Thursday, 15 November 2012

News roundup: a lot about money

 Here is a roundup of recent stories in the Republic of Ireland featuring Freedom of Information:

State pays €240,000 to SF TD's solicitors

The Irish Times reports that the by-election in Donegal that Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin won in November 2010 cost the country nearly half a million Euro - and a further €240,000 to pay Doherty's legal fees for the court challenge that forced the by-election to take place. The government of the time, deeply unpopular and with a slender majority, had avoided holding the vote for 17 months.

The Freedom of Information request that disclosed the figures also revealed that expenditure on the Moriarty Tribunal last year included  €1,122,041 for legal fees paid to seven individuals.

(Top tip for young graduates: don't pursue a career in Freedom of Information - go into the law).

An odd story from the Donegal Democrat: an anonymous letter circulating about Fianna Fáil councillor David Alcorn alleges improprieties in his expense claims based on information disclosed under an FOI request. 

Revenue warned State bodies of responsibility to comply with tax

Another Irish Times story reveals that government departments have been warned against allowing tax dodges from their staff. A Freedom of Information disclosure shows the chair of the Revenue Commissioners advising state bodies to apply the law properly, identifying issues such as benefits in kind, travel and subsistence expenses, and classifying employees as self-employed contractors.

Fatal guarantee by Finance was 'heroic': Hurley

Finally, a major story from the Sunday Independent, which gained access to Department of Finance records about the 2009 financial crisis after a two-year battle.  These consisted of records of interviews with important figures carried out in the process of producing the Wright Report on the Department's performance in the banking crisis.

The disclosure included comments from John Hurley, governor of the Central Bank at the time, who said the response of officials was 'heroic'. Extraordinarily, however, no records appear to have been kept of interviews with either Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, or departmental secretary general Kevin Cardiff.

What's especially notable here is that one weakness identified by the Report was that 'The lack of a coherent record of budgetary advice represents a major shortcoming in the systems of the Department of Finance.'

Part of the blame for this, ironically, was laid at the Freedom of Information Act itself:

Our review has established that possible Freedom of Information release does limit
the written record of non-consensual advice. Secretary Generals of other Departments have noted this. And it certainly appears to be the case in the Department of Finance. This is a paradox – a law introduced to provide greater public access to information has not done so, but has instead helped substantially to limit vital public records.
This is not a problem of the law - this is a problem of political culture. There is absolutely no reason why the existence of FOI legislation should discourage civil servants from writing down their advice. Why does this happen in Ireland? Mandarin arrogance? Political pressure? Either way, civil servants are failing in their duty - and it looks as if that particular failing is continuing.

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