SPEAKING NOTE FOR MINISTER OF STATE, MARTIN CULLEN AT THE JOINT COMMITTEE ON FINANCE AND THE PUBLIC SERVICE
27 March 2001
Speaking Note for Minister of State Martin Cullen TD
Freedom of Information Act
Prescribed Bodies Regulations
Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service
I would like to thank the Committee for giving me the opportunity to present these regulations, which provide for extension of the
Freedom of Information Act to bodies in the enterprise and training sector.
As Oireachtas members have been making good use of the Act, I feel sure its extension to more public bodies will be welcomed!
Freedom of Information Act to date
The regulations before the Committee represent part of an ongoing Government commitment to significantly extend the FOI Act.
Since it commenced in April 1998 for government departments and closely related bodies, FOI has been extended on a phased basis
to include the health boards, local authorities, voluntary hospitals and a range of voluntary bodies, RTE, TG4 and a number of other
bodies in the social services, environment, cultural and regulatory areas.
If approved, the Regulations before the Committee will bring to 282 the number of bodies within the FOI net, compared to 67 when
the Government took Office.
Later this year, the Act will be further extended to include the higher education sector. While the details are still being worked out, I can
confirm that the Act will be applied with effect from this October to the universities, institutes of technology, colleges of education and to
the higher education authority.
And it does not end there. We are currently finalising plans for a further significant extension of the Act commencing in 2002. I am in
the process of consulting Departments to identify appropriate bodies for inclusion in that round of extensions and would hope to be
reporting to Government shortly.
I trust the Committee will see from this programme that the Government is firmly committed to expanding the remit of the FOI Act.
Turning to the business in hand, the Committee will note that it is proposed to extend FOI to ten enterprise and training bodies through
three sets of regulations.
I propose to deal with each set of regulations in turn:
Freedom of Information Act 1997 (Prescribed Bodies) Regulations 2001
I have arranged that a straightforward extension of the Freedom of Information Act to IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, the National
Authority for Occupational Safety and Health, Forfás, FÁS, FAS International Consulting Limited, SFADCo and Údarás na Gaeltachta are
dealt with in one set of Regulations, namely the Freedom of Information Act, 1997 (Prescribed Bodies) Regulations, 2001.
These Regulations apply FOI to all of the functions of the bodies concerned.
Before dealing with the detail of the remaining regulations, I might also mention, Chairman, that officials of the LRC and NSAI,
including Mr Mulvey and Mr Kelly, the Chief Executives, are present here this afternoon.
National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) – No. 2 Regulations
The extension of the Act to the NSAI is dealt with in a separate set of Regulations, namely the Freedom of Information Act, 1997
(Prescribed Bodies) (No. 2) Regulations, 2001. As I indicated in my recent letter to you Chairman, in the case of the NSAI, it is
proposed that the Act will be extended to all of the non-commercial functions of the organisation, that is, everything other than the
NSAI's certification functions.
In performing these functions, the NSAI operates in a competitive commercial environment with significant revenues being generated
for the organisation. In preparing for FOI concerns were expressed to me that customers would be less willing to purchase the NSAI's
services, which involve very detailed audits of the internal operations of companies both domestically and abroad, if they had concerns
about the confidentiality of the information they supplied.
Essentially, the concern was that while there are considerable protections for commercially sensitive information within the Act,
commercial competitors of NSAI which are not subject to FOI might be able to gain an advantage over NSAI by asserting that they
are better positioned to protect confidential information of clients than the NSAI. The NSAI's Certification Service is unique in that it
competes in the marketplace for the provision of certification services in accordance with the stringent EN45000 series of European
standards and the global ISO Conformity Assessment Procedures. In countries such as the UK, Canada, Australia and Finland standards
bodies tend to be independent, non-profit organisations; in other words they have no link to government and therefore the issue of FOI
does not arise.
A further consideration is that the NSAI's current three year business plan envisages that the Authority would become self-financing in its
core activities of certification and standards this year. Obviously, if NSAI were to lose business to competitors, this could have serious
implications for revenues earned.
For these reasons, it is not proposed that FOI be extended to the commercial activities of NSAI.
Labour Relations Commission (LRC) – No. 3 Regulations
The third set of regulations also extends the Act on a partial basis, this time, to the Labour Relations Commission.
In providing for a partial extension to the LRC I have had regard to the voluntary nature of the Irish industrial dispute resolution model,
which is much admired throughout the world, and owes much of its success to the atmosphere of mutual trust and confidentiality in which
its services interact with its primary customers – employers and trade unions.
There is clearly a special need for confidentiality and trust in this context. Exceptional sensitivities exist in industrial relations and the
service is usually engaged when tensions and relationships are at their most fraught. Again, in approaching FOI, there was a concern that
the LRC's services might not be fully and appropriately used if parties to industrial disputes either feared the subsequent release of
information provided or pursued access to information provided in confidence by others in the course of conciliation.
Consequently, it is proposed that the Act should be extended to the administrative, research and policy functions and records of the LRC,
but not to operational functions in relation to specific industrial disputes or specific employers or unions.
At this stage, Chairman, might I say that we all know that successful legislation is not just about good drafting, but also about committed
implementation. The wide range of bodies which we are dealing with today have been very active from the very start, in preparing for
Freedom of Information. They have worked together as a group to address the challenges of implementing FOI at the coal-face of
industrial development, and have been well-supported by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in that regard. I think
that bodes well not only for implementation of the letter of the law, but also the spirit of it, in these bodies.