Overwhelming majority of submissions on government’s controversial planning law proposals object to restrictions on access to justice for citizens, NGOs, and others

The Department of Housing received nearly 300 submissions about controversial plans to tackle the number of legal cases being taken against planning proposals.

The government had put forward plans to restrict the right of community groups, non-governmental organisations, and citizens from taking legal action against developments around the country.

Among the measures were that groups would have to be in existence for at least three years, have at least 100 members, be personally and substantially affected by a development, and have enough money to cover legal costs.

However, the plans were met with a wave of complaints from members of the public and environmental groups, according to 294 submissions received as part of a public consultation, a significant majority of which opposed the plans.

Submissions described the proposals as “a total travesty of the rights of citizens” with one piece of correspondence saying it was an “absolute contravention of democracy”.

Others described the plan as a “crude instrument” and an “outrage” with one barrister saying he feared objections to the plan would inevitably be ignored by government.

An Taisce were among more than a dozen environmental groups to object to the proposals, which form part of the Housing and Planning Development Bill.

They asked for it to be withdrawn saying it represented a “significant erosion” of the public’s right to access justice and participate in the planning process.

Industry groups were more welcoming of the plans with energy providers, airport operators, and chambers of commerce all voicing their support for some of the changes.

The IDA warned that Ireland’s planning system had become a “reputational risk” and was working against their efforts to attract international investment.

These records were re-released to Right to Know following a decision of the Commissioner for Environmental Information.

We did not make this request so all credit goes to the person (unknown to us) who did the legwork.

Access to information like this in a timely fashion is a critical part of the Aarhus Convention and the AIE Regulations.

Courts Service audit finds over €120,000 wrongly paid out for on-call allowances

More than €123,000 was paid out in on-call allowances to Courts Service staff that should not have been paid, according to an internal audit.

The audit said that on-call allowances should only be paid in offices where there was a minimum of 12 callouts for out of hours or emergency court sittings each year.

However, their inquiries found multiple instances where money had been paid out when this had not happened and questioned whether the allowances should now be recouped.

The audit report said the overpayments had happened in an average of six offices annually with a “number of the same offices featuring each year” for the incorrect payments.

The audit also found a separate agreement in place for staff at one office in Co Galway had never been properly implemented.

Under the deal, some staff had their positions upgraded providing that payment of an on-call or callout allowance to them would cease.

The report said: “But this has never been implemented and the allowances continue to be paid.”

RTÉ forced to release copies of correspondence received about their coverage of climate change

Way back in November 2018, Right to Know sought copies of records held by RTÉ relating to how they cover climate change.

We were looking primarily for guidance or policies created for editorial staff on how to approach global warming.

At the time – and today as well – there is a sustained level of criticism of RTÉ’s approach to the climate crisis, how they cover it, and particularly the level of specialist resources allocated to reporting it.

Our request was refused by RTÉ and subsequently appealed to the Commissioner for Environmental Information, who ruled that the information was not environmental.

We disagreed, with this based on the belief that broadcasting is clearly a measure that can affect the environment as outlined in the AIE Regulations.

When a public service broadcaster has very significant TV, radio, and online audiences … of course how they cover climate change issues will have a far-reaching influence on what people know and do when it comes to the environment.

In his judgment, Justice Max Barrett agreed and ordered a fresh decision-making process in light of the fact that broadcasting was clearly a measure for the purposes of our request.

RTÉ has now “without prejudice” released copies of the records, a selection of emails received from the public commenting on their coverage of climate issue.

In correspondence, the public service broadcaster has also indicated that it shouldn’t even have had to deal with such requests for environmental information in the first place.

They have also made repeated spurious attempts to suggest these requests impinge on press freedom, even though we have never – and would never – seek material where that consideration would arise.

So, it is clear this story is not over … and we will keep you posted on developments.

Internal audits from local authorities in Donegal, Kildare, and Wexford

Staff at one county council claimed mileage for making repeated journeys to the same location on the very same day, made claims based on inaccurate distances, and declared starting or destination locations that wrongly bumped up their expense payments.

An internal audit of travel and subsistence claims at Donegal County Council found just 28 of 120 claims had been completed fully and accurately.

Under Revenue rules, civil servants are supposed to declare the shortest route for their journey using either their home address or their workplace, whichever of them is closest to where they are going.

However, the audit found that in at least 27 cases from the 120 claims examined, staff members had declared the longer distance for mileage purposes.

In other cases, staff were found to be making multiple trips to the same location on the same day, or travelling to the same area of the county on consecutive days.

Employees also claimed subsistence payments for journeys close by their office or that were on their way to and from the office.

In one case, a staff member photocopied the exact same set of journeys for their expense claims and submitted it each month.

“This does not constitute ‘vouched expenses’ in Internal Audit’s opinion,” said the report.

These records were released to Right to Know following a decision of the Information Commissioner that Donegal County Council could not charge significant fees (read that decision here)

You can read the audits here. We also have separate audits from Kildare and Wexford available.

