FoI might have exposed abuse, says Information Commissioner

 

THE RYAN Commission Inquiry into the Abuse of Children in Institutions might not have been necessary if freedom of information legislation existed, according to Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly.

Speaking at a conference on the Freedom of Information Act organised by Public Affairs Ireland, she asked: “What might have been the outcome if 30 years ago, FoI legislation had allowed the public to rip away the secretive bureaucratic veils that hid the industrial schools and other institutions from clear view and exposed the practices therein?

“Leaving aside the abuse itself, a money trail might have uncovered the commercial exploitation of the children and the mismatch between State funding and the actual amounts parcelled out to the children by way of food, clothing and education.

“Other records would have revealed the complaints made and ignored, the low levels of educational attainment and other issues that took until the year 2009 to emerge into the daylight.”

She said the administration should draw very wide lessons from the Ryan report and consider how the Act could be improved. Referring to the exemption of the Garda, she pointed out that UK police were not exempted from the FoI legislation in that jurisdiction. “What harms have occurred in the UK as a result of the police being subject to FoI?”

Michael Errity of the Department of Finance said FoI requests were costly to process, and in the current straitened financial circumstances Government departments would have to find ways of improving the FoI operation. This might include publishing more information outside FoI; using information technology to improve information management and reduce retrieval time and helping requesters to make their requests more specific.

Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes said sometimes an FoI request could be avoided by dealing directly with a requester and giving him or her the information sought.

Referring to data protection, he said keeping all of a person’s information on a single PPS number contained dangers both of unnecessary retrieval of information within State bodies, and of security leaks allowing for identity fraud. Keeping such information on one number was an outdated way of viewing efficiency, he said.

Colm Keena, Public Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times, appealed for more transparency from the courts. He said he was not able to get documents considered by the court when coming to judgments in cases which he had been covering in the court. All such documents, once opened in court, should be available as a right, he said.

While researching an article on Libertas leader Declan Ganley, he had discovered the existence of a court case in Massachusetts, he said, and by going online had been able to get a complete history of the case, a list of all the documents filed and see the documents, which were posted online.

Michelle Ní Longáin said in relation to exemptions from the FoI legislation, that where it related to decision making, a specific harm had to be identified.