Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Six months of Freedom - July

What were Ireland's journalists doing for the last six months? Freedom of Information requests, that's what. We look at what they uncovered ...


July was all about biscuits, obesity, tax evasion - and Freedom of Information

Freedom of Information Act reform is welcome
Harry McGee in the Irish Times commented on the proposed new Freedom of Information Bill, optimistically: "Overall, there is a change of emphasis apparent in the Act, with a presumption towards release and a right of access to records. How successful that aim will be depends on the manner in which the legislation is interpreted".

Act of destroying a record to be an offence under new FoI Bill
The Irish Times pointed out that the Bill proposed to make destroying records an offence. Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly was quoted as saying the Bill was 'positive for transparency' but pointed out that Minister had to “fight quite a battle” with some public bodies to ensure that they were included. (Which, given the number of bodies excluded or only partially excluded, suggests he lost a lot of battles).

Ireland begins move towards joining global transparency plan
Transparency seemed to be the flavour of the moment, with Judith Crosbie in the Irish Times reporting on the government's plans to make the country more open and transparent by joining President Obama's Open Government Partnership. That was a long time ago, of course.

IMF praises and damns Ireland's state of fiscal transparency
A more skeptical view was expressed by economic commentator Michael Hennigan, founder and editor of the Finfacts website. Giving the mixed response from government departments to FOI requests, he suggested the IMF's commentary 'makes clear that the accounting systems currently in place are closer to the times of Queen Victoria than the computer age.' As a result, he says, 'there is no uniform set of accounting rule and procedures applying to government departments, extra-budgetary funds, semi-state bodies, local governments, and public corporations.'

Waiting list for nursing homes set to double
Down to the nitty-gritty, Paul Cullen in the Irish Times had a story about nursing home waiting lists: documents disclosed under FOI 'show that the department changed the rules of the scheme for a time earlier this year in spite of legal advice that it would be unconstitutional to do so'.

Head of elderly support group Alone urges home care regulation
Again in the Times, Pamela Duncan Irish Times wrote about complaints about care home staff disclosed under FOI: 'a threat by a home help that she would only shower a disabled stroke victim twice a week because she was “sick to death” with problems caused by the client while another involved a home help who left a bucket of urine in an older man’s room, and used soiled clothes to wash him'.

HSE forked out €116k to rent beds for the obese
Another health story, Clodagh Sheehy in the Herald revealed that '26 operations to reduce weight were carried out in 2011, a further 22 last year and 13 this year so far.'

Reilly forced health cover price hike
Finally the Irish Independent's Sarah McCabe revealed that controversial Minister for Health James Reilly had 'forced all the country's health insurers to hike charges following a request from the VHI and against the advice of the sector's watchdog'. This, she pointed out, 'resulted in an estimated 300,000 people on the cheaper health insurance policies paying more for their premiums.'

Accounts reveal Greyhound board did not properly tender for some contracts
Meanwhile, dogged investigative reporter Conor Ryan of the Irish Examiner revealed some shady-looking goings on in the greyhound racing business, with the Irish Greyhound Board admitting it failed to follow the rules for tendering. Despite the precarious position facing the company, he pointed out, 'in 2011 there was a 35% increase in the expenses claimed by members of its board, rising to €71,273 for its seven directors'.

Revenue inquiry on Irish clients of HSBC with Swiss accounts
In the first of two stories about income tax, Carl O'Brien of the Irish Times obtained internal Revenue briefing documents on investigations of Irish people with Swiss accounts in the HSBC Bank. 'An initial investigation into 33 account-holders with addresses in Ireland has resulted in settlements with 16 individuals worth more than €4 million.'

Undeclared rental income targeted in Revenue crackdown
The same day, Carl reported on Revenue briefings on undeclared income from landlords: 'Officials uncovered €42 million owed to the exchequer by landlords based on an audit of more than 700 property owners. The average yield per case was €56,000.'

Moloney and McIntyre seek access to British regiment’s war diaries
Also in the Irish Times in July, Gerry Moriarty wrote about the attempts of journalist Ed Moloney and former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre to use the UK Freedom of Information Act to cast light on the IRA murder of Jean McConville. In the kind of request that would not be possible in the South, they want to access the war diaries of the British Army’s First Gloucestershire Regiment who were operating in west Belfast between 1971 and 1973.

Boat for Hillary was Gilmore's priciest present
A more light-hearted report from Cormac Murphy in the Herald revealed the gifts given to official visitors to Dublin: Tom Cruise was presented with a copy of the €15 book A History Of Ireland In 100 Objects, while Hillary Clinton got a miniature three-person currach designed by ceramicist Clodagh Redden, costing €160. 

Meet the cookie monsters
Finally, behind the Murdoch paywall, Gary Meneely in Sun discovered how much the Irish government had been spending on refreshments and entertainments: €900k in two years, what the newspaper describes as 'shocking'.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

7 Ways the Irish Government is Taking Your Freedom of Information Away

In 2011, when Irish voters turfed out their government after the chaos of the banking collapse, one of the pledges the incoming parties made was to restore the country's Freedom of Information Law. But what they are proposing is not a restoration - and now they're going to weaken it even more.

Leinster House, home of Ireland's legislature.(picture: Cian Ginty)

Last Wednesday, 6 November, Ireland's Department of Public Expenditure and Reform published an eight-page document. It was a list of proposed amendments to the new Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill. And it was a bombshell that left campaigners reeling. One remarked, "If passed, Freedom of Information is dead".

If you care about openness in Irish political life, you might as well know what you're not getting - and  what you're about to lose. Here are seven ways they're taking your Freedom of Information away.

1. Not getting rid of charges

Want to ask a public body a question? That will be €15 please. Unlike any other country in Europe, Ireland charges a fee to make a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

This was not always the case: charges were only introduced when the Act was amended in 2003. Nobody really disputes why this was done: to discourage requests. And it worked. The number of FOI enquiries fell by half.

The new government elected in 2011 after the Banking fiasco made a pledge to the nation: to reverse the Law to what it had been before it was 'undermined'.

Which meant, obviously, getting rid of charges. But they seem to have concluded that undermining isn't really a big deal. They've decided to keep the €15 fee.

You might think €15 is not that much: after all, answering your request will cost something. But this is information the taxpayer has already paid for. And it probably costs more than €15 to process your cheque in the first place. The only purpose of charging is to stop you from asking impertinent questions.

And if you want to find out things even the government doesn't know - because it's not collected centrally - you will need a thick wallet. If you wanted to gather data from health boards and hospitals in any part of the UK - including Northern Ireland - it would cost you exactly £0.00. But in Ireland, a request to the 5 Health and Safety Executive organisations and 23 voluntary hospitals would set you back €420.

And that's if they play nice...

2. Not making appeals free

A lot of people who ask FOI questions get put off very easily with a refusal. But anyone with experience of FOI will be familiar with the game of Transparency Tennis. It works like this.

Round 1: You ask a public authority for information they don't want to give you. They give you some information, and refuse the rest.

Round 2: You write back to them, asking for an internal review. They think about it and disclose a bit more information, but withhold the rest.

Round 3: You write to the Information Commissioner (or whatever the role is called in your jurisdiction) and ask them to investigate.

Round 4: The Information Commissioner writes to the organisation insisting they give you the information and, eventually, rather reluctantly, they comply.

