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Department's FOI amendments 'run entirely contrary to spirit' of bill

NUJ Secretary Seamus Dooley said that if the amendments are passed there is a danger FOI requests will “become unaffordable”.

Image: documents image via Shutterstock

THE SECRETARY OF the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has said that amendments to the new Freedom of Information Bill, proposed by Minister Brendan Howlin’s department, “run contrary to the spirit of the bill”.

The amendments were published on Friday and contain changes that could see charges for requests soar. This includes proposals to split one request for information from different divisions of the same body into separate requests, charging €15 for each. The amendments also propose to assess the cost based on how much work a public body has to put into finding and compiling the information requested.

While the bill has been praised for opening all public bodies up to requests, there is now concern that these amendments, if approved, could undermine the work done to broaden Freedom of Information legislation in this country.

‘Unaffordable’

Seamus Dooley. Secretary of the NUJ, said it has always been the union’s position that there should be no fees for FOI.

“In terms of what was announced on Friday, the concern is that the government has honoured what it said by extending the scope but is undermining that by making costs prohibitors,” he told TheJournal.ie. Dooley said there is a “danger that FOI will become unaffordable”

The other major concern, and we’ll be reviewing it this week, is that there doesn’t appear to be any transparent system of accountability as to how the charges are set.

He added that the proposals had been “unexpected” and had not been discussed in the “extensive consultation” the Oireachtas Finance Committee had on the issue.

Labour TD Ciarán Lynch, who is chair of the committee, said that while he had not read the amendments yet, he believes that “in cases of genuine public interest, fees should be set at a minimum”.

“I think the minister, when he comes before the committee, has to give clarification as o how this will actually be administrated,” he said. He added that amendments should “neither hinder nor be detrimental to the intent of the bill” and that all of these issues would be discussed when the committee sits this coming week.

Killing FOI

Journalist Gavin Sheridan commented that if these amendments are passed, “Freedom of Information is dead”.

In a post on The Story, he said:

The legislation was gutted in 2003 and it is being gutted again. More generally the number of requests from journalists from all news organisations in Ireland will fall as a result of these amendments, and the resulting efforts to shine a light on the administration of the State will certainly deteriorate. And secrecy will prevail.

“A cynic would suggest these changes were well considered in advance and are being introduced at the end of the process in order to sneak them in,” he said.

Amendments were also tabled by Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and independent TD Stephen Donnelly and they will all be considered this week.

Related: Government acknowledges section of new FOI bill ‘may cause difficulties’>

Read: Freedom of Information bill criticised – because Irish Water isn’t included>

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