Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Three steps forward, two steps back: Ireland's proposed new Freedom of Information Act

Last August, the Irish government published its proposals for a new Freedom of Information Act. Does it live up to its promise to restore the law to what it was? 


Ireland's original Freedom of Information Act 1997 was introduced by the governing coalition of Fine Gael, Labour, and Democratic Left. It provided a right to access records of public bodies, both for people's personal information and material of general interest. Requesters could be charged a fee for searching, retrieving and copying the records. If a request was refused, the requester could ask for a review of the decision and then appeal to the Information Commissioner. The Act provided for a number of exemptions to disclosure, for categories such as confidentiality, personal data, commercial sensitivity, and national security. Requests had to be in writing, had to mention the Act, and be made to the 'head' of the body concerned.

In 2003, the re-elected Fianna Fáil / Progressive Democrats government introduced an amended Act which made a number of changes; although people still had the right to see their own records, access to other kinds of information was curtailed in a number of ways. An existing restriction on records of government decision-making was widened, made mandatory, and extended from five years to ten; refusals of records on the ‘deliberative processes of a public body’ were excluded from the possibility of appeal; refusal of some kinds of information on some aspects of defence, intelligence matters, and international relations was also made mandatory. Requesters were also prevented from seeing records of costings prepared of parties’ budget proposals, and briefing papers for parliamentary questions.

The most significant change, however, was the introduction of new charges. Ireland was already the only European country that charged for search and retrieval; now it became the only one to charge simply for making a request. The new fee regime not only demanded €15 to ask for information, but requesters dissatisfied with the response from a public body had to pay it €75 to review its decision and a further €150 to appeal to the Information Commissioner. Information that had previously cost nothing to access could now require an outlay of €240.

As this assessment by the Information Commissioner makes clear, the effect on requests was dramatic: non-personal requests fell by 75%, review requests were halved, and appeals to the Commissioner fell to around a third of what they had been; they never returned to their original level. The introduction of Fees, the Commissioner commented, "seems to suggest that the people are seen as adversaries and nothing more than lip-service is being paid to the principles of open, fair and accountable government".

Before long, the 2003 became a national embarrassment, and example of how not to do FOI. A British parliamentary committee, reviewing the recent introduction of their own legislation, set themselves firmly against any charge for enquiries, observing that, "It would be highly regrettable if the effect of any new fees regulations was to reduce the benefits of FOI, particularly since we have the opportunity to learn from overseas experience. ... The [Irish] Information Commissioner told us that he was 'concerned about the Irish experience, where the fees were increased, and that had (had) a very obvious chilling effect on the uses to which the Act was being put'."

(An excellent summary of the background to the Acts can be found in this paper by Tom Felle and Maura Adshead of the University of Limerick.)

A chance to reverse the changes

For eight years, with Fianna Fáil remaining in power and unwilling to admit that their changes had had any negative effect, there was no prospect of a reversal. Only after the party's catastrophic defeat in the 2011 election did the opportunity to amend the situation arise. Fine Gael and Labour, once again governing in coalition, had made clear manifesto commitments to change the law. Fine Gael promised to reverse the changes but spoke of a 'nominal charging mechanism' while Labour said they would restore it to what it had been before it was 'filleted' and promised to extend it to new bodies. Following the election, the parties'  Programme for Government  adopted the Labour language: the Act would be restored to what it had been before it was 'under[m]ined'.

In 2012, with no apparent movement from the government, Dail deputies introduced Private Member's Bills which proposed reforms, including the extension of the Act to cover the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA - Ireland's 'bad bank' set up after the 2009 financial crisis). Fianna Fáil's Sean Fleming, complaining of excessive search and retrieval costs - a complaint backed by other deputies - proposed a 'cap' of €500. The Government's response was to take over this Bill with a promise to re-introduce it in 2013 incorporating, its own proposals. The details of the proposed new law were published in August 2012 and recently presented by the relevant minister, Brendan Howlin, to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform. [The Oireachtas includes both the Dail (lower house) and Seanad (upper house)]

The New Proposals

The general scheme of the proposed bill is available here on the Oireachtas website, along with a Government briefing note.