The system ensures that you will get the information you are legally entitled to. All you need is persistence, and patience.

And in Ireland, money.

Asking an organisation to review their decision, and then going to the Information Commissioner, costs you nothing in most countries. In Ireland it is €75 for the first and €150 for the second. The government has said they will reduce this - but it will still set you back €80 to get information that's yours by right.

And if each of those HSE organisations and health boards wants to dig their heels in? That would be €2,240 ...

3. Not supporting the Information Commissioner

Even if you have enough money to play Transparency Tennis, in Ireland you'll need a lot more patience than in other countries.

The Scottish Information Commissioner's office set out to complete their cases in an average of 20 weeks. They managed 15.9.

The Irish Information Commissioner, starved of funding, struggles to complete cases in years, let alone weeks.   Less than one in five cases are completed within the Scottish average. Well over a third are still outstanding after a year. One case was opened  on 3 December 2008 - and decided on 13 December 2012. That's over four years later.

This kind of delay makes a nonsense of Freedom of Information. Any public body which does not want to provide information knows - especially if the requester is a journalist working to a deadline - that by the time they evenually have to provide an answer, the information will be out of date. Why bother to reply, when you can make people wait?

4. Not making the Information Commissioner subject to FOI

The job of Information Commissioner is absolutely essential to make the system work. She's there to defend the interests of people like you and me,  and make sure authorities don't abuse their position. Which makes it all the more important that we can see that the Commissioner is doing a good job, and acting fairly.

Does the Irish Information Commisioner make the right decisions? I don't know. And I can't find out.

In England, and in Scotland, all decisions of the relevant Commissioner are published online. This makes it possible to see how decisions are being made, and confirm that the Commissioner is acting fairly, and reasonably. But in Ireland, most decision notices are not published. It's up to the Commissioner to decide whether to publish them or not, and why. And even when they do, sometimes they refuse to reveal which public body they're talking about.

And if you think of asking for them under the Freedom of Information Act, forget it. Bizarrely, one thing you can't access under the Act - unlike in England or Scotland - is the Commissioner's case files.

Probably the Commissioner does a good job - she's just been appointed European Ombudsman. But really, who knows? Not me or you.

5. Being Afraid of the Police

When speaking about the plans for the Bill to a Dail Committee, the Minister in charge of FOI - Brendan Howlin - made an astonishing admission:

"organisations such as the Garda Síochána are reluctant to enter this territory at all.  It regards any trespass into this territory as being almost dangerous."
 The CIA, the FBI, and the London Metropolitan Police are all subject to Freedom of Information. What special secrets do the Gardai have that these organisations do not have? Even the Police Service of Northern Ireland publishes a helpful log of what it has disclosed. But  the Minister is wary of trespassing on the territory of the Garda Síochána.

Well, fair enough. It's not like we're paying them. Oh, wait. We are.

The new Bill proposes to extend FOI to the Gardai - but only for 'administrative' functions - not operational ones. It seems that, even though the FOI Act, like its counterparts in other countries, has perfectly good safeguards to prevent harmful disclosures, it's more than the Minister's job is worth to trespass on Garda territory. Don't expect to find out anything about penalty points, for instance.

So far, you might think none of these is a big deal. They've all been around for a while, and they're not exactly new.

But then, there was 6 November. That's when it really turned bad.

As David Farrell of University College Dublin points out, the amendments published last week came very late in the process: 'Introducing these changes just before Committee stage makes it all but impossible to roll them back, and any attempt to block it in the Dáil can be easily dealt with.'

Farrell called these amendments 'a cynical move' that 'will make FOI prohibitively expensive and therefore, in large part, unworkable.'

6. Charging a fee for each question

If introducing fees was a punch in the face for FOI, this is the double whammy.

When faced with charges for requests, some journalists did not give in so easily. They found a (sort of) way around the problem: multifaceted requests. As Gavin Sheridan of The Story.ie explains, by submitting one request with several questions to a public body, they could ask for a variety of information with just a single €15 fee. 

Now the government is proposing - at the last moment - to charge for each question. As Gavin says, 'This would kill most requests this blog has ever sent. It would also kill most requests by journalists who are trying to maximise the amount of information they can get for the unjustified €15 fee in the first place. The €15 fee created multifaceted requests.'

'Almost every single one of my recent FOI requests,' says Conor Ryan, investigative reporter for the Irish Examiner, 'would have been gutted by the proposed amendment.'

What the government are proposing would seriously hamper proper journalism in Ireland. Why would they do that?

7. Charging you for looking for the information they're not giving you

One other thing that hampers Freedom of Information in Ireland is the existence of search and retrieval fees. Most countries don't have them. Germany does, with a maximum of €800. But in Ireland, you can be charged the full cost of finding the information you've already paid for. One Dail deputy abandoned an enquiry when he was told it would cost €1200. Another department charged €15,000.

Now the government is proposing to include the cost of determining whether they have the records, extracting them, getting the information from them, and preparing a list of them. There is no question of a cap. This virtually incentivises bad records management.

Unless, of course, you are asking for information about the environment. In that case, because the law emanates from Brussels and not the government, it cannot be changed - requests under the Access to Environmental Information Regulations are free (except for copying costs).

All in all, as Gavin Sheridan points out, these changes would turn the FOI clock back to before the original Act in 1997. At this stage in the legislative process, it seems highly likely these amendments will pass. And Ireland will be left with a Freedom of Information Act that belongs to the past.

Ireland is a country of secrets. There are lots of things we don't know - except we do.

The opposite of openness is not secrecy: it's gossip. Everything that went wrong in Ireland in the past decades - child sex abuse, corruption, political violence, bad banks - was known about, by lots of people and talked about behind closed doors. The dogs in the street knew. But not officially.

We can get our dirty secrets out in the open, discuss them, and do something about them. Or we can gossip.

Is that what people really want?

And if not, what are you going to do about it?

http://www.whoismytd.com/ Most TDs and Senators respond to letters, not emails.

Cost of a stamp: 60 cent. Cost of saving Transparency in your country: Priceless.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Kids, Bees and Migrant workers - and the Herald draws a blank

The big FOI story of recent days was the shocking revelations in RTE's Prime Time about conditions in some crèches in Dublin. Using Freedom of Information requests, the programme makers found that 75% of pre-schools and creches breached HSE regulations in 2012, but with few consequences.

Several newspapers picked up the story. "Details of 4,000 creche inspection reports dating back to 2011 make for deeply disturbing reading," wrote Miriam Donohue in the Irish Independent. Shane Phelan pointed out that records obtained by the paper, which showed issues cropping up as far back as 2008 in in crèches all around the country, were only obtainable through Freedom of Information requests, making it difficult for parents to judge how suitable their childcare arrangements actually were. Referring to another, different scandal, Kim Bielenberg observed that "It is no exaggeration to suggest that the state seems to be more efficient at inspecting meat plants than the places where we house small kids during the day."

The Irish Times, meanwhile, extended concerns to other age groups. FOI requests by the paper showed problems in care for elderly people in their own homes. Citing cases of misconduct in an area where there is no statutory inspection programme, the report added: "there is undoubtedly also a cohort of clients availing of home help and home care services who, because of their advanced age, do not have the capacity to complain. This means there could be examples of bad practice which are simply not on the HSE’s radar."

