Wednesday 21 March 2018

Government delays in reforming freedom of information challenged

Brian Hutton

IRELAND’S transparency watchdog has challenged the delay in Government promises to overhaul right-to-know laws.

Emily O'Reilly, the information commissioner, said Fine Gael and Labour both "traded" on their vows to reform freedom of information (FOI) legislation when asking voters to elect them.

Almost a year-and-a-half into office, the coalition still has not reversed Fianna Fail's amendments in 2003 which placed major restrictions on the accountability laws, a key commitment in the programme for government.

"I'm still waiting," said Ms O'Reilly.

"I think at this stage, to use an awful cliche, they have talked the talk and now they need to walk the walk."

Ms O'Reilly said there would need to be serious questions asked and soul-searching within the coalition partners if the promised reform was not brought in by the end of this year.

"I think two years is adequate time for that to be done," she said.

The information commissioner said the amendment curtailing the laws, which give the public greater access to information held by public bodies, took little time to implement.

"The manner in which public bodies behave is very much dictated by the mood music at the top - and if they sense that a government is favourable towards FOI and see it as a good thing, then they will take their cue accordingly," she said.

"So really the acid test will be whether or not we get legislation this year - I have no reason to believe we are not going to get it - and whether it is as comprehensive as was promised in the programme for government."

Launching her annual report, Ms O'Reilly warned there would be considerable "push back" from public bodies that have so far escaped scrutiny under the right-to-know laws.

Arguing for a restoration of public confidence in institutions, she has called for the Central Bank, the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) and the Garda to be opened up to information requests.

But Ms O'Reilly said the final decision would rest with the Cabinet.

"I think serious questions will have to be asked if significant bodies are not included in the act or are included in such a way that we can find out how many stamps they use in a week but not much else," she added.

The annual report revealed a rise in FOI requests last year, up 8pc from the previous year to 16,517.

Of these, 12,581 were for personal information.

The report shows FOI requests by journalists last year dropped to 11pc of the overall figure, down from 14pc in 2010.

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