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Monday 20 November 2017

Public faces new charge in late change to FoI act

Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

PEOPLE seeking their own personal files face new charges under another last-minute change to the Freedom of Information Act.

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has repeatedly said that people who make personal requests will not be charged the upfront €15 fee. And his original draft Freedom of Information (FoI) bill also allowed them to be exempted from search and retrieval fees.

But he has submitted an amendment to his bill, which will impose search and retrieval fees of up to €20 per hour on personal requesters getting "a significant number of records".

There are fears that it could lead to large bills for members of the public who want to retrieve bulky medical files or social welfare records from government departments.

Fianna Fail TD Sean Fleming said it would lead to "one hell of a row" if Mr Howlin did not abandon the proposed charges.

"The minister is after opening up a row for himself. Bad and all as what we did in 2003, we did not make specific provision for a fee for search and retrieval of personal information," he said.

Mr Howlin is reversing the vast majority of the changes made by the Fianna Fail-PD Government to the act in 2003, which effectively gutted it.

He has promised to reflect on the issue raised by Mr Fleming about fees. But he told the Oireachtas Finance committee recently – which is examining the new FoI bill – that civil servants had concerns about how to decide on charges.

"How would they do means tests? How would they know the means of the requester? It is an administrative difficulty," he said.

Mr Howlin already had to back down last week on a proposal to charge multiple fees for multiple requests on different subjects in the same FoI request. Journalists and civic society groups currently have to pay €15 to make an FoI request, as well as search and retrieval fees.

Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte admitted on RTE's 'Week in Politics' yesterday that he had called for the abolition of FoI fees back in 2003.

"That was before we find ourselves in the straitened circumstances we are in," he said.

Irish Independent

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