How important is access to information?

When access is delayed or denied without legitimate reason it has to be known why. In 2012 there were 18,797 Freedom of Information requests made in Ireland to public bodies across the state. Of these, 569 requests were appealed, and of those 569, 338 were then further appealed to the Information Commissioner.

In her 2011 annual report the then commissioner Emily O’Reilly spoke about the time frame in which appeals to her office are processed. In 2011, 57% of appeals were reviewed in 12 months. 49 appeals took between a year and two years, 26 took over two years and one request had taken three years to be processed. The long time scale from making an initial appeal to the commissioner to a decision being made is well known by the legal eagles in ministry departments, in third level institutions and in all public bodies across this state.

Why do this though? What do many of these institutions have to hide? What are they afraid of the public knowing? Of particular concern to the then Commissioner in her report is that of requests that are classed as “deemed refusals.” These are requests that are not answered by the different institutions. There were 27 of these in 2011, down from 39 in 2010 with the majority of them being from the HSE. In her report O’Reilly stated that “I welcome this general decrease but I am disappointed to note that the number of deemed refusals in respect of the HSE National has increased from five in 2010 to nine in 2011.” Included in the 27 deemed refusals was one from University College Dublin.

The latest statistics available on the amount of requests received are contained in theannual report published by the Information Commission. They show that in third level institutions on an annual basis over 400 requests are dealt with. Here in UCD in 2011 48 requests were received in that year.

But what has freedom of information ever done you may ask? What has the general public ever learned from the use of the Freedom of Information Act 1997/2003? For one, historical and important documents have been made available through requests, including documents from the Beef Tribunal and the Glackin Report. It is also important to point out that requests for information can be made by anyone who is looking to gain access to information that the state holds on them.

If you want to find out more about freedom of information in Ireland, the website www.thestory.ie, which is funded by donations and is operated by a small number of journalists is a good place to start. Freedom of Information have given the public some of the biggest stories that this country has ever seen and it must be respected.

To finish, here’s a quote from the current Information Commissioner, Peter Tyndall in a speech that he made to a conference in the University of Limerick.

“Many governments will and do balk at the implications of that. The more enlightened – particularly those who embrace the potential of Open Data – will see opportunities for radical rethinks in the delivery of public services and for new ways of engaging with the people that they serve. The genie is now well and truly out of the bottle and will not be going back in any time soon.”

Ronan Coveney