Government ‘encouraging a culture of secrecy’

THE Government was yesterday accused of encouraging a culture of increasing secrecy in its restrictive application of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.

Green Party chief whip Dan Boyle said that a recent unpublished critical report by Ombudsman and Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly, and restrictions and charges introduced in 2003, had made a mockery of the concept of Freedom of Information.

Mr Boyle claimed that the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats coalition was disposed to the notion of a secretive government.

“It’s a ‘what we have we hold’ attitude in relation to releasing information. They have applied a very narrow definition to the act instead of allowing a system that allows a citizen to access information as of right.

“Even for TDs asking parliamentary questions, the relevant information sought is rarely given. We are told that we had not been asking the right question.”

In the unpublished report, Ms O’Reilly criticised the Government’s failure to include agencies such as An Garda Síochána, the Adoption Board and the Central Bank under the aegis of the FoI Act.

She said that, as yet, no time frame had been given for their inclusion, and she asked for the new Garda Ombudsman Commission to be covered by the act.

Ms O’Reilly queried why she had not been informed by the Department of Finance - which oversees the operation of the FoI Act - that some of the activities of the Health and Safety Authority had been made exempt from FoI.

Her case was taken up by Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming who described the reply from Finance to her query as a “smart alec response”.

Mr Fleming, the chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Finance, said the committee would examine the issue in February.

A spokesman for the department said Finance Minister Brian Cowen would not be responding to Ms O’Reilly’s reported criticisms. However, he pointed out that the number of bodies covered by FoI had increased from 67 to over 500 since the present coalition came to power. He said the number of requests to Finance had increased from 78 in 2004 to 93 in 2005.

The latest overall figures available - covering the year 2004 - show that the number of requests fell by almost a third in that year since then Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy introduced fees in mid-2003.

The Seventh Report on Freedom of Information, released yesterday, shows that 12,600 FoI requests were made in 2004, compared to over 18,400 the previous year. The number of requests made by journalists in 2004 fell from 13% to 7% of the total.

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