THE Government was accused of “harbouring a culture of secrecy” after figures show the number of requests made under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act have almost halved since fees were introduced five years ago.
Fine Gael has called for the slashing of the charge for citizens seeking information from more than 500 public bodies, after the FoI annual report for 2007 showed requests have dropped by 43% since fees were introduced in 2003. The report shows that 10,704 requests were made in 2007, a drop of 1,100 or 10% on 2006 and a drop of 7,739, or 42%, since 2003. Just two-thirds of requests were granted last year while more than a tenth (12%) were refused, and about 5% were withdrawn by the applicant.
The withdrawals are likely to be made as a result of the charges which applicants are informed of after they have made a request for information. The standard fee is €15, but this can change depending on how much work is required by the state body to compile the information. An appeal costs €150. The HSE received 3,955 requests for information, more than all government departments put together. Of the HSE requests, more than a quarter were either refused or only party granted.
Just 439 requests were made to third-level education bodies, compared with 480 last year and represents a massive drop from 891 requests in the year before charges were introduced.
Local authorities received 1,300 requests, a slight drop from 1,381 in 2006.
Fine Gael’s finance spokesman Richard Bruton said the figures show “the urgent need for the scheme’s punitive fees to be slashed”.
“The freedom of information scheme was created in order to foster a culture of openness and transparency. Yet Fianna Fáil’s ill-advised decision to impose fees has seriously damaged the scheme and its effectiveness.
“The Government’s repeated claim that the fees discourage spurious applications is bogus and undermines the spirit in which the act was created. It reinforces the perception that Fianna Fáil is fostering a culture of secrecy at the heart of the state,” said Mr Bruton.
The Information Commissioner, Emily O’Reilly, has previously called for a review of the fees structure.
Mr Bruton said: “Fianna Fáil has also ignored repeated calls for the FoI Act to be extended to a swathe of bodies which are currently not covered, including An Garda Síochána, the Central Applications Office, the Adoption Board, the State Claims Agency, the Central Bank and the Financial Services Authority. The Information Commissioner has said there is no reason for these bodies not to be included in the FoI Act.”
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