Key elements of the proposals:
  • Most of the legal restrictions of the 2003 Act will be removed - though records of ministerial briefings will not be covered;
  • The ten year limit on records of government discussions will be restored to five years;
  • New bodies, including NAMA and related institutions, will be included, though with specific exceptions with regard to details of potential investors, European Central Bank secrecy statutes, and the remuneration of individuals;
  • Instead of being listed in the Act, new bodies can be added by the Minister through a Statutory Instrument;
  • Non-statutory bodies, including NGOs which receive a large proportion of their income from government, can be included;
  • 'Commercial' state bodies will not be covered to protect their commercial interests;
  • The Garda Siochana (police force) will be included for the first time, but only for administrative functions, not operational issues, and with strong safeguards on security issues;
  • On the suggestion of the Information Commissioner, a greater specification of the right to refuse 'frivolous and vexatious' requests;
  • Tampering with records will be an offence;
  • Vocational Education Committees, responsible for secondary education, will now be covered, but in such a way to prevent the compilation of school league tables.
  • Fees for making a request are retained but there are reductions in the charge for review and appeal.

A Timid Affair

All in all, this is a very timid affair. A reasonable assessment would be: three steps forward, two steps back.

There is one very positive element: the inclusion of bodies which recieve a substantial amount of funding from the government. This apparently is likely to include NGOs, including those which distribute Irish Aid overseas. The issue of extending FOI to non-state bodies which receive public money has been an issue in the British parliament and in Scotland, although it is as yet unclear what bodies will be included; there seems to be an emphasis on NGOs and voluntary organizations as opposed to commercial ones.

Overall, however, these proposals will be a disappointment to anyone who wants to see Freedom of Information in Ireland not only restored to what it was, but envisioned as an up-to-date piece of legislation for the twenty-first century.

Although many of the restrictions of the 2003 Act have been removed, the fees regime has only been toned down, not abolished. It will still cost €15 to ask the government a question, and if a public body proves obstructive, a review and appeal will cost a further €80 in total.

The charging of fees not only sends a negative signal about the government's commitment to reform - and the issue was easily the 2003 restriction that had the most practical consequences - but it also severely limits requests in a number of ways. A requester wanting to gather information from a number of bodies will still face multiple fees. Asking for policies relating to hospitals, for example, would involve requests to 5 Health and Safety Executive organisations and 23 voluntary hospitals: that's €420. If any refuse, there could be multiple costs for review and appeal. Because a fee can only be paid by cheque or postal order, it's very difficult to make a request from outside the state - contrary to the practice in most modern FOI laws - effectively excluding the Irish diaspora from asking questions. And if a request turns up intriguing results - which they often do - any follow on enquiry will involve a new charge.

All of this runs entirely contrary to modern trends in Freedom of Information. Apart from Germany, no other country in Europe makes any charge for FOI requests except in a few circumstances. Europe's newer democracies, as they have adopted Freedom of Information laws, take the absence of fees as standard. Journalist and blogger Gavin Sheridan, speaking at a conference in Serbia last year, tweeted:

 "*Everyone* from the Balkans is *shocked* that in Ireland we have to pay for requests and appeals. An alien concept to them." 

There is no proposal to reform the charge for search and retrieval - which may result in as much as one in three requests to central government departments being abandoned - except for the possible setting of a cap of €500, surely too much for most people.

There are strong indications in these proposals that the government lacks the courage of its convictions. Why, for instance, will the Gardai be subject to FOI only for administrative, and not operational, matters? Why will commercial semi-state bodies be excluded?. On the surface, this may seem sensible: of course the law should not allow people access to information that would hinder criminal investigations, say, or provide commercial data of public enterprises to their competitors. But the law already allows for this: there are exemptions covering both of these and which ought to be perfectly adequate. Exclusion means claims of this sort are not open to challenge: an obvious invitation to abuse.

