Howlin reverses controversial FOI changes

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has been forced into an embarrassing U-turn on controversial changes to the country’s Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.

The minister withdrew an amendment intended to introduce multiple charges for FOI requests, citing concerns that civil servants would use it as a money-making exercise.

“There are genuine concerns that it would be used by some in the administrative side of the house to provide a charging system that is not intended,” Mr Howlin said.

“To that end, with the permission of the committee, I propose to withdraw this amendment.”

His U-turn follows a public outcry, including criticism from journalists and politicians who claimed his planned changes were an attempt to make it more difficult for people to submit requests.

Mr Howlin said the amendment will be reworded to “make it beyond confusion or doubt or misinterpretation”.

He said he and his officials will work to clarify the amendment by the time the legislation reaches the next stage of consideration in the Oireachtas.

Amendment 33 included a clause stating that where requests are made up of two or more parts seeking distinct information from different areas, the person making the request would have to pay a fee for each part.

Mr Howlin confirmed before a Select Sub-Committee on Public Expenditure and Reform today that a single FOI request, which might require legwork from within different departments, will be a single €15 fee.

But he cautioned this should not be abused.

“I know there are people who principally think there should be no fee regime and that’s a particularly legitimate point of view,” Mr Howlin said.

“But I would put it to the committee, if you accept that a reasonable contribution of €15 for a distinct application is reasonable then you can’t allow for that provision to be circumvented by bolting on entirely separate, extraneous, distinct different matters on to the same FOI request.”

The Coalition had promised in its programme for government to restore the FOI Act to what it was before the former Fianna Fáil administration overhauled it and introduced fees.

Mr Howlin has insisted the initial €15 fee will be retained. He previously said it was a small price to pay given the average FOI request costs €600 to process.

The Freedom of Information Bill 2013, which is expected to be written into law by Christmas, will remove restrictions on information and will restore access to cabinet documents after five years.

It is aimed at improving transparency in Government.

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