O'Reilly hits out at 'secrecy culture'

THE Government's ongoing "culture of secrecy" in the operation of Freedom of Information legislation has been criticised by Information Commissioner Emily O'Reilly.

A report by the commissioner into the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act has highlighted how the Government has introduced 50 new non-disclosure provisions since it came into force in April 1997. These represent one-third of a total of more than 150 existing secrecy provisions.

Ms O'Reilly's comments follow her review of Section 32 of the FOI Act 1997 which allows State bodies to refuse access to certain records under separate legislation.

Ms O'Reilly said it was regrettable that there was a growing number of non-disclosure provisions contained in individual pieces of legislation. She also expressed concern at the erosion of the FOI Act in a piecemeal fashion by such legislation as well as the lack of consultation with her office about the inclusion of new non-disclosure provisions.

In her report, Ms O'Reilly said there was no doubt that the culture of secrecy within Government bodies "hinders the achievement of a simple, transparent and consistent approach".

She also said the existing FOI Act could be considerably strengthened by the creation of a new Non-Disclosure Act which would bring together all existing non-disclosure provisions under the one piece of legislation.

Such an act could also be used to provide legal protection for "whistleblowers" who divulge important information in the public interest, said Ms O'Reilly.

The report shows that the commissioner disagreed with the recommendation of Government departments on 41 of 113 occasions in relation to the inclusion or exclusion of a piece of legislation for non-disclosure purposes from a schedule in the FOI Act.

The report was submitted to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service last month.

The commissioner also welcomed the decision by Finance Minister Brian Cowen, announced last October, to extend the FOI Act to another 109 public bodies from next summer.

However, Ms O'Reilly expressed concern that several significant bodies remained outside the scope of the legislation. These include An Garda Síochána, the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, the Equality Tribunal, the Private Security Authority, the Central Bank and Financial Regulator as well as the Adoption Board, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, the Residential Institutions Redress Board and 33 VECs.

"For the FOI Act to have the greatest possible impact in promoting transparency and accountability in the public sector, it is necessary that it should apply to public bodies generally," said Ms O'Reilly.

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