Tuesday, 7 October 2003
Dáil Eireann Debate
2. Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests which were processed by his Department since January 2003; the number which have been acceded to; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19538/03]
3. Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests that have been received by his Department since June 2003; the number acceded to; the way in which these figures compare with the same period in 2002; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20407/03]
|June-3 Oct 2003||June-3 Oct 2002|
|Total requests received||11||131||30||34|
Mr. Kenny: The changes introduced to the Freedom of Information Act by the Government gave rise to a great deal of controversy. Is it not a fact that the Government promoted a culture of secrecy in implementing those changes?
Mr. Kenny: Is the Taoiseach satisfied that there has been a serious drop in the number of requests under the Freedom of Information Act? The changes, restrictions and charges introduced have led to a drop in requests of up to 53%. Does the Taoiseach accept that official information is the oxygen of democracy which has been strangled by the changes and charges introduced by his Government?
The Taoiseach: If one looks at the chart for my Department for June to October 2002 and June to October 2003, there were 34 requests in 2002 and 30 in 2003. I am not sure of the figures across all Departments. I do not think that €15 is a major deterrent to using the Act if one remembers the charge is only for using the legislation in respect of non-personal issues. In personal issues or appeals in personal issues there is no charge at all. I am told by some people in my Department that there are some drops in the categories where there are no records held and where requests were transferred. They are the areas in which requests were often vexatious anyway, as we have seen over the years. I do not think there will be any great change in the operation of the Act in terms of serious information.
An Ceann Comhairle: I make the point that questions on Northern Ireland follow these questions. If Members start to discuss the responsibilities of other Ministers, they will not get to questions on Northern Ireland.
Mr. Sargent: As we dealing with freedom of information, it is ironic that we face limitations in the way in which we may ask the questions. I appreciate the Ceann Comhairle's ruling however. Does the Taoiseach agree that his description of what amounts to a vexatious inquiry is very subjective? Does he agree that in terms of the number of requests to his Department, it is not insignificant to charge €150 for an appeal on top of the initial €15 and €75 for an internal appeal? The money required to obtain information and to pursue an inquiry mounts up significantly. Does the Taoiseach agree that this relates considerably to the fall off in inquiries which we are hearing about in the reply he has referred to and which we look forward to seeing when we receive the table in hard copy? Given that the matters we are discussing relate to the Information Commissioner, is the Office of the Information Commissioner sufficiently resourced to deal with them?
Mr. Sargent: Does the Taoiseach have a view on whether the office is well enough resourced and possessed of sufficient powers to deal with the Freedom of Information Act? I would like the Taoiseach to reply.
The Taoiseach: The answer to the last question is “Yes”. Several times over the last few years we have given both powers and resources to the office in question. I do not accept that €15 is a major deterrent to using the Act.
Mr. Kenny: I remind the Taoiseach that five Government Departments have seen a drop of approximately 85% in the number of freedom of information requests since the changes were introduced. They are the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs—
Mr. Kenny: Yes, but I am outlining the statistics which are relevant to the question. Four Departments – Defence, the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Foreign Affairs and Health and Children – have seen a drop of between 70% and 75% since the changes were introduced.
Mr. Kenny: In the Department of Agriculture and Food the decrease is 61%; the Department of Defence, 17%; and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, minus 47%. There are lies, damn lies and statistics, but these statistics do not tell lies because they show a clear drop in the requests for information.
Mr. Kenny: I know you want to get on to the questions on Northern Ireland, a Cheann Comhairle, but I have one other question for the Taoiseach as he referred to it. He said, rightly, that these requests take up a good deal of time. Is it not a fact that there are staff in these Departments appointed to deal with freedom of information requests but that no requests have come into Departments for weeks on end?
An Ceann Comhairle: I am not being restrictive on it. Each of the three questions refers specifically to requests processed in the Taoiseach's Department. The Chair has no choice but to stay within the limits of the questions.
Mr. Kenny: Let me comply with your ruling. Will the Taoiseach indicate the number of staff in his Department appointed to deal with freedom of information requests? Are those staff fully employed in view of the strangulation of the Freedom of Information Act, the restrictions imposed and the charges brought in?
The Taoiseach: As I have stated, the number of requests coming into the Department is not much different. As I have stated many times during Question Time, designated officers are appointed under the Freedom of Information Act. It is existing staff who undertake this work and if they are burdened with this work, they cannot do other work. That is the only change it will mean, but my Department has not changed much in terms of the figures. When one looks at the figures, other than questions which are transferred or are not relevant because there is no information, there has not been much of a change in my Department. It appears that in areas where we have no records or where the questions were transferred because people were sending in  requests which were not relevant, that number is down. I understand the reason for that when some money has to be paid for it. As far as questions relevant to my Department are concerned, there has been no change.
In regard to the sections about which we spent a good deal of time talking, where records are exempt because of Government meetings and other mandatory exemptions, there has been none in my Department in the period in question. As I said then, that would be a fairly rare occurrence and it has proved to be the case.
Mr. Rabbitte: Would the Taoiseach be prepared to request all Departments, including his own, to carry out some analysis at the end of the year of the profile of requesters or requests made in terms of explaining the kind of requesters that have fallen off as a result of the imposition of the fees to which Deputy Kenny refers? Has there been discussions with the Information Commissioner who went public – rightly so according to Deputy Sargent – on her opposition to the €150 charge for an appeal?
Mr. Rabbitte: May I ask a question that is within the Taoiseach's domain since you have provoked me, Sir? The press tells me it cannot find the Minister of State with responsibility for health and safety, Deputy Fahey. Would a freedom of information application to the Department where he languishes—
The Taoiseach: With regard to the question of my Department conducting an analysis at the end of the year, the answer is “Yes”. Once a reason able period has elapsed, we will do that. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, is in Spain.
Mr. Sargent: I will try to get an answer to the question I put. I asked if the Taoiseach had a view on whether €150 for an appeal was a significant and onerous amount. He thought €15 was not much. What is his view on €150 for an appeal in light of his dismissal of €15? Did his Department have any role in lobbying the Department of Finance for restrictions in the freedom of information legislation? From whence did this seed of secrecy spring?
The Taoiseach: A Cheann Comhairle, as you know, it followed a review that took place but we have been through all of that. In fact, I do not think there is any secrecy in all of this. Practically everything that is looked for from Departments comes out.
The Taoiseach: In some cases, information comes out when it should not. Sometimes it seems to be a race between freedom of information and information leaking in some other way, so I do not know what people are worrying about.
Mr. Neville: Does the Taoiseach agree a charge of €9,800 to an investigative journalist and a request for a deposit of €6,000 was tantamount to gagging the press when he requested information on details—
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