Tuesday, 21 June 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
The procedures for dealing with freedom of information requests in my Department follow the guidelines set out in the Department of Finance’s Decision-Makers Manual. The functions of general examination, primary decision-making and internal review are carried out by statutory designated officials, as envisaged in the Acts, and I have no role whatsoever in any of these processes. I am satisfied that the processes being followed by my Department in relation to the freedom of information provisions comply with the manual and I do not propose to change them.
The programme for Government undertakes to restore freedom of information provisions to what they were before the 2003 Act. The Minister for public expenditure and reform is following through with the necessary reforms and any changes brought to the attention of the Government by the Minister will be implemented by my Department, with all others.
Deputy Micheál Martin: I am not in any way questioning the capacity of the Department to administer the Freedom of Information Acts; that is not the angle I am pursuing in this question. The Taoiseach referred to the relevant commitment in the programme for Government and the election manifestos of the two Government parties make specific promises in terms of increasing openness and accountability. However, the evidence thus far is that we are going backwards. For some years it has been the practice of key Departments to publish background documents on-line, thereby reducing the need for people to use the freedom of information provisions. Most other Departments published briefing materials from March, but the Department of the Taoiseach did not do so. Will the Taoiseach explain why this was not done? In addition, there has been a reversal of the policy to publish the advisory documents prepared on all tax measures.
In essence, because of the changes within the Department of the Taoiseach which are moving it towards becoming almost a Cabinet secretariat, the Department will be far less accountable. In the past it was more open to ensuring freedom of information in terms of how it was structured, but by converting it into a type of Cabinet secretariat, the Taoiseach is cutting off the scope for many questions Deputies could have asked in the normal course of Dáil business. That may not be the intention or design, but it is the outcome. In other words, information will be covered by the principle of Cabinet confidentiality under the Department’s new configuration and the majority of its work will be almost cut off from public or parliamentary oversight. Is the Taoiseach satisfied with this development? How does it dovetail with the commitment in the programme for Government regarding increased accountability, openness and transparency, including greater oversight by Parliament?
The Taoiseach: I thank the Deputy for his observations. I would be grateful if he conveyed to me examples of where he has found the Department restrictive in publishing information that would normally have been available. As a general principle, the changes we are making in the way business is done in this House are designed to ensure Deputies who ask questions are given thorough and full information. One of the problems with Members asking questions about the Freedom of Information Acts is that they are often not specific enough in the information they wish to acquire.
I take the Deputy’s point on the provision of background documentation. Cabinet confidentiality is a constitutional requirement, as is confidentiality in so far as Cabinet committees are concerned. However, in respect of the provision of background information, I will certainly be happy to respond to the Deputy if he can give me some examples of where he has found that information normally provided is in some way being constrained. There is nothing to hide in this instance and it is my intention that every Deputy who asks a question will be given full and appropriate information as part of the normal course of business in the House.
Deputy Gerry Adams: The Taoiseach stated that people needed to know what the Government is doing and promised to restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before Fianna Fáil undermined it agus nuair a bhí Fianna Fáil in oifig, bhíodh an Taoiseach ag tabhairt amach faoin slí ina raibh siad ag leanúint ar aghaidh.
Deputy Gerry Adams: I put a question to the Department of Health under the freedom of information legislation and got back the redacted document I have to hand. This is not a way in which to go about business, which in this case pertains to the crisis regarding junior doctors. The Taoiseach also promised to extend the remit to the administrative side of An Garda Síochána. Does the Government intend to review the operation of the Freedom of Information Act or is a review planned?
I bring the Taoiseach’s attention back to the document I have to hand, especially because he has just stated that Deputies should be able to get information. This document I have to hand refers to how the italicised and bolded material should not be released and is exempt under sections 20(1) and 21(1)(c) of the Freedom of Information Act and then repeats that.
