Open banks and semi-states to FoI, Howlin is urged

Pressure was piled on Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin to open up access to information for the public on bailed-out banks as well as semi-state bodies.

There were calls yesterday for Freedom of Information legislation to be applied to state-owned banks as well as companies funded by the exchequer.

Fees for FoI requests should also be abolished, TDs demanded of Mr Howlin.

The Labour minister was speaking on planned changes to FoI legislation which he said would be published during the forthcoming Dáil session.

The legislation allows members of the public and media access internal agency or department files and communications.

Oireachtas finance committee members yesterday called for transport and energy semi-state companies to come under the legislation.

Wicklow TD Stephen Donnelly said companies that had a monopoly, such as Irish Rail, should be included. Dublin South East’s Kevin Humphreys agreed and said this should also apply to semi-state companies such as Bord Gáis and Irish Water. Senator Seán Barrett also agreed.

Mr Howlin said public bodies that would now come under the changed legislation would partially be decided by the amount of public funding they received.

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett called for FoI legislation to beapplied to the banks.

He said there was now an appalling history of “cover-up and secrecy” in Ireland that needed to be abolished.

He questioned when the legislation would be applied to bailed out lenders.

The Dun Laoghaire TD said questions on public contracts could also be answered through FoI requests. He said some public bodies used the excuse of “commercial sensitivity” to block requests.

Several TDs called for FoI restrictions to be lifted for requests about Nama.

Committee chairman TD Ciarán Lynch requested that information held by gardaí on the quashing of penalty points should be released under the new legislation.

Mr Howlin replied that it was important to examine what was practical when changing FoI rules. He said exemptions applied for some bodies under similar legislation in Sweden, Canada and New Zealand.

There were situations where the public interest was “best protected” if information was not disclosed. He said this applied to commercially sensitive matters where state companies competed with private firms.

Under FoI changes planned, limited amounts of information will be made available from the gardaí, the Department of Defence, refugee agencies and judicial bodies for the first time.

Mr Howlin said that “restrictions” created in the law ten years ago would be corrected and there would be greater access to information.

Laois-Offaly TD Seán Fleming called for a limit on fees and said some retrieval cost quotes by agencies were for thousands of euro.

Mr Howlin said some 70% of FoI requests were made for personal reasons whereby no fees applied.

Figures showed the average charge for non-personal FoIs was €23, which was only 4% of the average actual retrieval costs, he said. Only 15% of non-personal FoI requests were from the media, he added.

He said that there were people who “stayed awake at night at their computer” just issuing FoI requests and that the fees system was “modest and appropriate”. But the minister did say he had plans to modify FoI appeal costs which were high.

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