MATT COOPER: Additional freedom of information charges would have cost us all dearly

Brendan Howlin's U-turn on proposed Freedom of Information amendments are a welcome climbdown.

POLITICIANS hate being forced by public pressure to change their minds, in case it is regarded as weakness. So, they plough on obstinately with an announced course of action, even though they know that it is wrong, and though they are attracting enormous criticism.

Politicians do change their minds, but usually quietly and they deny outside influence. So Brendan Howlin’s climbdown on his proposal to allow public servants to demand multiple fees to facilitate on freedom-of-information requests was unusual and praiseworthy.

He still deserves criticism for trying to bring increased FoI charges into law. Here is what happened: last Friday, quietly, Howlin, as the responsible minister, slipped amendments into the FoI legislation (he had announced the legislation in July). The amendments would have allowed public officials in receipt of requests under FoI to say that a standard €15 application fee would not cover all of the cost of their work.

The wording of the amendments was tortuous. Any request that is “made up of two or more parts seeking separate and distinct information relating to functions and responsibilities carried out by different functional areas of the FoI body… the requester shall be required to pay a further fee”.

Here’s the rub: Public bodies would have been able to argue that requests of more than one part (so-called multi-faceted requests) that had to go to different parts of the same organisation would be treated as different requests requiring individual charges.

A reporter for this newspaper estimated that one of his requests would have cost €2,000. By arguing that a request was in fact a series of requests, the public body would be able to dissuade the journalist from asking legitimate questions.

Howlin argued that a code of conduct would ensure that public servants did not evade their responsibilities, but many of us were sceptical about adherence and enforceability.

The leader of Howlin’s Labour Party, Eamon Gilmore, proved again that he is a victim of the political equivalent of Stockholm syndrome, whereby politicians in power do what is asked of them by their captors in the public service.

Gilmore alleged that there had been attempts to “get round” freedom of information by including multiple queries in one request. “I think it’s reasonable that a reasonable charge is paid, where there are multiple requests and where very considerable resources sometimes have to be mobilised in government departments and state agencies to respond to the FoI request,” he said.

Many other countries don’t charge for freedom-of-information requests. The fee encourages journalists to ask all questions together, rather than having to come back at extra cost. The journalist may also need more than one document.

Howlin claimed the late amendment was minor and should not distract from what he described as groundbreaking legislation. He and his colleagues seemed shocked that anybody, other than some journalists, a few academics, and a smattering of oddballs, cared. It is not hard to imagine the Government’s public servants and advisers saying this would be a non-issue: “What did ‘freedom of information’ ever do for the ordinary citizen, except waste the valuable time of important public servants? There are more important things to be dealt with: a country to be run and no money to be wasted on indulging frivolous requests for information, just to suit a few journalists who want to keep public servants occupied with this work, instead of the better things they have to do. All to the benefit of troublemakers and naysayers, who then twist what they’re given, just to make a few headlines, irrespective of whether or not the information does the reputation of the State any good.”

Some readers may be unimpressed by what you consider self-indulgent, self-interested arguments from an unelected hack posturing about serving the public interest by snooping around in the Government’s affairs. We were so ungrateful, weren’t we, disbelieving the Government when it said it was giving us a Freedom of Information Bill that would be superior, even better than the original, which was diluted so cynically by Charlie McCreevy in 2003?

As it happens, the critics were right. Advocates, such as Gavin Sheridan of thestory.ie, an excellent website that has made innovative and excellent use of FoI, investigative correspondent Conor Ryan of this newspaper, freelance journalist Gerard Cunningham, solicitor Simon McGarr, and the National Union of Journalists (using cases compiled by journalist Ken Foxe) made compelling cases that what the Government was trying to do was wrong. On Monday and Tuesday, I used my radio programme to support them.

They were supported by Transparency International, Open Access Europe and the Open Knowledge Foundation Ireland. Transparency International argued that the amendments would make FoI “prohibitively expensive and, therefore, in large parts, unworkable, unjust, and contrary to the intent of the concept of freedom of information”.

It also argued that “access to information is regarded as a fundamental human right. It also affords the public the opportunity to see how government decisions are made, and makes for better-informed voters”.

CAN we afford to indulge journalists making FoI requests? There is evidence that the issues highlighted by journalists, leading to public controversy, have resulted in massive savings to the State. In the late 1990s, a campaign of requests by The Sunday Tribune resulted in the publication of all political expenses, causing outrage and leading to major changes in the amounts and means of payments.

In 2002, documents released under FoI revealed how the government had misled the electorate over public spending prior to that year’s election. This was a major factor in Charlie McCreevy’s decision to clamp down on the availability of information, which this Government is now reversing. Even in restricted circumstances, journalists like Foxe were able to reveal stories, such as the extent of John O’Donoghue’s behaviour as ceann comhairle. Ryan has revealed much about expenditure within semi-state companies.

Everybody in this country has benefited from the media’s use of the Freedom of Information Act. So why did Howlin introduce this idea and then withdraw it? The guess must be that the former happened under the influence of public servants. The latter was caused by the unexpectedly large public outcry and the repeated reference, not just to the promises made in the Labour manifesto for the 2011 general election, but to the Programme for Government. Labour has had few political wins in government without turning its reform of FoI (which is welcome, but could be better) into a self-inflicted defeat. It didn’t need to make the media even more cynical about its inability to live up to its promises.

Maybe the media should shout more loudly about other issues, and maybe government should execute more u-turns, but, at least on this issue, Howlin has backed off from doing something that would have been damaging to the public interest.

* The Last Word, with Matt Cooper, is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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