Saturday 18 November 2017

Irish Water's details will be available under FOI

Brendan Howlin
Brendan Howlin

Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

PUBLIC Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has promised that the agency responsible for introducing household water charges will be brought under the Freedom of Information Act.

But he is standing over the extra charges for making requests under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act despite criticism from transparency watchdogs.

Mr Howlin gave a significant commitment to include Irish Water under FOI, which means that it will have to release details about its operations and expenses after it brings in water charges next October.

"My own view is that Irish Water should come under the ambit of FOI. I'm proposing to exempt them but include them when they are up and running," said Mr Howlin.

It came during the Oireachtas finance committee's examination of the 2013 Freedom of Information Bill, which is expected to be passed into law before Christmas.

Fianna Fail TD Sean Fleming proposed bringing in Irish Water, and also managed to secure agreement from Mr Howlin to bring the school bus services operated by Bus Eireann for 113,000 children under the new FOI Act.

The programme for government promised to restore the FOI Act to "what it was" before the former Fianna Fail government gutted it and brought in fees in 2003.

But Mr Howlin is retaining the upfront €15 fee for making a FOI request. And he is introducing a new amendment requiring people to pay an extra €15 for each additional query included in the same request.

"If we are going to have an upfront fee of €15, then we can't have a request with 15 manifestly separate questions unrelated to each other and pretend it's a simple request," he said.

The decision to bring in extra fees has been criticised by the Open Knowledge Ireland group, which says it is at odds with the Government's transparency agenda. And Transparency International Ireland expressed concern that the new fee rules would significantly raise the cost of FOI applications and serve as a major deterrent against requests from investigative journalists and public interest organisations.

However, Mr Howlin said that the average FOI request cost €600 to process and the public already had to pay prescription charges and accident and emergency charges.

"It is essentially a token charge. €15 towards a cost of €600 is little more than token. In better economic times, it certainly might come back more," he said.

Although the new FOI bill will bring in extra charges, it does generally reverse the damage inflicted by the Fianna Fail-PD government by removing restrictions on information and restoring access to cabinet documents after five years.

And it brings in bodies such as the gardai and NAMA under the scope of the act, as well as reducing appeal fees.

FOI requests from members of the public for their own personal information are free.

Mr Howlin agreed to give further consideration to a proposal to bring the administrative side of President Michael D Higgins's work under the FOI Act. However, he said that officials in the Department of the Taoiseach believed that including Mr Higgins' office could undermine it.

Independent TD Richard Boyd Barrett said he believed it would enhance the office of the President if it was covered by the FOI Act.

Mr Howlin agreed to consider the matter but declined a request from Independent TD Stephen Donnelly to seek the views of Mr Higgins.

"I would be most reluctant to ask the President. The general point is that you don't bring the office of the President into controversy," he said.

Cynical move will make scandals harder to uncover

Irish Independent

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