Right to Know wins landmark case over right of access for EU citizens to technical standards

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has found in favour of Right to Know in a key judgment over the availability of copies of technical standards.

In partnership with Public.Resource.Org, Right to Know had in 2018 sought copies of harmonised technical standards for the safety of toys.

The European Commission refused access however, and that decision was upheld by the General Court of the European Union.

Now, in a judgment with wide-ranging impact across the European Union, the CJEU has ruled we should have been granted free access to the technical standards.

In a statement, the court said: “[We find] that there is an overriding public interest in disclosure of the harmonised standards in question.”

The judgment said it was important that citizens should be able to acquaint themselves with the standards that apply so that they could be sure that products or services they bought were in compliance.

It added that the standards formed part of EU law and that access to such was ensured for citizens through their right to access information.

The case has generated interest right across the European Union and its implications are significant.

You can read a full copy of the judgment below or alternatively the press release that was issued by the court here.

Public bodies asked for higher salaries for senior roles after recruitment competitions failed to find qualified candidates

The Department of Public Expenditure had to approve payment of €14,367 annual allowances for two senior state roles after separate recruitment campaigns failed to find a suitable applicant.

Both the Health Insurance Authority (HIA) and regulator CORU had been looking for new chief executives last year with a starting salary of just over €100,000 on offer for both posts.

Last August, the senior position at the HIA was advertised with the pay offered on the principal officer (higher) scale, which now starts at €106,187 and rises to €130,951 during a person’s service.

However, the recruitment campaign was unsuccessful in finding somebody suitable for their most senior post.

In a letter, the Department of Public Expenditure said they would agree to add a €14,581 director’s allowance to the position in the hope of finding the ideal candidate.

A letter in December said: “Having regard to the expansion of the HIA in recent years, the increasing complexity of the role, and the unsuccessful recruitment campaign at the existing level, the consent of Minister [Paschal Donohoe] is hereby provided for recruitment to the post at Director level.”

The post was readvertised last month with the consultancy firm Mazars hired to help attract candidates.

It was the same story at CORU, the body responsible for regulating health and social care professionals.

Their efforts to attract a new CEO on a salary scale with starting pay of what was €102,567-a-year – prior to the latest round of pay restoration – also failed.

A letter from the Department of Public Expenditure last November said: “I refer to your correspondence regarding the vacancy at Director Level in CORU due to an unsuccessful recruitment campaign, with the post currently being filled by way of an interim CEO.”

It said sanction to fill the role was being granted on the salary scale of €106,187 to €130,951 with an additional €14,367 in a director’s allowance.

“All costs should be met from existing resources,” said the department.

There was also a significant pay boost for another role in the public sector, as the National Standards Authority of Ireland sought a Director of Medical Services due to the resignation of an employee.

The job was supposed to be offered at Senior Principal Scientific Officer level, which would have commanded a salary starting at €115,392 rising to a maximum of €132,871 during service.

However, the Department of Public Expenditure agreed to bump the position up to Assistant Secretary Level, which instead has a salary scale of between €156,472 and €178,995.

Misinformation about building intended to house homeless families circulated widely before it was badly damaged in extremist arson attack

Dublin City Council was bombarded with complaints about its plans for homeless accommodation at a building that ended up being set on fire on New Year’s Eve.

The council was inundated with calls from people suggesting it was going to be used to house “unvetted males” even though its intended use was for families without homes.

The Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE) received more than thirty complaints about the proposed use of the Shipwright premises in Ringsend with many opposing its use even as an accommodation hub for homeless families.

Despite repeated confirmations that the building would only be used for homeless services, complaints continued to arrive about its use for “undocumented people”, “single males”, and “unvetted men”.

Those terms have been commonly used by the far right and the Shipwright was set on fire on New Year’s Eve with serious damage caused to the former pub.

Rumours about the building were circulating as early as December 18 with the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive confirming they had signed a contract for its use.

An email to one local representative that day said: “The DRHE has contracted the Shipwright for use as emergency accommodation for homeless families.

“Initially, we were looking for emergency accommodation for single men but realised the location suited family accommodation. We have a dedicated complaints email, and you can give this out to anyone who has concerns and we will follow up.”

Right to Know asks Minister Eamon Ryan to step in over unjustified appeal fees in access to environmental information cases

Right to Know has asked Environment Minister Eamon Ryan to intervene over the imposition of fees in appeal cases for access to environmental information.

For each case, a €50 fee is being applied by the Commissioner for Environmental Information (CEI) even though the Aarhus Convention, under which such requests are made, is intended to ensure the widest possible access to environmental information.

Right to Know has run up thousands of euros in these appeal costs over the past number of years.

Many of the appeals relate to manifestly incorrect decisions by public bodies and semi-states, where the issues involved have already been decided upon multiple times before.