This act retains a very old-fashioned approach to requests. It is necessary to write, enclosing a cheque, to the head of a public body. This may seem reasonable, but it's actually retrograde - an example of outdated thinking. Not only because modern citizens expect to be able to engage services online, but also because it preserves the idea of Freedom of Information as a sort of special favour provided by the state to the citizen. Under the British and Scottish Freedom of Information Acts, there is no necessity to write to a specific person, and no need to cite the Act. What this means is that everybody working in an organization has to be aware of how the law works and has to be prepared to treat every enquiry as an FOI request if necessary: in this way, the principle of the law becomes embedded in the culture of the organization - an important change.

Poverty of Ambition

Above all, these proposals suggest a disappointing poverty of ambition. Freedom of Information is important, and it really is not expensive - it costs as little as €2.4 million to answer all the requests received. The Minister, Brendan Howlin, seems confused about what exactly he wants. Speaking to the Oireachtas Joint Committee - here is a transcript of the discussion - he reminded the members that he was a member of the goverment that brought in the original bill, and called it 'bedrock legislation which underpins public access to the way the people’s business is done'. He talked of wanting 'to reverse the restrictions put in place in 2003 and to extend the Act to the widest possible definition of public bodies and also to non-public bodies significantly funded from the public purse.' He claims to have based the proposals on 'an examination of best international practice,' and of wanting to see Ireland's Freedom of Information regime 'restored to the top tier of legal frameworks internationally' and 'to ensure the culture and practice of secrecy in public bodies is set aside for good and replaced with a basic legal presumption that the public has a right to know.'

When it comes to the details, however, there is very little sign of real passion for transparency. This is certainly not going to take Ireland into the top tier - this is a bargain basement law. The Information Commissioner, suggesting ways of reforming the law, observes: 'of the seven jurisdictions with similar FOI legislation to Ireland, none charged a fee for 'internal review' while only one, Ontario, charged a fee for appeal to the Information Commissioner. In the case of Ontario this fee was set at €15.60 for non-personal information.' The minister still insists on a figure three times as much.  'We are not so unique that we do not look at Sweden, Canada or New Zealand to see how they operate practically,' he says. But he shows no sign of noticing how they differently they do things.

What is behind this timidity? Money, in part: 'To abolish fees and impose a reasonable search administrative cost would be dangerous because the cost of that would be prohibitive.  We have to be careful what we ask for.' Although he says he is open to suggestions about fees and invited the committee to let him know their views, he fears the effects of freedom on the populace:

'There are people who stay up late at night submitting numbers of freedom of information requests on their computers, which often overwhelms systems.'

He gives no evidence of these nocturnal pests, but he clearly believes they exist. As a former FOI officer in a regime without request fees, I saw no sign of organizations being overwhelmed. There were a few persistent enquiries: but no sign of the mythical late night requesters. Besides, many requests can be made under the Access to Environmental Information regulations, for which there is no fee.

A fee-free regime would certainly lead to an increase in requests. The decline after the introduction of the 2003 Act suggests this would be at least two or three times the current level, while the number of requests to the Northern Ireland government, twice as many for a population one-third as large - implies it could be as much as six times as many. But if transparency is so vital, it's surely worth paying for. The minister seems to think Freedom of Information should be free.

