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Government acknowledges section of new FOI bill 'may cause difficulties'

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will consider if section 17 of the new FOI bill needs to be altered in the wake of correspondence from the Information Commissioner.

THE GOVERNMENT IS to consider possible changes to a section of the new Freedom of Information Bill which has caused concern amongst transparency activists who fear it could limit the release of large amounts of data.

Following correspondence from the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) has acknowledged that section 17 of the bill “as currently drafted may potentially cause difficulties in terms of interpretation and application in the future”.

This follows concerns raised by the solicitor Simon McGarr who accused the government of trying to “uninvent computers”  in the drafting of section 17 (4) (b) saying it would require officials in public bodies who are handling FOI requests to deal with database queries in the same way in which they would deal with queries related to printed files.

This would potentially limit the amount of time and effort these officials could devote to extracting information, McGarr said.

But the DPER robustly defended the legislation in a statement yesterday insisting the bill’s intention was to allow for more large data queries to be dealt with and not refused.

However, Stephen Rafferty, a senior investigator at the OIC, said that while he is satisfied with the clear intent of the Minister it appears that the provision has been drafted in a way that could cause difficulties when it comes to interpretation.

“The Department accepted that there is certainly scope for interpretative difficulties. They will look at it again and take whatever action they deem necessary,” Rafferty told TheJournal.ie this evening.

But he added that one of McGarr’s blogs criticising the bill “misrepresented the Minister’s intent” adding: “The intention of the new provision is to improve access rights, if it didn’t do what it intended to do that’s down to the drafting.”

McGarr has said that the section needs to be significantly amended or deleted from the proposed legislation which the government hopes to enact by the end of the year.  He said on Twitter today that the OIC had told him they would suggest amending the wording of the provision.

Journalist and transparency advocate Gavin Sheridan has said that the section needs to be deleted.

In a statement to this website this evening, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said: “The Office of the Information Commissioner has been consulted throughout the drafting of the Bill and hadn’t raised any concerns in relation to the drafting of section 17 .

“However a representative of that Office contacted the Department this afternoon when it had been made aware of the recent concerns expressed about section 17 as currently worded in the Draft FOI Bill.

“The Office of the Information Commissioner advised that it is satisfied that the clear intent of the Minister was to improve access rights, but it acknowledges that the provision as currently drafted may potentially cause difficulties in terms of interpretation and application in the future.

“When the Office contacted the Department about the matter, the Department stated that it was aware of the concerns and is considering what further action, if any, might be required to address them.

Read more: Government insists new FOI bill does not intend to ‘uninvent computers’

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Hugh O'Connell

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