Department of Public Expenditure says process for deciding if bodies are subject to FOI requests is flawed and now subject of major review

One lesser-known aspect of the operation of Freedom of Information law in Ireland is the dispute resolution process, which is under the control of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

This is a system whereby decisions over whether an organisation is subject to FOI or not are decided by the minister of the day.

Right to Know had a long-drawn out experience of this in a case involving the Registrar of Political Parties.

We won that case when the Registrar effectively conceded he was subject to FOI and as a result released records to us.

We were lucky though.

During that process, we became aware that there were three other cases involving the dispute resolution process – all significantly delayed as well.

The cases concern the Office of the Secretary General to the President (likely the root of the problem), the Kilkenny Abbey Quarter Development, and the Carlow Arts Centre.

We tried to highlight these delays on social media with both the department and Minister Michael McGrath but they didn’t even acknowledge us.

Frustrated, we submitted an FOI request seeking all records relating to the cases. We knew the request would be refused as part of a deliberative process – among other reasons – but hoped it might at least throw a bit of light on what was happening.

It turns out that an entirely separate process was underway involving a review of the dispute resolution system, which you can read about in the record below.

This was due to inherent weaknesses in how it works (something we had also previously highlighted) and concerns about how robust and comprehensive decisions could be.

It’s important to point out here that in at least one of the cases involving the Kilkenny Abbey Quarter Limited, no information about this was ever provided to the requester concerned until he was alerted to what was happening by Right to Know.

He has spent more than four years trying to access records held by that company relating to controversial redevelopment that is taking place in the city of Kilkenny.

A major concern is that by the time the case is ever decided, much of the development will already be complete.

We also know that the request involving the Office of the Secretary General to the President was first submitted in February 2017.

We don’t know much about the case involving the Carlow Arts Centre except that it too is now on hold until at least next year.

One of the key principles of any Freedom of Information system is access to information in a timely manner. That clearly isn’t happening here.

Right to Know has called repeatedly for a full review of the operation of the FOI Act and the failings we encounter with using it every day. This is just another reason for that to take place.