FOI requests to public bodies at all-time high of over 30,000

Olympic ticket scandal, MMA death behind rise in requests to Department of Transport

Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times.

 

The removal of fees for accessing information held by government departments and public bodies has driven the number of requests to an all-time high of 30,417.

Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall said on Wednesday, however, the sharp increase in requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) 2014 had not been met by a sufficient increase in resources at the bodies concerned.

“I am concerned that many public bodies are not treating FOI with as much importance as their other statutory functions,” he said.

Publishing his annual report for 2016, Mr Tyndall noted the number of applications to his office to review FOI decisions rose by 32 per cent last year, but it also achieved a 34 per cent increase in the number of reviews completed.

The number of requests to An Garda Síochána increased by 150 per cent from 184 to 459.

In one case, the commissioner directed the force to release information to a journalist about staffing levels. Mr Tyndall said he considered using his powers for the first time to apply for a court order to require the force to comply with his decision after there was a delay releasing the records. Some 11 weeks after his decision, An Garda Síochána released the information.

MMA death

The scandal surrounding the Rio Olympics tickets, the death of MMA fighter Joao Carvalho, and industrial disputes concerning the Luas and Bus Éireann drove the number of requests to the Department of Transport up by 24 per cent last year. Of the 302 requests the department received, more than 60 per cent were submitted by journalists.

Mr Tyndall said last year was the worst recorded by his office for public bodies failing to provide timely decisions. Nearly a quarter of cases accepted by his office concerned public bodies issuing no decision on either the original request or at an internal review stage.

He said the worst offender was the child and family agency Tusla, which had 20 so-called deemed refusals to issue a decision.

Mr Tyndall’s staff met with representatives of Tusla during the year to discuss “matters of concern”, and then wrote to the agency about its overall management and processing of FOI requests.

“At the time of writing, we have had no substantive response from Tusla on these matters,” he said in his report.

The office would be following up with Tusla to seek “tangible improvements” in the processing of requests.

Sexual abuse

Tusla is the subject of a separate investigation by Mr Tyndall in his role as Ombudsman in relation to how it handles complaints about sexual abuse of children.

Among key decisions made as Information Commissioner last year, Mr Tyndall accepted that the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) was justified in refusing access to the location of research institutions involved in animal testing and the identity of individuals involved.

This was because the disclosure could reasonably be expected to endanger the life and safety of the individuals concerned.

He directed the release of some of the remaining information in the inspection reports but this decision has been appealed to the High Court by the HPRA.

The bodies that received most FOI requests last year were the Health Service Executive, the Department of Social Protection, Tallaght Hospital, Tusla, the Irish Prison Service, St James’s Hospital, the Department of Justice, Dublin City Council, the Department of Education and An Garda Síochána.

Separately, in his role as Commissioner for Environmental Information last year, Mr Tyndall saw a 68 per cent increase in the number of appeals to his office and issued 27 decisions - more than in the four previous years combined.