But there's more than money behind this. There are signs that still, deeply-seated in the psyche of the Irish public administration, there is a fear of the unknown and a readiness to hide behind secrets. The minister admits he has had to fight to persuade some to come out in the open:

"We have pushed it as far as we can in terms of areas that traditionally fought off any efforts to include them in the freedom of information regime. I refer for example to the financial sector, ... 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."
This no doubt explains the unwillingness to submit these fragile flowers to the horrors of the unwashed citizenry asking questions. But again, these fears are little grounded in reality. My FOI colleagues in Scottish Water and the Grampian Police (not exactly shrinking violets) had only standard exemptions to rely on in withholding information they felt would threaten to disclose details of criminal investigations or commercial interests, and found them perfectly adequate. Northern Ireland Water is subject to the full FOI Act, so why will the new Irish Water need to be specially protected? The simple answer is, it doesn't. Somebody just needs their hand held.

I am pleased to say that a number of members of the Joint Committee made the case not only for getting rid of fees, but for greater coverage of public bodies as well. There were a number who raised evidence, from their own experience, of bodies with little enthusiasm for transparency:

While in some cases requests may be refused for reasons of national security, I believe officials, who are not fully committed to FOI, are using this as an excuse.  (Deputy Sean Fleming)

Bus Éireann, for example, refused to give me passenger numbers.  It was making some very important changes and was extraordinarily unhelpful.  It refused to give me basic information by hiding behind commercial sensitivity.  It is absolute nonsense but it was able to hide behind it.   (Deputy Stephen Donnelly)

Regulatory bodies seem to have acquired a status that allows them to make decisions that cause serious damage to customers.  I refer the customers of airports and energy companies, for example.  These bodies operate in a secret world.  The relevant parent Departments have long since given up trying to control them. (Senator Sean Barrett)
A perfect example is the recent story about the wiping of penalty points for motorists, including some high-profile figures. When pressed as to whether this was a case that could be investigated via the new FOI arrangements, the minister seemed to suggest that, as administrative matters, they could. But a careful look at the proposed legislation shows that 'administrative' is defined as ‘a finance, human resource or procurement matter.’ That sounds very much as if, with operational matters out of bounds, some well known people may be in a position to speed out of the range of the law.

If this governing coalition remains in power through another election, which is very possible, it is hardly likely they will want to return to this law with a more liberal frame of mind. Fianna Fail, still the most probable alternative government, is in denial about the damage their 2003 legislation does. There is no realistic alternative: this is the last chance of a meaningful reform of Freedom of Information in Ireland for a decade, perhaps a generation. Ireland deserves better.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Bed blockers, hospital food, and the cost of a testicle - news roundup

Latest stories from Ireland turned up by FOI requests:

The Belfast Telegraph used FOI to disclose that nearly 19,000 days were spent in Northern Ireland hospital beds by healthy patients - so called 'bed blockers'.

The Irish Examiner attempted to find out how much the Health and Safety Executive spends on overheads in hospital food budgets - but were met with a demand for 'search and retrieval' fees of over €500 to get the information. The same newspaper revealed that an unnamed body funded by the HSE and tasked with aiding frontline services has suffered 'serious fraud' in the past three years.

Meanwhile, the Irish Times reveals that property owners in the Republic are much less likely to have their houses repossessed than in Northern Ireland. Other disclosures include the detail that compensation paid to Garda Siochana (police force) included over €140,000 for loss of a testicle, and that one barrister was paid €450,000 in 22 months by the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Irish Independent writes about the letters cabinet ministers have sent to local authorites on behalf of their constituents. Numbering almost a thousand since the government took office, the letters show issues from requests for social housing and action on anti-social behaviour to complaints about rodent infestations and help in obtaining new front doors.

Finally, the Londonderry Sentinel discovered, using Freedom of Information legislation, that Universities minister Dr Stephen Farry visited Derry City twice between the beginning of 2012 and Halloween. (Evidently not a busy news day in Derry, then).

Bargain basement transparency

One criticism of Freedom of Information is that it costs a lot of money? But does it? 

Reading through the transcript of the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform from 10 January, which discussed the Irish Republic's proposed new Freedom of Information Bill, I found the following interesting detail:

Brendan Howlin (Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform): In 2011, the totality of fees divided by the number of actual FOI requests which were non-personal generated an average charge of €23. The actual cost - these are not absolute figures - of providing that information was €640 per request.

