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Ó Caoláin - Freedom of Information Bill is major step backwards for democracy

1 April, 2003

Speaking at Committee Stage of the Freedom of Information Bill at the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service, Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD called on the Minister for Finance to withdraw the legislation which he said was a "major step backwards for this democracy". Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

"I reiterate my total opposition and that of Sinn Féin to this Bill. It should never have seen the light of day and I believe the Government has abused its majority position in the Dáil and Seanad by forcing it through. There has been no process of consultation, no proper review, no public debate which should have taken place and which should have involved the Joint Committee among many others.

"The Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service has appealed for time to allow further hearings to be held as important areas have been identified in the legislation which the Committee agrees will need further significant amendment. I fully endorse that view. I also deplore the situation we are now placed in by the Minister. We only received his amendments late yesterday afternoon. This is no way to legislate, most especially with a piece of legislation which affects the rights of citizens.

"As the Irish Council for Civil Liberties pointed out at the Joint Committee, this Bill does not arise from a proper review of the Act. The High Level Group cannot be held responsible for that. They had their terms of reference and they were always going to look at the Act from the limited viewpoint of the higher civil service and their Ministers. The Government stands indicted for taking that limited Review and producing this Bill without any wider consultation and debate. It was sprung on us and sprung on the public and now we are asked to rubber stamp it.

"The point cannot be made strongly enough that the Freedom of Information Act is primarily a law that benefits individual citizens. Of course it also gives the media rights to information and that is welcome. But over 60% of FOI requests come from individual citizens. This Bill now curtails those rights.

"I appeal to the Minister to withdraw the Bill before we go any further. Let there be a wide consultation process and a really thorough review. The Minister's list of amendments does nothing to address the fundamental objections and sound arguments against the key sections of this Bill. We have been told that the Act as it stands is an impediment to smooth running of Government. But this has not been demonstrated. No examples have been given and no solid research presented.

"The Freedom of Information Act belongs to the people, not to any Government.

"It demeans politics and it demeans the Oireachtas for the Act to be treated in this shoddy way. This Bill effectively guts the original Act. It also paves the way for legal challenges and all manner of litigation that will benefit only the more affluent sections of the legal profession. Far from freeing up government and removing alleged obstacles, it has the potential to tie government up in legal knots.

"This Bill is a major step backwards for this democracy and should be withdrawn." ENDS

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