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Freedom of Information: Fees to be multiplied in new amendment

As you may know, I made efforts this August to highlight a problem with Section 17 of the new Freedom of Information Bill. I pointed out that S17(4) sets out that Civil Servants could pretend that their computer files were made of paper.

See “The Irish State wishes to uninvent computers with new FOI Bill” for how that worked.

I also said that I thought the intent in this perverse legislative drafting was to deprive Gavin Sheridan of TheStory.ie of the ability to make data enquiries, of the sort that had uncovered, for instance, the expense claims of TDs, amongst many other issues. Now TheStory.ie has alerted readers to a new threat to openness and transparency in Ireland. A threat that, it says, may result in TheStory.ie site closing down.

The government has now published a series of amendments they intend to make during the next week. Thanks to some negative publicity, and the intervention of the Office of the Information Commissioner, Section 17(4) of the Bill has been improved (though not fixed). That’s the good news.

Now for the bad news.

A new provision, an amendment to Section 12, is now proposed. If this amendment goes through, a single FOI request will cost you multiples of the outrageous current €15 fee. How many multiples will depend on how many administrative units, in a Department or office, are required to take action to answer your question. For every internal unit bestirring itself, you have to pay another €15.

As you can’t know in advance how many units any question will require to act in order to be answered, you can only guess how much any FOI request will cost. We can’t know the definition of “unit”, referred to as “different functional areas” [of the FOI body] each body will adopt.

Ireland is already the only European country that charges any fee at all for initial FOI inquiries. Before any changes, it is already the most expensive in the world.

Creating an arbitrary fee structure, limited only by a requirement that all costs charged be in multiples of €15 is, as Gavin Sheridan notes, a regression. It is a response contrary to an essential modern democratic right; to know what is done in the name of the public.

Further, it is an interference with the public’s rights under Art 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Art 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights to receive information required to inform public debate.

An administration trying to block the public’s rights to know what is being done by public bodies is not acting as a servant of the public.

Simply put, it is a manoeuvre by people who hold power to maintain mastery over the rest of us by keeping us ignorant of what they know.

These changes are being enacted to avoid the transparency, openness and- above all else- accountability the Government professed to believe in.