The amount of fees charged is not a new revelation, it's in the Information Commissioner's Annual Report.  But the cost of requests is one I've not seen before. It sounds like quite a lot of money (and since public bodies can charge €20 per hour for looking for the information, it suggests the average amount of time finding it is 32  hours, which is scarcely plausible). But look again.

These requests only apply to non-personal requests, which are equivalent to the sort of FOI requests covered by laws in other countries such as the UK (the Irish FOI Act allows people to request information held on themselves, and these represent about 70% of the total; there is no charge for these). 

One benefit of having fees for requests is that you can count the exact number of them. The total amount of fees charged (for making a request, finding the information, and reviews and appeals) was €87,439; an average charge of €23 implies 3,801 requests. If the cost per enquiry was €640, this gives us a total cost of non-personal FOI requests:

€ 2,432,640.

Even for a small country like Ireland, that's peanuts. Almost the entire cost of FOI requests for a year could have been met by meeting EU regulations for septic tanks

So when politicians say increasing use of FOI would 'overwhelm' the civil service, it's worth bearing this figure in mind.

Monday, 14 January 2013

How Many FOI requests are abandoned on cost grounds?

How many Freedom of Information requests in the Republic of Ireland are abandoned because of excessive costs of search and retrieval? In Civil Service requests, it might be as much as one in three.

Sometimes the biggest obstacle to Freedom of Information is not the stuff public bodies try to hold back; sometimes it’s the information nobody thought to ask in the first place.

Take, for instance, a simple question: how many Freedom of Information enquiries in the Republic of Ireland never get answered because it would cost too much to find the records and collect them together?

To anyone with a passing knowledge of the Act, its major weaknesses are the €15 fee for making a request, and the fact that so many agencies – such as NAMA and the Garda Síochána – are not covered. But for many people using it to access public information, the most frustrating element is the charge for ‘search and retrieval’. Agencies, which charge €20.95 per hour to extract the information, are supposed to present requesters with an estimate of the cost of doing so, allowing them to abandon the enquiry if they are not willing to pay.

This is the point where many good enquiries stop. Members of the Dáil and Senate have complained about being presented with large cost estimates for getting answers:

Deputy Sean Fleming: The Department of Justice and Equality charged a fee of €15,000 in one case, which is extreme. … Last Christmas, I submitted a freedom of information request to seek information on a matter announced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, in the budget. I was told it would cost me €1,200 in search and retrieval fees. I abandoned the request. We do not know in how many cases something similar has happened. Some people are given such figures, yet the Minister once replied that the highest fee he charged for search and retrieval in 2011 was €83. He did not mention the €1,200 he charged me and that caused me to withdraw my request.

Deputy Shane Ross: Once, when I went looking for information on FÁS, the difficulty in getting that information, even though FÁS was subject to the Freedom of Information Act, was extraordinary. The obstructions put in the way were extraordinary and most difficult to counteract. My memory of this is clear. I received an anonymous tip-off of where to look and what to look for. I admit this shows a lack of journalistic skills on my part. I approached FÁS and asked for the information. The organisation put every possible obstacle in the way. I am open to correction but, from memory, initially the organisation said that for the particular questions asked — relating to details about what took place in Florida and the junkets being run for the benefit of staff and directors — the process would cost me €1,000 or something equivalent. 

Clearly, this is a huge disincentive to asking for information. It is out of line with other jurisdictions, many of which do not make such a charge. In the United Kingdom, search and retrieval is costed at £20 an hour, but it can only be charged if the total exceeds £450 (in central government, £600). In Scotland, the hourly cost is £15, meaning that information which takes less than 40 hours to collect is provided free.

Where these figures are exceeded, the public authority does not actually need to do the work – it can simply refuse on cost grounds, and usually do. Most people find that a fair arrangement: you can get a certain amount of work for free, and above that it’s up to the organization whether they are willing to provide the information for payment.

