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Freedom of Information laws a waste of resources, says Cowen

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen claimed yesterday the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was being abused by long-winded requests.

However, FOI laws have recently helped journalists reveal the expenses incurred by John O'Donoghue as Arts, Sports and Tourism Minister and to uncover the scandals at FAS.

Mr Cowen said public servants were being forced to spend an inordinate amount of time "trawling through" files when they could be doing other work.

The Taoiseach's criticisms come in the wake of Information Commissioner Emily O'Reilly's ongoing concerns about the restrictions imposed on FOI laws. In her annual report she said the continued exemption of the gardai from the right-to-know laws had left Ireland out of kilter with the rest of the developed world.

However, yesterday Mr Cowen argued that the scheme was being misused.

"It is an expensive and time-consuming aspect of Government work," he told the Dail.

"I have no problem whatsoever with the legitimate use of the Freedom of Information Act for individual citizens or, indeed, for others,

"However, the idea of the department trawling every question that comes in from people who, perhaps, regard the departments of State as a source of generating information was not within the contemplation of the Freedom of Information Act and, to be honest; it is an abuse of the process," he added.

But Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said a lot of good and useful material had emerged through such requests.

Accountable

And Sinn Fein TD Caoimhghin O Caolain pointed out that such requests ensured bodies were publicly accountable.

Labour leader Eamon Gilmore asked if Mr Cowen would change the fee structure in light of his concerns and the state of the public finances.

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But the Taoiseach rejected this suggestion, insisting people should just act more responsibly.

He said there had to be a balance of client confidentiality against the need for principles of public accountability.

He pointed out that in 2006 the Government extended the scheme by including 137 additional bodies. This meant that over 520 bodies were now covered by the legislation compared to 67 when it initially came into operation during the first Rainbow coalition of 1998.


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