The Irish Examiner reported on the priorities of the Department of Health, which has recently disclosed spending of €111,022 sending officials to study negotiation skills at the prestigious Said School of Business at Oxford University since 2006.

Health, in the opinion of Information Commissioner Emily O'Reilly, is one of the two worst performing departments on Freedom of Information, the other being Justice. In a story reported on by the Independent, Evening Herald and Examiner, she told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform that there was a culture within the two departments that made them the worst offenders for disclosing data. Over the past five years, she said, Government departments and bodies had cited 230 enactments containing non-disclosure provisions for not handing over information.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter, in the news recently for disclosing police information on a political opponent, and then coming under attack for failing to take a breathalyser test when stopped (he claimed inability due to asthma, and the Gardai have no record of the incident), was defended by a former minister, Liz O'Donnell in the Irish Independent: "Someone is out to get Alan Shatter". But she admitted the department's very poor record on transparency. "The concept of freedom of information is anathema to the Department of Justice," she wrote, adding that as opposition justice spokesperson, she experienced huge frustration in extracting information in parliamentary questions. "Replies to questions were minimalist, bordering on the misleading."

There were more excellent cases of how Freedom of Information can be used to discover solid, old-fashioned reporting. The Irish Times, covering Environment Minister Coveney's vote against an EU ban on insecticides, revealed that his department had received “information and/or correspondence” from insecticide manufacturer Bayer.

In Northern Ireland, the Irish News obtained details of fines for employing illegal migrants: Penalties of over £427,000 have been imposed on traders since 2010, and a total of 50 businesses were penalised between 2010 and March this year.

Finally, Dublin's Evening Herald has been on the case of Derek Keating, Fine Gael TD for Dublin West, who came in for criticism when he claimed credit for helping to secure an extension to a local non-sectarian school, the Educate Together school in Griffeen Valley. After a local free newspaper reported the school principal's claim that the TD had had no part whatsoever in winning the extension, one of his election workers was pictured on CCTV disposing of hundreds of copies of the paper. Keating insisted that he had been in contact with the Department of Education. But when the Herald used an FOI request to see the correspondence, they found that the TD had made representations on behalf of two other schools - but none in connection with Griffeen Valley.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Viagra, A Fortress of Silence, and Ming in Two Places

Viagra: image by digital pretzel via Stock.xchng.

The latest stories generated by FOI requests in Ireland.

The affluent Dublin South region is spending close to a million Euro a year on Viagra, according to figures released to the Irish Independent. This may possibly be of interest to Minister Alan Shatter (62), recently in the news for disclosing confidential data about another deputy. Shatter, whose constituency is in Dublin South, has also been in the news when Laura, his saucy novel published 24 years ago ('When she loosened her grip and her body relaxed, he knew he was going to erupt') was reported to the Censorship of Publications Board.

Fellow Dublin South TD, independent Shane Ross (63), complained in the Irish Independent that the Garda Siochana - not subject to Freedom of Information requests - were 'a fortress of silence, permanently alienated from the current demands for transparency'. His requests for information about expenses have not had a response for three months.

He refers to concerns raised about accusations of collusion by the force with a convicted drug trafficker. An independent investigation by the Garda Siochana Ombudman Commission was highly critical of failures to disclose information. 63 requests were made for information - only 17 were handed over in an agreed three month time frame; six took more than a year and one has still not been disclosed. 'The independent probe took four years,' Ross points out, while a gardai internal verdict on the issue of penalty points - which found no serious offences had been committed - 'took a matter of months'.

The collusion allegations were touched on by Emily O'Reilly, Information Commissioner and Commissioner for Environmental Information, when presenting her offices' annual reports. She called attention to an increasing tendency by public bodies to put requests on the long finger. Failing to cover for staff leave and closing the FOI unit for an entire month were among the worrying behaviour by authorities. Meanwhile the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation had decided unilaterally and without warning to cease collecting statistics on FOI requests. Of 188 bodies covered by the Act, 110 had failed to provide returns, which made it impossible to produce monitoring figures.

Separately, she blamed the recession, and the need for medical details to support welfare claims, for the 38% increase in requests, mainly for personal data, received last year.

The Irish Times reported worrying differences in response times to cardiac emergencies in different regions.  Just one in three of the people in the Western region received attention within 8 minutes, the recommended target, compared to 60% in the East.

The Irish Independent revealed that Andrew McGuinness, son of the Public Accounts Committee chair John McGuinness, claimed over €30,000 in overtime while working as personal secretary to his father in the Department of Enterprise. Meanwhile, in an attempt to avoid negative publicity over the use of the government Gulfstream jet, details of the use of the jet are to be published proactively.

Finally, it was disclosed that independent deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and a Fine Gael senator made use of a little-known rule of the Oireachtas to have themselves marked as present in Leinster House, when they were actually on a delegation to Morocco. Although the trip was funded by the Moroccan government, flights to the value of €6,333 were paid for by the Irish taxpayer.

Other stories:

A report in the Tyrone Times shows that 44 suicidal patients a week attend Accident and Emergency services in the area.

The British government is to hire private investigators to track down Irish students who have defaulted on over €4 million in student loans. This amounts to nearly half of the Irish students who received UK loans.

Inspection reports obtained by the Irish Independent show serious lapses in standards in childcare facilities.

The Central Bank was warned of problems with a James Joyce €10 coin before it was issued, according to broadcaster RTE. Although the coin featured an error in a quotation, it sold out within two days.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Money, Body Armour and the Pope

May's roundup of new stories from Ireland, north and south, obtained through Freedom of Information legislation

Image by Dunechaser via photopin cc

Military missing

Body armour, night vision goggles and rifle magazines are among the military items reported missing by the British Army in Northern Ireland, reports the Belfast News Letter.

Lower taxes for higher earners

Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton lobbied for overseas executives earning more than €500,000 to be allowed a lower tax rate - in effect, a 30% rate, according to the Irish Times.

Papal expenses

The Irish Independent reports that RTE spent almost €195,000 covering the election of Pope Francis. The money was spent on flights, accommodation, office rental and fees for local crews.

No smoke without fire

The families of the 48 young people who died in the Stardust disaster in 1981 are demanding a fresh inquiry after the disclosure under Freedom of Information of an earlier, unpublished draft of a report on the disaster, produced in 2008. They say this shows it was watered down before publication, the Irish Times reports.

Hotel battle

Property developer Paddy McKillen, a major shareholder in the group that runs Claridge's, the Connaught and the Berkeley hotels in London, is to appeal to the Information Commissioner regarding the refusal by the Department of Finance to disclose records relating to his IBRC loans. The Irish Times and the Irish Independent both report on this story.

Hospital delay

The Independent also reports on the delays in the building of the new national children's hospital, with an application for planning permission not expected for another year. Originally promised for 2015, it is admitted it may not be complete until 2018.

Cosmetic spending

Meanwhile, the Evening Herald reports that over €3 million is spent by the Health and Safety Executive on cosmetic surgery and weight-loss procedures.

Road to nowhere

Finally, the Limerick Leader has the story that Fianna Fáil councillor Cathal Crowe has been refused access to submissions to a public consultation on a €100 million road project in the city, on the grounds of  'commercial sensitivity and personal information'. The councillor is considering an appeal.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Phones, trips, banks and blood - FOI roundup

Latest stories in Ireland obtained under Freedom of Information legislation, north and south:

Photo: Duncan Rawlinson
Mobile phone thefts in Derry are up 70%, according to a report in the Derry Journal. 257 phones were reported as stolen in the city in the last year.

