Irish News

Thursday 21 August 2014

'Bastions of secrecy' attacked

Published 07/05/2014 | 14:02

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Peter Tyndall took over from his predecessor Emily O'Reilly last December

Ireland's new Ombudsman has attacked bastions of secrecy inside the public service who he said were resisting right-to-know laws.

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Peter Tyndall, who took over from his predecessor Emily O'Reilly last December, said some public servants - who grew up in "the old days" - were holding out against moves towards openness.

The information commissioner, who is charged with overseeing freedom of information (FOI), also voiced his fears about public services escaping scrutiny because they had been handed over to private operators.

Launching his first annual report since taking over the the role, Mr Tyndall said great strides had been made to prise open secretive taxpayer-funded bodies in Ireland but there was still some way to go.

"My observation would be that there are bastions of secrecy - but they are small," he said.

"The majority of organisations are very co-operative with us."

He added: "I think there are still some people who were brought up in the old days where the culture of secrecy prevailed."

Mr Tyndall, a former public services ombudsman for Wales, said legislation tweaking the freedom of information laws was significant but that it could go further in future.

He also demanded the scrapping of charges to request information from public bodies.

An expansion of the right-to-know laws, being debated by the Oireachtas, will see the Garda, the Central Bank, the National Assets Management Agency (Nama) and the National Treasury Management Agency opened up to more public scrutiny for the first time.

Mr Tyndall said some would be disappointed that the new powers did not go far enough, citing certain Garda records as not coming under the scope of the expansion.

But he revealed his main worry about the FOI overhaul was the number of public services which would escape examination because they had been handed over to private companies.

"My view would be that all public services - regardless of who provides them - should be within the scope of the FOI legislation," he said.

"I think this (new legislation) is a very significant step forward, I think there is a prospect in future of going further."

Mr Tyndall added: "My bigger concern about the scope is the fact that there are bodies who are not going to be in jurisdiction because services have been privatised, which should I think be brought into jurisdiction in future.

"To use as an example, the privatisation of things like waste collection.

"There is still a significant interest in those as a public service so I think there are issues where things have gone beyond the public sector but where they are still public services."

The Ombudsman said fees to make an FOI request were clearly detrimental, which had dramatically slashed the number of people seeking information.

"In line with what my predecessor said I would also support the removal of fees entirely," he stated.

Some 83% of FOI requests last year were either fully or partially granted, while 9% were refused - for a variety of reasons.

Referring to problems with the National Maternity Hospital, the commissioner said: "In one instance, I think we were told that the person responsible for the records had locked them in a press, had the key to the press and was off on long-term sick (leave)."

Originally from Dublin, Mr Tyndall was also chief executive of the Arts Council of Wales, and head of education and culture for the Welsh Local Government Association.

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