Friday 19 January 2018

Howlin backs down on fees for Freedom of Information queries

Brendan Howlin
Brendan Howlin
Michael Brennan

Michael Brennan

PUBLIC Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has backed down on his controversial proposal to charge multiple times for Freedom of Information requests.

Transparency watchdogs had complained that his plan to charge €15 for each separate query in a single Freedom of Information (FOI) request would act as a deterrent to community groups and journalists.

Mr Howlin has now withdrawn the proposal and is giving a guarantee that multiple questions in a FOI request about the same issue will only attract a €15 charge.

"It's very important that the huge leap in FOI in Ireland that is advanced by this bill is not overshadowed by uncertainty or lack of clarity," he said.

However, Mr Howlin's revised amendment will still impose multiple charges of €15 when a single FOI request contains questions on several unrelated issues.

And while this will cover two hours of work by a public body to deal with the request, any further work will cost up to €20 per hour.

At the Oireachtas Finance Committee, Mr Howlin insisted that he was only withdrawing the amendment on multiple charges because there had been "confusion and misrepresentation" about its true purpose. And he rejected a charge from Fianna Fail TD Sean Fleming that it was a "U-turn", saying that it should be possible for a minister to take account of concerns expressed by the opposition themselves.

"Let's grow up and stop trying to make political points on these matters," he said.

The Oireachtas Finance Committee is currently discussing changes to the 2013 FOI bill. It is expected to be passed into law before Christmas.

Mr Howlin insisted that upfront fees would remain in place to ensure that public servants were not overwhelmed by FOI requests at a time of dwindling numbers and reduced Budgets.

"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 said.

Fianna Fail's Sean Fleming said it was good of Mr Howlin to admit that the FOI fees were due to "demand management". Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said she was pleased that he had withdrawn his amendment on multiple charges - but said she was opposed to any charges for FOI requests from citizens for non-personal information.

"A charge of any nature acts as a barrier to them seeking information," he said.

The National Union of Journalists said the withdrawal of the multiple charges amendment was a welcome first step.

But its general secretary Seamus Dooley warned that the maintenance of multiple €15 charges for FOI requests would have enormous implications for struggling freelance journalists and local residents associations.

He criticised Mr Howlin for referring to it as a "token charge".

"The possible liability for a €60 or €80 "token" charge would be sufficient to deter the secretary of a community group from lodging an FOI request.

"It is hard to escape the conclusion that the so called token charge is intended not as a revenue stream but as a deterrent," he said.

Irish Independent

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