After 11 weeks of waiting, the Belfast Telegraph got a response to its request for information from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) about overseas trips. But the information is skimpy. There's little detail as to what the purposes of the trips are or what hotels were used. And the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) is still withholding details of their trips.

In the south, in the Irish Examiner the big story was the European Central Bank's demand that no Freedom of Information requests about the liquidation of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC) be answered. The Minister of Finance pointed out that the FOI act provided for information to be withheld for a variety of reasons and IBRC requests would probably be denied under the Act's exemptions. But stories have suggested that the ECB have refused to work with the Department at all if information is disclosed.

Meanwhile the Irish Times reveals a letter suggesting that proposed €1 billion public service cutbacks may reduce economic activity by half of one percent; and a report on the Irish Blood Transfusion Service has found major deficiencies in quality assurance procedures.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Fine Art of Colouring In

When you ask for information under FOI, sometimes details have to be held back. What's reasonable, and how should it be done?

On 5 February this year, a requester called Nick Wintour wrote to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, via the What Do They Know website. He wanted to know the cost of the winning tender for a promotional video the service had commissioned, along with a breakdown of the costs and a copy of the tender document.

Their response was provided almost a month late, on 15 April. The video, he was told, cost £11,370 but the details could not be provided for reasons of commercial interest; and he was given, as requested, a copy of the tender document.

It was 50 pages long.

Most of the pages were blacked out - 39 pages in their entirety.

It's quite frustrating to receive a response like this. But is it justified? And how do you do it?

Marker Time

There are two kinds of FOI enquiries which take up a lot of time. One is where an exemption has to be claimed, which requires analysis, argument and careful judgement. That's often hard work, but it's usually interesting.

But there are other enquiries where most of the information is provided, but some needs to be withheld. And that means one thing.

It's chunky black marker time.

Redacting bits of information from a document is laborious and time consuming. It usually involves reading through the paperwork very carefully and obscuring details, usually with a black marker - what my counterparts in the University of Edinburgh used to call 'colouring in'.

It takes ages, after a while the words swim confusingly in front of your eyes, and if you're sitting in a small room, you will find yourself getting high from the marker fumes (some people see this as one of the perks of the job; I couldn't possibly comment).

Getting it right, in these circumstances, is difficult. And yet, it's also essential.

Traps for the unwary

(If you're an FOI requester, sorry about this bit, it's for FOI practitioners and it won't help you - the section you want comes next)

First up, have a big supply of black chunky markers and discard each one the moment it begins to give out: your marking needs to be black, not gray.

Second, don't send the requester a scan of the document: the light from a scanner can often reveal the underlying text. You may end up giving away more than you intended. Photocopy the marked document, and send a scan of the copy.

Thirdly, even blanked out details can be useful. If you're blanking out the names of Professor Hu and Professor Csikszentmihalyi in a document, it won't be too difficult for the requester to figure out who Professor XX is. Try and randomise your blanking.

Fourthly, don't use correction fluid (Tippex, Snopake etc). This can be scraped away to show what's underneath.

Finally, if you want to redact details from an electronic document, do it properly. Don't just put a layer of black boxes on pages of a PDF. Use proper redaction software (such as Adobe Acrobat) and if you have a Word Document with comments turned on, print it to PDF and send this.

What not to redact

Bearing in mind the tediousness of redaction, it's not surprising that FOI officers err on the side of caution - it's easier to blank a whole page than individual words, and there's less chance of missing something. You don't have much time to make decisions, so your process is likely to follow a simple rule: if in doubt, blank it out.

For this reason, if you think the information in your document has been wrongly redacted, don't hesitate to request a review or repeal.

Many organizations prefer to withhold complete documents rather than produce a redacted one, but very often most of the document can be provided with just some withheld. But what can you reasonably expect to be withheld?

The video contract mentioned above is a good example, and it's actually been properly done - each page is marked with the relevant exemption to show why it was withheld. This is good practice - often you get pages blacked out without reasons given.

In the contract, some redactions are very justifiable. It includes details on the personnel, their backgrounds and experience. Unless the company are using an Oscar-winning director, or inexperienced interns, there's no reason for you to have their personal details. It's not important. (Personal data is one of the most redacted items. Since most FOI officers also work in data protection, they're particularly cautious about this. In the case of animal research, withholding a person's name may protect them from injury.)

Secondly, information about the company's pricing is probably correctly withheld: it's specialist information of use to competitors and suppliers.

Not so clear is why the company's methodology is secret: making a video is a fairly straightforward process and there's not a great deal of room for different methods. Besides, the results would be plainly seen in the end product. I think someone's been overcautious here.

One particularly bad example of redaction happened to Irish journalist Gerard Cunningham (@faduda on Twitter). He asked for data on the government's Jobbridge scheme which allows companies to take on unpaid interns in receipt of social welfare benefits. The relevant department replied, but refused to disclose the company ID numbers - they said this would allow someone to log on and access the company data. He didn't mind, but he wanted to be able to match companies to jobs they were offering. He suggested they use a simple algorithm to replace the real number with a new one. They refused, saying they were not required to create new information. But of course this isn't creating information, it's obscuring it, in exactly the way you do with a black marker.

If you get a redacted document in response to an enquiry, it's difficult to avoid the feeling that the small amount of information blacked out is exactly the vital information you need. Sometimes it is - but sometimes even though it isn't, it just stares at you, taunting you. The chances are that it's been correctly withheld. But you should certainly been given reasons for the redaction and you should be prepared to challenge any you feel are not justified.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Cost of Knowing

Freedom of Information is not free - so how much can you ask for?

I've recently sent an FOI request to a large number of schools in Northern Ireland, and while many responded quickly - and correctly - some of them demanded money for responding. That's perhaps understandable, since they're clearly not familiar with the law and it probably seems like an unnecessary expense for them; but it's not what the law allows.

One thing that really confuses people is the cost exemption. Under UK law, public authorities are allowed to refuse a request if it would cost too much to answer. In UK central government, and for all Scottish authorities, it's £600; in other cases the limit is £450. Since the main cost of answering requests is staff time, there is a set charge for this. In Scotland, this is £15, which means a requester can get up to 40 hours of staff effort. In other parts of the UK, the amount is £25, so you can expect 24 hours of central government time or 18 hours elsewhere. (Strictly speaking, this is the most you can charge, and you could provide more if you use staff costing less than this; but I don't think anyone actually does this).

The charge you can't charge for

Here's where it gets confusing. This figure is just for estimation purposes: if a request would cost more than this to answer, an authority can legally refuse to provide any information at all. But you cannot actually charge for staff time. One school insisted that I had to pay £50 for the two hours of staff time they thought it would cost to respond, and insisted they had legal advice that said they could do this. I had to explain that under the FOI Act, they can only charge for copying and postage - as long as the staff time was under the cost limit, it's free.

(In Scotland, by the way, they can charge for staff time, but only if it costs over £100, and then only 10% of the amount. In Ireland, in addition to the €15 charge for asking in the first place, there are 'search and retrieval fees' of €20.95, although there is no cost limit, so if you can afford it, ask away. In theory a 'voluminous' request can be rejected, but as there are no guidelines as to what this means, nobody uses it.)

