Cabinet Confidentiality

Jennifer Kavanagh 1st December 2010

As it currently stands, if someone wants to see the current cabinet papers on the IMF bailout they must wait until 2040. It’s almost like the last line in the Oliver Stone film “JFK” where the father tells the son to wait for 30 years to see if he was correct about his theory on the assaination of JFK.

In order to create a more open participatory democracy this system must require radical reform. Under the current system, as brought about in the Seventeenth Amendment of the Constitution, cabinet papers will only be released in the interests of the administration of justice or if there is an overriding public interest on foot of an application either by a tribunal, Minister on the authority  of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Not much hope there for the average citizen who wishes to find out what the cabinet knew at what stage with regard to the bailout.

It could be argued that the current system of cabinet confidentiality perpetuates a culture of secrecy within the heart of government. There are conflicting ideals between the preservation of the order and authority of the state by restricting access to cabinet documents and the move towards opening up cabinet papers to citizens at a much earlier juncture than present.The main argument to open up the papers is that the current system prevents the citizen from accessing the policy making decisions of their government.

Swedish model allows for the citizen to access cabinet documents within a matter of days online. In Ireland, the system does not even give legal protection to the 30 year rule. Of course there is a radical difference between the polticial systems of both countrys. But could the reform of the cabinet confidentiality help in political reform in this country? By being open in the information what our cabinet discusses (of course within defined limits such as national security threats) we could involved the citizen in a more constructive manner with the policy debate that shape the country.

9 thoughts on “Cabinet Confidentiality

  1. Even if you has full access to cabinet minutes, they reveal little or nothing about discussions. Some of the memos to government say a bit more, but don’t really reveal how ministers felt and say nothing about the cabinet discussion.

    In any case there are good reasons why cabinet should be allowed to deliberate in private. It would be difficult to have a frank discussion with colleagues or consider alternative proposals if every point you make will be made public. If you were to open up discussions to public scrutiny, then you’d have to expect that ministers would find another forum to discuss things in private.

    Rather than try to see everything that went on in making the decision, wouldn’t it be more useful to have proper scrutiny of the decision, and availability of the information that informed that decision. We don’t need to know who said what to whom.

    • I take your points on board but I do think that any reform will need to look at this issue. I personally feel that release after 30 years does not allow for citizens to be fully engaged in policies that will affect them

      • But they don’t have to wait 30 years. FoI is imperfect but it allows a lot of documents on policy decisions be released well before 30 years. I agree that they should be automatically released, and I’d like them to put everything on a website rather than have to go through the bother of asking. But a lot is available. But it seems reasonable that documents relating to decisions not yet taken should be exempt – otherwise ministers are being second guessed constantly and anonymous civil servants are given great power.
        Are you looking for cabinet meetings to be held in public?

      • The best compromise would be for documents to be released when the relevant legislation is before the Oireachtas. This would mean that all participants would have access to the original idea behind the policy and subsequent legislation.
        I agree that the information should be placed on a website rather than requested.
        I take your point regarding the FOI legislation but the original time frame has been pushed from five years to ten years and it is not beyond the bounds of possibly that it could be pushed back further.
        I don’t think public cabinet meetings would be a workable solution, but the time in releasing cabinet documents needs to be looked at.

  2. We need to have a system of confidentiality @ cabinet, IMO.
    The first version of FOI seemed to work to me but then of course “they” realised “they” had created a stick to beat themselves with and of course modified it. Now we have every journilist in the country putting in requests under FOI taking up s lot of the time of those administrating the system and hence the charges etc etc.

    How do we fix it, i dont know but there is my two pence.
    Starting to-day only electronic records will be kepth. These are stored in a tiered system based on confidentiality or whatever. Once a suitable application is made, access is granted online – reduced administration.
    We keep the existing rules re confidentiality, but facilitate access based in certain cases when a predefined critical mass is reached.

    What ya think?

  3. @Jennifer
    I agree with both of you on this.
    We usually know what decision Government has made.
    But at present, we do not know what options were presented to Government in the form of a Memorandum for Government on a particular issue.

    I agree that the 10 year period could be pushed back further. That is why I firmly believe that a Swedish-style FoI should be put added to Article 9 of our 1937 constitution. see p. 25-6 of my 1996 submission to the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution

    Click to access 1.pdf

    @Garret FitzGerald
    Why not go for the full Swedish style Freedom of Information (FoI)?

