Friday, 21 December 2012

News Roundup

Recent revelations under the Freedom of Information Acts, north and south

Kerry deal still clear as butter
Despite a Freedom of Information request, the Irish Independent has been unable to discover what incentives were offered to Kerry Group to set up its Global Technology and Centre in Ireland. The documents were withheld or heavily redacted, as commercially sensitive.

Joan Burton's team blew €5K on staff party
The Irish Mail on Sunday revealed that the Republic's Department of Social Protection spent over €5,000 on its annual party for current and retired staff, including €1,000 on spot prizes. There was particularly strong criticism at the cost, while the Department was deciding which social welfare benefits to cut.

EU presidency website to cost State €250,000
Among the costs of the upcoming Irish presidency of the European Union, the website alone will cost nearly a quarter of a million Euro. The figures can be seen in contracts obtained through an FOI request and published on

Queen's University Belfast was allocated extra student places on the basis of nothing more than an informal conversation between the Vice Chancellor and the Minister, according to the Derry Journal. This information was provided via FOI to Derry-based lobby group U4D, which is pressing for more places for the local University of Ulster, and Assembly member Pat Ramsey of the SDLP.


Slow, Slow, Slow ...

"Our Department’s performance compares favourably with that of other jurisdictions," Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told his party colleague, Cathal Ó hOisín, in the Northern Ireland Assembly back in March, when asked about timeliness of responses to Freedom of Information requests. It turns out he was being economical with the truth - on a scale that would put Scrooge to shame.

The Minister pointed out that the Welsh Government responded to just 75% of requests on time, while both the Scottish Government and Whitehall managed just 84%. He compared these to the response rate of 88% for his department.

This sounds impressive - until you delve into the details. The 88% statistic relates to the entire period from 2005 to 2010. When Mr Ó hOisín asked for a more recent update, the Minister simply ignored this. It's not hard to see why: the statistics for 2011 are, quite frankly, disgraceful. The OFMDFM Annual Report on Freedom of Information shows that, of 168 requests received, just 70 were answered on time. That's a total of 42%. What's more, 18 requests - 11% of the total, are listed as 'still being processed'.The report is undated, but appears to have been published in October this year.

This is an astonishingly poor performance from the Department. Not only were almost three out of five requests were not answered in time, but more than one in ten requests were still unanswered ten months after the end of the year.

Maybe on Planet McGuinness that counts as a favourable response rate. Not anywhere else.

(For background to this, see my previous entry)

Update: on the same day as this was posted, the Information Commissioner's Office announced that the FOI performance of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be monitored by them.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A Fragile Flower

How serious are Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister about transparency? Not very, it seems. To take 320 days to answer a request might be a one-off error; but foot-dragging in a number of recent FOI responses suggests the Ministers approach disclosure with all the enthusiasm of a sulky teenager scribbling homework on the way to school – and nobody seems to be doing anything about it.

The long delay to Jeffrey Dudgeon’s request, finally delivered a day before they would have been forced to disclose by a court, was clearly not a case of mere sloppiness, a fact no doubt evident to the Information Commissioner, whose growing exasperation at the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) can be read through the polite lines of repeated Decision Notices:

12 May 2011 – after an internal review was still uncompleted after more than 70 days:

“The Commissioner would also expect a public authority to inform a complainant if the internal review was going to take longer than 20 working days and explain why. The Commissioner would remind the public authority of its obligations in this regard.”

24 May 2011 – a January request was still under consideration by the Minister’s Private Offices. The Office was unable to say when it would be able to respond.

“The Commissioner would … remind OFMDFM that the Act does not provide for such an extension to the statutory time limit. The process of seeking such approval must be completed within the time limits set out in the Act.” 

4 July 2011 – An enquiry from the previous October had resulted in a review for ministerial approval by January, but nothing more was heard until a request from the Commissioner in June, when it was promptly provided.

“The Commissioner notes that this is the third Decision Notice he has issued in three months relating to a failure by OFMDFM to respond to a request. The Commissioner has expressed his concern to OFMDFM and will consider whether further action is necessary.”

26 September 2011 – a July response was still outstanding after two months.

“Prior to this decision the Commissioner has issued three Decision Notices in the past six months which record OFMDFM’s failure to comply with the Act in respect of timescales for response. The Commissioner expects this pattern of non-compliance to be addressed by OFMDFM.”

24 October 2011 – four long-overdue requests. Three were from September the previous year, the other from December.

“Prior to this decision the Information Commissioner has issued at least three decision notices in the previous six months which record the failure of OFMDFM to comply with FOIA in respect of timescales for response. The Information Commissioner expects this pattern of non-compliance to be addressed by OFMDFM.”

(By the standards of decision notices, that’s pretty much steam coming out of the Commissioner’s ears)

12 December 2011 - two months later, another failure to meet the statutory timetable.

"despite agreeing to disclose the financial information OFMDFM did not do so until three months later. The Information Commissioner reminds OFMDFM of its obligations in relation to the statutory time limits in the FOIA."

16 July 2012 – after six months of quiet, the Commissioner feels compelled to raise his voice again, with a request from January was still uncompleted:

“The Commissioner is particularly disappointed that OFMDFM has failed to respond to his correspondence regarding this complaint. The Commissioner considers it important to give public authorities an opportunity to reconsider its handling of the case before issuing a decision notice. Many public authorities take this opportunity to rectify procedural failings, or provide additional explanatory information to the complainant. However that has not happened in this case”

The Commissioner, in such circumstances, is entitled to call upon a public authority to sign an undertaking to improve their behaviour, like this one from the Welsh Assembly. But instead, he again simply “reminds OFMDFM of its obligations in relation to the statutory time limits in the FOIA.”

