Launch of the Information Commissioner's Annual Report 2009
Date Released: 28.04.2010
Information Commissioner Emily O'Reilly launches her Annual Report for 2009. In her Report she:
- criticises the practice of removing public bodies that have been subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) from the scope of the FOI Acts;
- notes that a number of key public bodies, including those in the financial and economic sectors, still remain outside the scope of FOI;
- records a 7% increase in appeals to her Office against decisions of public bodies and an upsurge of 13% in FOI requests to public bodies.
The Information Commissioner, Emily O'Reilly, today (28th April 2010) published her Annual Report for 2009. It is the twelfth report since the founding of the Office in 1998.
The Commissioner announced that the overall number of FOI requests to public bodies in 2009 had increased significantly, 14,290 - up 13% on the 2008 figure and an increase of 34% over 2007 (10,704). The growth in requests for non-personal information is reflected, again this year, in increases in the number of requests received by the Department of Finance up 51% from the 2008 figure (Chapter 1). The number of decisions made by public bodies which were appealed to the Information Commissioner during 2009, totalled 324, which represents a increase of 20 cases, or 7% on 2008. Of these, 242 were accepted for review (page 12).
The Commissioner highlighted the role of the FOI Act in bringing information into the public domain that would otherwise remain unknown. Her impression is that more thoughtful usage of the FOI Act has resulted in the Act being used as a tool to help ensure proper accountability in public administration. The usage of FOI by journalists (15% of all FOI requests in 2009 remaining high as in 2008) suggests that it is a valuable tool in helping to promote transparency and accountability within the public service. An example of this is the extensive media reports throughout the year of expenses paid by public bodies, particularly for travel by officials or board members of those bodies. She welcomed release of expenses records by public bodies at the first stage of request without requesters having to come to her Office for review.
The Commissioner again expressed her concerns (Chapter 2) regarding public bodies or functions of public bodies being removed from the scope of the FOI Act without her or her Office being informed of such removal. Earlier this year, the Commissioner in an address to a conference on governance hosted by the Institute of Public Administration & Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting, highlighted a number of key bodies remaining outside the scope of the FOI Act, among them An Garda Siochána, the Vocational Educational Committees, the National Treasury Management Agency and the newly established National Assets Management Agency. She also highlighted the practice in recent years of removing public bodies or functions of public bodies that had been under FOI, from the scope of the FOI Acts, including the enforcement functions of the Health and Safety Authority, the road safety functions now carried out by the Road Safety Authority, the functions of the Land Registry and the Registry of Deeds now performed by the Property Registration Authority, and the proposed removal of the enforcement function of the National Employment Rights Authority.
Commenting on the role of settlements and withdrawals in achieving a satisfactory outcome for FOI requesters, the Commissioner gave examples of solutions which emerged through mediation/negotiation facilitated by her Office without the necessity to issue a formal decision on reviews (chapter 2).
Chapter 3 of the report contains summaries of two decisions issued by the Commissioner during 2009:
Irish Independent and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment - Case 080099 deals with the public interest provision of the FOI Act which allows an exemption under section 27, commercially sensitive information, to be set aside where the public interest is found to support release of the records.
Sunday Times and Dublin City Council - Case 080232 also focuses on exemptions under the FOI Act being set aside where the public interest is found to support release of the records.
The number of FOI requests made to public bodies in 2009 was 14,290. This is an increase of 13% over the 2008 figure (12,672) and 34% over 2007 (10,704) (page 10). The number of decisions made by public bodies which were appealed to the Information Commissioner during 2009, totalled 324, which represents a increase of 20 cases, or 7% on 2008. Of these, 242 were accepted for review (page 12).
There were 9,385 requests for personal information in 2009; this represents an increase of 14% on 2008. The majority of requests were made by ordinary members of the public or representative organisations (76%), while journalists (15%), business (5%), staff of public bodies (3%), and members of the Oireachtas (1%) make up the other categories of requester. The percentage of requests made by journalists at 15% remains the same as in 2008.
The number of requests to the Department of Finance for 2009 shows an increase of 325% to 272 over the period since 2007 which brings it towards the level of 300 plus per annum it had received before the introduction of up-front fees in 2003. It is interesting to note the increase of 118% (from 57 to 124) in the number of requests received by the Department of Enterprise, Trade & Employment over the same period.
The figures for 2009 indicate that the pattern of lower release rates for the civil service is continuing, but that the gap between it and other sectors continues to narrow. The statistics show that the civil service is less likely to grant full release to records than other public bodies. In 2009 full release was granted in 39% of civil service cases, compared to 56% for local authorities; 71% for the HSE, 46% at third-level institutions; 68% at voluntary hospitals/mental health agencies/voluntary bodies, and 52% at other bodies. The civil service figure is close to the 36% recorded for 2008. The Commissioner notes the reduction in release rates in the third-level institutions which, at 46% in 2009, are down from 48% in 2008, 58% in 2007 and 64% in 2006.
Commissioner for Environmental Information
Part II of the Commissioner's Annual Report for 2009 relates to her separate role as Commissioner for Environmental Information. It focuses on decisions made by her office on appeals under the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations 2007, which is a separate statutory code from that which operates under FOI.
Chapter I outlines the AIE regime and the activities of the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information during 2009 including appeals received and decisions issued. The Commissioner points to the relatively low level of activity in this area and the lack of awareness generally about the right of access to environmental information under the AIE Regulation and Directive EC/2003/4.
In Chapter 2, the Commissioner reports on her decisions issued in 2009, viz.
Councillor Tommy Cullen & the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government CEI08/0012 concerning information on illegal dumping in Wicklow,
Mr P. Geoghegan & the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) CEI09/0004 concerning access to environmental information concerning complaints made about Aughinish Alumina.
The 2009 Annual Report is available on the Commissioner's website at www.oic.gov.ie, or a copy may be requested by telephone - (01) 639 5689.