If you're looking for environmental information, of course, things are different yet again. There is no cost limit in either the UK or Ireland, and copying and postage can be charged for. It's not clear whether staff costs can be charged - the Scottish Information Commissioner seems to think so, but recent court cases in Dublin and London seem to contradict this.

Finally, if the materials you ask for are normally published, and charged for, by the authority, they can still do this. Although they shouldn't charge unreasonable fees for this.

Hitting the cost limit

If you've got an enquiry for several authorities, it's worth testing it out on one first - asking for the information, and asking how they collected it and how long this took them. That can be a useful piece of information when approaching other bodies (though they may have quite different filing systems).

What happens if a body decides your request will cost more than the limit? They can refuse your request, but it shouldn't stop there. Their decision ought to be based on a reasonable estimate. Let's take an example.

Broken premises

You work for a local authority. A requester wants to know how many premises have been broken into in the last 20 years. As an FOI officer, your first call will be to the head of security, if there is one, or the director of premises or estates. They may have a handy file called 'break-ins' in which case you can answer within the hour. But they probably don't. They may have files of correspondence with the police. But these may not go back 20 years, they won't include any break-ins that were not reported, and they will mostly be about other things. This is probably not going to be very productive, but it may be the best you can do. The files are probably not large, so it won't take more than a couple of hours to look through them.

On the other hand, a good FOI officer should have good contacts. If you know the person who actually goes round checking out premises security - I once worked with such a man with the splendid name of George Bernard Shaw - you might discover that all such incidents would be recorded on the relevant premises file.

A quick investigation, however, reveals that the authority owns 300 premises, from headquarters buildings to toolsheds, and the files go back 60 years or more. You pick up a file at random and flick through it. It takes you fifteen minutes to look through, and discover that there was a break in noted in 1994. Based on this estimate, and guessing there are at least 300 files to be considered, you decide it would take at least 75 hours to read through them all. Congratulations, you've hit the cost limit.

But you can't quite stop there. How are the files organised? By region? By type of premises? By decade? Or just alphabetically? If you want to do your job properly, you need to think about this.

Under the UK legislation, authorities are supposed to offer 'advice and assistance' and this includes helping them bring their request within the cost limit. You should offer to provide an answer from a subset of the files, if this would be possible. Of course, in this case, you need to give them an idea of what they could realistically ask for - files going back only 5 years, say, or only one part of the council area. This might be all they need. You should explain how you worked out the cost estimate.

Narrowing the estimate

If you send an authority a narrowed request following a cost refusal, they are allowed to treat this as a new request. (They cannot treat your request for details on how they arrived at their cost estimate as a new request, as happened to Lyra McKee of The Muckraker.)

This was the Police Service of Northern Ireland, verging on obstruction.

It can be frustrating to have to wait a further 20 days to get the information, so it's important for both sides to have clear details of the records involved. It's important as well to have a sound basis for your calculation. In 2010, the Information Commissioner reported on the attempts by Queen's University Belfast to withhold data on tree rings:
As part of its initial arguments for refusal of the request, QUB had stated that the requested data was held electronically on 150 disks and manually in paper files. QUB’s initial estimate for the time taken to comply with the request was 12 months of full-time work for one person.
When the Commissioner's staff investigated, however, they came to a different conclusion:
at the inspection of 26 February 2009 the Commissioner noted that there were in fact only 67 disks, which contained 150 folders of relevant data. The Commissioner examined a sample of the disks, and established that the raw data, approximately 11,000 tree measurement samples, was held electronically in an average of 20-60 folders per floppy disk. .. the Commissioner established during the inspection that on average it would take approximately 5 minutes to transfer the data folder to folder using Notepad. Accordingly, the Commissioner estimated that it would take approximately 12.5 hours to complete the transfer of all disks and make a copy.
It's important, therefore, to have a realistic estimate. It's also important, as a requester, to be flexible about what information can be provided. You could, in the council example, ask for information on the past 2  years instead of 20 years. But unless the files are organized chronologically, this may not be of much benefit; each file would still have to be examined, although not all pages would have to be considered if the papers are in date order.

There is one solution to this problem that's rarely attempted, although it is often almost as good: use a sample instead. If all you want to know is how often council premises get broken into, you can get almost as good information simply by extrapolating from a random selection of files. If you're familiar with Douglas Hubbard's book How to Measure Anything, you'll know that a small sample can often provide amazingly accurate information. From just 30 of the 300 files - which would take less than 8 hours to examine - you should get a pretty clear picture of how rare or common break-ins are.

Of course, this might not be the sort of information you want. And if it is, you're probably not going to make  yourself popular with FOI Officers. But if it gets you answers within the cost limit, it's worth going for.

Aggregating requests

Finally, you might have the bright idea of getting your request in by the simple process of splitting it into several requests - either from you, or from a group of friends. The framers of the FOI Act, however, are one step ahead of you: this way of getting round the cost limit won't work. Authorities are entitled to 'aggregate' together records which are obviously part of the same enquiry, or part of a campaign: they can add the costs of all the enquiries together in order to come to a total, and refuse all if the total exceeds what they're allowed.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

What Do We Know Now? - April 2013

Some recent queries answered on the What Do They Know website:

The Police Service of Northern Ireland cannot say how many referrals it has from the Central Investigation Service of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. It would take 3,600 hours to find out.

Body Cameras are not worn in any capacity in Banbridge District Council.

Personal statements are not used to determine entry to Medicine courses in Queen's University Belfast, but they may be used as evidence of mitigating or extenuating circumstances.

The following stories were featured on the @FOIreland twitter account:

The PSNI say there are around 1099 people on the sex offenders register in Northern Ireland, but they don't have a record of how many re-offend. They also reveal that Tasers were used 630 times in the last five years, but it would take too long to work out details of age or ethnicity of those tasered.

Finally, the Department for Employment and Learning revealed the names of 215 organisations and businesses who had employed people using the Youth Employment Service over the past five years. The list includes ASDA, Barnardos, Carrickfergus Borough Council, Halfords, Jollyes Pet Shop, McDonalds, Premier Inn, Sacred Heart Primary School, Sinn Fein, and Subway.

Wind farms, Airport VIPs, and gay blood donors - FOI Roundup

This month's crop of FOI requests from Irish newspapers so far

The Irish Times reports that An Taisce (southern equivalent of the UK's National Trust) has objected to 40% of all planning applications for wind farms received by the government's planning body, despite being 'enthusiastic supporters' of the government's plans to generate up to 40% of energy from renewable sources.

The newspaper also reports on various items of government expenditure - with good news for citizens trying to make ends meet: catering for Cabinet meetings, it turns out, averages just €20, with SPAR being one of the main suppliers. At the same time, the Department of the Taoiseach spend €1,700 on cufflinks. The article highlights the fact that €22,000 was spent in six months on VIP treatment for political visitors to Dublin Airport, with former President Mary Robinson a major user of the service.

(The current promotions page at SPAR Ireland reveals that €20 would buy just 20 packets of Hobnobs. That's easily a whole packet per minister. However, if they're willing to share, there should be enough for a cup of Barry's tea each as well.)