    In this Republic, we are not clearly in a situation similar to that which led to FoI being introduced in Sweden over 200 years ago

    In a BBC Radio4 talk last June, Dan Lucas, a Swedish journalist working in London pointed out that
    “Sweden’s Freedom of Information laws are a beacon to the world….In 1766, when a new young radical government came to power convinced that only transparency could deal with the corruption that was looting the Swedish state and society Freedom of Information Act was passed…All documents within the public sector are in the public domain so people can actually check and hold the people in power accountable for their actions…. Freedom of Information… is still a bedrock for transparency and accountability in Swedish democracy…You don’t have to tell why they want to see a document or you don’t even have to give a name…You can even read official letters before they arrive in politicians’ intrays………Yea, Freedom of Information does mean you sacrifice some personal privacy…Of course, Freedom of Information isn’t universal in Sweden. If you really want to hide information you can. But you have to work quite hard to keep things secret. The exemptions are limited and very specific.”

    For those interested in taking Dan Lucas at his word, I set out for consideration the Swedish constitutional text covering FoI
    “Chapter 2. On the public nature of official documents

    Art. 1. Every Swedish citizen shall be entitled to have free access to official documents, in order to encourage the free exchange of opinion and the availability of comprehensive information.

    Art. 2. The right of access to official documents may be restricted only if restriction is necessary having regard to

    1. the security of the Realm or its relations with another state or an international organisation;

    2. the central fiscal, monetary or currency policy of the Realm;

    3. the inspection, control or other supervisory activities of a public authority;

    4. the interest of preventing or prosecuting crime;

    5. the economic interest of the public institutions;

    6. the protection of the personal or economic circumstances of private subjects;

    7. the preservation of animal or plant species.

    Any restriction of the right of access to official documents shall be scrupulously specified in a provision of a special act of law, or, if this is deemed more appropriate in a particular case, in another act of law to which the special act refers. With authority in such a provision, the Government may however issue more detailed provisions for its application in a statutory instrument.

    The provisions of paragraph two notwithstanding, the Riksdag or the Government may be empowered, in a regulation under paragraph two, to permit the release of a particular document, having regard to the circumstances.

    Art. 3. Document is understood to mean any written or pictorial matter or recording which may be read, listened to, or otherwise comprehended only using technical aids. A document is official if it is held by a public authority, and if it can be deemed under Article 6 or 7 to have been received or drawn up by such an authority.

    A recording under paragraph one is deemed to be held by a public authority, if it is available to the authority using technical aids, which the authority itself employs, for communication in such form that it may be read, listened to, or otherwise comprehended. A compilation of information taken from material recorded for automatic data processing is however regarded as being held by the authority only if the authority can make it available using routine means.

    A compilation of information taken from material recorded for automatic data processing is not however regarded as being held by the authority if the compilation contains personal information and the authority is not authorised in law, or under a statutory instrument, to make the compilation available. Personal information is understood to mean any information which can be referred back directly or indirectly to a private person.

    Art. 4. A letter or other communication which is directed in person to an official at a public authority is deemed to be an official document if it refers to a case or other matter falling within the authority’s purview, and if it is not intended for the addressee solely in his capacity as incumbent of another position.

    Art. 5. The Riksdag and any local government assembly vested with decision making powers is equated with a public authority for the purposes of this Chapter.”

    For more on this, see my posting here

  4. Correction to posting above
    @Garret FitzGerald
    Second sentence should read
    “In this Republic, we are now clearly in a situation similar….”

  5. I agree that there should be a more transparency but not just on cabinet discussions. I think if we are looking to make our government more accountable and transparent we need to think on a larger scale. We all know we need to reform the political system as a whole and at all levels. We need to abolish the Sennad, reform local government as well as the Dail. We need to make access to information whether it is under the FOI or other means a right and as said by a couple of other people, the best way to achieve this would be through the internet and make it free so people will take an interest, instead of the current system which is there to hinder and deter people. Our political system is flawed and if we do not take this current opportunity to reform the system as a whole. One day we will find ourselves in a similar situation again asking how this happened again!

    As a patriot of this country, one day I want to tell my children the reason this country is great is because in her darkest hour and when she needed us most we stood tall and made the tough decisions, we did what was right. Not just for us for our children’s children.

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