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The €15 fee for Freedom of Information requests is being abolished

The government has agreed amendments to the FOI Bill at Cabinet today with campaigners giving them a cautious welcome.

Image: Paperwork in a filing cabinet via Shutterstock

Updated 3.30pm 

THE GOVERNMENT HAS agreed to abolish the controversial €15 fee for Freedom of Information requests.

The decision came at today’s Cabinet meeting after Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin brought a series of amendments to the FOI Bill.

The amendments also include changes to search and retrieval fees – which are currently set at around €20.95 per hour - which will see the first five hours of a search free and a cap of €500 on a single request.

There will also be an upper limit of €700 above which a public body can refuse to process a request.

Howlin said today that this would mean the vast majority of requests will be free. Fees for internal reviews and appeals of FOI decisions to the Information Commissioenr will be cut from €150 and €75 to €50 and €30 respectively.

Last year, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation sought a fee of  €13,450 for one request that was described as “extremely broad in scope”.

The Bill will now be published within the next week and will go before the Dáil in the autumn.

‘Uninvent computers’

Fees have long been a bone of contention for transparency advocates particularly last year when a proposed amendment to the Bill caused controversy.

It proposed to split one request for information from different divisions of the same body into separate requests, charging €15 for each.

This led to claims that the government was trying to “uninvent compunters” and limit requests for large quantities of data from departments and public bodies.

The amendment was later withdrawn and redrafted delaying the progress of the Bill which had reached committee stage.

The abolition of fees is part of a wider suite of changes to FOI legislation which includes bringing several additional public bodies such as NAMA, the gardaí, and SUSI, the third-level grant body, under its remit.

Reaction

Welcoming the move today the Green Party, which has long campaigned for the abolition of fees and was the only party which signed a letter urging Howlin to do so, said that recent revelations about the mother and baby home in Tuam showed the value of FOI.

Councillor Ossian Smyth said: “The government saw the Freedom of Information system as a burden upon public services, but one only need look at the recent revelations around Tuam, a story discovered by Catherine Corless by using Freedom of Information requests, to see the way in which it can shape our country.”

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly said that fees reinforce the notion that public access to information “is a luxury, but it’s actually a right” saying that Ireland is one of the few countries that charges up front fees.

He said: “The removal of these fees is a step in the right direction, and the Minister deserves credit for taking this decision, which hopefully moves us towards greater openness and transparency.”

Meanwhile journalist and transparency campaigner Gavin Sheridan urged a note of caution, saying he would wait to see the final wording of the legislation.

“While we welcome any move to abolish fees, we must have sight of the proposed new wording of the Freedom of Information Bill 2013. Until we do, we cannot assess the significance of the announcement,” he wrote on TheStory.ie.

First published 1.29pm 

Read: Over 1,800 Freedom of Information requests to departments in 2013

Read: “This country’s gone wild with exaggeration”: Rabbitte says the FOI issue’s been blown out of all proportion

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Hugh O'Connell

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