28 February 2003
The Minister for Finance, Mr. Charlie McCreevy, TD, today (28 February) announced the publication of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2003. The principal changes to the existing legislation, which are summarised in the attached Appendix, will, inter alia,
The Minister explained that the Government had set up a High Level Group of Secretaries-General to examine all aspects of the existing Freedom of Information legislation. Mr. McCreevy said that the Group had looked very carefully at the working of the Act and had made a number of recommendations which were now being implemented in the new legislation. (The report of the High Level Group is also being published today)
Government Records and Business
The key recommendation in the report was that the protection for cabinet records should be extended from 5 to 10 years. Of all the countries with Freedom of Information legislation, Ireland has one of the shortest periods of exemption for Government records.
Mr. McCreevy said that he shared the Taoiseach’s view that while 30 years was too long a period to restrict information, 5 years was too short a period. The Minister said “I think the 10 year period proposed by the High Level Group is reasonable.The Government studied the Group’s report and drew up the Bill in the light of their advice. Even with the changes proposed in the Bill, Ireland will still have a very liberal regime by international standards. Records other than those dealing with Government business which are open to the public now will still be open in future.”
While acknowledging the important contribution which Freedom of Information had made, the Minister pointed out that the Government must be able to carry out its business in an efficient and orderly way in the interest of the whole community.
The Minister said “I do not believe that it’s in the public interest that documents about Government decisions on important issues are released before a sufficient period of time has elapsed. Otherwise, the only effect is to undermine the workings of Government. Like all organisations which have the right to decide how to carry out their business, Government is no different. Our work is very complex. In taking decisions on important economic and social issues, the Government has to look at different alternatives and approaches. It has to debate these freely and reach a decision on behalf of the community. For this process to work effectively, records relating to Government business need to be properly protected.”
The High Level Review Group also recommended that up-front fees should be charged to cover the significant administrative costs associated with Freedom of Information.
The Bill gives the Minister power to set these fees by regulation.
Confirming that there would be careful consideration about the level of the fee to be applied, Mr. McCreevy said “I will take account of the cost of administering the legislation, which is significant, and the need to allow people to continue to have access to information. There’s no question of setting fees for requests for personal records.”
There are a number of other changes in the Bill protecting records relating to the work of tribunals and public inquiries, parliamentary documents and papers, and records dealing with international relations.
There are also technical changes designed to improve the operation of the Act both from the perspective of the citizen and the administration. For example, in some cases doubt had arisen about the extent of a deliberative process. Under the present Act, access to documents can be refused if this would affect the deliberative processes of a public body. The new Bill gives the Heads of Government Departments the power to issue a certificate to clarify when a deliberative process is still underway.
Speaking of the impact made by Freedom of Information, the Minister said “the Freedom of Information Act has made a major contribution to public life in Ireland. In particular, ordinary citizens can now get access to the documents held on them by public bodies and nothing in the legislation published today will change that.” Mr. McCreevy described the Bill as “a sensible, practical measure designed to allow the Government to work effectively while maintaining reasonable public access to records.”
Concluding, the Minister said he was “happy that the new Bill gets the balance right on freedom of information”. He said it would enable Government to do its business properly, while, most importantly, people will still have access to information, particularly any personal information that may be held on them.”
Appendix - Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill 2003 – Main proposals
increases the exemption for cabinet records is increased from 5 to 10 years [Section 12],
protects communications between Ministers on issues under consideration by the Government for 10 years [Section 12],
gives Secretaries-General the power to decide the extent of a “deliberative process” [Section 13],
restricts the release of documents relating to international relations [Section 17], tribunals [Section 15], the costing of proposals made by a political party [Section 25] and parliamentary briefing notes, including those made in relation to parliamentary questions [Section 25],
gives the Minister for Finance the power to set fees by regulation for handling requests for information and review; these fees will not apply to requests for personal information [Section 26], and
makes a number of other technical or procedural changes to the Act.
|Users who read this document also viewed|
|01 June 2003Welcome from the Minister|
|27 July 1998Freedom of Information|
|06 October 2002 The Strategic Management Initiative was set up in 1996 and marks a major step towards improving the Civil Service. SMI...|
|20 February 2003 Recruitment to all Civil Service Departments/Offices is co-ordinated centrally by the Office of the Public Appointments...|
|01 June 2008 If you feel that you have been unfairly treated or are not satisfied with our decision on your complaint, it is open to...|