Freedom of information is central to our modern concept of a functioning democracy. Charging a fee for freedom of information flies in the face of that concept and is outrageous.
So said current Social Protection Minister Joan Burton back in 2003. I couldn’t agree more. But now the government of which she is a part is reneging on promises to restore the FOI Act to pre the 2003 amendment.
Readers will recall that back in March 2011 I blogged about the programme for government which committed the new government to the following reforms:
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.
At the time I expressed some doubt, adding that it is only worth believing what politicians do, not what they say.
Last month I returned to the question, and asked why, if the government was so committed to reform, had they not simply got rid of the fees and added more bodies using Ministerial Orders rather than an amendment (or do one first and then the other).
Well we seem to have our answer. My doubts and cynicism were proven correct. The government won’t be restoring the FOI Act to what it was before. Politicians and broken promises, who’d have thought?
We learned yesterday that the punitive €15 for requests is to remain, the internal review will decline to €30 from €75 and appeals to the Information Commissioner will decline from €150 to €50. These are all punitive charges and none should exist, but worst of all is the €15, which acts as a barrier to putting requests in in the first instance. It leaves Irish citizens in the rather ridiculous position of being able to request information from the UK for free (they don’t charge), despite us not being citizens of that country, but in our country we must pay for our own information.
And just to refresh our memories, what exactly have our politicians been saying about this FOI reform since the inception of the new government:
We will restore freedom of information provisions
We will restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was filleted by the previous Government, and we will extend it to other bodies substantially funded by the public purse
…an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act to restore the position that existed prior to the enactment of recent changes
A freedom of information (amendment) Bill will also be introduced this year. I have circulated my initial thoughts on that Bill to the Government. My objective is to undo the harm done by the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003
The restoration and extension of Freedom of Information (FOI) aims, in line with the Programme for Government commitment, to reverse the substantive restrictions to FOI introduced in 2003 and to extend FOI to all public bodies
We will legislate to restore the previous position in regard to the Freedom of Information Act and we will extend the remit of that Act and of the Ombudsman Act
That is what the Freedom of Information Act was introduced for by the Fine Gael-Labour Government in previous years. We will make changes to it in due course because the Deputy’s crowd tried to restrict it even further.
Or let’s go back a little further. Back in 2003 Enda Kenny said the following in relation to the impending FOI amendment:
“There has been no consultation with those who use the Act; 23% of FOI requests come from journalists bu the NUJ has not been consulted.”
Sounds familiar. Or in February 2003:
“Fine Gael will commit itself, when in Government, to restoring the position to that set out in the 1997 Act”
And going back to Joan Burton in 2003:
“International evidence clearly demonstrates that such charges are a deterrent to public access to government documents”
The current Information Commissioner, who appears to have gone along with the proposal to keep the €15 fee, said in 2003 that the fees would be a “massive disincentive” to members of the public. She said:
“these recent developments may have long-term negative effects for accountability”
In the UK, the Commons just recently completed a review of their FOI Act, and rejected the notion of imposing fees saying that the drawbacks of fees outweigh the benefits.
I will say this: the €15 punitive fee must be removed. To all the readers of this blog, politicians, civil servants and journalists included, this fee must be removed. And if the government refuses to remove it, we must force them to remove it.