The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Mr. Brendan Howlin T.D. today announced the publication of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill to restore Ireland’s Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation and extend FOI to all public bodies in line with the commitment included in the Programme for Government.
The Minister said:-
“The restoration and extension of FOI is central to the delivery Government’s reform agenda to secure greater openness, transparency and accountability of public governance.
In addition to reversing the substantive restrictions on FOI introduced in 2003 and extending FOI to all public bodies – as set out in the General Scheme of the Bill published in July 2012 – the FOI Bill published today contains a number of important innovations to update, modernise and enhance Ireland’s FOI legislation.
The Bill requires public bodies to prepare and publish “publication schemes” consistent with international best practice in this area to promote the proactive publication of information outside of FOI.
The Bill also set out key statutory principles to guide public bodies in the performance of their functions under the Act including the need to achieve greater openness and to strengthen the accountability of public bodies.
In addition, an important provision is included in the Bill to confirm that there is a general right of access to records held by public bodies and in applying exemptions, the right of access should only be set aside where the exemptions very clearly support a refusal of access.
This is intended to overcome any uncertainty inadvertently caused by the Supreme Court judgment in the Rotunda case and to reiterate the principle underlying the original legislation that it is the duty of public bodies to release information to the greatest extent possible consistent with the public interest and the right to privacy.
Furthermore, in the interests of minimising costs to requesters and to avoid administrative duplication, the Bill provides for an explicit linkage to other access regimes such as the EU-based Regulations on the Re-use of Public Sector Information and on Access to Information on the Environment.
Important changes are also being made in the Bill to enhance and clarify the powers of the Information Commissioner including a provision to allow the Commissioner to apply for a court order requiring public bodies to comply with a binding decision of the Commissioner.
In light of the extension of FOI to all public bodies as announced by the Minister last week amendments are being made to ensure, for example, that highly sensitive security and intelligence information is protected as well as the refusal of information if, for example, it would have a serious effect on management of the financial interests of the State. An exclusion is also being provided to protect the security of network systems from cyber attacks and to facilitate full and unrestricted information exchange at EU level on cyber security issues.
A new provision is also included in the Bill which sets out the responsibilities of public bodies in dealing with records relating to data held electronically.
The Minister said:-
“the current legislation was essentially designed to deal primarily with paper records and the legislative framework for FOI needs to be updated to reflect the transformation that has taken place in ICT since that time. Many requesters use new technologies and seek records in electronic format and we must work with that and try to facilitate the provision of records in open format as much as possible in line with our Open Government objectives”.
It is planned that the FOI Bill will be enacted in the autumn in parallel with the introduction of the Code of Practice for FOI. The Minister will consider in the context of the enactment of the Bill, the proposals on the General Scheme made in the pre-legislative scrutiny report of the Oireachtas recently published by the Oireachtas Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform committee