Work needed to remove ‘culture of secrecy’ from public sector

Information Commissioner says FoI has delivered on many promises

 Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin: intends to bring a revised Freedom of Information Bill to Cabinet shortly. Photograph: Frank Miller / The Irish Times

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin: intends to bring a revised Freedom of Information Bill to Cabinet shortly. Photograph: Frank Miller / The Irish Times

Fri, Mar 28, 2014, 01:00

Work still needs to be done to remove the culture of secrecy in the public sector and develop an approach that favours transparency in the pursuit of better governance, Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall has said.

At a conference on freedom of information in Dublin yesterday, Mr Tyndall said FoI had “transformed public life and delivered on many of its promises” since it came into force in 1998.

The regime provided greater clarity on public spending, a better understanding of how people are recruited to public jobs, and insight into areas such as schools and nursing homes through the release of inspection reports, he said.

However, Mr Tyndall said there was scope for “even more openness in the future” and for improvements in the administration of the regime to make it more effective.

“I believe that there is still some way to go in eliminating the remaining elements of the culture of secrecy and developing a positive mindset across the public sector in favour of openness and transparency in the pursuit of better governance,” he said.

Mr Tyndall, who recently succeeded Emily O’Reilly as Ombudsman and Information Commissioner, also said he was concerned that many public bodies did not afford as much weight to the administration of FoI as they did other statutory functions. The conference, Towards a New Era for Freedom of Information in Ireland , was organised by Public Affairs Ireland.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin told delegates he intended to bring a revised Freedom of Information Bill to Cabinet shortly.

Criticism
The Bill Mr Howlin brought to committee stage last November drew criticism for seeking to levy a €15 application fee on each “separate and distinct” element of an FoI request, which were subjected to a single €15 fee under amendments to the original Act introduced in 2003.

Campaigners and Opposition politicians argued Mr Howlin’s changes would make FoI unaffordable and he withdrew the proposed amendment.

Mr Howlin yesterday accepted fees had become “the big ticket item” when the Bill was debated but he denied it was the Government’s intention to raise them.

In fact, the relevant section sought to do the opposite by introducing two hours of free search and retrieval time, a measure not in the 1997 Act. This measure was proposed as a trade-off against the possible separation of multifaceted requests,” he said.

The Minister said he believed most people would be “satisfied and understanding” of the final proposals on fees that he would seek Government approval for. He said changes to FoI should be seen as part of a wider reform agenda covering areas such as lobbying and whistleblower protection. He said the whistleblower legislation, the Protected Disclosures Bill 2013, was “important and timely” and he expected it would be enacted before the summer recess.