Freedom of information legislation to be extended


THE NATIONAL Asset Management Agency, An Garda Síochána and the Central Bank are among statutory bodies to be subjected for the first time to public scrutiny under updated Freedom of Information legislation.

Minister of State for Reform Brian Hayes confirmed in the Dáil yesterday that the Government would extend freedom of information (FOI) “to ensure all statutory bodies and all bodies significantly funded from the public purse are covered under the legislation”.

The move follows the introduction of a Bill by Fianna Fáil reform spokesman Sean Fleming calling for a number of additional State agencies to be subject to the Act, including Nama, vocational education committees, the Property Registration Authority and the administrative but not the security or investigative matters of An Garda Síochána. He also called for the administrative functions of the Central Bank to be included.

Mr Fleming, who said €500 should be the maximum charge for an FOI request, praised the Department of Social Protection for never charging to access information and for keeping good files.

Mr Hayes accepted the legislation in principle, but said it “does not go as far as the programme for government commitment to extend the Act not only to all statutory bodies but also to non-statutory bodies in receipt of significant public funding”.

In an unusual move he deferred the Freedom of Information (Amendment) (No 2) Bill for exactly nine months until April 6th next year to allow for the updating of legislation to include additional bodies and to restore the Act to its original format when introduced in 1997.

Minister for Reform Brendan Howlin said significant work had been undertaken to create a “legal mechanism which will achieve once and for all the application of freedom of information to all public bodies”. He said the Government “is determined that our legislation in this area should rank alongside the best of such legislation” internationally.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald criticised the Government for failing to deliver on its commitment 16 months ago when it came into office. “All that is needed is to reintroduce the original 1997 legislation in line with the programme for government commitments. It’s that simple.”

Her party had introduced legislation to allow immediate inclusion of Nama which “disposes of millions of euro in assets every month, with very little public knowledge of its activities. The agency costs the State over €500,000 a day in running costs and has developers on over €200,000 on its payroll.”

Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher also demanded Nama be included immediately. They could not wait nine months because Nama was acting in a way that “does not instil confidence on the part of the public in an organisation that is handling billions worth of assets on behalf of the State”.

Mr Kelleher said Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore told the Dáil in opposition that Nama was “an organisation of tossers” and a “bailout for builders, bankers and developers and for the friends of Fianna Fáil from the Galway tent”. If Labour believed Nama “to be an organisation of tossers…such tossers should be brought under the remit of the Freedom of Information Act immediately”.

Independent Thomas Pringle said he worked in Donegal County Council when the 1997 legislation was introduced and it had “an immediate impact on local authorities”, signalling a culture change.

“It is a tribute to the effectiveness of the Act that it took fewer than five years for an amendment to be introduced to tie its hands.”

Independent TD Shane Ross said Iarnród Éireann, the Dublin Airport Authority and other bodies in which the State was the only shareholder should be included as “so many hidden, murky practices were going on within some semi-State organisations”.