Will Freedom of Information review favour transparency?

Michael McGrath has given little away but his leanings would tend towards openness

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

There have been two major reforms of the Freedom of Information Act since it was introduced by a Labour minister, Eithne Fitzgerald, in 1997.

The first was by Charlie McCreevy in 2003, when he was minister for finance. That particular Fianna Fáil government was not thrilled about the large volume of requests coming in.

His reforming zeal might have been inspired by a Sunday Tribune FOI request to the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2002 seeking records on cuts to the budget for overseas aid.

Due to an oversight, the records supplied covered all areas of government spending, including a warning by McCreevy of a deteriorating economic situation and the need for cuts across all departments. Publicly the Government had denied any cuts. It caused huge embarrassment.

McCreevy’s reform introduced charges of €15 for a request, €150 for an appeal and large retrieval costs for documents. It also redefined the definitions of government and of deliberative process, which had the effect of limiting access to information held by public bodies. It was designed to discourage requests and had the desired impact.

A little over a decade later, a new minister for public expenditure and reform, Brendan Howlin, reversed those changes and again liberalised the law.

The scope of that 2014 reform was wide, and that was recently illustrated by the release of 100 records, prompted by 20 requests, between Simon Coveney and Katherine Zappone relating to her fleeting appointment as a special envoy to the United Nations.

McGrath’s instincts

So will the review by Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath decided at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting be in the mould of McCreevy or Howlin?

The Cork Fianna Fáil TD was not giving too much away with an asinine press release that yielded precious little new information.

That said, McGrath’s instincts would be towards Howlin-like transparency, and he does say that for the “system to work effectively, members of the public and media need to be able to access information from public bodies”.

He adds that major innovations in communications technology since 2014 have transformed the way in which individuals and public bodies interact with each other, and “it therefore represents a challenge to the existing FOI system”.

You can take that either way. Could it mean new forms of communication will be included, or excluded, from the legislation?

There also has to be consideration of when a communication on a smart device is personal rather than public.

How can the history of messages and communications be weeded for “public” content? Can a public servant trawl through an office holder’s device? Are there issues of privacy that come into play?

McGrath hinted at other areas he might examine. He said that while a full review by the Information Commissioner was available, only 1 per cent of requests actually went forward for a full review. He said the level was “consistently and notably low”.

He also said there would be “a project to estimate the cost of FOI to the exchequer”. Does that raise the prospect of new charges? Hardly.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 2003.

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