Under the Irish system, the meter can start running straight away (in practice, many public bodies only charge above a certain level). Requesters are at the mercy not only of the estimates produced by the authority (which can be appealed, for a fee, to the Information Commissioner) but also to the quality of its records management: if the filing system is bad, the enquirer pays more.

Clearly, this is not ideal. How many enquiries are prevented in this way? Nobody collects these statistics. But the Information Commissioner’s Annual Report provides a clue.

According to the 2011 report, of the 16,472 requests dealt with by public bodies, some 1,661 were ‘withdrawn or handled outside FOI’. That’s 10%. For Civil Service Departments, the percentage was 16%. No explanation is given, but overwhelmingly these are likely to be requests withdrawn for reasons of cost estimates.

If you compare this to the Departments of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which operate under the UK Freedom of Information Act, the result is striking. In 2011, of 3,240 requests received, just 80 were withdrawn, mainly for reasons of costs. That’s just 2%. Which suggests that perhaps as many as 1,300 of the enquiries withdrawn in the Republic would have been answered under the legislation in place in Northern Ireland.

And one more point: Irish Civil Service Departments responded to 3,499 requests in 2011. But only 1,506 of these involved non-personal information; the rest were requests by people for their personal data, which can only be charged for if they involve ‘a significant number of records’. It’s likely the 16% of withdrawn requests, a total of around 560, were mainly non-personal. Which means the proportion of such requests withdrawn could be as many as one in three.

There are various ways to get around this. Deputy Sean Fleming, in 2012, suggested a ‘cap’ of €500 on such charges. That makes some sense. But how many citizens, in these days of financial stringency, can afford to fork out that sort of money?

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Jobs for the boys, a chef without a kitchen, and the mystery of the disappearing footballs

The latest roundup of news stories generated by Freedom of Information in Ireland

Jobs For the Boys (and Girls)

A report in the Irish Times disclosed how nine vacant seats on the board of the Blood Transfusion Service - worth nearly €8,000 a year - were being filled by political appointees, six from Fine Gael and three from Labour. Although applications from the public were invited, none of the 28 who applied were appointed. The paper also revealed plans for a direct meeting between government ministers and representatives of the Catholic Church, as part of an ongoing 'structured dialogue' process. Controversial prelate, Cardinal Sean Brady, it disclosed, wrote to new Taoiseach Enda Kenny after the election offering his prayers. Meanwhile, a Department of the Environment report shows concerns in local government caused by the current government hiring freeze: plans are afoot to fill empty jobs for outdoor workers and to hire 200 graduates to fill a staff 'generation gap'.

Bad attitudes

The manner and attitude of staff was the major issue of complaint from patients in the Rotunda Hospital last year, according to the Dublin Evening Herald. None of the total of 104 complaints were about infection or cancellations. Meanwhile, it revealed that expenses billed to the Office of Public Works from the minister's office fell from over €36,000 five years ago to under €500 in the first six months of last year, although the story preferred to focus on the €412 paid on a hotel in China while investigating procurement of clothing for public services such as the Gardai and Defence Forces.

A Chef Without a Kitchen

The Irish Independent, meanwhile, reports that the Department of Education was investigating why retired teachers were being employed by schools, often for weeks at a time. The figures, revealed by the paper in a request, showed 237 incidents. The Department, however, refused to disclose details of which schools were involved. Unlike in the UK, individual schools are not subject to FOI in the Republic. Another story reports the bizarre situation of the hospital in Galway which is paying a chef €46,000 a year even though he doesn't have a kitchen available and food has to be bought in from a local bar.

The Men Behind the Wire

The Irish Examiner, meanwhile, reveals why the Department of Justice spends over €40,000 a year on footballs - it's because the light plastic balls, used in prisons for recreation, regularly end up unusable after being destroyed by the razor wire covering the walls.

