FRIDAY DÁIL SITTINGS have often been criticised for failing to come up with solid results but a a glimpse of bipartisanship today has seen the Government support a Fianna Fáil proposed Bill which could lead to the widening of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.
Speaking in the Dáil today, Junior Minister Brian Hayes said the coalition supports the legislation, in principle, but noted some amendments. The Department of Expenditure and Reform wants the second reading of the proposals to be held off for another nine months in order for them to be fine-tuned.
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, who also addressed the Chamber, asked for cross-party support to ensure a more comprehensive, straightforward and sensible approach.
The Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2012 was produced by Fianna Fáil deputy Seán Fleming and would see the Central Bank, NAMA, An Garda Síochána and others brought under the remit of the Act – something that has long been sought by Information Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly.
It would also cover other key bodies, including the NTMA, the Health and Safety Authority, the Property Registration Authority and the Vocational Educational Committees.
Fleming said that it may still be a surprise to people that requests under the Freedom of Information Act cannot be made to these agencies.
“It is time for the Dáil to act on this and expand the scope of the legislation to these bodies in the interest of public confidence and transparency,” he said, before adding that he was looking forward to working with Minister Howlin in the months ahead to finalise the Bill.
As the Fianna Fáil spokesperson for reform, he called today’s sitting of the Dáil a successful one as it achieved cross-party support for the proposed laws.
The Government hopes to extend the Freedom of Information to include all statutory bodies, as well as other agencies in receipt of significant State support.
Howlin said significant work has already been undertaken to ensure this happens on a “once-and-for-all” instead of a case-by-case basis which he called “cumbersome, inefficient and slow”.
Calling for more cross-party support, the Minister added: “What we need to do now is to consider how best we can achieve the outcome we all desire and how to legislate for it. We fully appreciate the work Deputy Fleming has put into his proposals and the huge contribution he has made to the debate. However, the Government believes that the parties must leave their differences aside and work together on this important matter to achieve a more substantial and valuable goal.”
In her annual report in May, Ombudsman O’Reilly said she welcomed plans to restore the 1997 Act to its original form, before the 2003 amendments which were described as a set back from openness, transparency and accountability.