13th March 2003
Ó Caoláin accuses Government of being ``motivated by fear'' in trying to change Freedom on Information Act
Speaking on the Labour Party's Freedom on Information (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill in the Dáil today Sinn Fein group leader Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin said ``the Government is motivated in its actions by fear of embarrassment over decisions taken at Cabinet meetings during the term of the 28th Dáil''.
He also said the ``lack of respect for open and democratic government?was highlighted by the absence of the Minister and Junior Minister at the Department of Finance from the Houses of the Oireachtas'' during the week when the proposed amendments were being discussed. He went on say that he would ``strongly caution against any changes which would restrict the scope of the Freedom on Information Act.''
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``I welcome the introduction by the Labour Party of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) (No.3) Bill 2003.
``I would like to commence with a couple of brief quotations from the Debate which took place in this House in March of 1997 on the passage of the Freedom of Information Act 1997:
§ ``Governments tend to preserve their interests and have gone to enormous lengths to retain information, the release of which would have prejudiced their being in Government''
§ ``The presumption that everything is required to be secret unless proved to the contrary is the single greatest obstacle to openness under this Government''
§ ``I can envisage the Government of the day or the public body which has possession of certain information being determined to plead the public interest in order to withhold information''
``Those were the words of three deputies, in this order, Deputy Liz O'Donnell, Deputy Michael Woods and Deputy Jim McDaid who are now members of a Government which is seeking to emasculate the same Freedom of Information Act.
``Freedom of Information legislation plays an important role in the promotion of openness, transparency and accountability in government. This in turn leads to an improved system of public administration. Our freedom of information legislation has been acknowledged internationally as an example of best practice.
``The proposed Government amendment to the Freedom of Information Act will be a considerable setback for participatory democracy involving active citizenship.
``The Government has failed to engage in any meaningful consultation in its review of the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner was not consulted, the Government's own FOI advisory groups were not consulted nor were many other interested groups such as the NUJ, the opposition parties or the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.
``The review process, which commenced on the re-election of the current Government, was carried out in a secretive manner. It was not an independent review, rather it was carried out by a group in whose interest it is to restrict the freedom of information legislation.
``The reasons put forward to justify the introduction of this Bill are not credible. The explanation given by the Taoiseach recently that the five year rule was impractical and dangerous because of sensitive negotiations relating to the peace process was misleading insofar as there is a separate amendment in the act (Section 24) relating to the North which specifically prevents disclosure of records where their release could adversely affect matters relating to the Peace Process.
``I would ask the Government to take on board the criticism made by the Information Commissioner in his report, published yesterday, where he expresses his view that the amendments proposed by the Government ``could create serious legal and other problems in the future and which have the potential to result in costly litigation'' and the view of other groups, such as the Irish Council of Civil Liberties who have expressed their opposition to the proposed amendments. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties reacted to the Government's proposed amendments to the Freedom of Information Act saying that they had ``damaged the way the Government does its business'' and went on to describe these moves as ``indefensible''.
``There are a number of proposals contained within the government's Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill which I find particularly worrying. These are:
§ Section 19 - That papers of committees of officials will be defined as Government papers which could be exempted from release. This to be given effect by substituting for the definition of ``Government'', currently contained in section 19(6), what the Information Commissioner has described as ``A much more far-reaching and constitutionally unrecognisable definition''. This would include within the definition of Government a committee of unelected officials.
§ Section 20 - The provision allowing secretaries-generals of departments to issue certificates effectively directing ministers not to release documents on the basis that the record contains matter relating to the deliberate process of a Department. Why is it that a Secretary General will be able to certify a record of whatever nature relating to the deliberative process of any Department whereas a Minister may declare a record exempt only if he or she is convinced that the record concerned is of sufficient sensitivity or seriousness to justify doing so.
§ The exemption for letters between Ministers relating to matters before Cabinet.
§ The exemption for records held by a State body relating to tribunals of inquiry.
§ The extension on the exemption of Cabinet records from 5 years to 10 years.
``The five-year limit for Cabinet records corresponds with the maximum life span of government which means that records relating to a government currently in power could not become subject to disclosure under the current legislation.
``The provision of the act for the ``five-year rule'' was due to commence from April 1st this year, and this government because of its second term in office was due to be affected by it. It is my strong suspicion that the Government is motivated in its actions by fear of embarrassment over decisions taken at Cabinet meetings during the term of the 28th Dáil. Why else did this review commence just two weeks after the formation of the new cabinet. Is there sensitive material pertaining to the honey deal between Minister Woods and the representatives of the religious institutions that this Taoiseach wants to keep under wraps?
``The lack of respect for open and democratic government which is seen in the Government's proposed amendments to the Freedom of Information Act is further highlighted by the absence of the Minister and Junior Minister at the Department of Finance from the Houses of the Oireachtas on a week when the Seanad and the Committee on Finance and the Public Service are discussing the proposed amendments. If the Taoiseach is not embarrassed by their absence then he damn well should be.
``In conclusion, I would strongly caution against any changes which would restrict the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. I ask the Government to support this Bill introduced by the Labour party, and extend the period of review of the Freedom of Information Act for another year to allow a meaningful consultation in advance of any changes to the Freedom of Information Act.''
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