Wednesday, 22 April 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
2. Deputy Eamon Gilmore asked the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department during the first two months of 2009; the way this compares with the same period in each year going back to 2002; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10885/09]
3. Deputy Enda Kenny asked the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests which were processed by his Department during 2009; the number which have been acceded to; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15536/09]
A total of 28 freedom of information requests have been received to date in my Department in 2009. Of these, 15 were granted and four were part granted. Four requests are still being processed. As regards the other figures requested by the Deputies, I will circulate a table in the Official Report.
All freedom of information requests received in the Department of the Taoiseach are processed by statutory designated officials in accordance with the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003. In accordance with the Acts, I have no role in processing individual applications.
Deputy Richard Bruton: Can the Taoiseach credibly say that policy decisions are being made in a better fashion since the Government destroyed the Freedom of Information Act in 2002 when it removed the opportunity for scrutiny of government decisions at the time, and shortly after, they were taken? Does the Taoiseach still believe that the smothering of public discussion on many important decisions has improved decision-making? Will he agree that we would be much better off if we had proper freedom of information disclosure in respect of decisions such as those on decentralisation?
Decentralisation was a disastrous decision which was ill-thought at the time. We would also be much better off if we had open discussions and information on the decisions concerning public sector benchmarking which were completely concealed. We would be much better off if we had open information about the failures of regulation in the banking system which we still do not know enough about.
An Ceann Comhairle: If I might tell the Deputy, this is a familiar theme. Questions relating to the Freedom of Information Act are in fact a matter for the line Minister, who happens to be the Minister for Finance. The questions the Taoiseach was asked relate to the requests received by his Department.
Deputy Richard Bruton: The Ceann Comhairle will understand there is much interest in how the Taoiseach of the time handled the decentralisation decision, a decision taken without any strategic plan or consultation with the line Departments affected or even the wider public. The idea of freedom of information was to have a degree of openness in respect of decision-making but this has been smothered. Does the Taoiseach agree with me that we need to rethink that so that better decisions are made in these crucial areas of public policy?
The Taoiseach: The question is about the factual information to what requests under the Freedom of Information Acts my Department received. It does not relate to a debate on the merits, or demerits as Deputy Bruton would see it, of the Acts.
During my tenure as Minister for Finance, I widened the number of agencies that came under the Act’s remit. Hundreds of State organisations are now required to work under the legislation, more than was the case when it was first enacted. Any objective assessment has shown the type of information made available by the legislation compares more favourably than that released in other freedom of information regimes, including that of the United Kingdom. If there are particular policy issues that Deputy Bruton has a problem with, I am sure he will find plenty of opportunities to air his views about them in other debates. However, I cannot help him on this particular question.
Deputy Richard Bruton: I acknowledge the Taoiseach widened the Act’s remit when he was Minister for Finance. However, that is because the Government created 250 new agencies. This was not a great breakthrough in far-seeing openness.
Does the Taoiseach believe we would be better off if we knew what advice was given to Ministers on, say, handling the property bubble or decentralisation? Will he agree this would lead to a more realistic public debate?
The Taoiseach: All I know is that if I had taken Deputy Bruton’s advice prior to the last election, we would be in an even worse economic situation now. He sought to increase the cost of housing by doing away with stamp duty.
There were many agencies that predated the last Government and even the establishment of the Freedom of Information Act which were brought under the aegis of the legislation when I was Minister for Finance, including the Garda Síochána and others. It is not accurate to claim the widening of the legislation only related to those agencies or offices set up to develop public services in recent years. There were many well-known State organisations that predated the legislation which now fall under its remit.
The Labour Party has two Private Members’ Bills on the Order Paper relating to freedom of information. One Bill proposes that the Freedom of Information Act should apply automatically to all public bodies unless there are compelling reasons for it not to, in other words, that the freedom of information process would apply automatically and the legislation would provide for exemptions, rather than the formula we have at present, whereby bodies must be added to the Freedom of Information Act.
The second Bill, in the name of Deputy Mary Upton, proposes that the number of years before State papers are transferred to the National Archives would be reduced from 30 to 15. Will the Taoiseach give favourable consideration to this idea?
The Taoiseach: To be helpful to the Deputy, as always, we can look at the merits or demerits — the pros and cons — of the approach that has been suggested when the Private Members’ Bills are debated during Private Members’ time.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Information Commissioner has called for all new State bodies to come under the ambit of the Freedom of Information Act. Will this apply to the national asset management agency? Is it the intention of the Taoiseach that NAMA would come under the Freedom of Information Act in line with the Information Commissioner’s recommendation that all State bodies would do so on their establishment?
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: With regard to another point the Information Commissioner has highlighted, namely, the poor record provision by a number of bodies that come under FOI, she instanced in particular Fingal County Council and its records in regard to Thornton Hall. Has the Department of the Taoiseach any specific role in ensuring record retention and information protection in advance of, or in the likelihood of, information being sought? Has it a role in ensuring this is retained carefully and responsibly in order that citizens can have access to critical information if and when the situation might present?
The Taoiseach: I am not aware that my Department has any specific role wider than looking after its own records. It is a matter for each agency or body which comes under the remit of the freedom of information legislation to have the necessary people involved and designated to deal with any queries that arise under the legislation and in accordance with its terms. I am not aware there is a wider responsibility on my Department beyond that.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: With regard to the Taoiseach’s first reply, if, as he indicated, he has an uncertainty as to his Department’s role, will he undertake to establish if there is any responsible party or Department in regard to the information preservation which I have referred to as being highlighted by the Information Commissioner? As I said, she has instanced bad practice. What Department, if any, will take up on the Information Commissioner’s raising of this matter in order to ensure best practice? I expect the Department of the Taoiseach employs best practice. What steps can be taken to ensure all of those who come under the rigours of the Freedom of Information Act aspire to at least the same standards the Taoiseach would no doubt expect in his own Department?
If an issue arose in the local authority system which the Information Commissioner felt was systemic, or if there was a problem getting the quality of information she felt should be available, it is a matter she would bring to attention in her annual reports for action by the Minister for Finance or whatever responsible Minster would be asked to look into the matter. The annual reporting mechanism by the Information Commissioner applies in respect of any specific complaints or ideas the Office of the Information Commissioner would have as to what would assist it in doing its job. The annual report is submitted to the Minister for Finance, who, I understand, would then have the obligation of taking up the matter with whatever responsible authority is involved.
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