Department of Public Expenditure charge €200 in search and retrieval fees for seven pages of records

One of the most inconsistent aspects of making Freedom of Information requests in Ireland is the imposition of fees.

Most can be dealt with for free as long as the requester is happy to refine the scope of the request to bring it below a five-hour threshold at which fees apply.

If the request is likely to take longer than five hours to process, a public body is supposed to give an opportunity to refine it … to make it more manageable so fees don’t apply.

In this case, Right to Know director Ken Foxe had been seeking copies of records relating to sanction for salaries in excess of rates that had been previously agreed.

Mr Foxe repeatedly offered to reduce the scope of the request to the Department of Public Expenditure.

However, the department offered only one possibility, which was for him to specify which posts he was interested in finding out about. This was clearly impossible given that’s what the request was meant to find out.

The imposition of fees was appealed but the Information Commissioner ruled that the department had done all they needed to assist the requester.

In that decision, they said: “While I fully accept that the applicant may not have the required knowledge that would allow him to refine the scope of his request to a particular post or posts, it is also apparent, from the Department’s description of the manner in which sanction requests are processed, that the Department would not be in a position to offer a list of relevant posts for consideration without conducting a search for relevant records.”

Mr Foxe subsequently decided to pay the fees personally believing it was important the department would not be able to close off inquiries of this nature.

In the decision, the Department of Public Expenditure released four records (€50 per record) – consisting of seven pages (at a rate of €28.57 per scanned page).

You can read them for yourself here. A second set of records (provided for free!) relating to another public service appointment are also available below:

Data Protection Commissioner warns it is “acutely strained” as it investigates giant tech companies with access to “disproportionate resources”

The Data Protection Commission warned it was “acutely strained” as it grappled with cases involving giant multinational tech companies and rising complaints from members of the public.

The agency also said it faced an uphill battle as it investigated big technology firms who had access to “disproportionate resources” to fight their corner.

They said the commission was now frequently accused of lengthy delays in its investigations because they were limited in the amount of inquiries they could progress at any one time.

The warnings were contained in a stark pre-budget submission, where the agency pleaded for extra manpower, financing, and a “fit-for-purpose management and organisation structure”.

The record has been made public just as the European Court of Justice issued an opinion that privacy complaints could be taken against tech giants in any EU state, and not just Ireland.

The Data Protection Commissioner had warned its ability to operate effectively was affecting Ireland’s “credibility on the world stage” and that a well-resourced regulator was now a “national and immediate imperative”.

Chronic air pollution, feelings of confinement, and “tired” décor at official residences among issues flagged in reviews of Irish Embassies

Cramped offices, noisy air conditioning, Ireland as an unknown country, and chronic air pollution were among the issues flagged by Irish diplomats serving around the world.

A series of mission review reports from the Department of Foreign Affairs reveal a litany of issues for diplomatic personnel including access to healthcare, feelings of confinement, and extreme vigilance in undertaking travel.

You can read them all below. They provide a fascinating look at various countries around the world and the challenges faced by diplomats living there.

Mother & Baby Home Commission chair Yvonne Murphy “greatly concerned” about last minute changes to legislation on preservation of commission archive

The chair of the Mother and Baby Home Commission raised concerns with a government department about how little time they were given to offer views on controversial draft legislation about their archives.

Judge Yvonne Murphy said she was “greatly concerned” about a new addition to the law which required the commission to deposit evidence and documents with the Minister without redaction.

She told the Department of Children that the latest draft of the bill had been sent to the commission’s office after 5pm on Monday, 5 October.

However, it was due to be brought before Cabinet the following morning “leaving no opportunity for the Commission to make its views known”.

The full report of the Mother and Baby Home Commission is expected to be published in the coming weeks.

Defence Forces warned wave of retirements from Air Corps had left staffing at a “critical level” and compromised providing airborne defence and security

The Department of Defence was told out-sourcing training for four Air Corps pilots would cost anywhere between €650,000 and €850,000.

Eight Irish pilots are being trained with the U.S. military in Alabama as the Defence Forces here warned premature retirements from the Air Corps had reached a “critical level”.

A business case prepared for the Department of Defence said the number of pilots available in the Air Corps had now fallen below “the critical mass required to sustain the provision of airborne defence and security operations”.

The record – which was released with redactions for security reasons – warns that “immediate remedial action” was now required to rebuild available manpower.

It said outsourced training would be crucial “to restore the provision of adequate airborne defence and security services”.

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.

Department of Foreign Affairs funding requests ahead of Budget 2021

A €1.8 million Brexit translation bill, €6 million for running Ireland’s seat on the UN Security Council, and €3 million for a referendum on Presidential voting rights were on the budget wish list for the Department of Foreign Affairs this year.

Minister Simon Coveney’s department said they would be hit with a range of new costs in 2021 while facing falling income from passport and visa services.

They also warned Ireland were likely to be affected by “adverse foreign exchange movements” as well as a €20 million bill this year for development of a new Ireland House in Tokyo.

Data Protection Commissioner report on the use of CCTV cameras by Kerry County Council

In 2018, the Data Protection Commissioner launched an investigation into the use of cameras by local authorities for law enforcement.

Kerry County Council was one of those examined and had, at the time, 120 cameras in operation around the county.

There were 19 to detect illegal dumping and littering and another 101 – mostly in local authority estates – for “public order” purposes.

This is the investigation report from the Data Protection Commissioner on use of those cameras. It’s the first of its type to be published and is being made available here by Right to Know in the public interest.

The records were released on foot of this decision by the Information Commissioner which followed an appeal by Right to Know and our legal adviser Fred Logue.

Minutes and agendas of the “Senior Officials Group” released to Right to Know following decision from Information Commissioner

These are the agendas and minutes of the so-called Senior Officials Group, a key part of the government’s pandemic response.

We first sought these records back in early June but access was refused using the section of the FOI Act exempting records relating to the Cabinet.

We appealed that case on the basis that these records were not solely prepared for transaction of business at Cabinet.

In his decision, the Information Commissioner ruled in our favour saying: “The minutes reflect that the Group is engaged with dealing with the many practical aspects of responding to and seeking to contain and mitigate the pandemic’s wide impact on the country and the relevant records document and facilitate that work. In the circumstances, I am not satisfied that section 28(1)(c) applies.”

You can see them in full here. We have since sought a more recent set of the same records from the Department of the Taoiseach.