O’Reilly calls for reform of FoI act

Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly has called on the Government to speed up election promises made to voters to introduce major reforms and extensions to freedom of information legislation.

She claimed both Fine Gael and Labour had traded on their vows to restore the FoI Act to its pre-2003 state when seeking support during last year’s general election campaign.

“They have talked the talk and now they need to walk the walk.”

However, Ms O’Reilly said she would be concerned if the proposed legislative changes were not introduced by the end of the year.

She expressed hope that the implementation of the proposed changes to FoI legislation would lead to “a new era of enlightened openness”. In addition, she welcomed plans to extend the FoI Act to a range of other public bodies including An Garda Síochána.

At the launch of her annual report in Dublin yesterday, Ms O’Reilly said the “acid test” would be if the Government introduced legislation this year which was as comprehensive as that promised in the Programme for Government.

The Coalition has vowed to reverse restrictions on the FoI Act introduced by the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats government in 2003, as well as to extend its remit to all bodies significantly funded from the public purse.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is examining the details of any proposed changes to FoI legislation.

However, Ms O’Reilly said she was not so naïve as to recognise there might be some “push back” from the Government’s original commitment made last year.

“It depends on the political will of individual ministers and the Cabinet collectively.”

Over the years, the information commissioner has repeatedly called for the extension of the FoI Act, to include bodies such as Nama, the National Treasury Management Agency, VECs, and An Garda Síochána.

Ms O’Reilly said significant questions would be asked if such bodies were not ultimately included in any extension of the act.

Asked if she would consider her own position if there was a watering down of promised changes, Ms O’Reilly said it was not her job to advocate for FoI legislation. However, she bemoaned the absence of a “political champion” for freedom of information reform.

The annual report showed 16,517 FoI requests were received by public bodies last year — an increase of 8%, which Ms O’Reilly said was likely to be partially due to the economic downturn and cutbacks in services as there was a large rise in the number of requests made to the Department of Social Protection.

Three quarters of all FoI requests were for personal information.

The HSE attracted the largest number of freedom of information requests, accounting for 37% of the total, followed by government departments and state bodies (33%).

Ms O’Reilly said 58% of all FoI requests were granted in full and a further 20% part-granted.

Just over 3.5% of all cases were the subject of an internal review, with 174 cases (1%) being appealed to the information commissioner.

No response

* A Cork-based provider of services to people with intellectual disability has been criticised by Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly over its failure to respond to repeated requests for records.

The Brothers of Charity Southern Services, based in Lota, Glanmire, Co Cork, did not co-operate with a standard request from the Office of the Information Commissioner for clarification on an issue.

Ms O’Reilly said she had to use her powers under section 37 of the Freedom of Information Act against the charity last year. She issued a notification to the Brothers of Charity on Feb 8, 2011, after her office had failed to get a response, despite contacting the charity twice by email, five times by post, and three times by phone. The Brothers of Charity failed to respond to this official notification.

After further contact from the commissioner, the charity’s chief executive, Una Nagle, replied and apologised for its failure to respond to the section 37 notification. She said the organisation’s FoI coordinator was on long-term absence, which resulted in the failure to reply to the correspondence.

— Seán McCárthaigh

Time lapse

* Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly has criticised Fáilte Ireland and Cork City Council for their handling of a freedom of information request relating to Diarmuid Gavin’s Sky Garden.

Under the act, a public body is required to notify an affected third party before making a final decision on whether or not exemptions should be overridden to release records in the public interest.

Ms O’Reilly said the consultation with Mr Gavin was not carried out within the two-week prescribed time limit in a number of applications about the council’s acquisition of the garden.

In one case, the council had sought a review of Fáilte Ireland’s decision to grant access to documentation which affected the interests of the local authority.

Ms O’Reilly said Fáilte Ireland failed to respond to the council within a 10-day limit. She also noted the council did not provide its submission to Fáilte Ireland within a three-week period specified in the legislation.

Ms O’Reilly decided to annul Fáilte Ireland’s decision. The tourism body had to deal afresh with the original request.

— Seán McCárthaigh and Eoin English


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