Freedom of Information - Act must be strengthened, not weakened

ACCESS to comprehensive and accurate information is a prerequisite for effective decision making and is the lubricant of good governance.

Access to nearly all public information is a prerequisite for assessing government policy or performance. This access is one of the core values that sustains representative democracy and it is an essential tool for keeping governments honest. These were the ambitions of those who enacted the Freedom of Information Act in 1997 but those ideals have yet to be realised.

The act was greatly reduced five years ago, doing enormous damage to our right to public information. It is as if access to the decisions taken on our behalf, to the workings of bodies set up to serve this society and the process involved in formulating public policy is a privilege, not a right.

The 2003 changes have been represented as the implementation of the recommendations of a high level review group (made up of top civil servants), though the amendments went well beyond what it recommended. This group conducted its review in secret and it did not seek public submissions. In plainer language, a cabal of Sir Humpreys met in secret, looked into their hearts, and decided what we should and should not know and their advice was used to curtail the act accordingly.

Amazingly new state bodies do not automatically have to comply with the act. If a citizen wants to ask, say the Road Safety Authority, a question it is not obliged to answer. Almost uniquely in Europe our police are not subject to the act — the PSNI is.

Unless you believe that the corruption and criminality revealed by Morris is confined to Donegal there is no good reason for the opt-out clause enjoyed by gardaí. If you are still unsure about the gardaí being covered ask yourself a question: how many cases taken against gardaí for assault or wrongful arrest have been settled on the steps of courthouses in, say, the past five years?

We don’t have a clue and have no way of finding out unless the gardaí tell us. They are unlikely “to comment on operational matters” because if they did we’d have an idea of how many guards have been bought out of trouble with taxpayers’ money.

In his annual report for 2007 data protection commissioner Billy Hawkes referred to what he regards as unwarranted intrusions into the privacy of ordinary people by the retention of mobile phone and internet records. Speaking at a conference yesterday to mark 10 years of the FoI Ms O’Reilly pointed out that “many of the measures that concern Billy Hawkes were introduced outside of any substantive parliamentary debate or ratification process and, if one were to seek access under FoI to records o ... this decision-making process, the records would most likely be refused under the amended section 24 of the FoI act.”

So, we can’t find out who or why — supposedly on our behalf — decided that our mobiles and our internet use were fair game for prying eyes. In a democracy this is unacceptable.

In the refreshing and powerful speeches in the days after he became taoiseach Brian Cowen celebrated family and community, saying he would put their needs at the centre of his policies. Part of safeguarding communities must be answering their legitimate questions.


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