Culture and Security

Meanwhile, north of the Border, the Londonderry Sentinel writes that as Derry City prepares to become UK City of Culture, a planning committee set up for the event included representatives of the police services Security Branch, as well as the Head of Crime (a police officer, apparently, and not a master criminal as might be supposed).

Saturday, 5 January 2013

What do we know now?

A roundup of disclosures from recent FOI requests in Northern Ireland on What Do They

Here are some things we know now that we didn't know a month ago, from the website What Do They Know?:

Northern Ireland Water paid £7,277 for maintenance and repairs to security and fire alarm repair systems, and thinks creditors should be paid a minimum of £40 when public service debtors fail to settle within 30 days.

Queen's University Belfast revealed that they admitted 26 international students to study Medicine in the last academic year; however, neither the grading system nor the criteria for selection at interview were disclosed, to avoid giving an advantage to students in future interviews. (Unlike, say, the University of Aberdeen, which provided the interview scoring sheet, and the University of Edinburgh, which pointed out that they do not interview applicants for Medicine).

We also know that there are four people who have lifetime Security Passes to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and Antrim Borough Council has spent a mere £13,315 on maintaining its website over the last seven financial years.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Northern News Roundup

A roundup of recent news from Northern Ireland, gleaned through the Freedom of Information Act

NI Prisons: The case for a public inquiry
A recent article in investigative journalism website The Detail calls for an inquiry into the treatment of vulnerable inmates in Northern Ireland's prisons, citing FOI responses that show issues raised by a report several years ago remain unaddressed.

NI prison officers get up to £16,000 in overtime
Prison officers in Northern Ireland have been receiving up to £16,000 a year in overtime, with the department paying out over £180,000 a week in the last three years, according to a report in the Irish Times.

Sinn Fein had ‘valid certification’ for replica assault weapons
The Londonderry Sentinel reports that replica rifles carried by teenagers as part of a hunger strike memorial event in Dungiven were inspected by the police service in advance and officially certified. The Sentinel, which publicised at the involvement of young people with replica armaments at the event last August, obtained the information via an FOI request.

News Roundup

Recent stories revealed under Freedom of Information

HSE boss ‘can keep €160k over-payment’

The Irish Examiner reports that the acting head of the Republic's Health and Safety Executive has been overpaid by over 160,000 Euro, but will not be asked to repay the money as it is their fault, not his.

Staff shortage ‘compromises’ state watchdog

Also at the Examiner, it has been revealed that the Office of the Comptroller General, in charge of keeping track of public spending, is operating well below its proper staffing level - because of cuts in expenditure.

Service held in memory of teenagers killed in Belturbet

According to the Irish Times, the Department of Justice has refused a request from RTE's This Week programme to a file on a bombing 40 years ago.

Tax breaks for political and sports memoirs criticized

The Arts Council has criticized the inclusion of memoirs of politicians and sports personalities - and books such as The Irish Seaweed Kitchen - in the scheme which allows non-fiction books a tax break of up to €40,000, the Irish Times reports. Books are supposed to be related to an arts subject. The provision, automatically extended to fictional works, is not considered to cover, for example, the memoirs of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Record number of businesses served closure orders

The number of food businesses forced to close by health inspectors in the republic is up by over a third: 90 have been condemned as posing a grave and immediate danger to public health, according to the Irish Independent. The causes included rat droppings and live cockroaches.

Fury as State pays €50,000 to wash windows

The Evening Herald writes that the Department of Social Protection has paid fifty thousand Euro to clean the space between double glazed windows on a single government building.

The mystery of the Oireachtas member who ran up €95 bill on one phone call

As the Irish Mail on Sunday has revealed, since phone calls made by members of the Dail and Senate are not logged for legal reasons, nobody knows the origin of some of the very expensive phone calls emanating from Leinster House - including one to Columbia which cost 95 Euro. Full details are available on