Freedom of Information law to undergo in-depth review

Improvement sought to legislation providing access to State agency records and departments

The review would aim to improve how the law works, said the Minister. File photograph: Getty

The review would aim to improve how the law works, said the Minister. File photograph: Getty

 

Legislation allowing members of the public and journalists to access the records of State bodies and Government departments is to undergo a “comprehensive review”, according to Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath.

The Freedom of Information (FoI) Act allows individuals to request access to documents and records of public bodies, and organisations that receive significant State funds.

Reform of FoI legislation in 2014 removed up-front fees required to process requests, and the number of requests has increased substantially in recent years as a result.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr McGrath announced his department intended to conduct a new review of the legislation.

The review, which would include engagement with the like of journalists and campaigners, would aim to improve how the law works, he said.

Any changes would not be about “stepping backwards” when it came to the Civil Service’s approach to openness and transparency, said Mr McGrath.

The Minister was speaking at an online panel talk discussing the future of FoI legislation, organised by the Department of Public Expenditure.

Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall, who rules on appeals of FoI decisions, said the definition of when records should be released in the public interest had been “narrowed” by several recent court rulings.

“There is work needed, in terms of making sure the Act works, not necessarily in extending [it], but that makes sure it does what it says on the tin,” he told the online talk.

Séamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said there is still a “culture of secrecy” at the heart of public administration.

Many journalists felt FoI requests sent to departments or State bodies were seen by officials as a “burden”, he said.

Exemptions which meant the Office of the President, or An Garda Síochána in most circumstances, were not covered by FoI law, should be lifted, he said.

Former Labour Party minister of state Eithne Fitzgerald, who first introduced FoI legislation in 1997, said her intention was to end the “assumption that everything that the Civil Service was doing was secret”.

Political scandals

Fergus Finlay, columnist and former political adviser, said many of the scandals of recent decades would not have been possible in a transparent society.

“We’ve had the Dirt scandal, we’ve had the decentralisation scandal, terrible abuse scandals, we’ve had political scandals, we’ve had banking scandals, we’ve had scandals affecting the Garda,” he told the panel.

“Very, very few of them would have been possible in a transparent society,” Mr Finlay said.

Catherine Bannon, a civil servant at the Department of Health, said there needed to be more consideration around the cost of processing large numbers of FoI requests.

Civil servants who were “running on empty” responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, often had little time to deal with requests to search for internal records, she said.

Requests seeking documents were often “clustered” to areas or units dealing with matters in the public eye, she said.

“Unfortunately they are the ones that are least able to cope with them. Often they’re working on the cold face of a crisis, they’re trying to keep the show on the road, they’re facing the urgent requirements at hand,” she said.