FOI amendment withdrawal "welcome first step"
13 November 2013
The National Union of Journalists has welcomed the announcement by the minister for public expenditure and reform Brendan Howlin that he has withdrawn the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act 2013 regarding multiple charges.
While the union remains committed to the principle of free access to Freedom of Information, it welcomes the announcement that Brendan Howlin is to withdraw the amendment. He said he will ask the parliamentary draughtsman to bring forward a new amendment aimed at clarifying the position of multiple fees.
The amendment, as drafted, gave rise to grave concern among NUJ members, academics and representatives of civic society groups. The NUJ hopes that, in addition to consulting his legal advisor, Brendan Howlin will use the opportunity to consult with users, including the NUJ. In this regard, the consultation should also examine the costs of search and retrieval. There is also a need for greater transparency regarding the estimation of costs.
The union remains concerned at the possible use of the fees structure as a means of deterring requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
For a struggling freelance journalist or a local residents' association, the implications of the new fee structure are enormous. The possible liability for a €60 0r €80 "token" charge would be sufficient to deter the secretary of a community group from lodging an FOI request.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the so-called token charge is intended not as a revenue stream, but as a deterrent. If 500 extra FOI requests were lodged the state would receive €7,500 in additional income. It would be interesting to examine the administrative costs associated with administering the new fee system. What is needed is an independent cost benefit analysis, although such an analysis is by definition cannot quantify the public interest value of FOI requests.
The department's own regulation Impact analysis accepted the intangible benefits of FOI, stating "the experience and track record of FOI since its introduction demonstrates that increased transparency can enhance the quality of decision making and yield substantial benefits for the Exchequer in value for money terms." The same analysis puts the net annual administrative cost of FOI at approximately €9m and in that context the income from the new fee system is unlikely to make a major impact.