12 November 2013
Transparency International Ireland (TI Ireland) has criticised the introduction of last-minute amendments that would severely weaken the Freedom of Information (FOI) regime. It is concerned that proposed new fee rules will significantly raise the cost of FOI applications and serve as a major deterrent against requests for information by investigative journalists and public interest organisations.
The Government’s proposed late stage amendments to the FOI Bill 2013 will be discussed by a subcommittee of the Oireachtas finance committee today. These would see the introduction of additional up-front fees for requesters seeking a variety of information in one application. Other proposed changes could also lead to increased search and retrieval fees.
‘There is no economic case for FOI fees. The argument that FOI costs too much to administer ignores the reality that the information revealed by use of FOI in the public interest over the past decades has saved the taxpayers millions,’ said TI Ireland’s Research Manager, Nuala Haughey.
‘Ireland is unique in Europe and virtually the world in charging up-front application fees for FOI in the first place. The current government promised to restore the damage done to FOI by the last administration but has failed to fully live up to this Programme for Government pledge. These latest and last minute proposals only add insult to injury and undermine the government’s wider commitments to open government.’
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. In addition, ensuring investigative journalists are freely able to access information is recognised as a deterrent to corruption and fraud in public office, and as a means of exposing serious wrongdoing. Yet, Ireland is the only EU member state to force the public to pay for non-personal information under FOI.
In 2009 the estimated administrative costs of operating FOI was €6.9million. These costs are far outweighed by the increased economic efficiencies from more transparent decision making.
FOI has saved the taxpayer millions of euros over the life of the legislation. Some of the savings that FOI has brought include:
- The closure of the FAS Science Challenge programme following a Sunday Independent FOI inquiry which revealed extravagant spending on foreign trips. The programme had been costing at least €1.2 million a year.
- The shelving of the ‘Bertie Bowl’ Campus and Stadium Ireland project in Abbotstown, Co Dublin in 2001 following an FOI request by Frank McDonald of The Irish Times. A pet project of then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the stadium would have cost tax payers up to €1bn.
- The introduction of a new political expenses regime in March 2010 which has saved close to €2 million annually. (Projected out-turn for expenses in 2012 was €11.84 million compared to €13.72 million for 2009, the last full year under the old regime). This came about following a long series of FOI-related articles in the Sunday Tribune and other newspapers which revealed the scale of expenses claimed by the Minister for Tourism Mr John O’Donoghue.
Both the OECD and the Council of Europe''s anti-corruption body, GRECO, have criticised up-front fees for FOI applications as barriers to public information.
Ireland recently announced plans to join the Open Government Partnership (OGP) a global initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.
‘You can’t have open government without full and unimpeded citizen access to information. Many will see Ireland’s membership of the OGP as window dressing if the Government’s proposals are enacted,’ added Ms Haughey.
Media contact: TI Ireland office: 01-871 9434