‘Still a lot of work to do’ on new FOI Act, says Ombudsman
MEMBERS of the public will be able to obtain more information on NAMA and the Central Bank through the FOI Act – but the amount of information they get will still be limited.
New proposals for changes to the FOI Act are currently being examined.
The government has lived up to their promises in terms of reversing the changes that were made ten years ago by the Fianna Fail government, says Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, and also by extending the FOI Act to cover all public bodies whereas before it will be restricted.
But “the devil will be in the detail,” she says.
“Obviously I think it is a good move for the sake of openness and transparency and for Irish citizens that these bodies, particularly financial bodies which are so critical to us at the moment, fall under the FOI remit.
“But until the requests are coming and are dealt with at the first stage, through my office or through appeal through the courts, we will not be able to realise the extent of it.”
In achieving these amendments, the Ombudsman believes that Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin “had to fight quite a battle with his own colleagues”, and perhaps with sources from the Gardai and the affected financial agencies in order to get it the changes made.
“I’d imagine compromises were being reached as regards the release of records being applicable largely to administrative matters and so on,” she says, adding, “There are certain restrictions in relation to the Gardai, for example, and I think this would have been part of the compromised process.”
Further to these limitations, Ombudsman O’Reilly believes that, despite the current amendment being a “very progressive move”, there may still be agencies that should included in the FOI remit. “All public bodies are to be encompassed by this but some bodies that are essentially private yet are funded largely by the taxpayer should come under the remit aswell,” she says.
“There is still a lot of work to do to actually define and drill down how much taxpayers’ money has to be going to particular organisations before it would come under the FOI regime.”
The Ombudsman says she welcomes the fact that FOI request fees have been reduced, but warns, “The language around this bill speaks to a regime where the impetus is for openness and transparency – I think it quite another matter to see how it is translated into practice.”