The Taoiseach: As for the Freedom of Information Act in general, the programme for Government states the Government intends to restore it to what it was before 2003 when changes were made to it. While sitting across the floor in the seat now occupied by Deputy Martin, I often asked questions about how, even when cases were referred to the appeals process, the charge on them always applied, even when the appeal was allowed. This should be changed and if someone takes the opportunity or time to go through the process of appealing a freedom of information request that was turned down and if the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner states it should be allowed, the charge for so doing should be dropped. However, this is being pursued by the Minister with responsibility for public expenditure and reform. As for dealing with the administrative side of An Garda Síochána, that is the subject of discussions between the aforementioned Minister and the Minister for Justice and Equality.
The Deputy should be aware the troika is watching all the time and the Government genuinely has an extremely strict guideline for introducing legislation with far-reaching effects that are timelined. This has put enormous pressure on the resources of the Office of the Attorney General to comply with those strict conditions, which the Government intends to meet. From that perspective, the pressure to bring through all legislative items in parallel simply does not stand up. One must prioritise and, as I am sure the Deputy will appreciate, some complex legislation simply must be met in respect of the timeline. However, the Minister is pursuing those matters concerning a review of the Freedom of Information Act and the changes the Government intends to introduce, as well as regarding the administrative side of An Garda Síochána together with the Minister for Justice and Equality.
Deputy Gerry Adams: If I understood the Taoiseach properly, does this mean that if a Teachta Dála like me, a humble servant of the people, stands up in this Chamber and asks a question, the freedom of information request can be redacted because the troika is watching?
The Taoiseach: No, not at all. My point is the proposal in the programme for Government to restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before 2003 cannot be dealt with as expeditiously as I would wish, simply because of the pressure arising from the requirement to introduce other legislative items that are timelined. In other words, they must be introduced by a certain date to comply with the conditions that have been signed off in respect of the EU-IMF bailout deal. It has nothing to do with freedom of information. The Government has a particular problem in that quite a number of legislative items must be processed and drafted. The heads of those Bills must be approved, they must come before the Government to be approved and then come through both Houses to be passed within certain timelines. Obviously, the month of August is a time when those who are involved in drafting legislation take their holidays. While the Dáil will come back earlier than previously, the Government must produce, process and have passed quite a number of Bills that are required if it is to meet the conditions that have been signed off in respect of the troika. This is the only reference I wish to make to that.
Deputy Micheál Martin: My question is related to the application of the Act to the Taoiseach’s Department. My essential point is that in the past questions and requests on economic and social issues were answered by the Taoiseach in a fully open way. By converting much of his Department into a Cabinet secretariat, particularly with regard to economic and social issues, whether by design or otherwise, the impact will be to cut off much of its work from parliamentary and public oversight. We need to work out how we can ensure parliamentary oversight is not undermined by the new arrangements and structures within the Department, particularly with regard to the issue of Cabinet confidentiality and how these issues are dealt with in Cabinet sub-committees. The Taoiseach asked for some examples and details of how the Department is restrictive. I refer to the jobs initiative as being a classic illustration of the point I am making. Despite repeated requests, no background material has been provided for me.
The Taoiseach: On a point of clarification, I am not turning the Department of the Taoiseach into a Cabinet secretariat. It will operate as a Cabinet secretariat, but it retains its functions and constitutional position. However, it is important as a driver for implementing Government policy by co-ordination through the Cabinet sub-committee system and with all Ministers, whom I meet on a regular basis.
The jobs initiative was focused on by the Government without background material because providing jobs at a time when there is an unemployment rate of more than 14% has to be a priority for any Government. It is not a case of having a certain number of boxes filled with background material on jobs initiatives. Any politician, any public representative, can provide ideas which are backed up by information from the relevant sectors on how jobs might be created. In order to pay for the creation of these jobs, the Deputy will be aware that the Government imposed a four year levy on the pensions industry which will kick in from 1 July. I hope the thousands of jobs involved in upskilling and retraining and the schools and roads maintenance programmes, as well as those generated in the tourism and hospitality sectors will bring about a restoration of confidence in the short term.
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