Requests for information on rise, says Ombudsman


THE FINANCIAL downturn is driving a boom in Freedom of Information requests as members of the public seek greater accountability from public bodies, according to Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly.

Freedom of Information requests to public bodies went up by 18 per cent last year, the first increase since 2005, according to her annual report published yesterday.

The biggest increases were recorded by those bodies with a business or financial remit and which are covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

Requests to the Department of the Taoiseach were up 84 per cent, while requests to the Department of Finance grew by 131 per cent. Requests to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment increased by 37 per cent.

Ms O’Reilly said these trends were a byproduct of the current economic crisis. “As the public see the financial gains of the past decade slipping away, there is a demand to know how the turnabout took place and how various public and private institutions behaved both during the boom and after it.”

Repeating previous criticism of the continued exclusion of many public bodies from the scope of FoI legislation, she pointed out that key financial institutions such as the Central Bank, the Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Ireland and the National Treasury Management Agency remained beyond the reach of the Act.

“No matter how good FoI is, it is of no use for bodies not covered by the legislation,” she said.

No new public bodies were brought within the scope of the Act this year.

“Leaving such important bodies out of the potential for scrutiny is both unnecessary and undesirable,” she said. “A blanket ban is not required.”

She pointed out that important tender documents for big infrastructural projects cannot be accessed using FoI from the National Development Finance Agency, yet similar documents could be accessed from Government departments and local authorities.

The new National Asset Management Agency should also be included in its remit, she added.

According to the report, 12,672 FoI requests were made last year. Some 8,229 of these were requests for personal information, up 9 per cent on the previous year.

Journalists are also making more use of the legislation: 15 per cent of all FoI requests came from the media last year, compared to 8 per cent in the previous year.

Ms O’Reilly said her impression was that the type of information being sought reflected a more thoughtful use of the Act and its application to help ensure proper accountability.

The various divisions of the HSE accounted for over 4,200 FoI requests last year, or a third of the overall total. The Department of Justice was the Government department with the most requests, 718.

Some 55 per cent of all requests – but only 36 per cent of requests to the Civil Service – were granted, 22 per cent were part-granted and 12 per cent were refused. Public bodies earned almost €100,000 in fees from FoI requests last year.

The information commissioner handled 304 appeals last year, a decrease of 14 per cent on 2007.