NUJ asks committee to block amendments as survey highlights benefits of FOI

The National Union of Journalists has written to the Chairman of the Oireachtas Select Sub-committee on Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Ciaran Lynch, asking him to call a deputation from the union to discuss the Freedom of Information Bill 2013 announced by Minister Brendan Howlin last week. The union wants the committee to adjourn consideration of the Bill pending consultation.

Irish Secretary Séamus Dooley said the new charges would make the use of FOI unaffordable and would undermine the significant reforms contained in the Act and he renewed the union’s call for the scrapping of FOI charges.

NUJ Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley. Photo: Ronan Quinlan

NUJ Irish Secretary Seamus Dooley. Photo: Ronan Quinlan

“Yes, there is a cost to FOI”, Mr Dooley said in a statement, “but then again there is a cost to all elements of democratic government because democracy comes at a price.”

Mr Dooley said: “Earlier this year, the committee, under Deputy Lynch, carried out a valuable series of hearings and made specific recommendations, including the introduction of a registered user scheme, which would have been of specific benefit to freelance journalists. The report did not receive the publicity it deserved and it has certainly been ignored by Mr Howlin. How can we talk about political reform if the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform behaves in this fashion? This is an undermining of the Government’s own commitment to open government and represents a betrayal of the principles contained in the Programme for Government.”

Mr Dooley said the NUJ had prepared a comprehensive dossier in examining the case for scrapping FOI fees. Earlier this year journalist and NUJ member Ken Foxe, himself a frequent user of the Act, has identified a number of key savings achieved through use of FOI by media organisations.

Ken Foxe’s study showed:

  • A 10% reduction in claims for mileage by Ministers in 2012 following revelations in the Irish Mail on Sunday that Ruairi Quinn was paid expenses for driving to and from his holiday home in Co Galway.
  • The closure of the FAS Science Challenge programme following expose of expenditure in the Sunday Independent. It had been costing at least €1.2 million a year.
  • A new political expenses system introduced in March 2010 following resignation of Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue, which has saved close to €2 million annually. Projected out-turn for expenses in 2012 was €11.84 million compared to €13.72 million for 2009, the last full year under the old regime. This came about following a long series of articles in the Sunday Tribune and other newspapers.
  • Former TD Ivor Callely asked to hand back €6,000 after it was found that his mileage claims had been miscalculated when he served as a Junior Minister. This followed an FoI request by The Sunday Tribune, which uncovered the payment.
  • The expenditure of the Office of President at Waterford IT was reduced by over €150,000 annually following a series of FoI requests carried out corporately and first reported on by the Sunday Independent.
  • Refund of €2,600 by TD Michael-Healy Rae following hundreds of phone calls to a reality TV show that he had appeared on, as reported on by the Irish Daily Mail.
  • Spending of around €105,000 per annum on secretarial assistance and mobile phones for former Taoisigh ended following a series of stories based on FoI material in the Sunday Times.
  • Mahon Tribunal legal team amassed a bill of over €44,000 on lunches and more on water, taxis etc over ten years up to 2009. Following a story in the Sunday Times, the Department of the Taoiseach disallowed any such future claims.
  • In 2011, rules on performance assessment in the civil service were allowed to make certain employees ineligible for increments. It followed a story in the Sunday Times, highlighting the fact that only 1% of public servants were being given the lower rankings.
  • HSE employee Frank McClintock was the highest travel and expense claimant in the organisation, paid €37,000 in a single year. He resigned from the HSE following an internal audit, which discovered he was double charging by using a HSE fuel card at the same time as claiming expenses, according to the Sunday Times.
  • Bonus of €37,750 paid out to chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland was repaid following a series of newspaper articles in the Irish Examiner.
  • Series of articles documenting expense claims at Irish National Stud in Irish Examiner and Irish Times highlighted €85,000 of expenditure on flights and chauffeurs. The organisation’s new chief executive told the Dáil: ‘We will be careful about the style of the expenses and see they pass muster and inspection and do not offend. That is the standard we must set.’
  • The salary of the chief executive of Coillte was reduced by more than €40,000 following government pressure and a series of articles in the Irish Examiner. The chief executive also declined to take a bonus in 2010 after adverse coverage of a similar payment in 2008.
  • Number of staff employed by Ceann Comhairle’s office under John O’Donoghue rose from 3 to 10. His successor Seamus Kirk reduced the number of people working there back to 3, saving €300,000 annually, and following revelations by the Sunday Tribune.
  • Ministerial travel in 2007 to coincide with the annual St Patrick’s Day festivities exceeded €500,000. In 2012, the figure was €53,142 brought about primarily by a series of articles by the Sunday Tribune and other newspapers relating to such expenditure.

Séamus Dooley said: “Actual savings produced by the media industry through Freedom of Information are frequent but difficult to quantify. In most instances the expenditure exposed has already taken place but future savings occur because of the information revealed. The research which Ken Foxe carried out convinced us that there should be no charges for FOI. The amendments announced last week take us in the opposite direction.”