An Garda Siochana, transparency and access to information

An Garda Siochana have been subject to some significant public scrutiny of late, in terms of how accountable and transparent the organisation is.

This blog has long held the view that the force should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The current FOI bill before the Oireachtas contains provisions that will include the force under the Act for the first time, but only in relation to “administrative” records.

However, like we believe NAMA is subject to the separate Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations, likewise we believe An Gardai Siochana to also be subject to those regulations.

To that end, last year I sent a request to An Garda Siochana seeking certain environmental information. As the Gardai have no AIE officer (despite having an obligation to have one), I sent my request to their press office. They replied:

Applications for Access to Information on the Environment should be made to:

Information Officer,
Departmental Strategy Unit,
Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government,
Newtown Rd,

This response demonstrates just where we are when it comes to AIE in Ireland (and our international obligations under the Aarhus Convention). The Gardai were telling me to ask the Department of the Environment about information they held, and that they were legally obliged to respond to. I politely responded:

I’ve looked at the Regulations and this matter should should be dealt with by someone at An Garda Siochana, as the Department of Environment is not related to the request.

Perhaps you could point me to the person in charge of AIE requests at An Garda Siochana?

The Department of Environment doesn’t hold the information I’m requesting (it is its own public authority, as are all other the Departments, and authorities like Coillte, the Central Bank, the ESB, Bord Gais etc).

The information you quote is actually only related to AIE requests specifically to the Department of the Environment.

An Garda Siochana is a public authority for the purposes of the Regulations, so it is obliged to answer requests for environmental information (AIE requests). The process is similar in nature to Freedom of Information requests (though I know An Garda Siochana is not yet subject to FOI).

As the authority in question, there is one month for the requested information to be released, or rejected, citing any relevant exemptions under the Regulations.

Kind regards

Precisely one month later, the force responded to my request, and refused access citing “national security” and commercial sensitivity. I immediately appealed to internal review, as is my right under AIE Regulations. The Gardai failed to reply.

On the basis of deemed refusal, I then appealed to the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information, which then commenced an investigation into the force’s failure to respond to my request.

Following the commencement of this investigation I was then contacted separately by a member of the force at Garda HQ. On November 26 2013 I received an email stating:

I am directed by Assistant Commissioner Jack Nolan to refer to your request for a review of the decision of the Garda Press Officer following your request for information from An Garda Síochána.

The Commissioner has directed that Assistant Commissioner Nolan conduct this review. I am to advise that Assistant Commissioner Nolan is out of the country until 19 December 2013 but he would welcome an opportunity to discuss the above matter with you. In this regard I would be obliged if you could advise of suitable dates to meet with Assistant Commissioner Nolan.

This request is highly unusual, without the participation of the Information Commissioner’s office. Normally a settlement is reached via negotiation with the OCEI, not independently of it. I therefore saw little benefit to meeting with Assistant Commissioner Nolan, and replied:

Thank you for your email of November 26.

I am a little puzzled! What is the precise purpose of the meeting?

My understanding is that the OCEI has commenced an investigation following An Garda Siochana’s failure to answer an appeal for internal review in relation to an AIE request. As such I’m not sure what assistance, as the requester, I can provide in relation to the OCEI investigation.

Kind regards

To this I received no reply. The investigation is ongoing.

In light of this I then sent a second request, seeking:

1) Any and all information relating to measures carried out by An Garda Siochana to implement its legal obligations under the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations 2007/2011. Specifically with reference to Section 5 (1) to (5) of the Regulations, what measures have an Garda Siochana carried out in particular vis-a-vis:

A public authority shall:
(a) inform the public of their rights under these Regulations and the Directive and provide information and guidance on the exercise of those rights, and
(b) make all reasonable efforts to maintain environmental information held by or for it in a form or manner that is readily reproducible and accessible by information technology or by other electronic means.,
(c) ensure that environmental information compiled by or for it, is up-to-date, accurate and comparable,
(d) maintain registers or lists of the environmental information held by the authority and designate an information officer for such purposes or provide an information point to give clear indications of where such information can be found.

Kind regards

I received a reply to this on December 19:

An Garda Síochána have responded to and are currently liaising with the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information. This matter is now being dealt with by the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information and all queries should be addressed to that office.

Incorrect, I pointed out. This was a new and separate request:

Thank you for your email.

However, this is new and separate request to the one currently under appeal with the OCEI. It was sent on November 4, and no reply was received by December 4.

There is a one month deadline to issue an internal review decision under the Regulations in relation to this request.

Kind regards

Following another month passing by, and time limits being breached, I then received a follow up email:

The formulation of a policy for An Garda Síochána in relation to its obligations under the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations 2007/2011 has commenced.

As previously advised, Assistant Commissioner Jack Nolan is willing to meet with you to discuss whatever issues you wish to raise.

Any future correspondence in the matter should be forwarded directly to Assistant Commissioner Nolan

Kind regards,

This response does not answer my original request. And this is where we are now. As far as I can see it is now clear the An Garda Siochana have essentially appointed Assistant Commissioner Nolan as their AIE officer, and all public requests seeking environmental information should be directed to his office.

So goes the current state of Aarhus legal obligations in Ireland. Our own police force is failing to enforce and implement a law from 2007, and amended in 2011. And if this is how they handle AIE requests, to which they’ve been subject to several years – how should we expect FOI to work in relation to them once the new bill passes?

(FYI Irish citizens can now (as of September 2013) complain about the Irish implementation of the Aarhus Convention directly to the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee (ACCC) in Geneva)

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