Government committed to greater openness, transparency and accountability” Howlin
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform today announced the Government’s plans to reform and extend Freedom of Information legislation and also to extend the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to all public bodies.
Minister Howlin stated “This Government is committed to meaningful political reform. The drafting of comprehensive whistleblower protection legislation is underway, policy proposals on the regulation of lobbying have been published and now the Government has approved plans to reform and extend Freedom of Information (FOI) and extend the remit of the Ombudsman.
The reform of FOI and its extension to all public bodies is a central pillar of the Government’s political reform agenda. Furthermore, the proposed extension of the Ombudsman Act to all statutory bodies as well as to third-level institutions. Securing greater public access to official information has a critical role to play in strengthening the openness, transparency and accountability of the Irish administrative and political system.”
Minister Howlin proposes to submit the General Scheme of the Freedom of Information Bill to the Oireachtas Committee on Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform shortly for its views and will publish his legislative proposals at that time. Drafting of the legislation will commence immediately and the Minister expects to publish the Freedom of Information Bill later this year.
Notes to Editor
Extension of FOI
The Government has endorsed the principle that Freedom of Information will be expected to apply to all public bodies. Special implementation arrangements would be sanctioned only in limited and exceptional cases. These will be underpinned by clear criteria grounded in the public interest in safeguarding particularly highly sensitive and confidential information consistent with the original objective of the Act to enable access to information to the greatest extent possible in the possession of public bodies.
Freedom of Information will be extended to a number of high-profile public bodies previously entirely outside of the scope of the Act including:-
• An Garda Síochána for its administrative records subject to security exemptions
• Public financial bodies, including NTMA, NAMA, NPRF, and the NDFA who will all be brought within the jurisdiction of the Act for the first time. This will be subject, in particular, to the maintenance of strict confidentiality of their engagement with commercial counterparties, for example, in securing external private finance for the State.
• Subject to formal consultation required with the ECB, it is proposed that the Central Bank of Ireland will also be brought under Freedom of Information other than in respect of records that are subject to professional secrecy obligations in particular under EU law and Eurosystem requirements
• In addition, several important public bodies with important regulatory, quasi-judicial and investigative functions will no longer be excluded from the scope of the Act. This will include the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner and the Refugee Applications Tribunal, the case for inclusion under Freedom of Information has been highlighted by the Information Commissioner.
• The Act will apply to the Vocational Educational Committees subject to a restriction on records which would enable school league tables to be compiled.
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is also taking action to deliver the next phase of the extension of Freedom of Information relating to non-public bodies benefiting from significant Exchequer funding under criteria balancing the public interest with appropriate proportionality.
Reform of FOI
The Government has also agreed the Minister’s proposals for significant reforms to Freedom of Information legislation. Key features include:-
• Reversing the very wide definition of Government introduced in the 2003 amending legislation;
• Curtailing the time period within which Government records cannot generally be considered for release from 10 years to 5 years repealing the restriction also put in place in the 2003;
• Restoring the discretion available in specific circumstances to release Government records within 5 years where they relate, for example, to factual information already in the public domain following publication of Government Decisions;
• Prioritising the reduction of very-high levels of internal review and appeal fees for non-personal requests from €75 and €150 to €30 and €50 respectively which can act as a deterrent to requesting a review of the initial decision-making.
The reform of the legislation provides for some liberalisation of the mandatory ‘class’ exemption put in place in 2003 in relation to diplomatic communications and defence matters. Significant protections for highly sensitive and secret information will be maintained.
The Freedom of Information reform legislation will provide the opportunity to assess proposals to improve the functioning of the Act including those included in the recent Private Members Bill accepted by the Government. It will also be used as an opportunity to consolidate and simplify the legislation with the goal of making it more accessible to all users. The Minister has also asked his Department to undertake a focused review of the management of Freedom of Information requests by public bodies to determine what improvements in the working of the Act could be achieved and what steps may be necessary to seek to promote good practice in the use of the Act.