Minister Howlin announces Government approval for removal of FOI application fee.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Mr. Brendan Howlin T.D. announced that the Government today approved the removal of the €15 FOI application fee for non-personal FOI requests as part of a suite of reforms to Ireland’s FOI regime.

It is planned that these changes will be introduced in the context of the enactment of the FOI Bill, 2013.

The Minister said:-

Over the last number of months I have concluded that Ireland’s fees regime for FOI required a radical overhaul. 

 The €15 application fee will be abolished for all FOI requests and the Search, Retrieval and Copying fees will only apply where the preparation time for a request exceeds 5 hours. In other words, the vast majority of FOI requests will now be free of charge.

The FOI fees measures which I am putting in place restore the balance in relation to FOI fees envisaged in that path-breaking legislation. These reforms will allow our citizens access to information on a level par with best practice across the OECD. After all, information and data are the currencies of the new age.”

The Minister’s proposals highlight that the full realisation of the benefits of the restoration and reform of FOI embodied in the Bill must be enabled by a modern fees regime.

The centrepiece of the new system are modernised Search, Retrieval and Copying (SRC) fees which only apply where the preparation of FOI requests for decision-making require in excess of 5 hours of search and retrieval time.  A cap is proposed on the total level of FOI fees that can be charged by a public body.  An upper limit is also provided for above which a public body may refuse to process the request.

The Minister also said:-

“My assessment of FOI fees reform was strongly informed by the issues raised in the pre-legislative scrutiny of my proposals on FOI carried out by the Oireachtas Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform Committee the FOI Bill and the debate on the Bill during its passage through the Oireachtas, as well as the views of civil society participating to the preparation of Ireland’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) National Action Plan.”

My conclusions were strongly reinforced by discussions I had with colleagues and participants at the OGP Europe Regional Conference held in Dublin Castle in May which highlighted the vital role of FOI as a cornerstone of openness, transparency and accountability of government and public administration”.

The Minister’s assessment of and proposals on FOI fees are detailed in a paper published on  the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform’s website www.per.gov.ie together with a draft Code of Practice for FOI for public consultation and the report of the External Review Group on FOI which were also approved by the Government for publication.

Notes for Editors

FOI Fees

The reforms to the FOI fees regime are as follows:

  • Removal of the €15 application fee for non-personal requests;
  • From now on, the first 5 hours (€100) of Search and Retrieval will be free of charge meaning that the majority of FOI requests going forward will have no costs associated with them.
  • Introduction of a cap on the amount of Search Retrieval and Copying fees that can be charged at €500 (25 hours approx.);
  • Introduction of a further upper limit on estimated Search Retrieval and Copying fees at €700 (35 hours) above which an FOI body could refuse to process a request (or if the requester agreed, the request could be processed with full fees applying without limit);
  • Introduction of a definition in the Bill to ensure that there is clarity on the activities for which Search Retrieval and Copying fees can be applied
  • The issue of multi-faceted requests (i.e. multiple requests relating to entirely separate and different issues contained as a single FOI application) can be addressed through the power in the Act to refuse requests on administrative grounds – the removal of the application fee will remove the necessity for these type of requests;
  • The significant reduction in application fees for internal reviews and appeals to the Information Commissioner from €150 and €75 to €50 and €30 respectively had been agreed by the Government in July 2012.

Review of FOI

There were two main strands of the FOI review process:

  • the preparation of a report by an external group of FOI experts including journalists, academics and transparency advocates;
  • the examination of all the key features of the operation of FOI and the development of recommendations on best practice by an internal group of FOI experts representing all Government Departments and the main sectors of the public service.

The External Review group’s remit was to advise on:

  • improvements in procedures and practices to facilitate requesters and enhance compliance by public bodies with the Act;
  • structures and guidance to support user interests and decision-makers so as to secure good practice and consistency in implementing the Act;
  • operational practice by public bodies in key areas relating to the Act, including the publication of FOI requests, related information, and publication of information generally outside of the Act.

The report sets out the External group’s recommendations for enhancing implementation of FOI by public bodies and spans areas such as routine publication of information and use of publication schemes, communications/engagement with requesters, training, processing of requests, engagement between public bodies and the Office of the Information Commissioner, records management, and support structures and networks.

 

Code of Practice

Key findings which emerged from the review raised both by the Public Bodies Review Group and the External Review Group as well as the Committee for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform were addressed in the Code of Practice which sets out a step by step approach:

 

  • to ensure effective structures, supports and resources are in place in public bodies to support the implementation of FOI in line with best practice;  
  • to have a strong, expert and authoritative leadership role exercised by the FOI Central Policy Unit (CPU) in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to guide, support, provide knowledge and expertise to ensure the effective and efficient operation of FOI in public bodies;
  • to improve procedures and practices to facilitate requesters and enhance compliance by public bodies with the Act;
  • to provide guidance to support user interests and decision-makers so as to secure good practice and consistency in implementing the Act;
  • to ensure sustained training to maintain good FOI practice across public bodies;
  • to re-establish and animate existing FOI networks which were previously highly effective fora for problem solving, sharing learning, promulgating good practice and mutual support; and to create and maintain a close working relationship between them and the FOI CPU;  
  • to ensure clear guidance within public bodies on records management, including in relation to data creation and the routine retention and destruction of records to assist the efficient retrieval of information; and 
  • to promote, as a standard practice, the pro-active publication of information outside of FOI.

 

ENDS