Fitzgerald asks TDs to find replacement for Official Secrets Act

 

THE Government is willing to replace the Official Secrets Act, the Minister of State, Ms Eithne Fitzgerald, indicated to a Dail committee yesterday.

Responding to opposition demands for repeal of the draconian law, the Minister of State at the Office of the Tanaiste agreed that the 85 year old law was outdated.

Fianna Fail and Progressive Democrats deputies stressed that the proposed Freedom of Information Bill would be meaningless if the Official Secrets Act was not consigned to the scrap heap.

Draft heads of a Bill to make a wider range of official information available to applicants were being debated, by members of the Select Committee on Legislation and Security.

Reacting to calls for a drastic rethink on current secrets laws, Ms Fitzgerald said it was up to the committee to bring forward proposals for amending or repealing the Secrets Act.

"If you're going to abolish it entirely, you obviously need some alternative sanctions in a modern framework," she told committee members. Sensitive information could not be revealed if, for example, it would line the pockets of speculators.

As soon as the committee came up with recommendations, the Government would be delighted to replace the Act.

The Progressive Democrats spokeswoman on justice, Ms Liz O'Donnell, complained that the Bill, as outlined, included a statutory provision to tell a lie. It enabled the State to deny the existence of a document.

This provision must be dropped. It had a relevance to the recent prosecution of a journalist, under the Secrets Act, following the Brinks Allied hold up in Dublin.

A Fianna Fail frontbencher, Dr Michael Woods, said the Secrets Act was not in keeping with a confident, outward looking democracy. New measures on freedom of information would be pointless if this Act was not drastically changed.

TDs and senators had a special duty to indicate how far change should go, because Government Departments and State agencies had a vested interest in this regard.

Ms O'Donnell said it would be preferable it the Secrets Act was abolished and replaced by new legislation with very specific exemptions. The Government's approach could take years or even decades, to change the present secrecy culture.

The Fianna Fail spokesman on law reform, Mr Willie O'Dea, said the final Bill must be largely the product of political, rather than bureaucratic, minds. ,He disliked the proposed legislation being mainly confined to the Civil Service.

The Minister could extend it by regulation, but why not go the whole hog from the start? He also wondered why Government Departments had been given up to 12 months to review their operations before sending the results to the committee for consideration.

Real reform of secrecy legislation could be delayed well into the next century if this was the approach, he argued.

The protection of whistle blowers did not apply to information given to TDs or journalists, he noted. This could continue the sanction of prosecution of the providers of such information and could result in more "Liz Allen cases", added the Limerick TD.