THE GOVERNMENT’S FREEDOM of Information legislation has been criticised for not going far enough.
The criticism of the bill, which has mainly come from Fianna Fáil, follows its publication on 24 July.
When the bill was published, Minister Brendan Howlin said that it would reverse the restrictions on FoI introduced by the Fianna Fáil-led government in 2003.
The existing laws are to be significantly expanded under the bill so that they will cover more public bodies and take into account changes in the storage of records.
According to Fianna Fáil spokesperson on public expenditure and reform, Seán Fleming TD, the legislation has “severe limits”. He said that there is a “lack of substance” to the bill, singling out one body in particular for its absence.
One of the most obvious omissions from this legislation is the Government decision not to include Irish Water under the provisions of the FOI. The exclusion of this new commercial semi-state organisation that will have an absolute monopoly on the provision of water to households and all other premises throughout the country is astonishing.
He also noted that the Minister has said that he is not extending the FOI to any of the existing commercial state bodies (with the exception of Irish Rail) due to competitive and commercial reasons. “Clearly this logic does not apply to Irish Water,” said Fleming.
Deputy Fleming stated that Minister Brendan Howlin had also rejected the concept of FOI procedures applying to any Oireachtas Inquiry Committee.
He said that information relating to parliamentary briefing for all Parliamentary Questions should not be excluded from the FOI Act.
On the subject of public sector pay, Fleming said that during the recent public sector pay talks the Minister’s own department wrote to the Public Service Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, while sectoral management in the public service issued letters to individual unions and the Labour Relations Commission also issued letters.
“The Minister has refused to allow any of these letters including the ones from his own Department to be published and he is hiding behind FOI saying that these are confidential. This does not make sense,” he said.
Fianna Fáil Dublin West Councillor David McGuinness joined in the criticism of the exclusion of Irish Water from the bill, saying: “The public need politicians to scrutinise the operations of Irish Water and hold government to account.”
“Omitting Irish Water from FOI legalisation confirms a public mistrust in the new utility company,” alleged McGuinness.
In June, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform found that FOI should be extended to all new bodies and that certain existing exemptions should be removed.
It said that there must be absolute exceptions for national security, and also qualified exceptions which are the subject of a public interest test. This test should require the public body to state publicly the reason why it should not release information.