Howlin puts controversial FoI reform plan on hold

Brendan Howlin said he would reintroduce the measure at a later stage; Mary Lou McDonald said an upfront FoI fee was wrong.

Brendan Howlin, the public expenditure and reform minister, has put on hold a controversial attempt to change the way Freedom of Information requests are dealt with by public bodies.

He said that following a surprising volume of criticism of his 11th hour amendment, he accepted there was potential for his intentions to be misinterpreted.

Mr Howlin’s unexpected change to the bill would have allowed public bodies to split up complex requests and charge additional €15 fees for each part of the request that is deemed to be distinct.

This proposal, which only emerged last week, was met with almost blanket criticism from opposition deputies, transparency advocates, and the media.

Mr Howlin said given the controversy, there was a danger the spirit of the bill would be compromised by the misinterpretation of his amendment.

He said he acknowledged people had genuine concerns that individual decision-makers could misinterpret the amendment as a means of putting additional charges on those legitimately seeking information.

He told the Dáil subcommittee on public expenditure he wanted to withdraw the measure to allow his officials the opportunity to redraft it. He said it would be reintroduced at the next stage of the legislative process but with a clearer wording.

“I am committing to have the legal draft of the provision reviewed and have revised to ensure that there can be no doubt, no confusion, or no misinterpretation capable [of happening],” he said.

Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming said Mr Howlin showed courage by admitting he was wrong.

“I am pleased that the minister has agreed to listen to common sense and to complete a U-turn,” he said.

Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Howlin had accepted that the measure was intended as an exercise in “demand management” rather than an amendment to genuinely offset the cost of Freedom of Information.

She said she opposed the principle of fees and asked Mr Howlin to think again about his insistence on having an upfront fee for applicants. “I think it is wrong. I think it is going against your stated position of openness and open government,” she said.

People before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett said there was no way Mr Howlin could draft a bill that would allow for the separation of FoIs as being distinct, even if they covered a multitude of issues, if they fell under the single theme of ensuring the proper administration of a public body.

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly said he welcomed the move.

Mr Howlin said he would reintroduce the measure at report stage.

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