Minister Howlin's crazy briefing note on fees

As part of an FOI request where we sought all briefing papers used by Minister Howlin and his staff at an Oireachtas Finance committee meeting earlier this year, we obtained this briefing note prepared for the Minister.

The note outlines the convoluted logic behind the Department’s thinking on FOI fees. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Department continues to believe that fees solve problems, instead of creating them. As we pointed out in our submission to the same committee, charging fees is lazy. When the UK examined this issue in 2012 they reached perfectly rational positions such as:

The introduction of application fees would mean that those who explicitly relied on their statutory rights would pay, whereas those who sought information without invoking, or in ignorance of, their rights would not. This would create a two-­tier system.”

and the UK Information Commissioner:

“It is a bit rich to have public authorities saying, “We are assailed by unreasonable freedom of information requests”, when they do not have an adequate publication scheme, they have not got their act together in terms of records management and have a rotten website and so on. There are things that you can do before you ever get to charging.”

and the UK government:

“…charging for FOI requests would have an adverse impact on transparency and would
undermine the objectives of the Act…. a charge would be expensive to administer and
may result in increasing, rather than reducing, burdens on public authorities. This is
particularly the case where a nominal charge, rather than a much higher full­cost
recovery charge, is being considered.”

But in Ireland we have this:

Subsidies? All of a sudden the State is a champion of saving the taxpayer money. Funny that. Since the Act was introduced millions of euros of waste was uncovered, mainly by journalists. Remember FAS? FOI. Remember John O’Donoghue’s outrageous expenses? FOI. How much money is saved by transparency? Lots. And how much future waste has been averted because of the FOI Act? Probably levels well above all fees or costs for FOIs ever.

But the logic here is that the taxpayer is subsidising, well, taxpayers. Countries cost money to run. Democracy is messy. Access to information is a right and it is not within the gift of political regimes to add it or take it away on a whim whenever they feel like it – it is a fundamental right.

As for the figures cited, well where do you start?

Let’s take one.

Total FOI fees collected in 2011: €87,439.
Total cost of the website for €244,741 (as detailed by this blog)

Cost of administering the fee regime (processing cheques etc)? We have no idea because no one did a cost/benefit analysis (but it’s most likely costing more to administer upfront fees than the fees themselves bring in).

Here is the full briefing note, in all its contorted glory: