A recent post on The Story blog (see here) reveals the government’s cynical move to introduce last minute changes to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill 2013 that will make FOI prohibitively expensive and therefore, in large part, unworkable. This (1) is contrary to what was promised and will put Ireland even more out of step with virtually all other countries, and (2) yet again demonstrates the need for real Dáil reform.
1. Not what was promised
Reinstatement of a more workable Freedom of Information law was one of the central planks of the government’s political reform proposals (set out in its Programme for Government):
“We will legislate to restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was undermined by the outgoing Government, and we will extend its remit to other public bodies including the administrative side of the Garda Síochána, subject to security exceptions. We will extend Freedom of Information, and the Ombudsman Act, to ensure that all statutory bodies, and all bodies significantly funded from the public purse, are covered.”
The Minister in charge, Brendan Howlin has been praising the efforts of his civil servants to produce robust new legislation fit for the Twenty-First Century. While many worried about the interminable delay in producing the legislation, there was reason to hope at least that Ireland would be (really) joining the large and fast growing pool of countries that operate FOI legislation. Currently 93 countries around the world have active FOI legislation, including most member states of the EU.
When the FOI Bill was first published, it was good to see the proposal as promised to extend its remit to cover additional bodies such as the Gardaí; however, the continuing fixation on charging fees for FOI requests remained a concern. Minister Howlin’s response, when asked, was that the fee was necessary to reduce the abuse of FOI by journalists and civil society groups. This is despite the fact that in the bulk of the other countries operating FOI legislation (90 out of 93) only Ireland, Israel and Canada apply a fee (see here and here).
The government seems unable to explain what makes us so different that requires a fee to be applied for each and every FOI request. This goes against the spirit of applying an effective FOI regime and it runs against the recommendations set out in the recent report of the Open Government Partnership that this government recently signed up to (see section 4.06). It is also contrary to one of the core principles of the influential Article 19 Global Campaign for Free Expression (see here).
Suddenly matters have become a lot worse. We now learn from The Story blog that Minister Howlin’s Department has decided to make things even more restrictive by introducing late amendments to the FOI Bill that propose applying separate fees for every FOI request that affect more than one division within an organization – in effect multiplying the size of the fee by the number of parts to an FOI request.
The Story has form in this area. The conveners of that Blog have blazed a vitally important trail in stretching the boundaries of what’s possible in opening up Irish government even despite the current limitations of the current legislation. They know what they’re talking about, so their warning that these late changes will ‘kill off’ FOI in Ireland should cause us all to sit up, pay attention and fight to prevent them. Minister Howlin needs to be challenged on this.
2. Dáil reform measures to date are a mere fig leaf
We need to know why Minister Howlin’s civil servants decided at this late stage to bring forward such dramatic and far-reaching amendments. Why was this not set out in the draft legislation and signaled at Heads of Bill stage to allow proper Dáil (and wider civil society) scrutiny at the outset? Introducing these changes just before Committee stage makes it all but impossible to roll them back, and any attempt to block it in the Dáil can be easily dealt with by this government’s beloved Guillotine.
Making public the government’s legislative intentions at Heads of Bill stage has been lauded by this government as one of its important Dáil reform measures. We’re told that this ensures proper parliamentary and public scrutiny of legislation at a sufficiently early stage. We’re told that this gives the Dáil a real say in influencing legislation.
All fine and dandy – until a government department decides to sneak in significant amendments later in the process as had happened here.
Dáil reform my a**e!