Howlin defiant on Freedom of Information Bill

Brendan Howlin defied media organisations and transparency advocates by pressing ahead with a controversial amendment to the new Freedom of Information Bill.

The public expenditure minister said the measure, which will allow public bodies to split up requests that are deemed to cover different topics, was needed to stop people cramming “manifestly separate” questions into a single request.

He appeared before the Dáil subcommittee on public expenditure yesterday and said the controversy had been surprising because newspapers had been slow to cover his previous developments in terms of the bill. He said, if there was to be a principle of an up-front fee for freedom of information requests, it would be undermined if people could ask many different questions for the one €15 cost.

He did not address the income he expected to generate or the volume of requests likely to be affected.

Fianna Fáil’s Sean Fleming said the problem with his amendment was how it would be interpreted.

He said it would allow organisations to tell freedom of information applicants that certain information was held in different sections of an organisation. This would thwart requests, he said.

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly said prominent transparency advocates and the National Union of Journalists had raised grave concerns about the amendment.

He said these views should be considered before the bill could be discussed at committee stage. But the minister had instead decided to press ahead with his own agenda.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Howlin’s decision to introduce an 11th hour amendment, which had never been mooted during an extensive consultation process, made a mockery of the legislative process.

Mr Howlin said he was reducing appeal charges, capping the amount of search and retrieval costs that can be levied and giving two hours’ free searching for every request.

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