Barriers to FoI are ‘damaging democracy’

BARRIERS being put in the way of freedom of information (FoI) requests are part of a culture of state secrecy that is damaging the country’s democracy and economic development, according to independent think-tank Tasc.

In his study – An Economic Argument for Stronger Freedom of Information Laws in Ireland – Nat O’Connor found evidence that the FoI request fees’ regime implemented by the Government may cost more to administer than it generates.

He argues that the fees regime, imposed in 2003 with a minimum charge of €15, “is likely to pose a real barrier to ordinary citizens seeking non-personal information”.

The report estimates that the overall administrative costs of operating Ireland’s FoI regime is €6.9 million, and would be far outweighed by the material benefits of greater transparency.

Mr O’Connor said: “The fees themselves cost more money to administer than if you didn’t have the fees.

“Most public bodies get less than 20 FoI requests, many get less than five, so they’re getting around €300 max and, by the time they go through the process of accounting that money, it really makes nonsense of any economic agreement for gathering such a small sum. Just having a fees regime creates work,” Mr O’ Connor said.

He added that the purpose of a fee would seem to be to create a barrier to entering the FoI process.

“Its not logical. Certainly the two official explanations that it is cost-recovery doesn’t stand up, the second is that it deters abuse but again it doesn’t stand up because the FoI act itself allows for the refusal of requests that are onerous on a department or take up too much time,” Mr O’Connor said.

These barriers being placed on the use of FoIs are placed within a wider culture of state secrecy, which is dealt with in a second Tasc report published yesterday, The Role of Access to Information in Ireland’s Democracy.

This report found that measures surrounding such issues as “cabinet confidentiality” are much stricter in Ireland than other OECD states.

On parliamentary committees, and others, access to government working and technical and advice papers Ireland lags well behind any other OECD country.

According to the report the barriers in the way of accessing such documents “puts the Oireachtas closer to the experience of parliaments in authoritarian countries rather than modern democracies”.

Commenting on the publications, TASC head of policy, Sinéad Pentony, said: “Secret government, hidden information and blanket confidentiality are all inextricably linked to costly decisions which could be avoided if more people knew about them sooner.”

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