The Government is to scrap the €15 up-front fee for Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, under draft reform proposals.
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin is bowing to pressure and looks likely to abolish the €15 fee that was introduced in 2003 for all non-personal requests for information held by public bodies.
However, the fees move came with a sting which will see public bodies advised to make greater use of their powers to charge €20.95 per hour for searching for material.
The minister’s decision to abolish up-front fees was welcomed by the Information Commissioner, Peter Tyndall, who said the cost had acted as a disincentive to people wishing make requests.
The action ends a public argument which erupted last year when Mr Howlin tabled an amendment to the new Freedom of Information Bill that looked to impose charges for each separate item in a request.
A paper prepared by his department said this was not the best way to manage the nature of requests.
The costs’ announcement came in tandem with new guidelines from the department on how the overall scheme should operate.
The guidelines were drawn up with a view to removing uncertainty around the process and ensuring greater consistency among public bodies.
They also have looked to clear up recurring disputes in the interpretation of the legislation which have seen the appeals system slow to a near standstill in recent years.
The document said the information commissioner should consider singling out public bodies that perform well and do their job properly to encourage others to pull up their socks.
The guidelines quell some of the fears raised in the fees’ document which was also published by the department. This called for greater consistency among public bodies when it comes to charging for the work needed to find documents.
It said search and retrieval costs, of €20.95 an hour, were only applied in 5% of cases and “there was clearly scope for more effective use of search and retrieval fees to limit the volume of information sought”
The fees’ paper said Mr Howlin’s decision to withdraw his controversial amendment last year had provided the opportunity for a “root and branch” review of charging options.
It said it accepted there were benefits to the transparency brought about by allowing people to probe public bodies but this still cost money and needed to be controlled.
“Many examples can be highlighted where the use of FOI and the transparency it has engendered has played an important role in identifying and helping to prevent waste and inefficiency in the use of public funds.
The paper said rather than using a charge to stop requests coming in it the fees should be used to incentivised more focused requests.
This will mean that requests that take less than five hours will not be liable for a searching charge.
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