NUJ welcomes FOI review
Michael McGrath, minister for public expenditure and reform, announced the review at a seminar on the future of FOI in Ireland chaired by Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall.
The minister said the review would uphold the spirit of the original 1997 Act and was designed to advance freedom of information. “This is not about taking a step back,” he said.
Séamus Dooley, the NUJ’s Irish Secretary, who also addressed the seminar, acknowledged that journalists are significant users of the Act and said there were areas which need to be addressed.
Members had reported that some requests were met with resistance because individual FOI staff appeared fearful about reputation damage to an institution. The high level of redactions, often for no obvious reasons, and costs associated with copying a retrieval had also been identified as issues.
Welcoming proposals to review the operation of the current legislation, Séamus Dooley said there was a need for an ethos of openness in public administration. Legislative change must be accompanied by a change in mindset. He said:
“There remains a feeling among many journalists that FOI requests are looked upon as a burden and that the pursuit of information should be made as difficult as possible for the requester.”
When the original Act was introduced, the then minister set up a number of user panels which proved very useful in providing feedback; Séamus Dooley called for reinstatement of the committees. He explained:
“These groups were never decommissioned but allowed to wither on the vine. Those of us who sat on committees never received our P45 – we were just ignored into oblivion.
“I would like to take this opportunity to suggest the re-introduction of advisory panels so that ongoing issues can be addressed and that those entrusted in managing FOI requests can identify problems which they encounter.
“I believe the current Act has enhanced democracy. FOI is not the most friendly or efficient method of securing information for journalists working in the demanding, deadline driven news environment. The timeframe for requests, the appeals process and the way requests are treated can be problematic.
“It is not specifically designed for journalists or the demands of modern journalism. The solution may not lie in improving the Act but in a more open approach to the release of all public information. There is still a culture of secrecy at the heart of our public administration."
He said that in any review exclusions and exemptions should be revisited, including the placing of the office of president outside the scope of legislation.
“In terms of the Act I believe the exemption of the office of president is entirely inappropriate and does a disservice to the office, especially in the context of its evolution under the past three office holders. The issue came to the fore during the last presidential election, and I like to see it addressed outside the context of a campaign.
“An all-party approach characterised the initial FOI Act and I believe the time has come to review the current exemptions. I do not believe the office of president in a republic needs the sort of protection provided by the current exemption.”
Former minister of state Eithne FitzGerald, who pioneered the original legislation, acknowledged the role of the NUJ and the Let in the Light campaign group in campaigning for an FOI Act and supported the call for a collaborative approach though the re-establishment of user group committees.