Wednesday, 27 November 2002
Dáil Eireann Debate
3. Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department; the number of requests which were refused; the number which were responded to within the 28 day limit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21228/02]
A total of 881 freedom of information requests were received by my Department between 21 April 1998, the date on which the Freedom of Information Act came into operation, and 22 November 2002. Of these, 107 requests were refused, 270 granted, 209 part granted, 57 transferred to other Departments and 60 withdrawn. No records were held in respect of 158 cases and 20 cases are ongoing. Records indicate that 700 requests, or 80%, were answered within 28 days of receipt and a further 28 were answered within one to three days of the deadline. The majority of the remaining 153 requests unanswered within that timeframe were answered in accordance with the time limits of the Act in relation to third party consultations and searches or by agreement with the requesters. All requests received in my Department are processed in accordance with the Act, the implementation of which is kept under constant review.
Mr. Kenny: The Freedom of Information Act has proven very worthwhile in terms of the range of information supplied under its provisions. It does down the business of parliamentary questions which have become inane and practically useless. If the parliamentary questions system were more open and relevant the number of freedom of information requests would decline markedly. It used to be the case under different Taoisigh, and perhaps during the Taoiseach's initial term, that Secretary Generals were advised to give as much information as was useful in the case of parliamentary questions.
Will the Taoiseach indicate what kinds of requests for information were refused? Is it the case that the information requested was too sensitive or strictly outside the remit of the Taoiseach's Department? On 24 September last, Fine Gael sent requests to all Departments under the Freedom of Information Act, but the Departments of Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform have not yet responded. The delay has greatly exceeded the 28 day deadline, on which the Taoiseach might like to comment.
The Taoiseach: Under the Act, decision-makers are independent in the exercise of their functions while provision is made for internal review and for subsequent appeal. I have no role in the processing of individual requests which is not something Ministers and Ministers of State should involve themselves in. The requests come in and should be processed according to the legislation and I have no hand or part in the replies or papers provided. I do not even see them, although I could. A month after issues are dealt with, I am given a list of what went out, that is all.
I am sure it is in order to discuss detail. Public bodies have 28 days to process requests and inform the requester of the decision that has been taken. The Act allows for an additional 21 days if there is a need to undertake a third party consultation and for an additional 28 days if the records relating to the request are so numerous as to make the standard four week period an unreasonably short research time or if the number of other requests relating to records is of significance. There can be a time lag, although my Department tries to answer as quickly as possible if the matter is within its remit. Requests are only refused if we do not have the information or if the request is not relevant. Sensitivity is only a factor with regard to section 25 which allows for certificates to be exempt and protects extremely sensitive or serious material from release. The only cases of that relate to security matters, of which there are very few and I have none.
Every six months in such cases there must be a formal review of the request by a committee which I sit on with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Finance. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform attends if necessary. Other than that the information has to be given. I will ask somebody to pass on the Deputy's remarks about two of my colleagues who have not responded to requests.
Mr. Rabbitte: Is it not the case that the Freedom of Information Act is being undermined by the extent of the backlog of appeals? There are 600 cases pending, some of which date back to 1999. What possible use can it be to get information three years after the request has been made? Is the Taoiseach aware that the commissioner has ascribed this backlog primarily to the non-filling of essential posts in the Office of the Ombudsman? The purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is to make available appropriate information speedily, but its provisions are effectively stymied.
The Taoiseach: Over the entire period since the legislation was introduced, 107 requests have been refused by my Department. I cannot go into detail on all of those because I do not have it here. The requests were refused on foot of exemptions provided for in the Act, such as section 19 exemptions which deal with meetings of the Government.
As far as I can remember there has been only one appeal. Maybe there are others but other than what is in the Act certainly my Department is not guilty of using the appeal mechanism. If we have the information we have it, if we can get it from third parties we get it. Either most of those 107 would be Government business or we do not have any records whatever.
The Taoiseach: All I can say is that the staffing level of that office has been substantially upped in recent years. I am not aware of any difficulty in relation to FOI requests. I know it is a general question but I have no information from the commissioner that the FOI process is being used as a means of stalling or easing the staffing problem. I will ask about it but it certainly has been brought to my attention and there are plenty of reasons for that.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: At the most recent meeting of the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service we were advised that from its inception up to the last report some 10,000 requests for FOI had been refused. That represents some 20% of the number submitted and is a significant number. The relative number of appeals—
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Of the small number of appeals what is the percentage refused? Does the Taoiseach have a concern about the access of information, the necessary delivery of the wherewithal that people can employ in order to pursue effectively an appeal? When will there be a further extension of the bodies governed by freedom of information, including An Garda Síochána?
Mr. O'Dowd: Under a freedom of information request which I made to the Taoiseach's Department on discussions he had with the British Prime Minister, particularly on issues such as Sellafield, there were no records kept of such a discussion. What happens in his Department if he is having discussions with the British Prime Minister on issues such as this in terms of the record keeping because under the provisions of the Act there ought to be a record or a minute or a note? However, none was made available to me on my FOI request on his meeting with Mr. Tony Blair on Sellafield.
The Taoiseach: In response to Deputy Ó Caoláin, the figures for refusals are quite low. In my Department they are about 12%. When one takes out what is Government business or information that is not available, the figures are quite small. I know the general point the Deputy is making. The process that operates is that when a letter comes in seeking information, it is logged and sent to the relevant person in the Department who endeavours to reply very quickly. More than 80% of requests are responded to within the 80 days, a further percentage are responded to within one or two days of the detail being provided and those unanswered after that involve third party searches or may be Government information.
Normally, a minute or details of a meeting, as mentioned by Deputy O'Dowd, with Mr. Blair would be published. Sometimes at European Council meetings we meet on the fringes during the session when there is some item on the agenda on which we have already spoken. In that case there would not be officials so there would not be a logged note. In the normal case, during the formal sessions there certainly would be a logged note. We had a debate about them recently but we will not go into that.
Deputy Mitchell asked about the time lag. The original legislation provided for a five year period. The high level committee looking at this will look at all these issues. I have my own view on the five year rule.
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