Freedom of Information legislation is being undermined by government actions – Matt Carthy TD
‘There is never a minute of a Minister’s meeting with their Secretary General outlining how decisions are made’ – this was an example provided by Cavan Monaghan Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy last week in the Dáil when he challenged the government’s approach to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. He was speaking during a Sinn Féin motion on the matter last week.
While journalists have been highlighting issues with the FOI process for some time, the issue came to a head in recent weeks due to government mishandling of requests in relation to the appointment of Katherine Zappone as a Special Envoy to the UN, and the related Merriongate scandal.
Deputy Carthy told the Dáil:
“Freedom of information legislation has become a bedrock of democracy across the western world. It is in place to provide transparency, accountability and confidence in government. It is in place to allow citizens access the decisions made and the process that led to them.
“We have seen in recent weeks that, in Ireland, rather than providing such confidence, the actions of some Departments and organisations with regard to adherence to FOI legislation is diminishing it. There are Ministers who have deleted and destroyed Government records related to how they carry out their work. If we had a functional FOI system in place, that would not be tolerable. Plenty of examples have been cited this evening of FOI requests being made which were denied, responded to with partial information or, in all too many cases, told information did not exist when it did.
“For example, a number of weeks ago I submitted an FOI request to each Department asking for all correspondence in relation to the infamous event in the Merrion Hotel. I received a response from the Department of the Taoiseach which stated no record existed of any correspondence, documentation or minute related to that event. But, from the Minister for Tourism’s, Department I received documentation that indicated that the Department of the Taoiseach was in correspondence with that very Department. It was only when the FOI information was printed in national media and it was inferred that the Department of the Taoiseach had indicated that no such documentation existed, that that Department released the document we already had from another Department. That happens all the time.”
“It beggars belief that in all the FOI information made available there is never a minute of a Minister sitting down for a meeting with a Secretary General deciding how decisions are made. The most basic small and medium-sized companies would have minutes of their chief executive talking to the chairperson of the board, which is a similar relationship, particularly when decisions are made that impact on finances or policy changes.
“Other organisations are particularly adept at avoiding transparency. The State broadcaster, RTÉ, refused over half of all FOI requests last year. I know from our interactions in the Committee of Public Accounts that if the RTÉ board continues to operate as it does, it will have no credibility in declaring “The truth matters” on the banners it employs.
“It is symptomatic of the way too many State agencies interact with requests for freedom of information. This needs to change. I commend Deputy Mairéad Farrell on bringing this motion to the House and all her diligent work to ensure more transparency, more accountability and better answers about how decisions are made.
“We ask that Ministers stop destroying records relating to their work. That should not be too big of an ask but apparently it is. It is also important we ensure that minutes are kept of key decisions, particularly when they relate to expenditure or policy changes, regardless of who is in that meeting. In many cases, I am sure it will provide Ministers with cover. When they come up with what might seem to be implausible stories, as we referenced earlier, would it not be helpful if a minute of conversations that had taken apparently place was available?
“We call on the Government and each Minister to ensure that all agencies and bodies under their remit answerable to FOI legislation adhere to the letter and the spirit of that. We want to see government based on transparency and accountability. I think the people want that too and that the Government needs to start acting accordingly.”