Open Knowledge Foundation Ireland strongly oppose the government’s last minute amendments to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill 2013 involving an additional charge for multifaceted FOI requests.
Restoring FOI legislation to its pre-2003 form was one of the key commitments of the current government. This late-stage legislative amendment instead compounds the damage done by the retrograde 2003 Act. Increasing fees for FOI is at odds with the government’s transparency agenda and introducing this amendment after consultation contradicts its stated goal of a more inclusive legislative process.
Many civil society actors, in good faith, made the case for FOI fee abolition – including directly to the Minister. At no point was there any indication, until now at the eleventh hour, that the government’s intent was actually to increase these fees.
In fact, at the last public meeting held as a part of the initial Open Government Partnership (OGP) public consultation, participants voted overwhelmingly for the abolition of FOI fees. Fees have an adverse effect on transparency and citizens’ rights to access information. This is the recommendation of the Irish civil society consultation report, informing the government’s preparation of an OGP National Action Plan. The report is due upon Ireland formally joining the OGP early next year. (see “Report of a Consultation with Civil Society Representatives and Citizens on Ireland’s Participation in the Open Government Partnership” Section 4.06 )
The arguments put forward by the government for the retention and increase of fees are easily addressed:
- The first is that fees prevent vexatious enquiries – but these can already be refused by the Act as it stands.
- The second is that FOI must be paid for – but use of FOI has already proved benefit to the State by exposing wasteful practices and, furthermore, the administration of a fees structure is likely to be more financially onerous than the total collected.
- The third is that fees are internationally recognised as best practice – to the contrary, the OECD has recommended the abolition of FOI fees in Ireland. All of the EU countries with active FOI legislation, FOI requests are free of charge. The only countries which apply a fee to FOI requests are Ireland, Israel and Canada.
The last-minute amendments to the proposed new FOI bill will make FOI prohibitively expensive and therefore, in large parts, unworkable, unjust, and contrary to the intent of the concept of freedom of information.
Changes at this late stage unfairly limit proper vetting and therefore should not be included.
Charging for FOI requests, charges for multifaceted requests, and charging for ‘search and retrieval’ of the information present a barrier to citizens, limiting their rights, and prohibiting their ability to inform themselves about public policy. Inhibiting scrutiny will result in the non-disclosure of what should be public information. It is in the interest of everyone to increase participation and remove barriers to information which effects us all.
We call on the government to:
- Remove fees for all FOI requests and appeals.
- Allow multi-faceted FOI requests without additional charge.
- Remove fees charged for search and retrieval of information to fulfil FOI requests.
OKF Ambassador for Ireland