It's Not the Money, It's the Principle

We’d like to welcome Rodney Breen with a guest post for

In all the kerfuffle about the watering down of FOI, not many people have asked the simple but obvious question: why?

Actually, I think we all suspect we know why: the government doesn’t want people asking so many questions. But could there be an other, more reasonable explanation?

If there is they’re struggling to explain what it is. The government press release cited by Gavin here explains that “For FOI to work effectively each issue should be treated separately but some requests raise a number of unrelated issues within a single request.”

This is true, but not a problem. I’ve been an FOI officer. You get different questions in the same request, you send each one to the relevant person: you simply treat them as different requests. This is a simple administrative process. Approaching this with legislation would be insane.

The Department press release explains, “It is undermining of the fee per issue principle that several unrelated matters can be asked by way of a single request.”

This is interesting. The history of the fee per issue principle seems to go back to November 11, 2013, the day the press release was released. A Google search for the term produces just 4 results, all from yesterday. Nobody has ever mentioned it before, at any time, anywhere. It has no previous existence.

However, without having consulted anybody else, the Department has decided that the fee per issue principle is a thing, and a principle worth fighting for, in the name of the Law.

So what is this “fee per issue principle”? Well, obviously that anyone who asks for information on an issue should not get it for free. If you think about it, it makes sense. If you pay a fee for a request on an issue, and add a couple of questions about other issues, you are effectively getting the answers to those for free. And apparently this is a bad thing. But why?

I suppose you could argue that it’s unfair. If Paddy submits an FOI request about Education Policy, and adds a question about school closures, it’s unfair to Mary, whose FOI about school closures is costing her €15 while Paddy gets his for nothing.

If that’s what they’re thinking of, I am quite happy to say, on Mary’s behalf, and on behalf of all of us, “no, really, it’s fine. Let Paddy have his question, we’re not bothered.’

But I don’t think that’s the reason. Because, obviously, it would be completely stupid.

What else? The press release says “it is reasonable to require a small contribution to be made to the cost of information retrieval.” But this makes no sense, because there is a separate charge for retrieving the information.

What does this leave us with? It’s not a charge for retrieval, it’s not unfair, and the amount of money it brings in will be tiny. If it means, say, 200 extra FOI fees a year, that would bring in €3000. Putting the amendments in the legislation has probably cost ten times that. That would be a shocking waste of public money.

The best rational explanation is the Government simply really does want fewer questions asked. They haven’t made any attempt to conceal the fact that they see that as a desirable outcome. But it’s just possible that someone in government really does think that the fee per issue principle is worth defending even though it will cost far more than it could possibly raise.

“It’s not the money, it’s the principle”.

If that’s the sort of thinking that governs in Ireland, we have never needed FOI more than today.

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