International NGOs call on Ireland to #abolishFOIfees

Access Info Europe and the Centre For Law and Democracy have called on the Irish government to abolish FOI fees entirely. In an open letter written to Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin, Helen Darbishire from Access Info and Toby Mendel from the Centre for Law and Demcoracy wrote:

Various arguments have been put forward to justify charging up-front fees simply for making requests, none of which can be justified by reference to either international standards or comparative law and practice. Charging up-front fees for information requests violates international standards. It is clearly unacceptable to charge people to exercise a fundamental right. This is reflected in the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents, which expressly prohibits up-front charges for requests (Article 7(1)). Indeed, the drafters of that Convention considered and specifically
rejected a request from Ireland to allow for such charges.

Furthermore, charging up-front fees is out of step with other countries. Ireland is the only country in Europe to have mandatory up front charges for all FOI requests. The only other country which permits such charges is Malta, but these are not routinely applied. Even counting Malta, only 5% of 39 European countries and 16 of 95 countries worldwide (17%) charge fees, something campaigners in many of these countries are working to abolish. The problem is exacerbated by the high level of the Irish fee which, at €15, is higher than the fee charged in any other country that we are aware of.

They continue:

International standards also govern the fees that may be charged for satisfying a request. The UN Human Rights Committee has indicated that in no circumstances may fees be charged which would “constitute an unreasonable impediment to access to information” (2011 General Comment on Article 19, para. 19). The Council of Europe Convention only permits a fee to be charged “for a copy of the official document, which should be reasonable and not exceed the actual costs of reproduction and delivery of the document” (Article 7(2)). In other words, only photocopying and postage charges are permitted.

And…

Arguments justifying the charging of costs other than photocopying and postage charges are flawed on three grounds.

First, information held by public authorities belongs to the public, having been created with taxpayers’ money.

Second, the cost of responding to requests is heavily correlated with the efficiency of public bodies’ record management systems. It is not appropriate to pass this on to members of the public exercising their right to know, which effectively rewards poor record management practices.

Third, charging high fees exerts a significant chilling effect on making requests, and there are strong public interest arguments against this, due to the significant benefits which flow from transparency. These include enabling democratic public oversight over government activity, identifying inefficiency, waste and corruption, contributing to better decision- making, and fostering greater public participation in and ownership of development activities, all of which result in savings to government, even if this is hard to quantify. Opening up government information has also been shown to make an important contribution to economic growth in knowledge-based economies, based on entrepreneurial reuse of public data. There is also the importance in a democracy of the public knowing what its government is doing, something which it is impossible to put a price tag on.

Read the full letter here.

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