Meanwhile, north of the border, both the Belfast Telegraph and the News Letter covered the decision of the UK Information Commissioner to order disclosure of the legal advice received by Health Minister Edwin Poots on the subject of blood donations by gay men. Legal advice is usually prevented from disclosure by Section 42 of the FOI Act, so it's unusual for the Commissioner to decide that the public interest is in favour of disclosure: the key issue here seems to be that in the rest of the UK the policy is now to accept donations from men who have been celibate for a year, yet Northern Ireland retains a lifetime ban. The Minister is said to be considering an appeal. Interesting, if the appeal is successful, a decision on whether to veto disclosure would have to be made jointly by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which has never happened before.

Other stories revealed recently under FOI (and published already via the FOIreland Twitter account, @FOIreland)

Irish Times - senior civil servant 'had an inappropriate level of contact' with Barclay tycoons; and the paper is told that releasing information on the horse meat scandal would not be in the public interest.

Irish Medical Times - representatives of the National Office of Clinical Audit are concerned that results of clinical audits will have to be disclosed under Freedom of Information legislation. (“We are advised by senior counsel that while Freedom of Information requests may well be denied, refusals may result in challenges in courts.") [NOTE: to read this article, you have to pretend to be a medical professional, because the people who run the Irish Medical Times website are idiots]

Irish Independent - retired civil servants have been paid more than €1.3 million for conducting job interviews; and Irish universities have spent €1.7 million on rats and mice for medical experiments.

The Detail: fire crews in Northern Ireland take as much as four times as long to respond to emergencies in rural areas than in urban ones.

Monday, 11 March 2013

NAMA, judges, Orange attacks and Limavady drunks - news roundup

What have newspapers been finding out lately with Freedom of Information? Here's the most recent roundup.

Freedom of Information itself was part of one important story, as Gavin Sheridan of thestory.ie and Information Commissioner Emily O'Reilly ended up in court - the High Court that is, as the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), the government's 'bad bank', sought to overturn a decision of the Commissioner. She had ruled, in response to a request from Gavin, that NAMA is a public authority.

NAMA is not subject to Freedom of Information legislation but would be subject to Access to Information on the Environment regulations - but only if it is a public authority, a definition it sought to avoid when Gavin made a request under the regulations. The Commissioner, who as well as regulating the Freedom of Information Act is also Commissioner for Environmental Information, agreed with his interpretation. As the Irish Examiner reported, in a ruling that will have surprised nobody outside NAMA, the Court decided that the authority, which exists to serve the public, is indeed a public authority. The Irish Times observed that Justice Mac Eochaidh's ruling dismissed the agency's claims not to be as 'absurd'. Thanks to a parliamentary question from TD Pearse Doherty, Gavin was able to report that the case has cost the taxpayer more than €120,000.

Money continues to be the main focus of many FOI stories. The Irish Times reports that the state's judges have been paid €1.67 million in expenses in the past year, mainly for travel and accommodation. The paper also reported that the opposition party Fianna Fail received almost half a million Euro to cover its legal costs in a recent tribunal. Meanwhile, the Irish Examiner reported on a costly decision by the liquidator of the IBRC, which took over the assets of the disgraced Anglo-Irish Bank. Not challenging a ruling by a judge in London could end up costing Irish banks €460 million.

Despite having a stronger Freedom of Information regime, people living north of the border also have to struggle to get the facts they need, as a letter writer to the Belfast News Letter argued:
Stormont departments, long noted for their reluctance to live by either the letter or the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), have taken a new approach to their record-keeping whereby they do not record information which could be embarrassing if made public – thereby escaping the provisions of the Act.
Writing in the paper, Fiona O'Cleirigh argues that the lack of interest in the province by mainstream British media means that central government spending is subject to very little scrutiny:
Strong stories abound in this complex community, which includes a fascinating aerospace industry, and an assortment of quangos that would hardly look out of place in the twilight zone.

When stories do get uncovered, they tend to be about violence rather than money. With 114 attacks made on Orange halls in the past two years, just 12 people have been arrested and only four were charged, according to information disclosed to the News Letter. Meanwhile, the Londonderry Sentinel reports that in Limavady, crimes of violence following closing time in pubs and clubs in the town are averaging one a week.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

25 Things We Know Now about Northern Ireland

The website What Do They Know allows people to send Freedom of  Information requests direct, online, to public authorities. Here is a selection of things we know now about Northern Ireland, based on recent requests using What Do They Know.

  1. The  Northern Ireland  Civil  Service does  not  have  a  policy  on people  in  a  close  personal  relationship  working  together.
  2. Craigavon Borough Council asks such staff to declare such relationships, but does not record them despite this being proposed as a policy in a report highly critical of the council.
  3. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has a policy – apparently – of neither confirming nor denying whether individuals identified in their investigations are police informants. But if such a policy exists, it is not actually written down.
  4. Newry and Mourne District Council (‘SAVE PAPER! PLEASE THINK BEFORE YOU PRINT!’) have 3-4 Lever Arch files of material on the naming of a playground after hunger striker Raymond McCreesh … which they printed out and sent to the requester.
  5. In the last financial year, the Northern Ireland Policing Board had 22,623 words translated into Irish, and only 32 words into Ulster Scots.
  6. Northern Ireland uses around 246 million carrier bags a year. The Department of the Environment’s levy on carrier bags is expected to raise £2.3 million in a year.
  7. The Police Service of Northern Ireland had arrested 195 and charged 164 in connection with flag protests by 20 February.
  8. Northern Ireland Housing Executive tenants are not specifically prohibited from flying flags on their homes.
  9. Belfast City Council did not charge the company managing the Christmas Market in City Hall any fee when they extended it by three days, to make up for the impact of flag protests on traders. They did this because they believed it would attract people back into the city centre.
  10. The Council considers it would take 24 hours of staff time to find the names of all the companies approached since 2006 to tender for developing its website.
  11. Peter Tallack, a dog expert in the case of the ‘pit-bull type’ dog Lennox, which was put down last year by Belfast City Council, was paid a total of £10,598.57 in respect of training, court appearances, dog examinations and travel.
  12. Banbridge Borough Council have still not responded to a request from last November about dog fouling statistics.
  13. Belfast Education and Library Board has still not replied to a query about construction projects.
  14. Lisburn City Council has two non-white employees, out of 525.
  15. Civil Service departments spend quite a lot of money on media monitoring, from the Department of Social Development which spent £7,340.43, to the Department of Education which spent £15,884.88. The Department of Justice, however, was way out of line: it spent £60,667.
  16. In 2012, Queen’s University Belfast made 412 offers to students for its 262 places in Medicine.
  17. The University has a scoring system for interviews for its dentistry courses. However it believes it is not in the public interest to disclose how it works. Definitely not.
  18. The Deputy Chief Constable of Northern Ireland does NOT have a superinjunction of any kind.
  19. The Northern Health and Social Care Trust has paid out more than £8 million in legal settlements for clinical negligence over the past 5 years.
  20. On 27 December last, in Accident and Emergency at Causeway Hospital, between 5.30pm and midnight, the average time before triage was 35 mins, and then 168 minutes before seeing a doctor (Category 4).
  21. In the last five years, 5 out of 17 grievances and 6 out of 8 dignity at work cases in the Department of Education were fully or partly upheld.
  22. The highest-paid staff member of the University of Ulster is paid nearly fifteen times as much as the lowest-paid.
  23. There are 24 children in Belfast primary schools whose home language is Somali.
  24. Ballymoney Borough Council has issued just two Fixed Penalty Notices for dog fouling since 2005.
  25. Two Health and Social Care Trusts in Northern Ireland have bought toilet rolls direct from a supplier, possibly because of shortages in the regional warehousing.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Letting the boom rip, unexplained payments, and the secret of drones

FOIreland looks at the latest storied disclosed under Freedom of Information

Another day, another Euro: journalists keep digging away at the background to the present harsh economic climate in Ireland. In the Irish Times, Mary Minihan looked at how in 2000, then Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy warned of the consequences for the economy if growth was not kept in check: 'the Irish economy is heading for trouble if the boom is let rip'. High spending demands from his cabinet colleagues were a major source of pressure for expansion.