It’s not just on the Information Commissioner’s website that this can be seen: over at What Do They Know, requesters have been facing the same approach – consistently being told that long overdue enquiries were ‘still under consideration’ – as if they had never heard of the Commissioner.

There’s good evidence that this is not simply incompetence or slack management – in fact, that the culture of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister is one of resistance to enquiries, and this may well be a product of Northern Ireland’s peculiar politics.

With what Mick Fealty of the Slugger O’Toole website calls the ‘fragile flower defence’, those currently in charge like to claim that the province needs special treatment to defend it: that certain disclosures “could prevent the maturing of the Executive in Northern Ireland” because they would threaten the cohesion of the mandatory coalition government.

The Belfast News Letter, which says the Executive wrote this year to Westminster asked to be allowed, like the government in the South, to charge for requests (which caused an immediate decline in their number there), seems sceptical about this claim, pointing out that the former DUP First Minister, Ian Paisley, criticised what he called ‘lazy journalists’ using FOI after his son’s close business relationship with a developer was revealed using the Act. Interestingly, his Sinn Féin counterpart, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness told the Assembly this year that ‘There is absolutely no doubt that freedom of information allows people to abuse their access to information.’ What this suggests is not a genuine concern for security but rather a grudging approach to transparency.

Finally, in order to find out more, I submitted an FOI request to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, asking how many requests this year had been overdue and for how long.

Guess what? The response is now overdue.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

News Roundup #4

Katherine Donnelly: New frontiers are opening up in drive to lure foreign students
FOI request reveals that the highest number of international students in the Republic's third-level sector is University College Dublin, with 2,620 bringing in over €30 million. Total international students in Irish colleges amount to 32,000.

(My former colleagues in Scotland will no doubt wince at the statement that "Ireland is up against giants such as Australia, Canada and the US in seeking to lure them." It seems their efforts have gone unnoticed ...)

Shortall accused Reilly over second list
Documents obtained by the Irish Times under FOI show that then minister of state Róisín Shortall confronted Minister of Health James Reilly over changes to the list of primary health care centres which included two new centres in his own constituency. 

Pat Finucane murder pistol handed back to British Army by RUC
A bit of cross-border FOI - using the UK's Freedom of Information Act, RTE reporter Richard Dowling obtained from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) a copy of a formerly secret chapter of the Stevens Report into the death of solicitor Pat Finucane at the hands of Loyalist paramilitaries. This showed that the gun used, which originated with the British Army, was handed back to them despite its status as evidence. Writing on the RTE website, Dowling points out that this request would not have been possible in the Republic as the Garda Siochana are still outside the remit of FOI in Ireland.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

An image which sums up Ireland's FOI situation

Here's an image which sums up how FOI works in Ireland. It's the disclosure log of the Republic's Department of Foreign Affairs for the month of January. There are just 11 requests. One is from a member of the Oireachtas (Parliament). One is a private individual. The remaining nine are all journalists. (As a simple comparison, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office received 1,353 requests in the last three months of 2011) At €15 a pop just to ask a question, then €75 for a review and €150 for an appeal to the Information Commissioner that's not really a surprise - who can afford to ask questions if they can't charge it as a business expense?

Friday, 7 December 2012

Called to the Bar

Freedom of Information was exercising the minds of Dáil deputies and Senators recently, with much concern expressed over the bill - but in this case it was the bar bill causing concern.

A report in the Irish Independent revealed that public representatives were outraged that they could be 'named and shamed' in future FOI requests which could reveal the amount of their bar tabs: a total of €73,000 is still outstanding this year for the Leinster House bar and restaurant.

Previous FOI disclosures have shown that several had unpaid bills exceeding a thousand Euro, with one owing €3,572. But until now, names have not been revealed; in the future, deputies and senators have been told they will be named in responses.

When it comes to expenses, the situation is more complicated. About a third of deputies receive 'unvouched' expenses - they are given an amount to spend, and not required to account for the money. The remaining two thirds are given a substantially larger sum to spend, in return for 'vouching' for their expenses - they have to have receipts. But as The revealed earlier this year, the receipts are not usually disclosable under FOI, for the simple reason that the records are not held, except by the representatives themselves (and not therefore disclosable).

The 'vouched' expenses system is monitored by a system of auditing in which only one in 10 representatives are required each year to produce their receipts. And while this probably acts as a reasonable check on corruption, it means that in only a fraction of cases the expenses are publicly available.

In the recent budget, it was announced that the system of unvouched expenses was to be ended as 'untenable'. But since this means the one third of deputies who currently receive their expenses under this system will now be able to claim about €10,000 a year extra, it's not likely to actually save money.

Information Roundup #3

Information Roundup #3

A roundup of recent FOI and data protection stories in the Republic of Ireland

Syrian wins appeal over failure to secure citizenship
It must now be 'unusual' for the reasons behind the decision-making of public bodies not to be provided, according to the Supreme Court. This is the outcome of a process in which a Syrian lawer, refused Irish citizenship, challenged the failure of the relevant Minister to disclose the reasons for doing so. FOI requests disclosed new documents but the Minister's reasoning was withheld; the Supreme Court, however, decided that this was unfair because it gave him no basis on which to challenge the decision.

Could Leveson affect Press Freedom in Ireland? 
Seamus Dooley, Irish Secretary of the NUJ asks if the Leveson suggestion that data collected by journalists might have to be disclosed could lead to a conflict with the Irish Supreme Court ruling that protection of sources is a constitutional right.

As part of the budget process, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has confirmed that new Freedom of Information legislation is planned as one of a series of measures that include whistleblowing reform and legislation to bring greater transparency to lobbying activity.