However, public bodies are abusing the appeal system knowing that cases often take a couple of years before being decided.

Last year, we wrote to Minister Ryan asking him to suspend the charging of appeal fees by the Commissioner for Environmental Information (CEI).

His office never responded.

Following our letter, the CEI paused charging fees. However, their position has recently changed and they have now sought a payment of €800 from our transparency group.

As a small not-for-profit, supported only by contributions from the public, this is a very significant cost.

We have again written to Minister Ryan, who is after all a member of the Green Party, asking him to suspend the appeal fee.

We have also asked that he, as a matter of urgency, put in place a permanent legislative amendment to remove the unjustified fee entirely.

You can read the letters below:

Libraries advised to have ‘safe rooms’ or panic buttons to help staff deal with protests by extremists

Libraries across Ireland were told they should consider having safe rooms for staff or at the very least effective ways for employees to escape in the face of aggressive right-wing protests.

In an advisory, the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) also suggested the use of panic buttons and lone worker devices especially for small libraries where only a single person might be working.

They were also told to put up signage that explicitly prohibited the use of audio or video recording within the building, including with mobile phones.

The LGMA urged as well that all staff be given training in “dealing with difficult scenarios” in the face of increasingly aggressive protest tactics over the presence of LGBQT+ books.

The August 2023 advisory said as soon as somebody became aware of a planned protest, this should be notified to senior management and An Garda.

It said: “In consultation with the city [or] county librarian and or senior management, decide whether to close the library in advance of the event, based on the risk to personnel or the public, considering the proximity of a garda Station, location of the library and numbers [or] vulnerability of staff at the premises.”

The guidance said small, rural, or remote libraries should simply close and larger libraries should decide on whether additional security was needed at their building to protect staff.

Library staff were given guidance on what to say, especially to point out that they did not consent to be recorded or for the sharing of their image online.

It said after that contact should be kept to a minimum and that gardaí should be alerted about any threatening language, destruction of materials, or disruption of other service users.

“If there is any perceived threat to persons, any panic button or lone worker protection devices should be deployed,” said the guidance document.

Separately, the LGMA issued advice to libraries on how to deal with a flood of requests they were receiving under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws about LGBQT+ books and gender identity.

Councils were told they should strongly consider whether the names of staff should be redacted from records if inclusion could endanger their safety or facilitate a criminal offence.

In ordinary circumstances, the names of public servants are supposed to be kept in FOI records; however, there is an exemption where a risk to their safety is anticipated.

This has become a more regular feature of FOI decisions recently and is an understandable concern given the dramatic upsurge in violent far-right activity in Ireland.

Presentations from Fáilte Ireland on concerns over safety and crime in Dublin

A Fáilte Ireland presentation on concerns over anti-social behaviour in Dublin said perceptions of safety in the capital were in line with the norm for other large cities but that nearly a quarter of businesses were worried about their impact.

The briefing, which was prepared for the board of Fáilte Ireland last summer, said that 63% of visitors to Dublin were “more or less neutral” on safety in the city with 8% saying that they considered it poor.

It said that reported incidents of crime against tourists and the public had not increased in recent months, that there was “no cause for alarm” but that there was equally no “room for complacency and improvement is certainly possible.”

The briefing said that 23% of businesses in Dublin had concerns about anti-social behaviour, which compared very unfavourably to just 5% of businesses for the rest of Ireland.

It cited a Global Peace Index, which ranked countries according to safety and the likelihood of danger, and in which Ireland came in third place.

Among those who said that Dublin was unsafe, around 59% said it was a fear of crime, 38% a lack of police or security presence, and 32% who complained of the general appearance of the cityscape.

The Fáilte Ireland presentation also detailed how they had “scraped” social media to get a sense of how people were talking about safety in the capital.

Common themes were anti-social behaviour, open drug use and dealing, and violent attacks with O’Connell Street, Dame Street, and Temple Bar the most frequently mentioned locations.

There are also presentation on safety in Dublin from the city council and An Garda in the below document:

Official investigation reports into Air Corps engine failure and close encounter between garda helicopter and drone

An Air Corps plane had a near miss after it suffered a loss of engine power while getting ready for take-off at Baldonnel.

An investigation report said it was only good fortune that the aircraft had been carrying out taxiing practice or else the engine failure could have occurred during take-off or shortly after leaving the ground.

The report said the incident was considered of the highest category of seriousness.

The aircraft was a Britten Norman Defender, which entered service in 1997, and is operated along with the Department of Justice for garda operations.

The report said: “Prior to reaching the holding point for Runway 05, the crew elected to conduct taxiing practice prior to take-off.

“It is likely that had this not been conducted, the aircraft would have experienced the loss of power on the number 2 engine while lining up on the runway, during the take-off roll or shortly after becoming airborne.”