Meanwhile the Irish Examiner revealed that European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, believes their decision not to reveal documents on the Irish government's negotiations over promissory notes was in the public interest. Tom Felle of the University of Limerick is quoted as saying, "When it comes to public money the public interest should always fall on the side of disclosure".

Public spending continues to come under scrutiny. The Justice Minister's legal firm - from which he has ceased operating as a partner - has earned nearly €100,000 in fees from the Health and Safety Executive, according to the Irish Independent. The Times has a story on Met Éireann TV meteorologists paid an average of €21,000 on top of their salaries. Details of the payments were refused as 'personal data', but the newspaper 'has established the figures involved' - it doesn't specify how.

 An astonishing exclusive in irishhealth.com reveals that the Tallaght Hospital has been unable to account for why it paid five staff members a total of nearly €700,000 in earnings top-ups over a five year period. An investigation revealed there was no documentary evidence as to the rationale for the payments, and inconsistent recollections as to why they had been approved.

The Irish Independent has an environmental story - campaigners against a controversial water treatment plant in Ringsend, Dublin, have claimed that the designation of the local area as a site of special interest was under consideration before planning permission for the plant was given, according to an FOI request. And in a story asking whether politicians are keeping their promises to 'put the country first', the paper also reveals that senior cabinet members have been contacting the Education Minister to ask for constituents to be put on a scheme putting unemployed workers on higher education courses - though it points out that 'most of the representations did not garner positive responses'.

Finally, in a story about the market for drones, the Irish Times exposes a typical disparity between Freedom of Information legislation in Ireland and abroad. The Irish Aviation Authority, not subject to FOI, has revealed that eight drone licences have been issued, but declined to reveal to whom. The US Federal Aviation Authority, on the other hand, has disclosed details of all 81 applicants received - mostly law enforcement agencies and universities.

The Transparent State and Its Friends

A small country beset with clientelism, accusations of corruption, and bailed out banks - it's a familiar story, and not just an Irish one. In Austria, citizens are looking to improvements in Freedom of Information legislation to expose wrongdoing.

Florian Klenk is the editor of Falter ('butterfly'), a Vienna-based investigative magazine. In a recent article on his blog, he writes about 'the Transparent State and its Enemies'. Irish readers will find something familiar about it.

The magazine asked the Justice Ministry for a copy of a report by former chief corruption prosecutor; after a six month wait, it has just been refused. The author, Walter Geyer, had no objection to its release. It was just about legal loopholes in the anti-corruption laws, and staff shortages in his department. But Justice Minister Beatrix Karl decided it could not be released because it was an 'internal' report on 'ongoing processes'. This is the same minister, he notes, who has just spent over €70,000 on public relations consultancy.

He gives a number of similar examples: news reporter Kurt Kuch wanted access to a study of educational standards in schools. This was refused because it was covered by 'professional secrecy'; unofficially, they have been told that the teachers union did not want it released. Journalist Georg Holzer wanted to know  how much the state government of Carinthia was spending on advertising. This was refused, and although the Administrative Court decided he could have the information in December, he's still waiting. When Falter asked how much a member of the former cabinet staff was now earning as a ministerial adviser, he got the same response: professional secrecy.

This kind of case was what caused Kuch, Holzer and others to join forces to create a new movement: transparenzgesetz.at. Transparenzgesetz means 'transparency law', and that's what they are campaigning for. They have already gathered almost 7,000 signatures for an online petition to create a new law. Although Austria has a law requiring federal bodies to provide information, there is also a constitutional duty of secrecy for public officials.

The proposed new law would be based on the Hamburg Transparency Law, passed last year after controversial cost overruns on the building of a public concert hall. It makes disclosure mandatory, requiring the state government to publish an information register of all public data. This covers commercial semi-state bodies as well as state ones.

Whether such a law will get passed in Austria remains to be seen. But if it does, yet another country will leapfrog over Ireland's freedom of information law.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Why journalists use hotmail, how we're all related to the minister, and requesters in pyjamas: highlights of #FOI15

There’s nothing quite like meeting people who share your obsession. So I was pleased to be one of around 80 people – journalists, academics, FOI officers and campaigners – who gathered on Monday in the University of Limerick for a conference on The Right To Know: Examining 15 years of the Freedom of Information Act in Ireland.

We began with a British perspective, from Ian Redhead of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). With a Central Referral Unit handling data from 43 Chief Constables, they receive a very large number of requests and have trained over 300 staff per year in the principles of FOI. After years of growth, he sees requests reaching a plateau, implying that worries about the burden being unsustainable are misguided. Requests, he said, were ‘remarkably insignificant’ in terms of costing. For his organization, the major problem was that they shared data widely with other organizations, such as local government (‘we do big data’) and this creates new headaches: who actually holds the data? Who is responsible for its release?

Nat O’Connor (@tasc_natoconnor) of the TASC think-tank looked at FOI in a democratic society. With €44 billion of public expenditure, the cost of FOI is tiny, but vital, because it is a guarantee of our fundamental rights. The constitution guarantees the right of free expression – including criticism of Government policy. But, he pointed out, “you can only criticise government policy if you know what it is”. He contrasted the strict era of the Official Secrets Act of 1963 with the modern world of mashups and crowdsourcing; he pointed out that no up to date state directory exists; and emphasised the importance of standards in records management. Bad record keeping and lack of transparency lead to bad decisions.

Jennifer Kavanagh (@quiatimet) of Waterford Institute of Technology spoke about ‘The Right to Know and National Security in Ireland’. She looked at the proposed reforms to the act, which include replacing the blanket restriction on national security issues with a ‘harm test’. But the regime which allows ministers to certify that certain kinds of records cannot be disclosed is negative – there is no independent review process for these. This may be unconstitutional and will very likely be challenged in the courts but, she pointed out, previous case law has showed ‘undue deference’ to the executive in these kinds of cases. The courts need to assert their independence.

A speech by the Norwegian ambassador reminded us that Freedom of Information has its roots in Scandinavia – and of course his country charges no fees for access.

Minister Howlin speaks to a bunch of microphones.
Then the Public Expenditure and Reform Minister, Brendan Howlin, rose to speak. After describing the ‘omertà-like’ tradition of secrecy that used to exist in government, he spoke about his proposals to reform and extend the existing law, which he insisted were ‘a work in progress’. Over 70 additional bodies would be brought under the new Act, which would bring about the recovery of Ireland’s reputation and be ‘in the top tier of international frameworks for facilitating access to official information.’

