When Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin was being asked question after question last November about the addition of a new section to the FOI Bill 2013 he attempted to diffuse the row by giving the appearance of a climbdown. He said:
I have given some consideration to the views expressed by colleagues and, with my officials, re-examined the text of amendment No. 33. On a simple, plain English reading, I am confident that it will achieve the purpose I have set out. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that there are genuine concerns that the provision might be used by some on the administrative side of the house to implement a charging system that is not intended. To that end, with the permission of the committee, I propose to withdraw the amendment and, in co-operation with my officials, devise a form of wording to take it beyond confusion, doubt or misinterpretation that what I have set out is what I intend to be achieved. We have already begun working on it with the Parliamentary Counsel; had we been able to do so, I would have brought forward the revised amendment today. I ask members to facilitate me to that end, with the objective of continuing our discussion on Report Stage.
I also acknowledge that some people hold the view that there should, on principle, be no fee regime. It is a perfectly legitimate point of view. However, I put it to the committee that if we accept that a contribution of €15 for a distinct application is reasonable, we cannot allow that provision to be circumvented by bolting entirely separate, extraneous and distinct matters onto the same FOI request.
There was no climbdown. It was merely a tactical retreat. Fees are being retained, and multi-faceted fees are still being introduced. It is now May 22, and we still haven’t seen the revised wording, or the start of the Report Stage that Howlin mentioned.
The only mention we have of the Bill since November is a speech Howlin gave in late March. It’s worth reading the whole thing for a lesson in double speak – but this was interesting:
What we had sought to do was to allow for disaggregation of multi-faceted requests by issue. The fear expressed at the time was that the amendment proposed would tilt the balance of power too much towards the responding body. There is of course an issue of scale here too. There is a difference between a request with two parts and one with ten!
I expect to bring my revised proposals to Government shortly for approval with a view to advising the Committee shortly thereafter.
What Howlin doesn’t mention here is that multi-faceted requests exist only because the €15 upfront fee exists. He actually makes light of asking for several things per request, as if that’s a bad thing. Sometimes detailed FOI requests are needed, and sometimes you want to maximise the return for your €15 – as this blog has. But the workaround of the fee is now being legislated against.
And as Conor Ryan in the Irish Examiner reported today, some councils are already trying to impose extra fees, before the law has even passed:
Another feature of the responses is the interpretation by local authorities of controversial changes to the Freedom of Information Act which have been criticised by transparency groups.
When the request regarding the Carrigtwohill underpass was initially put to the council, it considered it a multi-faceted query.
This was because it was listed alongside three other problems highlighted in the same report of the local government auditor.
The council said that even though all four queries arose from a single audit report, presented to the council at the end of 2013, they covered four separate departments and should be liable for four separate charges when the new Freedom of Information bill is passed.
A similar view was taken of queries of the annual audit done on Limerick council.
This approach brought to life the worst fears of transparency campaigners who succeeded in delaying the attempt by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin to restrict the ability of the public to submitted Freedom of Information requests that straddled different issues within public bodies.
His amendment was billed as bid to tackle “multi-faceted” requests and charge €15 for each separate theme in a query.
However, when Mr Howlin agreed to withdraw his amendment temporarily to allow him reconsider it, he denied public bodies would interpret his amendment in this way.
We still await the new wording from Brendan Howlin but fully expect the multi-faceted fee regime to be re-introduced.
He should be renamed the Minister for Secrecy.