Freedom of Information: Know your rights

Earlier in the week I sent an FOI request to the Department of Justice, and this morning I received a letter informing me that my request has been acknowledged and is being handling. So far so what, one might say, this is all pretty much above board. There is, however, one interesting anomaly. The letter contains one sentence, in dramatic bold print no less, that states, “Non reply by us is deemed to be a refusal.”

Now I generally don’t have a problem with people taking the piss occasionally. It is after all a particularly Irish trait to test the boundaries of what we can get away with. If this had been just a once-off I wouldn’t have felt the need to write this post. However, this is the second time they’ve tried this shit with me, so now I’m going public.

If ever a facet of the public administration system tries to fool you into believing they may refuse a freedom of information request without informing you why, I advise you to immediately e-mail the relevant FOI officer (as I’m going to do as soon as I’ve finished this post) and direct their attention to Section 8 (1), paragraph c of the Freedom of Information Act. This states:

Subject to the provisions of this Act, a head shall, as soon as may be, but not later than 4 weeks, after the receipt of a request under section 7 cause notice, in writing or in such other form as may be determined, of the decision and determination to be given to the requester concerned.

Basically, if your request is refused, they’re required to inform you why. Yet the FOI officer in the Department of Justice is under the impression that she can simply say, “fuck that,” and throw out requests without giving them a further thought. Of course this is symptomatic of the general contempt for freedom of information displayed by our civil servants, addicted as they are to the culture of secrecy granted to them by Charlie Haughey’s Official Secrets Act of 1963. These guys personally resent examination of how they do their jobs and see the Freedom of Information Act as something that should at most be pacified and preferably ignored completely.

Proof of this came in 2003 when the Government disgracefully amended the original act. The same fuckers who as opposition in 1997 claimed the act was too weak and ineffectual did their utmost make it weaker. Let me say, however, that I don’t have a problem with many of the changes made. Introducing a €15 charge to eliminate nuisance requests was entirely justified. And as for increasing the protection period for cabinet documents from five to ten years, few would deny (at least in private) that 5 years was ridiculously short. The problem is that they didn’t stop there. They greatly expanded what was deemed to be a cabinet document, which in effect changed the meaning of the word “Government”. There are other examples too numerous to mention here. So let us merely look at Bertie Ahern’s defence of the amendments in the Dáil when he claimed:

Later today, I am dealing with Northern Ireland matters on the Good Friday Agreement, which was negotiated five years ago. If the papers were available about the same issues being negotiated today, there would be major difficulties. It is not possible to reduce the period to five years when one is dealing with the same people, process and issues.

Fair point, until you realise the original act contained this little tidbit:

A head may refuse to grant a request under section 7 in relation to a record if, in the opinion of the head, access to it could reasonably be expected to affect adversely-
(a) the security of the State
(b) the defence of the State
(c) the international relations of the State, or
(d) matters relating to Northern Ireland

But this is all water under the bridge. Having already undermined the act, one might expect them to at least comply with the bitty remains they left behind, but apparenty not. Well, the last time I got such a letter I sent them an e-mail demanding to be notified in writing if my request is denied. As it happens, my request was denied (for reasons I accept were justified, or at least legal), and sure enough, I got a very detailed letter explaining why. This is the lesson I’m trying to impart with this here fable. These fuckers will only get away with this shit if we let them.

2 Responses to “Freedom of Information: Know your rights”

  1. February 2, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Then there’s the current situation with the Office of the Infomation Commissioner (appeals) I have one in now for about a year, not their fault I know but I ask ye! Is this office deliberately being starved of resources like the Equality Authority

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