Letters from Leo Varadkar to technology and social media firms urging them to do more to tackle misinformation and organisation of anti-lockdown protests

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar wrote to four of the world’s biggest technology companies asking them what more they could to tackle illegal gatherings and the spread of misinformation during the pandemic.

Mr Varadkar sent letters to Facebook, Twitter, Google, and TikTok in the wake of violent protests on the streets of Dublin earlier this year.

He said the events were “clearly planned” using social media platforms and private messaging services and that he had been “appalled” by what happened.

The Tánaiste said that this behaviour by a “selfish few” had undermined the sacrifices that millions of Irish people had made over the last year.

Joint protocol between gardaí and National Parks and Wildlife Service on tackling wildlife crime

Illegal hunting can be used as a front by criminals to check property, equipment, and security according to a joint garda and department memo on wildlife crime.

The memo also says property damage and threats against landowners are all taking place during the illicit hunting of hares.

It said badger baiting and dog fighting can be associated with known criminals and attracted in “overseas criminals” who wanted to bet on the fights.

The memo said unlawful hunting with firearms at night was a problem throughout Ireland usually targeting wild deer populations.

And it said that there had been numerous instances of horses or cattle being accidentally shot, with bullets on occasion hitting houses and farm buildings.

The details are contained in a joint protocol signed between gardaí and the National Parks and Wildlife Service to tackle wildlife crime, and which has been released under access to environmental information regulations.

OPW’s €215,000 bill for gardening and pest control at Áras an Uachtaráin

The Office of Public Works has spent more than €215,000 on gardening and pest control at the President’s Áras an Uachtaráin residence over the past three years.

Details of pest control reports from the Áras reveal a litany of problems with rats, mice, and crawling insects across the sprawling estate in the Phoenix Park.

A wasp nest was also found in the attic space of the “private quarters” of the Áras, according to inspection reports released by the OPW.

The records also detail how a motion sensor camera was to be installed in the kitchens after an elusive rodent was spotted on a number of different occasions.

The data was released following a request made using the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations.

The Office of Public Works had originally refused to release the reports saying the President was excluded from the scope of the AIE regulations in the same way as that office was excluded from Freedom of Information legislation.

The OPW said they had a duty of care to the President and that providing the information might have “generated negative media coverage”.

However, the Commissioner for Environmental Information found the records were held by the OPW and that there was no exemption for records they held relating to the Áras through the AIE Regulations.

OPW overtime bill of €2.7 million as two employees earn in excess of €30,000 extra in overtime last year

Two employees at the Office of Public Works earned in excess of €30,000 last year in overtime as the agency’s annual overtime bill came to €2.7 million.

The employees were among at least twenty that earned at least €14,000 extra on top of their salary over the course of 2020.

A log of the top twenty overtime earners at the OPW last year reveals annual additional payments ranging from €14,535 to €31,356.

The agency’s overtime bill actually decreased last year during the Covid-19 pandemic from €3.3 million in 2019 to €2.73 million last year.

The OPW said overtime was a necessity because many of the sites they operate – including the Phoenix Park and Dublin Castle – operated on a twenty-four-hour, seven day a week basis.

An Bord Bia records on the impact of Brexit on the food industry in late 2020 and early this year

This is a large upload of records from An Bord Bia covering issues for the food industry arising from Brexit.

There are multiple records in here and you can find them as follows:

  • Page 1: Brexit Update from 3 December 2020.
  • Page 84: Brexit Update from 10 December 2020.
  • Page 168: Brexit Update from 18 December 2020.
  • Page 173: Brexit Update from 22 December 2020.
  • Page 205: Internal Brexit Briefing Document from 8 January 2021.
  • Page 232: Internal Brexit Briefing Document from 15 January 2021.
  • Page 261: Internal Brexit Briefing Document from 22 January 2021.
  • Page 293: Internal Brexit Briefing Document from 29 January 2021.
  • Page 326: Internal Brexit Briefing Document from 5 February 2021.
  • Page 360: Internal Brexit Briefing Document from 12 February 2021.
  • Page 398: Internal Brexit Briefing Document from 19 February 2021.
  • Page 436: Internal Brexit Briefing Document from 26 February 2021.
  • Page 461: A log of issues raised by Irish exporters.
  • Page 469: CEO Report February 2021 (non Brexit material redacted)
  • Page 526: Driving Growth Post-Brexit – February version
  • Page 577: Driving Growth Post-Brexit – January version

Rotunda Hospital received less than half the funding requested last year for replacement of ageing and out of service equipment

The country’s busiest maternity hospital secured less than half the funding they sought last year for replacement of ageing, and sometimes failing equipment.

In some cases, equipment had reached end of its service life in 2014 and 2015 while some items were described as “technically obsolete”.

Other pieces of laboratory kit were said to be “causing lots of problems” while in other cases, management were warned they “cannot afford” for certain aging critical equipment to begin to fail or start creating issues.

A replacement programme list detailed €1.87 million worth of equipment that was in urgent need of replacement during 2020.

However, the hospital said the funding received from the HSE for the replacement programme last year had been €816,000.

A statement from the Rotunda said that there was traditionally a shortfall in funding and that they needed to “manage and mitigate this”.