Department sites giving wrong FOI information

Most government department websites still told the public yesterday that they must pay €15 for some freedom of information (FOI) requests — three weeks after the charges were dropped.

Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall has called on them and all other bodies covered by FOI law to put correct information on their sites.

Despite sponsoring the changes to FOI law that took effect on October 16, Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin’s department site said until this week that there was a fee for non-personal information requests. It posted updated information online after the Irish Examiner brought to its attention on Wednesday.

The FOI Act 2014 scrapped the initial fees that were introduced for requesting non-personal information by former finance minister Charlie McCreevy in 2003. But that was only after pressure on Mr Howlin who tried to amend the original bill and split some requests, allowing multiple €15 initial request fees to be charged. The charges for internal appeals and appeals to the Information Commissioner have been cut and a €500 upper limit is in place on charges for time spent finding requested records.

Up to yesterday afternoon, the web pages of the following departments still told visitors they must pay €15 for a non-personal information request: Agriculture; Arts, Heritage & Gaeltacht; Defence; Finance; Justice; Social Protection; Taoiseach; and Transport. So too did Irish Water, HSE, Revenue Commissioners, and Office of Public Works, among other public bodies.

The Department of Education’s FOI page is “currently being amended”, and a Frequently Asked Questions link on the Department of Communications FOI pages “is not available”. The Department of Agriculture site is being updated but listed €15 fees until yesterday afternoon, as did the sites of the Taoiseach’s, Arts, and Transport departments, which were all updated with correct fees information within hours of an Irish Examiner query to the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform.

The departments of Health and Environment sites correctly stated, before queries to DPER, that no FOI requests attract fees.

A spokesperson for Mr Tyndall said he understands that DPER is holding briefing sessions on the new act this month. “The Information Commissioner would urge all bodies subject to the FOI Act to ensure the information contained on its website concerning FOI is up-to-date and accurate,” said Mr Tyndall.

DPER said it told all FOI-covered bodies about the new fees regime as it took effect, and it is a matter for each of them to update their websites.

“Most requests are for personal information and there was no application fee for those requests [before the new act]. By and large, members of the public make personal requests,” it said.

Almost 4,000 — over one in five — of nearly 19,000 FOI requests last year were for non-personal information, incurring a €15 fee, or €10 for medical card-holders.

At a public service accountability conference yesterday, Mr Howlin said the new act extends FOI to all public bodies and is one of numerous reforms seeking to bring greater openness and transparency.

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