The Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly has published her Annual Report for 2012 which shows a 38 percent increase on 2011 in the number of FOI review applications received by the Office in 2012. The number of applications accepted has increased by more than 35 percent. The majority of applications accepted by the Office in 2012 concerned applicants seeking access to records.
The Commissioner expressed disappointment at the decision of the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to stop collating the statistical FOI returns due to an administratively unsustainable workload. Up until now, the Office published statistical returns which showed the extent to which members of the public, journalists, private organisations and others avail of the access rights under the FOI Act. Now however, the Commissioner is “unable to offer commentary on a significant number of public bodies, as statistical returns for 2012 for the majority of civil service bodies have not been forwarded to my office for publication”. The Commissioner said she is disappointed that “alternative arrangements for the collation of statistics were not agreed in advance of the Department’s decision.” It is estimated that the number of bodies for whom no statistical information is available for publication is in excess of 110.
FOI Amendment Bill
The report also highlights the progress being made on the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill and the proposed automatic application of FOI legislation to all newly-formed public bodies. While it is “somewhat disappointing” that the Bill remains to be published, the Commission is “aware that the heels of legislative development can often turn slowly”.
Amongst the key decisions made in 2012 include a case whereby the IDA refused to release names of individuals from whom it leased various premises, on the basis that such details comprised the individuals’ personal information. The IDA subsequently released details of the location and size of the properties, the start and end dates of the lease, and the amount of rent payable by the IDA in each year specified in the request. Release of the details was based upon the Commissioner’s view that public bodies “should be open as to with whom they do business and to whom state monies are paid, and to show that they are ready to be held accountable, if necessary, for those arrangements. My Office ultimately found that the public interest warranted the release of the names at issue.”
One example of a case where the Commissioner decided not to release the information was the case of a son requesting the medical records of his deceased father. The decision was based on the reasoning that the father would not have consented to their release while he was living. Another case where information was withheld was with regard to nine FOI requests (with 58 different elements) made to Dublin City Council by one requester between January 12 and February 14 2011. The Office deemed the requests “excessive”, particularly in light of the extent of information sought in each, and the short time period over which they were made. In this light, the Office agreed that the requests had been made with the intention of accomplishing an objective unrelated to the access process i.e. with the aim of forcing the Council to liaise with, and/or ultimately recognise the representative association with which the applicant was involved.
Commissioner for Environmental Information
Part II of the report relates to the Commissioners separate role as Commissioner for Environmental Information. The report focuses on decisions made by her Office on appeals under the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations 2007. The aim of the AIE regime is to contribute to a better environment by increasing public access to environmental information and thereby achieve more effective public participation in environmental decision-making. During 2012, thirteen appeals were received by the Office. The Commissioner expressed disappointment at this “relatively small” number of AIE appeals.