‘Everywhere Else On Earth It’s Free Or Basically Free’

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donnellyenglishThis morning Independent TD Stephen Donnelly (left) and Fine Gael TD Damien English (right) spoke on Today with Seán O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio One about the proposed increase in charges for Freedom of Information requests.

Seán O’Rourke: “First of all, Stephen Donnelly, this is something which is coming up at a committee today, it’s being debated and there are amendments. The basic thing is is that there’s a €15 charge for a request but now, if it has several dimensions to it, applied to different departments within a particular institution, it’s €15 per department, is that it?”

Stephen Donnelly: “Per administrative unit check, good morning Seán, thank you for having me on the show. So the context here is important. There are only three countries in the world that charge upfront fees for Freedom of Information. I think we’re all agreed that secrecy in Government is a bad thing and transparency is a good thing. So only us, Israel and Canada currently charge upfront fees for Freedom of Information requests from media, from parliamentarians, from whoever. Canada charges €3.40, Israel charges €4, we currently charge €15, so about four times more than the other two countries. No country in Europe charges anything upfront. What the amendments that are being brought in, and at a very late stage, I’d like to say by Brendan Howlin, brought in on Friday and have caused uproar in the NUJ [National Union of Journalists] and amongst very serious professionals and academics, not sort of people who are used to banging drums and saying ‘this is crazy stuff’. Very, very serious professionals are saying, one of them Gavin Sheridan, for example, who worked on the Anglo Tapes, has said if this gets through, it will be the death of Freedom of Information in Ireland.

So what happens is, let’s say I, as a member of parliament, submit an FOI request to the Department of Finance. First of all I will be charged €15 for submitting a request. Now let’s say the official who gets that has to contact 30 other administrative units, that’s what it says in the amendment. There’s no definition of an administrative unit, it’s reasonable to think that that as a group, headed by a higher executive officer, so it’s entirely possible, let’s say I’m asking something around banking or finance, in other departments, any administrative unit that has to engage, will also charge €15. They will come back to me and say ‘well, actually deputy, the cost is not €15, it’s €450. And if you want to challenge, if they say you can’t have the information, which they’ve done to me in the past on some very important stuff that should be in the public domain, we’re going to charge you an awful lot more. And if you then take your appeal to the Information Commissioner, which, in my case, I have done, you’re going to get charged an awful lot more again. So it’s very, very important for us to understand: Everywhere else on Earth, it’s free or basically free. In Ireland, under the amendments that Brendan Howlin has tabled, and they’re going to go through today, it could cost several thousand euros. So this is very, very serious stuff for the country.”

O’Rourke: “Damien English, I know you’re not on this committee, but at the same time time, you have a view. Do you think the charges are justifiable?

Damien English: “Yeah, that’s unclear. There’s a few things I’d like to say, first of all. It’s very clear that 70% of FOI requests are made by private citizens are there is no charge made for them whatsoever. The other 30% would be kind of media or even TDs, or other peopler asking questions and very often the information is used for commercial reasons – but that 30%, yes there are charges there and the charges will slightly change – If the issue is unrelated. At the moment you have a lot of FOI request that have been put in, and you know there’s a main question, but then there’s an additional unrelated issue that needs to be addressed as well – and that’s where the charge will kick in. We need to be clear here Sean, it’s not free the gather the information – I mean, the average cost of an FOI request last year, of the non-personal information ones, was about 600 Euros – in man hours – that’s a high cost.”

O’Rourke:
“That would be all very fine Damien, if the new government elected in 2011 hadn’t made a pledge to reverse the changes that [former Finance Minister] Charlie McCreevy had brought in, was it 2003, to make the law what it had been before it was undermined. That presumably implied that you were going to remove the charges again completely?”

English: “The base scheme was to restore, to bring back the openness, the transparency, the accountability of public governance because in the ’03 changes made – there were major changes {made} to the actual information you could get, and who you could FOI.”

O’Rourke: “And that all happened, has it?”

English: “It has happened actually, this Bill does two things – it restores all the areas where the information was restricted and it brings in extensions as well – to bring in all public bodies and to all bodies that are basically funded by The State – and so there have been major changes there.”

Listen here

Previously: Jacking Up The Price of Freedom

(Photocall Ireland)

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