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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 21 October, 2014

Information Commissioner: staff resources no excuse for FoI delays

Emily O’Reilly said processing Freedom of Information requests is a statutory requirement of public bodies.

Emily O'Reilly
Emily O'Reilly
Image: Photocall

THE INFORMATION COMMISSIONER has criticised public bodies for failing to comply with statutory obligations set out under the Freedom of Information Act.

Emily O’Reilly said a “worrying trend” was emerging involving State agencies seeking deadline extensions by citing a lack of staff resources to deal with FoI requests.

It is “not generally appropriate” for extensions to be granted to public bodies on the grounds of insufficient resources, Ms O’Reilly said in the Office of the Information Commissioner’s annual report.

“It remains the fact that some public bodies fail to recognise that the administration of the FoI Act is one of their statutory functions which should be afforded as much weight as any other statutory function,” O’Reilly said.

It is of significant concern to me if extensions become the norm, or default position, of public bodies in considering requests from my office.

Concerns

  • On more than one occasion information was not provided to the Commissioner because cover was not provided for FoI officers who were on leave.
  • A requester was told records were “unlikely” to be provided in the time frame set out under the act due to “staff resource issues”.
  • The Commissioner’s office was told a FoI unit in a public body would close for a month and no records would be processed during this time.

Ms O’Reilly also recognised failings in her own office where only 19 per cent of more than 200 applications sent for review were closed within the time frame provided for in the Act.

The office saw a 38 per cent increase in applications last year to 338 –  with 236 deemed acceptable for review.

The majority of cases accepted for review related to HSE requests (69) followed by the Department of Justice (19).

Ms O’Reilly said it was”disappointing” that the Government had yet to publish promised amendments to the FoI Act which would increase its remit to include additional public bodies.

The new act is thought to allow access to previously unavailable information in the National Asset Management Agency and the Gardai.

The Department of Jobs Enterprise and Innovation, who previously collected statistics on FoI requests from civil service bodies, was criticised in the report for ending this service with out providing an alternative arrangement.

Ms O’Reilly said she was disappointed she could not give statistical information on the total amount of FoI requests made because the Department discontinued this service.

Read: Media  representatives call for Freedom of Information fees to be dropped >
Read: Information Commissioner welcomes Freedom of Information reform >

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