Irish Minister Changes Course on FOI Request Fees

15 November 2013

Irish Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has partially retracted his controversial proposal to raise fees for freedom of information requests.

Although portrayed as a “U-turn” in the Irish press, it remains to be seen how far Howlin has moved.

Howlin had proposed to charge €15 for each “separate and distinct” query contained in a single FOI request.

This aroused considerable opposition. (See Gavin Sheridan article reprinted earlier this week in FreedomInfo.org.) (The Story blog has a variety of posts on the debate, including one that includes a list of which countries don’t charge upfront  fees.)

The minister Nov. 12 said he would drop the multiple charge idea, but he wants to require a €15 payment for each FOI request, according to media reports. A replacement amendment has not been tabled.

“The announcement was tactical,” commented one close observer. He predicted the bill will be redrafted to permit the government  to “split” requests containing multiple parts, accomplishing the same purpose.

Howlin said there had been “confusion and misrepresentation” about the proposal. “The conclusion that Government drew was that maintenance of fee was required for time being to ensure the administrative system had the capacity to effectively and efficiently manage the demand for FOI,” he was quoted as saying in the Irish Independent. He said processing requests costs an average of €600.

Opposition leaders said they oppose any fees, as do a number of domestic and international nongovernmental organizations that criticized the fees plan, saying it violates international standards.

The fees proposal came in the context of a larger package amendments proposed to the Irish FOI law, many considred to be positive. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) The Oireachtas Finance Committee is discussing the FOI and is expected to act before Christmas.

Request fees and other charges have existed for 10 years. The current rates are: €15 per request, €75 per internal  review, €150 per information commissioner appeal, €20.95 an hour search and retrieval.

A second change suggested by Howlin, according to an Irish Times article “centres on new rules already proposed by the Government which will impose a €500 cap on fees for the search and retrieval of records.”

“I’m proposing . . . to retain the €500 cap on search and retrieval fees, but to remove the provision allowing a public body to refuse the request on the basis that that the search and retrieval costs to the body would be above €500,” Howlin was quoted as telling the subcommittee.

The €15 charge will cover two hours of work to respond to deal with the request, with additional work costing up to €20 per hour.

Fees Not the Norm

The only other European country which permits such charges is Malta, but these are not routinely applied, according to a letter from Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe, based on data captured in their Global RTI-Rating website. “Even counting Malta, only 5% of 39 European countries and 16 of 95 countries worldwide (17%) charge fees, something campaigners in many of these countries are working to abolish. The problem is exacerbated by the high level of the Irish fee which, at €15, is higher than the fee charged in any other country that we are aware of.”

The two groups also “called on Minister Howlin to do away with fees for search and retrieval of information.”

They wrote:

 Arguments justifying the charging of costs other than photocopying and postage charges are flawed on three grounds. First, information held by public authorities belongs to the public, having been created with taxpayers’ money. Second, the cost of responding to requests is heavily correlated with the efficiency of public bodies’ record management systems; it is not appropriate to pass this on to members of the public exercising their right to know, which effectively rewards poor record management practices. Third, charging high fees exerts a significant chilling effect on making requests, and there are strong public interest arguments against this, due to the significant benefits which flow from transparency. There is also the importance in a democracy of the public knowing what its government is doing, something which it is impossible to put a price tag on.

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