Department of Public Expenditure & Reform plays fast and loose with the facts on FOI

The lead Department for FOI in Ireland, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has issued a press statement outlining its position on the late-stage amendments to the FOI Bill. Unfortunately we don’t get an explanation of why many additions came so late in the process. Indeed, we don’t get much of anything besides some bullet points.

But one bullet point in particular on the fees issue struck us as a bit nonsensical. The Department said:

– FOI fees are an accepted feature of FOI legislation in several OECD countries -international best practice standards acknowledge the principle that countries can choose to levy a contribution towards the cost of providing FOI.

Really? That’s the first we’ve heard of it. Maybe the Department is talking about the concept of fees generally, and not the concept of upfront FOI fees that Ireland specialises in? Some countries do charge for the process of searching for and retrieving information. But only Ireland, Canada and Israel charge upfront for requests.

But citing “OECD members” struck us as odd too. According to the Department’s own website the OECD recommended that Ireland abolish upfront FOI fees in a 2008 Public Management Review. The report says:

The Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act of 2003 introduced up-front fees for requests and appeals (there are no charges for requests in relation to personal information) which seems to have reduced the number of information requests and which has de facto limited the impact of the original Act. In the interest of social cohesion and trust in government, greater efficiency and the fight against corruption and greater transparency should be an ongoing objective even if it can sometimes be uncomfortable and/or costly. The government should reduce barriers to public information by making all requests under the Freedom of Information Act 1997 free and extend its reach to a wider range of state agencies, such as Vocational Education Committees (VECs). While user charges may limit frivolous requests (and therefore reduce burdens on the Public Service), they also serve as a disincentive to greater openness.

But the OECD is not the first international group to recommend the abolition of fees. The Council of Europe (CoE) through the Group of States against corruption (GRECO) recommended in its 2008 compliance report on Ireland (and not for the first time) consider abolishing upfront fees. Money quote:

With the adoption of the Freedom of Information Act and the connected modernisation process of public administration the Irish authorities provided for a more transparent administration and these moves were accordingly considered important by GRECO, as indicated in the Evaluation Report. However, the introduction of “up-front fees” in 2003 goes in the opposite direction…. GRECO very much regrets that the authorities have not come to a conclusion to abolish the “up front fees” and that it appears that the opinion of the Information Commissioner – who is responsible for keeping the Freedom of Information Act under review – has not been adhered to.

Does the “international best practice” argument hold water? Quite simply, no. In fact the Department has itself been told by international organisations that we’re out of line with the norm.

Last week it was agreed that Israel is reducing its fees, meaning that Ireland will have the glory of having the most expensive FOI regime in the world. Of course Ireland is in a very small group of 3 countries (Canada being the other) out of nearly 100 countries that charges citizens upfront for FOI requests.

International best practice – you’re having a laugh.

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