FOI Act 'should cover semi-states'

Frank Cullen said public bodies should be encouraged to publish and disseminate information. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien/The Irish Times

Frank Cullen said public bodies should be encouraged to publish and disseminate information. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien/The Irish Times

Thu, Feb 7, 2013, 00:00

Commercial semi-state bodies should be included in new legislation governing Freedom of Information (FOI), an Oireachtas committee was told this morning.

Frank Cullen, co-ordinating director of National Newspapers of Ireland, said consideration should also be given to including quasi-judicial bodies such as the Personal Injuries Assessment Board within the new legislation.

He told the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform that public bodies should be encouraged to proactively publish and disseminate information as well as responding to FOI requests.

The committee was considering the General Scheme of the Freedom of Information Bill 2012. 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 said by proactively publishing information before it is requested both the public and public bodies themselves would benefit. The public would have access to information routinely and the public bodies would save time and resources by not having to process FOI requests.

He welcomed the removal of measures added in 2003 to extend the range of exceptions and exemptions to FOI requests. But he said plans to exempt information on the basis it was required for parliamentary briefings or parliamentary questions should be removed.

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

Mr Cullen also said further consideration should be given to the “extremely wide range of exemptions envisaged” for some new bodies under the legislation including the National Treasury Management Agency and the National Asset Management Agency.

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.”

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

Ireland had led the way with the original FOI Act, Mr Cullen said, but in 2003 with the amendment Act, the country took a “retrograde step”. Leadership on the issue had to come from the Government.

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