O'Reilly wants data remit to take in financial bodies

 

“PARANOIA” OR “a need to preserve secrecy” should not be reasons to keep public financial bodies outside the Freedom of Information remit, Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly said yesterday.

Speaking at the launch of the Office of the Information Commissioner Annual Report 2011, Ms O’Reilly said she was aware that the chairman of the National Asset Management Agency, Frank Daly, had said his organisation should not be included in the list of bodies covered under promised amendments to the Freedom of Information Acts (FOI).

Arguments could be made that bodies such as Nama were “far too busy rescuing the country from financial ruin” to deal with FOI applications, but that was “predicated on a view that everything that Nama and the other bodies do is absolutely perfect and correct”.

“I’m not saying that it isn’t; I have great faith in Frank Daly, but if we’ve learnt anything over the last decade, it’s that things aren’t always as they seem on the surface,” Ms O’Reilly said.

“If we are all in this economic mess together, the least the citizen can expect is that we are kept well and fully briefed on everything that affects our lives.”

She said financial bodies including Nama and the Central Bank should come under the remit of FOI legislation, which allows the public access to information on State bodies.

“If there are particular harms that are feared will occur, then I think they should be put under scrutiny, and I don’t think it should be paranoia or a need to preserve secrecy that keeps particular bodies out of the Freedom of Information remit,” she said.

Ms O’Reilly said she looked forward to the publication of new legislation promised in the programme for government to restore the legislation to “its pre-2003 state”.

Amendments to the Freedom of Information Acts in 2003 introduced increased restrictions on public access to certain information held by public bodies.

Ms O’Reilly said she would be concerned if the legislation was not under way by the end of the year. Government parties had “traded on it” being introduced in the run-up to the election as part of a plan for greater transparency.

The annual report showed more than 16,500 applications had been made to public bodies under the FOI Acts, up 8 per cent on 2010.

More than 12,500 requests were for personal information, and applications from journalists fell from 14 to 10 per cent last year.

The report showed the largest number of FOI requests in 2011 were to the Health Service Executive (HSE). They received more than 6,000, up from just under 5,500 in 2010. Requests to the Department of Social Protection rose 29 per cent on 2010 and were up 95 per cent on 2009, the report showed. Those to the Department of Education rose 47 per cent.

Some 78 per cent of the applications were granted in full or in part, the report said. Charges of almost €90,000 were paid by applicants, including more than €50,000 in €15 request fees. Almost €29,000 was charged in search and retrieval fees.

The Office of the Information Commissioner received 245 applications for reviews of FOI decisions, including 58 made by the HSE and 15 by the Department of Justice and Equality.

Ms O’Reilly highlighted a decision by the Supreme Court last year that found information on the age of a woman who gave birth in the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin in 1922 could be withheld from her granddaughter partly on the basis it was supplied confidentially. She said it was likely to prove “a significant impediment” to the implementation of recommendations of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse on the rights of access to ex-residents of institutions to personal papers and information.

Freedom of information: A breakdown of requests

16,517: requests were made last year under Freedom of Information Acts, to bodies including:

Health Service Executive: 6,141

Voluntary hospitals and mental health services: 2,891

Local authorities: 1,431

Department of Education and Skills: 1,170

Department of Social Protection: 1,106

Department of Justice and Equality: 597

Third-level institutions: 432

Social Welfare Appeals Office: 178

RTÉ: 87