Decision to rush FoI legislation through criticised

 

The decision of the President, Mrs McAleese, to sign the controversial Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill into law without referring it to the Council of State for examination has been criticised by the Labour Party.

The President signed the legislation late on Friday after the Government had put an early-signature motion through the Seanad last Thursday, which gave her just five days in which to act.

The Labour Party had urged the President to call a meeting of the Council of State to examine the changes to the Freedom of Information laws, which it said were "completely foreign" to the Constitution.

Last night, Labour Party Dublin West TD Ms Joan Burton said: "I am very disappointed that the President did not see it as being appropriate to have the Council of State examine it and advise her."

The Government had rushed the changes to the legislation through in weeks and had "dangerously" expanded the powers of the Government and the Civil Service to keep files hidden.

Under the Constitution, the President can, in the first instance, call the Council of State together to take advice on the constitutionality of any legislation presented to her. If still not satisfied about the issue, the President has absolute discretion to refer a Bill, or part of a Bill, to the Supreme Court for a judgment on its constitutionality.

Mrs McAleese examined the legislation for "a number of hours" on Friday before she decided to sign it into law, a spokeswoman for the President told The Irish Times.

The Government's decision to expedite the passage of the legislation by use of the early-signature motion took the Opposition and other opponents of the legislation by surprise.

Under the amendments, the definition of Government will include Cabinet Ministers and Ministers of State, civil servants or advisers and any other person or body.

Reviewing the legislation, the outgoing Information Commissioner, Mr Kevin Murphy, said that the extension of such privilege beyond the Cabinet to officials was "constitutionally unrecognisable".

However, Fine Gael TD Mr Richard Bruton did not agree with Labour's criticism. He said: "I think what the Government has done is very objectionable, but I don't think that there is a constitutional issue here."

The legislation was rushed through to ensure that the Government did not have to release five-year-old Cabinet papers from April 21st, as had been laid down when the Freedom of Information legislation was first passed.