Irish Commissioner Suggests Expansion of FOI Law

6 May 2011

Irish Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly May 3 issued her Annual Report for 2010, recommending that the scope of the law be expanded to cover more public bodies, including the administrative side of An Garda Síochána [the Irish government police force] and the biggest state-controlled financial institutions.

She also objected to recent cutbacks on the coverage of the FOI law.

She reported that there were 7 percent more requests (15,249) in 2010 over 2009 (20 percent compared with 2008). Her report is summarized in a news release and her address at a press conference.

“I am pleased to say that my views appear to be broadly consistent with the reform proposals of the Government insofar as I have been calling  for the FOI Act to include all public bodies and for the restrictions on the operation of the Act introduced in 2003 to be removed and the punitive fees regime to be overhauled”.

She noted the government’s intention to amend the act so as to include within its scope “all statutory bodies, and all bodies significantly funded from the public purse.”  She urged that this be expedited by way of Ministerial Regulation and that the other more complex reforms requiring an amending Act, should not delay the expansion of her remit to the new bodies.

Besides suggesting coverage of the policy forice, O’Reilly suggested the law apply to the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, the Office of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland, NTMA (including the State Claims Agency), the National Asset Management Agency (Nama), the Vocational Education Committees, the State Examinations Commission, the Residential Institutions Redress Board and the Central Applications Office.

“Exclusion of significant financial bodies such as the Central Bank, Nama and the NTMA denies the general public of its right as taxpayers, who shoulder the burden of the country´s debt, to try to get to the truth as to what happened” she stated.

The press release said that the information commissioner “pointedly” expressed her disagreement with the recommendation in the Report of the Independent Review Panel (also known as the “Wright Report”) entitled “Strengthening the Capacity of the Department of Finance”, which states:

“3.3.3 (10) The Panel strongly supports the public release of substantially more economic analysis by the Department. However, policy advice to the Minister for Finance in the preparation of the Government’s Budget should not be subject to release under Freedom of Information for at least five years”. 

The commissioner objected that some public bodies were being removed from the scope of the FOI Act “without her or her office being told or consulted.” These include: the enforcement functions of the Health and Safety Authority, the road safety functions now carried out by the Road Safety Authority and the functions of the Land Registry and the Registry of Deeds now performed by the Property Registration Authority.

Part II of the report for 2010 relates to her separate role as Commissioner for Environmental Information. It focuses on decisions made by her Office on appeals under the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations 2007, which is a separate statutory code from that which operates under FOI.

Media reports include one by RTE News, The Belfast Telegraph and another by The Irish Times.

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