Minister Howlin’s Freedom of Information Bill clears all Stages in the Oireachtas

Issued 2 October 2014

Today, Thursday 2 October 2014, the Freedom of Information Bill 2013 completed its passage to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Bill will now be forwarded immediately to President Michael D. Higgins for his signature. It is expected that the legislation will on the Statute Book by mid-October of this year.

Speaking as he left the Seanad Chamber this afternoon, Minister Howlin said, “The Freedom of Information Act, 2014, as it will be known, represents a sea-change in how FOI applications will be treated in Ireland, restoring and enhancing the legislation to the spirit originally intended. The Act will encompass some highly significant improvements and innovations which will substantially transform the environment for FOI in Ireland.”

Among the important enhancements is the provision which extends FOI to all public bodies as a default – a reversal of the current position that a public body is included only if it is explicitly scheduled under the Bill. This will result in a number of long-established high profile exclusions from FOI being brought under the scope of the legislation including:

  • An Garda Síochána
  • Public financial bodies, such as NTMA, NAMA, NPRF, and the NDFA;
  • the Central Bank of Ireland, and
  • the refugee agencies

The Bill also allows FOI to apply to non-public bodies that are in receipt of significant funding by the Exchequer by way of Ministerial Order.

Other notable facets include:

  • The fact that the vast majority of FOI requests will now be free of charge as The €15 application fee will be abolished for all FOI requests and the Search, Retrieval and Copying fees will only apply where the preparation time for a request exceeds 5 hours;
  • The introduction of a cap on the amount of Search Retrieval and Copying fees that can be charged at €500 (25 hours approx.);
  • The Extension of the powers of the Information Commissioner;
  • The introduction of a new penalty for a person convicted of the deliberate altering or destruction of records which are the subject of an FOI request;
  • A general right of access to records held by public bodies. In applying exemptions, the right of access should only be set aside where the exemptions very clearly support a refusal of access;
  • The strict definition of what constitutes a Cabinet record is also restored. Communications between members of Government will no longer be exempt from FOI;
  • The ten-year prohibition on the release of Cabinet records will be halved, restoring it to the original five years – one of the most liberal provisions on access to Cabinet records internationally;
  • The mandatory power to refuse an FOI request relating to Government records or records to be submitted to Government introduced in 2003, is removed;
  • The power for Secretaries General of Government Departments to certify the existence of a deliberative process with no scope for appeal is being repealed, and the public interest test applying to records relating to the deliberative process is restored;
  • Where a commercial state body provides a service under a contract to a public body subject to FOI, the records relating to that service will now be subject to FOI.
  • A key new initiative included requires public bodies to pre-empt FOI by preparing and furnishing publication schemes which will set out the information an organisation publishes on its website such as detail on the body’s role, responsibilities and activities. This is consistent with international best practice in this area to promote the proactive publication of information outside of FOI.

The FOI reform legislation is being introduced in tandem with the development of a new Code of Practice in relation to the operation of FOI. This essential development is designed to assist all public bodies which will be subject to FOI under the new Act to enhance their capacity and procedures to deal effectively and efficiently with FOI requests.