Last night, the Seanad debated the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2008 brought forward by the Labour party. After a debate of nearly two hours, with some interesting input from both sides of the house, the Bill was voted down by the government parties.
The Bill would have gone some way to redeem the Freedom of Information Act from the bruising it received due to amendments by the Fianna Fáil/PD government in 2003. Those amendments added fees of between €10 and €150 to FOI requests which has resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of requests received, from a peak of almost 18,500 in 2003 to just over 10,500 in 2007.
The Bill would have also extended the remit of FOI to groups such as an Garda Síochána. Ireland is the only country of 27 in Europe which does not include its police force in FOI, and this is something that the Information Commissioner, Ms. Emily O’Reilly has sought as well as Mr. Conor Brady, a member of the Garda Ombudsman Commission.
Below is my own speech to the Seanad last night. I spoke at the very end of the debate.
I represent something of an unreconstructed approach to freedom of information, namely, that the presumption should be precisely that freedom of information. The case should be made for the exception and not the other way around. The rationale behind the 2003 amendments was, and much of the opposition to what we are proposing is, motivated by a completely different approach to freedom of information. The latter is, in part, grudging.
At the very least, it can be characterised by a sense that the individual must make a case for obtaining particular information rather than it being presumed that the information should be freely available, but with reasonable and rational exceptions. The starting point should be to have the widest possible latitude and freedom while a case can be made in legislation and administrative rules for where the exceptions should apply. It has as much to do with our culture and approach to the issue as it has with the individual legislative provisions.
I am sorry to say that the Minister of State’s contribution is from the old school. We know the Act was introduced in 1997 and that extra bodies have been added. We know all these things, which have been set out in the Minister of State’s speech.
To take the fees issue, however, it is difficult to see how the change in fees in 2003 was motivated by anything other than a desire to deter people from making freedom of information applications. Why else was it done? The Minister of State ought to be more direct with us as to why that was done. It comes through in his speech which quotes the extreme but interesting example of a request for access to the diaries of a number of civil servants and Ministers – the very idea of it. It involved reading through thousands of pages of documentation. At least that particular application had the advantage of only ever having to be done once as regards the diaries of civil servants and Ministers.
We understand that there is a burden on the State and the public service in respect of freedom of information. By introducing legislation in 1997 and believing in freedom of information, as Senator Callely said, we must be prepared to accept that a burden goes with the freedom we want to provide. It is no use taking the approach that it is so onerous and requires so many hours of work that we must restrict it. The presumption in any democratic society, especially a modern democracy such as ours, should be to make the information available, accept the burden and live with the cost to the State. I accept there is a cost to the public purse in providing freedom of information, but most entitlements we introduce come with a price tag. We must be prepared to accept that price tag within reason. It is not good enough for a Minister to point to the extraordinary cost or how onerous it is on us.