Ministers’ FoI U-turn

Five Government ministers who had defended plans to ramp up Freedom of Information fee costs warned in 2003 that any payment for the requests would be a deliberate bid to “kill the bill”.

Oireachtas transcripts from a decade-old Dáil debate on the then Fianna Fáil/PD coalition’s plan to impose a €15 fee for FoI requests show Labour and Fine Gael figures deeply opposed the move.

However, 10 years on, the same officials were until yesterday defending plans to increase how much it costs to obtain public records, which often reveal otherwise hidden information.

The transcripts were first reported by Today FM. They show:

* Richard Bruton, now the jobs minister, said that “few members believe the [2003 introduction charge] will have anything to do with offering better government”.

* Joan Burton, now the social protection minister, said the policy “will be another way to choke off and kill the bill”.

* Pat Rabbitte, now the communications minister, said: “The Freedom of Information term is now a hollow one. The act should perhaps be renamed the ‘information we want you to have at a price act’. He added that the “fee is primarily intended to discourage requests”.

* Tom Hayes, now the junior agriculture minister, was most vocal on the 2003 move, claiming it “cannot be described as anything other than a new tax”.

Five years later, when Labour sought to rescind the 2003 charge, Alex White, now the junior health minister, said: “It is difficult to see how the change in fees in 2003 was motivated by anything other than a desire to deter people from making FoI applications.

“I accept there is a cost to the public purse in providing FoIs, but most entitlements we use come with a price tag. It is not good enough for a minister to point to the extraordinary cost or how onerous it is on us.”

Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin is currently seeking changes to the existing FoI Act. Among the plans mooted was to increase the cost of FoI requests. It was confirmed yesterday this will now be re-examined.

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