UCD working group said €180 re-sit fees for students who failed exams was “untenable” and seen as a “penalty”

Ireland’s largest university said its sky-high fees for exam resits were the highest in the country and put students under “great financial stress” when they failed.

UCD announced last year that it was eliminating the €180 fee that it charged students who wanted to reattempt an exam they had failed.

In an internal analysis, the college looked at resit fees across the third level sector in Ireland, concluding that theirs were the highest and examining whether they should be cut, or abolished altogether.

It said the old €180 fee “maintains the perception that the university is applying a resit fee as a penalty as opposed to a recognition of the additional cost of resit administration”.

The report, carried out by an internal working group, said students believed the fee was “arbitrary” and “too large to be nominal” although there was a cost to the university in providing resits both in administration and academic work.

The possibility of reducing the fee to just €50 was examined saying this would bring UCD below the national average fee while recognising the “additional costs” for the college in running additional exams.

It said this would reduce college income from resits by 72% but would still retain the “financial burden” for failing a module.

The UCD analysis also said there was an inherent unfairness in the fact that some of its courses allowed students to take part in “in-module remediation” where if they failed a subject, they could subsequently pass without having to go through a formal repeat.

The university ultimately agreed with the analysis that scrapping the charge would reduce the financial burden on students “at a time of academic stress”.

The working group’s report said this would remove the perception that the fees were a “penalty,” and that UCD would be able to manage without the lost revenue from fees.

The internal analysis also looked at whether the resit fees were hitting poorer students harder, by looking at whether there was any link between exam results and the provision of grants under the SUSI system.

“One potential concern with repeat and resit fees is whether they disproportionately affect students who can least afford to pay them,” said the document.

However, they said this wasn’t apparent from their analysis and students dealing with money struggles were no more likely to resit an exam than those with no obvious financial strains.

The analysis said: “Even though students receiving needs-based assistance potentially face more obstacles in third-level education due to lower household incomes and other challenging family environments, these students appear to be as successful as their peers in progressing to their second year at UCD.”

The only obvious trend the university could find among students who were resitting exams was that they tended to have scored lower points in their Leaving Cert.

In recommendations, the analysis said any final decision would be up to management but that its conclusion was that the resit fee should be lowered or dropped especially during a “cost of living crisis”.

“The working group does not believe that the current resit fee of €180 is a tenable position for the university,” said the report.

“It is the highest charge in the sector, was projected to reduce on an annual basis but has not, and [it] is perceived to be an unfair financial penalty at a time when it is widely recognised that students can least afford such costs.”

“All confidence” in government Learjet gone after last-minute technical issue left minister unable to fly to Brussels

The Department of Defence told the Air Corps that “all confidence” in the government’s €8 million government Learjet was gone and that it needed to be taken out of service full time.

In an email, Department of Defence Secretary General Jacqui McCrum said the aircraft had yet again let them down after Minister Simon Harris arrived at Baldonnel for a scheduled flight to Belgium only to be told he couldn’t fly.

In a message to the Defence Forces Chief of Staff Seán Clancy, she wrote: “As discussed, all confidence in the Lear is gone. I know that [staff member] was speaking to [Air Corps] about the retirement of same and that a report is to be [or is] being prepared.

“I will await your comments, but in my view, it has to be taken out of service full time now. We cannot provide an appropriate [government transport] service with it, and we cannot risk ministers missing critical meetings or being stranded.”

The latest controversy began in early December when Higher Education Minister Simon Harris was due to travel on an early-morning flight to Brussels only for the jet to be deemed out of service at the last minute.

An email from an Air Corps officer said: “I informed Minister Harris of the issue in person and outlined some potential timelines based on other aircraft types.

“Based on this, he advised that they would not plan to travel to Brussels today.”

A copy of the heavily redacted documents below:

Right to Know submission on environmental regulations raises concerns over long delays, excessive fees and absence of any sanction for failing to deal with requests properly

The Department of the Environment has published a full list of the submissions it received as part of its ongoing review of the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations.

These regulations have been a point of emphasis for Right to Know in recent years as we have tried to push the boundaries of what information citizens can obtain, and from whom.

Our submission, which is posted below, focuses on some of the key issues we have identified through our work in recent years.

These include:

  • long delays in dealing with cases.
  • the abolition of fees for appeal.
  • greater powers and resources for the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information.
  • some form of sanction for delays and maladministration.

There are also a list of submissions from other public bodies, including various government departments and city councils.

Somewhat perplexingly, the “industry” section includes the likes of Coillte, the daa, ESB, and Bórd na Móna.

These are all semi-state entities and are already fully subject to requests for information under the AIE Regulations in case anybody was in doubt.