin.

He said all these bodies - with the exception of Cork County Council - have since made good progress and he did not expect similar non-co-operation from them in the coming year.

The Office of the Information Commissioner’s annual report show a total of 83 per cent of the almost 19,000 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made last year were granted either in whole or in part.

The majority (78 per cent) were requests for access to personal information. The HSE accounted for the greatest proportion of requests (40 per cent).

Mr Tyndall welcomed the high proportion of requests being granted, but said public bodies should do more to routinely publish information rather than invite potentially time-consuming FOI requests.

“It should not be necessary for members of the public or journalists to have to use the FOI route to get basic statistics or access information on expenditure . It should be made readily available.”

Mr Tyndall also welcomed plans by the Government to widen the scope of the FOI legislation.

The new bodies due to come under under its remit include the Garda, the Central Bank, Nama, VECs, the National Treasury Management Agency, the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Applications Tribunal.

In some of these cases, the nature of information to be made accessible will be limited. For example, only administrative records will be accessible from the Garda, rather than records relating to investigations.

While the Government has signalled that it may reduce application fees in new legislation, Mr Tyndall supported calls for fees to be abolished altogether.

At present, a request costs €15 to process, although the total cost can be significantly higher when fees are sought for search and retrieval.

The 2013 annual report provides details of a number of key decisions relating to requests for records which were appealed to the Office of Information Commissioner

In one case, the Commissioner ruled against the Department of Justice , which has refused an applicant access to information relating to their immigration file.

The office found the Department was refusing blanket access to all communications from the Garda.

In another case, the Commissioner upheld a decision by the Department of Finance to release letters sent by the President of the European Central Bank to the Department of Finance in 2010.

The Commission ruled that these records contained information communicated in confidence from a body of the EU, which are protected under legislation.