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'.

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