Govt accused over 'culture of secrecy'

The Government has created a culture of secrecy within public bodies by repeatedly trying to gag the Freedom of Information Act, it was claimed today.

The Government has created a culture of secrecy within public bodies by repeatedly trying to gag the Freedom of Information Act, it was claimed today.

The Labour Party, which introduced the legislation in the mid-1990s, vowed to extend its powers if elected into office.

Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly earlier called for the immediate inclusion of the Garda Siochana, the Adoption Board and the Central Bank under the remit of the Act.

Labour’s finance spokesperson Joan Burton accused Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats of doing everything possible to undermine the legislation since 2002.

“Despite having no mandate to do so and never having raised the matter in either party’s election manifesto, the government introduced amending legislation in 2003 which excluded whole areas of information to which the public had been entitled under the original Act,” she said.

“They then followed this up with massive increases in charges for applications under the Act. The whole impact of this has been to seriously undermine the value of the original legislation,” she added.

Ms O’Reilly, a former journalist, made her calls for a wider remit for the Act in an unpublished report to the Oireachtas Committee on Finance last week.

Ms Burton continued: “Ms O’Reilly quite properly points to the culture of secrecy that continues to surround many public bodies.

“It is significant that many of the bodies and areas that remain outside the remit of the Act come within the area of responsibility of the Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell.

“Almost ten years after the original Act came into operation, there is no excuse for the continued blanket exclusion of the gardai.

“Neither is there any excuse for the decision to exclude the new Private Security Authority or the reported plan to exclude the Office of the Garda Ombudsman.”

The Dublin WestTD claimed that the tampering with the Act by the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats Coalition would be one of the failures for which the administration will be most remembered for.

“The assault on the principle of freedom of information is one of the worst legacies of nine years of Fianna Fáil/PD government.”

Ms Burton said her party would allow the legislation to revert to what it was originally intended to do, if elected in a power-sharing government with Fine Gael at the next election.

“The Labour Party in government is committed to ensuring a return to the spirit of the original Act and the highest possible standards in regard to freedom of information,” she added.

The Green Party also accused the Government of ignoring transparency and criticised it for delaying the enactment of the Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill.

“I share the Ombudsman’s frustration. But I suspect that this Bill will not see the light of day before the next general election, as this is a government that wants for itself the right to choose what information it reveals and how, often in highly suspect ways,” finance spokesman Deputy Dan Boyle said.

He added that the administration was “smugly content with its previous gutting of Freedom of Information legislation, and callously indifferent to having to properly account for its activities, or for the activities of major state institutions.”

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