But he had little encouragement on the one issue keeping Ireland out of the top tier – the charging of fees for requests: if public bodies were not able to handle the surge of requests that would result from their abolition, this would impact on the credibility of Ireland’s FOI regime. And with public service jobs being cut back by 30,000, there’s no chance of extra resources. All he was prepared to offer was ‘a short, focused and targeted operational review of FOI’ to produce a Code of Best Practice; this would involve a public consultation exercise. While he insisted that he had an open mind on the subject, it was clear that, although fees for review and appeal would be reduced, charging for information is still very much part of the plan. Significantly, there was no sign even of a long-term commitment on abolition.

Conor Ryan (@conor_w_ryan), Investigative correspondent with the Irish Examiner and author of ‘Stallions and Power- The Scandals of the Irish National Stud’ then spoke about how FOI exemptions worked, in practice, as roadblocks for journalists, and of an extending gap between the expectation and the reality. “The interpretation of the Act,” he said, “is killing its spirit”. He referred to FOI officers feeling they had a lack of legal cover that stopped them releasing information they wanted to. Lack of clear guidelines and definitions meant that exemptions on personal data, commercial interest and the deliberative process were often used overcautiously, with information redacted that was already in the public domain.

Then we heard from Mark Mulqueen (@MarkMulqueen), Head of Communications for the Houses of the Oireachtas (Parliament). His perspective was the opposite to Conor Ryan: this was the public service view of how journalists treat FOI. (He later tweeted that he had offered ‘a gentle critique of the media use of FOI/ general info’) Misleading information had been published, he said, on lunches and expenses, despite errors being pointed out. In fact, a lot of information published under FOI was actually already in the public domain, and journalists still claim it as an exclusive. And he provided an answer to a question that puzzled me in my days as an FOI officer: why do journalists, from prestigious newspapers, send in requests using a hotmail account rather than their work email? The answer – which is obvious, come to think of it – is that they want to protect their ‘information asset’ – from their employers, presumably.

John Carroll (@johnjcarroll), special adviser at the Department of Transport, offered a similar view, but with a twist. A political appointee, he had been on Minister Leo Vardkar’s staff when in opposition, and had used FOI to gather information. Now he found himself facing requests, he had a different perspective. He produced some figures on media usage. It was less than he expected: “it’s not driving masses of newsprint”. About one story a week comes from FOI. Top journalistic users are the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner, and the Irish Daily Mail. About half the requests were on expenditure, nearly a third on internal documents and correspondence, and a fifth on decision-making practices. There were, he complained, too many ‘contextless stories’.

After lunch, the main speaker was Emily O’Reilly, Ireland’s Information Commissioner. Her talk was on “FOI in Ireland: Lessons Learned”. She talked about the evolution of FOI in Ireland, and like Nat O’Connor, she looked back to the Official Secrets Act of 1963. She described the successes of the Act, as well as the ‘lurch back to the past’ which resulted from the 2003 amendments. The government’s current proposals, she said, would go a long way to restore the original act. There were some positive new elements. It would pave the way towards Irish signature of the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents [NB: this may be optimistic, since the Convention appears not to support request fees]. But she still has concerns. Although the Gardaí would be subject to the Act as regards administrative measures, they would be specifically excluded from her normal right to entry of a public body’s premises. Excluding operational matters, rather than having them covered by the standard exemptions, would prevent proper oversight and failed to see the strong protection the Act already has – an example, she said, of “fear and timidity”. It’s not there to do harm, she insisted – we live in an information age, and it’s part of the zeitgeist: ‘a strong, evolving and unstoppable impulse towards openness’.

Richard Dowling (@richardowling), RTE’s North East Correspondent and author of "Secrets of the State and How to Get Them", continued the issue of the state’s obsession with secrecy. The proposed change to cover the Gardaí was too narrow, especially compared to how similar forces were covered in other countries. He highlighted a tendency to narrow legislation when it became inconvenient: so when FOI compelled disclosure of information held by the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, the government amended the law to ensure that only administrative records would in future be subject to the law. Similarly, an amendment to the Access to Environmental Information Regulations was introduced to ensure information would be refused if it would not be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act. “Who benefits?”  he asked, “do we get better governance?”

There followed two more specialised papers. Solicitor Sean O’Reilly looked at the problem of whistleblowing and the criminalisation of public interest disclosure. He examined recent cases in the European Court of Human Rights and their ramifications for Irish law. Although quite technical, the broad conclusion seemed to be that, as long as the law did not contain an absolute ban on disclosure, provided an official appropriate channel for concerns to be aired, and allowed for external review, whistleblowers stood a high chance of being prosecuted. What is still unclear is whether the person’s motive was a factor.

Damian McCallig (@DamienMcC_dli) from the School of Law at NUI Galway then spoke on a topical subject – what rights next of kin have to see the records of deceased people. (This is under Freedom of Information law, not Data Protection, which ceases on death) He went through the changes that have taken place in recent years, from a general assumption that the next of kin should have access to a more complex view today which sees the wishes of the deceased, to the extent that they can be assessed, as of prime importance. (One interesting point is that the legal definition of next of kin has very precise hierarchy and includes, at the bottom of the list, the Minister of Finance. This appears to mean that, technically, we’re all relations of Michael Noonan.) Damian ended by emphasising the importance, wherever possible, of recording the intentions of the information subject before they die.

By this stage, the conference was drawing to a close and the remaining two speakers had to compress their presentations to fit. Gavin Sheridan (@gavinsblog) of thestory.ie outlined his own experiences in using FOI to extract information from government departments - and sometimes sending out requests in his pyjamas. He noted that charge estimates for search and retrieval seemed to be increasing of late, and a great inconsistency between different departments in how they respond to requests.

Finally, Tom Felle (@tomfelle), a former journalist who now lectures at the University, and with Maura Adshead was responsible for organising the conference, presented a paper on FOI and the Irish Parliamentary System. Apologising for having to severely curtail his presentation, he looked at how the historical foundation of the state, as a very fragile democracy, led to a centralised and secretive administration.

"Cabinet decisions were recorded without mention of descent or disagreement, early Cabinet handbooks recommended burning papers not needed again, and sealing documents in special envelopes using wax."

This culture continued in subsequent years, with the 1939 Emergency Powers Act only being lifted in 1994. What really made a difference was the exposure of Irish Civil servants to a different way of working when they attended meetings in what was then the European Economic Community, as Ireland joined in 1973: attitudes were dramatically changed. The cult of secrecy was gradually weakened. The publication in 1992 of the report of the Beef Tribunal propelled change, by pointing out that had misleading answers not been given to Dáil questions in the first place, the whole thing could have been avoided. Since the Act was introduced, members have used it extensively – and effectively – but the existence of fees is still seen as a disincentive.

As so often at conferences, some of the most interesting details came up in the informal final discussion that followed. There were several voices supporting the importance of good records management, and Gavin and I had a chance to discuss the practicalities of requests with some government FOI officers who had come along. Apart from the fact that Gavin’s name is now notorious among civil service staff, we learnt some very useful information about the pressures on Irish FOI officers, the lack of training and the rapid turnover of staff, and the difficulties in applying a ‘vexatiousness’ exemption. I also gained a possible answer to why such a high number of requests are abandoned at an early stage – it’s because, I was told, they are often answered outside the terms of the act when otherwise they would be a few days overdue.

All in all, this was an excellent conference, with a wide variety of inputs and some interesting discussions – it was only a pity that we didn’t have more time for audience participation. Who knows what we will be discussing in another 15 years?