Friday, 1 February 2013

News roundup - fast tracking, low taxing, the embassy flagpole and taking money from kids

The latest stories uncovered by FOI legislation in Ireland, north and south

The continuing effects of the 2009 economic collapse made up a major element in the latest batch of revelations from the press:

The Irish Independent revealed that of 114 former ministers entitled to the state's generous pension arrangements, just seven had made use of a scheme to allow them to surrender part of the payments. Widely considered extravagant in view of the current economic conditions, pensions are payable, in some cases, from age 50. Those taking the full amount include former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern (who had given up some of his payment while still serving as a TD) and Brian Cowen. Meanwhile, the paper reports that current Minister of Social Protection, Joan Burton, was told she was 'taking money from children's mouths' by a mother affected by child benefit cuts, in one of several emails and letters disclosed under the Act.

Accusations of the kind of clientelism widely considered to have helped create the present situation continue to be aired. According to the Independent, Taoiseach Enda Kenny found time to lobby officials to get student grants fast-tracked for his constituents. His close ally, Health Minister James O'Reilly, is having to explain why his department fast-tracked hospital upgrades in the constituencies of two cabinet colleagues (one of them Brendan Howlin, responsible for the proposed 'restoration' of Freedom of Information legislation), who promptly announced them to constituents even before the Health and Safety Executive had been informed. Another Reilly controversy rumbles on as reported that the Minister had been censured for failing to answer Dail questions on the issue of a primary care centre situated, at the last moment, in his contituency.

Health records have proved another issue where FOI is involved, according to the Irish Times.  Failing to produce records under the Act was just one element in a 'wall of silence' a family faced from Tallaght hospital, in the case of the death of a 61-year old painter which resulted in the payment of a six-figure sum after a court case lasting more than seven years. The paper points out that, while records of the deceased can be accessed through FOI (data protection rights end at death), in the absence of release instructions from the patient, the Health and Safety Executive has to decide in each case whether disclosure is in the public interest.

The Times also discovered, using FOI, that errors in drafting led to the publication of incorrect information in a government-issued booklet on the children's rights referendum; and in another economy-related story, it disclosed that the American Chamber of Commerce has lobbied the Irish government to ensure that top executives should pay no more than 25% of their income in tax. Finally, it failed to mention FOI law at all in reporting that twelve companies had been disqualified from the government's JobBridge internship programme.The names companies were not named, it said, 'for data protection reasons'. (Data protection laws apply only to individuals)

The Irish Examiner discovered that money from the Irish foreign aid budget had been spent on replacing an embassy flagpole and fixing an ambassador's swimming pool, and broadcaster RTE reported that 128 prisoners are at large from the Republic's open prisons, including one sentenced for murder.

North of the border, on the other hand. All is quiet - under FOI at least, with only one story to report. Website The Detail reports on inequalities in punishments for benefit fraud in the province - with one person getting just 200 hours community service for falsely claiming £87,000, while a teenager was sent to prison for illegally claiming £91 in Jobseeker's Office.

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