March 27, 2003
Cabinet to modify restrictions on access to personal information

by Mark Brennock in The Irish Times

The Government is to modify its proposals to restrict access to personal information held by public bodies but will press ahead with plans to limit the release of Government and other official records.

The Minister for Finance, Mr McCreevy, is today expected to signal his intention to make some changes to his controversial Bill to restrict the Freedom of Information Act.

He will do so during his closing speech on the second-stage Dáil debate on the Bill, which was severely disrupted yesterday and on Tuesday by Labour deputies claiming the changes are being rammed through the Oireachtas without proper consultation.

While the key restrictions on the release of information relating to Government will be retained, Mr McCreevy is expected to respond to pressure on the issue of access to personal information.

He is expected to alter the plan to give members of the public access only to records that "contain" personal information about them. Under existing law they can also receive records that "relate to" such personal information.

A group representing victims of sex abuse, One in Four, has objected strongly to this restriction, saying it will hamper victims' ability to gain access to all relevant documents concerning their past treatment.

The Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service accepted this point when it held hearings on the Government's plans a fortnight ago.

As well as this change, other minor amendments are expected which will allow for the charging of lower fees for Freedom of Information requests to certain categories of requester, such as disadvantaged people.

Mr McCreevy also said on Tuesday that he was considering an amendment to allow relatives of minors and people with disabilities to have personal information amended where it was incorrect, incomplete or misleading.

Such persons should also have the right to have reasons for certain decisions affecting them explained, he said.

However, Government sources said last night that despite these changes, Mr McCreevy was determined to retain the central elements of the Bill restricting the release of official documents.

These include the extension from five to 10 years of the period during which Cabinet records cannot be released, as well as keeping secret advice given to ministers and letters between ministers.

Mr McCreevy signalled this in his speech on Tuesday night in which he defended all of the key elements of the Bill.

These included the extension from five to 10 years of the period before Cabinet papers can be released; the exemption from release of documents prepared by committees and individuals advising ministers; the exemption of communication between ministers, and the granting to secretaries general of the power to certify that a "deliberative process" is ongoing and that certain documents should therefore be kept secret.

He dismissed the concerns expressed by the Information Commissioner, Mr Kevin Murphy, in his recent commentary on the issue.

"I am fully satisfied that any concerns raised in this report about the Government's Bill are not justified," he said, while saying the report had been a "useful contribution to the debate".

In the Dáil debate yesterday, PD deputy Ms Fiona O'Malley sharply criticised the way in which the changes had been made, saying they had been "sprung on an unsuspecting parliament and on an unsuspecting public".

She said she did not believe the assurances from Mr McCreevy that the changes would not curtail access to personal information.

The case for the amendment to be abandoned had been made by the One in Four group, she said, and she believed it would deny such people information which was important in the redress process.

She was also concerned about the proposed new definition of "Government" which would serve to conceal many documents produced by advisory committees and individuals that were previously released.

This change "would permit a very wide and somewhat arbitrary net to be cast" and would exclude much information from the provisions of the Act.

Posted by Colm at March 27, 2003 12:57 PM

I am not surprised at this outcome as in the research for my soon to be published 'God's Preyers' I uncovered the fact that Government ministers sat on their behind though Child sex abuse complaints in residential institutions had been uncovered here in the SEHB and other than a visit from a S/Worker in the DOH and the then Minister sent out a memo and that was their answer to this appalling saga in our society.

Politicians are pricks - mostly!

Posted by: Hanora Brennan on March 30, 2003 02:16 PM
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