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FOI amendments show that Labour and Fine Gael have little appetite for real political and institutional reform - McDonald

12 November, 2013 - by Mary Lou McDonald TD

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald TD will this afternoon call on members of the Select Sub-Committee on Public Expenditure and Reform to refuse to take Committee stage of the Freedom of Information legislation as scheduled for today. Deputy McDonald makes the demand in response to Brendan Howlin’s decision to submit late amendments to the Bill seeking to significant increase up-front charges for FOI requests.

The Sinn Féin Public Expenditure and Reform Spokesperson said:

“Minister Howlin’s introduction of significant amendments to the Freedom of Information legislation at committee stage is beyond the comprehension of many in civic society. The Labour Ministers decision to introduce prohibitive search and retrieval upfront fees at the eleventh hour beggars belief, and his arguments for doing so don’t stand up to scrutiny.

“This is the same Minister who in recent weeks trumpeted the introduction of a new layer of scrutiny to the legislative process as a great leap forward for democracy. Brendan Howlin’s ability to speak out of both sides of his mouth has been brought to a whole new level in recent days.

“Ireland is amongst a group of just three countries who charge upfront fees for FOI requests out of 93 countries with similar legislation. Israel, also one of the band of 3, has recently reduced its upfront fees.

“Just days before the FOI legislation was published in July the Minister said, ‘The FOI Bill seeks in essence to ensure that Ireland’s FOI regime is restored to the top tier of legal frameworks internationally for facilitating access to official information.’

“The reality is his eleventh hour amendments take Ireland further away from international best practice. Back in 2008 the OECD called on the government to reduce barriers to public information by making all requests under FOI free. The Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body, the Group of States against corruption, recommended the abolition of upfront fees that same year. During recent Open Government Partnership consultations with civic society participants unanimously called for Freedom of Information fees to be dropped.

“Brendan Howlin’s actions are cynical and deeply disappointing. If trust is to be regained in our political institutions those in charge need to change their ways. Cynically introducing such significant changes to the most contentious strand of the FOI legislation, upfront fees, indicates to civic society that both Labour and Fine Gael have little appetite for real political and institutional reform.

“The legislation must now be put on hold to afford key stakeholders such as the National Union of Journalists, Transparency International Ireland and others to present their concerns to the Committee, and in turn the Minister must reconsider his position on the charging of FOI fees.”

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