Minister for Public Reform
has strongly defended amendments to freedom of information legislation which will lead to increased fees for some citizens.
Mr Howlin told a subcommittee of the Department of Finance yesterday he was surprised that late amendments added to the Freedom of Information Bill had caused such controversy.
Defending the changes, he said they were designed to prevent applications that purported to to be a single request but in fact involved multiple requests requiring separate retrievals by different sections of departments and bodies.
At the committee stage of the Bill yesterday, Opposition TDs attempted to postpone consideration of the amendments – which were tabled over the weekend – for several weeks to allow the committee to hear the views of media representatives and academics.
However, when the matter was put to the vote by committee chair Ciarán Lynch of Labour, it was decided by seven votes to three to proceed with committee stage immediately.
The late amendments will mean the standard fee of €15 will be increased by €15 for each separate request under the plans of Mr Howlin, who is Minister for Public Expenditure.
The late amendments have been met with a volley of criticism from media organisations, the NUJ and media academics.
They were also strongly criticised by Opposition TDs at yesterday's committee hearing. Independent Stephen Donnelly, Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald and Fianna Fáil's Seán Fleming each suggested the change was regressive and would act as a dampening effect on those who sought information.
Mr Donnelly, supported by Ms McDonald, suggested that the matter be adjourned for two weeks as there was a conflict between the Minister’s views and those of experts and interested parties. Mr Donnelly said the experts should be allowed to appear before the subcommittee considering the legislation before any decision was made.
Mr Howlin made a strong defence of the amendment and said it was a minor part that should not distract from what he described as groundbreaking legislation.
He was surprised at the controversy that it had evoked and said it had been included to prevent multiple requests running over many pages but contained in one letter.
Mr Howlin said in less straitened economic times, he would have not have retained the fee structure or he would not have advocated a charge for access to any information. He said the report outlined the examples of “how completely extraneous things are bolted together and made into one.”