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"The Importance of Sharing and Accessing Information": Launch by Transparency International of Advice Centre and Free Information Helpline

Thank you for the invitation to speak at this evening's event. As everyone in this room knows, the business of politics is as susceptible to the dictates of fashion as any other aspect of our public and private life. At the peak of the boom years, when the political and business culture supported a buccaneering, lightly regulated wealth creating landscape, those voices that sought greater scrutiny of what lay beneath were very smartly sidelined. The Freedom of Information Act was severely pruned, the long promised amendment to the 1980 Ombudsman Act which would have seen a large swathe of new bodies come under remit, never saw the light of day, years of pleading by the Standards in Public Office Commission to make the legislation under which it labours more fit for purpose came to nothing, and the much talked about Whistle Blower legislation never even got on to the drawing board.

So what a difference a recession makes. The failure properly to regulate, the failure to make a great number of our public bodies accountable, the cultural and legal disincentives to blowing the whistle are all now seen to have contributed to our economic collapse. This link between low levels of transparency and the economy is at last being recognised. Just this week the Security and Exchange Commission in the United States approved a programme of awards for whistleblowers, a financial incentive to workers to report wrongdoing in their own companies. This is part of the Wall Street regulatory overhaul cued directly by the economic crash. This is not about motherhood and apple pie in other words but rather the recognition that transparency, accountability and above all ethical behaviour, brings benefits that can be traded as hard cash.

I therefore welcome this Government's commitment in its Programme for Government, as culled from the two parties separate election manifestos, to legislate for the Ombudsman Amendment Act, not just to reverse the amendments in the FOI Act but to make it even more far-reaching that the original act, and to introduce whistle blower legislation although I will let John Devitt speak on that element of the proposed accountability reform package.

I also want to say that I appreciate the huge challenges that this Government faces and particularly Minister Howlin here this evening as he sets to work in a new Department and I wish him nothing but the very best with the challenges he and his Department will face. But equally, I would respectfully request that these initiatives not be put on the back burner because in my experience, once they move to that spot on the cooker, they can be left to simmer there for a very long time indeed.

The first time the Ombudsman Amendment Act was proposed by Government was in the 1994 Programme for Government, seventeen years ago. When I came in to Office eight years ago, in 2003 it had still not been enacted but every six months, as regular as clockwork, my Office was told that it would be through in the next session, then the next one then the one after that. It did eventually get to Second Stage in the Dail but fell with the fall of the last Government. So I would, again with respect, ask the Government to move sooner rather later in getting it through. My Office has undergone a huge programme of change in our structures and procedures in the last year in order to make it more efficient and to allow us to deal with the new bodies under remit, and we are ready to go.

Why does this matter? It matters, obviously, to the people who may have been badly treated and who may currently have no way of accessing an independent investigation of their claims. But it also matters in the whistle blowing context, in that while criminal or fraudulent acts are rarely if ever uncovered by an Ombudsman, poor, unfair or even illegal administrative practices can be rooted out through my Office's investigations. Fás is one of the bodies due to come under remit, for example, and we are all aware of the controversies that engulfed that particular organisation over the last number of years. I'm making no claim for what the Ombudsman might have been able to do in relation to some of those controversies, but I believe that had it been open to forensic scrutiny by an agency such as my own not all of those controversies might have taken place.

Other important public bodies intended to come under remit, include the third level sector, the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, the Courts Service, the Labour Court, the Labour Relations Commission, the Pensions Board, the National Treatment Purchase Fund, the State Examinations Commission, the Central Fisheries Board and the Arts Council.

I was asked specifically to speak about FOI at this evening's event, but to begin, I want to use not my own words, but those of the Labour Leader and now Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore when he spoke very eloquently at the FOI 10th anniversary conference in May 2008. I want to acknowledge here that it was former Labour Junior Minister Eithne FitzGerald who championed the FOI Act and steered it through the Oireachtas.

The title of Mr Gilmore's speech was "FOI is needed to keep Government, open, honest and accountable."

Among the points he made were the following:

"The Amendment Act of 2003 did fundamental damage to the way in which the FOI regime ought to operate."

"It was a piece of legislation which I believe was conceived and enacted in order to spancel the working of the 1997 Act."

"The commitment to official secrecy still always seems to trump the commitment to FOI."

"Freedom of Information laws are, I believe, a vital part in making some attempt to ensure the accountability of Ministers, their officials and public bodies."

"I am convinced that the only effective and efficient Government is one that is open, honest and answerable."

I am not however a Pollyanna, and know the pressures that come to bear on even the most reform minded of politicians once in office. It is said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, and I am aware that the poetry of opposition rhetoric can sometimes be hard to translate directly into the prose of Government work.

But I don't think that even the most obdurate of mandarins would be able to look back at the wreckage of the last few years and argue against greater open scrutiny of the machinery that guides our state and runs all of our lives.

Again, I appreciate the grey areas of life in the FOI and whistle blowing lanes. The public interest can be a subjective evaluation test and that interest also changes with time and with changing circumstances. Julian Assange may well be lionised in some quarters for his incontinent leaking of secret documents but it will not be him who is left with the perhaps unintended and messy consequences of the release of at least some of that material.

A major legal and political battle is also brewing in the US over the leaking of defence documents to a newspaper by a former senior executive of the National Security Agency, the US Government's electronic- espionage service. Thomas Drake argues that the documents were benign, and simply exposed waste and administrative bungling. The Justice Department depicts him as a treacherous man who violated the Government trust. Whatever the truth of it, it places President Barack Obama in a difficulty space having to balance his longtime championing of transparency with the febrile demands of protecting national security at all costs.

At the core of all of this, in this country, as much as in the US, is the issue of public trust. Pre the Ombudsman, pre the FOI Act, it was the Government and the civil service who effectively and exclusively determined what was in our best interests. The establishment of my two Offices, as well as other oversight bodies, ceded an amount of control to independent, outside agents. As Information Commissioner, I along, with my staff, take that responsibility and trust very seriously indeed. As I said to one former politicians who railed to me privately about FOI, I do not wake up every morning wondering how I can mess with the heads of the Government. I have repeatedly said that the FOI Act is not there to do harm and if there are genuine concerns about any of its provisions they should be scrutinised and amended if necessary.

I genuinely hope that, with these and other reforms promised by this new Government, including the welcome creation of a new Investigations, Oversight and Petitions Committee, that we will be entering into a new era of enlightened openness, of increased public trust between the governors and the governed, and an appreciation that if we're all in this economic mess together, the least the citizens can expect is that we're kept well and fully briefed on everything that affects our lives.