April 02, 2003
McCreevy makes concession on FoI

by Arthur Beesley, Political Reporter in The Irish Times

In a significant concession to the campaign against its proposals, the Government has dropped a controversial amendment to the Freedom of Information Act on the release of personal information.

The concession last night by the Minister for Finance, Mr McCreevy, means that the provision in the existing Act will remain in place.

The turnaround followed a robust defence by Mr McCreevy of his plans, in which he said there was "no going back" on the Government's proposals.

In the face of sustained criticism from Opposition TDs, Mr McCreevy rejected complaints about the level of consultation during the review of the Act last year.

Other amendments proposed by him were mostly technical. But while stating at the outset of the debate that he had no plans to change the substance of the Government Bill, Mr McCreevy gave a strong indication to the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service that he would consider submissions on the question of personal information.

The proposed change had been criticised by campaigners for the rights of abuse victims.

They had argued that the change would prevent adult victims of childhood abuse from recovering information about their experience.

The One in Four group, led by Mr Colm O'Gorman, had said that the restriction would silence and suppress the voice of abuse victims. It was crucial for victims to uncover what might be the only supporting evidence about the abuse they suffered while in the care of State institutions.

In addition, the outgoing Information Commissioner, Mr Kevin Murphy, had said that the parents of deceased children whose organs were retained by hospitals would be unable to recover crucial information.

Under the existing Act, records held by public bodies which "relate to" personal information can be released.

Mr McCreevy had proposed to restrict the provision by allowing only the release of records which "contain" personal information. It will now remain in place.

Mr McCreevy withdrew the proposed amendment during the Committee Stage debate on the Freedom of Information Amendment Bill.

He had argued that the change was justified in the light of a High Court judgment in a case taken by an individual in an abuse case who was seeking records held in relation to himself, his former partner and children, among other information.

The Minister had said the change was required to "clarify a totally unsatisfactory situation" and there was no intention to limit the amount of information available to abuse victims. He had not received any representation from any group proposing such a change.

The judgment was open to "mass misinterpretation", he said. Neither he nor his officials nor the Attorney General were "geniuses".

Despite stating that he had not heard any suggestion from the committee about how the provision in the Act could be improved in the light of the judgment, he said: "If deputies want to leave it as it is, I'll leave it as it is."

Mr McCreevy, who had indicated to the Seanad that he would only "tweak" the Bill, told the committee that he had no hang-up about the provision on personal information.

Fine Gael, Labour, the Greens and Sinn Féin welcomed the change.

Labour's finance spokeswoman, Ms Joan Burton, said that the provision had been one of the most objectionable in the Bill.

The Fine Gael spokesman, Mr Richard Bruton, said: "Leaving well enough alone is not a bad finishing point."

Posted by Colm at April 02, 2003 02:08 PM
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