Did the government promise to abolish upfront fees for FOI?
This is an important question but one that seems to have generated confusion. For example:
@colettebrowne @fplogue @gavinsblog 2011 manifesto never said charges would be abolished.Said FOI wld be extended
— Aoife (@msaoife) November 13, 2013
If the government did promise to abolish upfront fees then its proposed amendment to the Freedom of Information Bill which seeks to maintain upfront fees and to increase fees for initial requests constitutes a complete about turn by the government and a clear breach of its promise to the public when it was elected in 2011.
It is worth recalling that before 2003 upfront fees were not charged for initial FOI requests, internal appeals or for appeals to the Information Commissioner. In 2003, however, the FF/PD administration introduced upfront fees by inserting Section 47(6A) into the Freedom of Information Act. At the time this was considered to represent a significant undermining of the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information regime in Ireland. The Information Commissioner herself pointed out that the introduction of upfront fees led to a significant drop in requests and appeals, particularly from journalists.
So what did the government actually promise in relation to FOI upfront fees?
The programme for government states the following (page 19 emphasis added):
We will radically overhaul the way Irish politics and Government work. The failures of the political system over the past decade were a key contributor to the financial crisis and the system
must now learn those lessons urgently.
Government is too centralised and unaccountable. We believe that there must also be a real shift in power from the State to the citizen.
We will legislate on the issue of cabinet confidentiality.
We will legislate to restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was underined 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.
So the government promised to restore the FOI Act to what it was before the 2003 amendment. This could not be clearer. It is impossible to read this other than a promise and a commitment by the Irish government to undo the amendments made in 2003 including the amendment whichh inserted Section 47(6A) and introduced upfront fees for the first time.
It doesn’t matter that we are constrained economically – we were similarly constrained in 2011 when the program for government was published. Similarly it doesn’t matter that the upfront fee is only a small fraction of the costs of FOI administration or that it violates the newly discovered principle of one issue – one fee. The government made an unqualified promise to the people and it should stick to it.