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05 Jul 2022

HSE and Tusla among Freedom of Information requests and reviews which saw significant increase in 2021

HSE and Tusla among Freedom of Information requests and reviews which saw significant  increase in 2021

HSE and Tusla among Freedom of Information requests and reviews which saw significant increase in 2021

The number of Freedom of Information requests made to public bodies in 2021 increased by 13%, with a 17% increase in applications to the Information Commissioner to review decisions made by public bodies under the FOI Act.

Speaking on Wednesday (June 22) at the publication of his Office’s annual report, recently appointed Information Commissioner Ger Deering said that 35,673 FOI requests were made to all public bodies in 2021 - up from 31,591 in 2020.

His office received 687 applications to review decisions made by public bodies under the FOI Act, compared to 584 in 2020.    

Despite the increase in demand for reviews to be conducted, the Information Commissioner’s Office completed 20% more cases (498) than it did in 2020 (414). It also dealt with cases more speedily, with 62% of cases dealt with in four months, compared to 57% in 2020.

The Information Commissioner expressed his concern over the high percentage of ‘deemed refusals’ his Office has seen - cases where no decision is made by the public body on an FOI request at both the initial ‘decision making’ and ‘internal review’ stages of the request.  

31% of reviews accepted by the Information Commissioner in 2021 were ‘deemed refusals’ compared with 32% in 2020, and 19% in 2019.  

Ger Deering also welcomed the recent announcement by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform of the public consultation phase of the review of the FOI Act.

Mr Deering has welcomed the review and added that his Office had made a number of proposals to the Minister aimed at improving the FOI Act for everyone, including users and public bodies.

Most FOI requests received in 2021: Top 5 public bodies 

  • HSE - 8,737 in 2020 - 10,025 in 2021
  • Department of Social Protection - 1, 706 in 2020 - 1,733 in 2021
  • TUSLA - Child and Family Agency - 986 in 2020 - 1,365 in 2021
  • Tallaght University Hospital - 539 in 2020 - 994 in 2021
  • Department of Justice - 818 in 2020 - 903 in 2021

Type of FOI requester to public bodies - 2021

  • Clients of public bodies - 50.9%
  • Journalists - 19.8%
  • Business - 5.4%
  • Staff of public bodies - 2.6%
  • Oireachtas members - 1.6%
  • Others - 19.7%

Applications for review accepted by the Information Commissioner 2021: Top 5 bodies

  • HSE - 83
  • Defence Forces - 31
  • Department of Justice - 21
  • TUSLA - Child and Family Agency - 19
  • Dublin City Council - 15
     

Information Commissioner Decisions in 2021

The Information Commissioner’s annual report 2021 describes some notable decisions made by his Office in 2021 including:

  • Records of any breaches of social distancing/COVID measures in the Houses of the Oireachtas (Case OIC-105916)

In response to an FOI request, the Houses of the Oireachtas Service refused to release the vast majority of records it held relating to compliance by members of the Oireachtas, and others in the complex, with COVID measures such as social distancing and hygiene protocols.

Following an application for review of the decision, the Information Commissioner engaged with the Service resulting in the release of the majority of the records to the requester.  The Service redacted certain information on the ground that it was personal information relating to the staff and members of the Oireachtas.  

The Commissioner agreed, and found that the public interest in knowing the level of compliance with COVID measures had been addressed by release of the redacted records. 

Access to video recordings of Special Planning Meetings of Meath County Council (Case OIC-110190)             

Meath County Council refused access to audio and video recordings of Special Planning Meetings of the Council which were attended remotely and in person by council officials, county councillors and members of the public.

It said that the recordings contained the personal information of the people involved.  The Information Commissioner dismissed the Council’s claims.  He said that the members of the public who attended could not have any expectation that the information would be treated as confidential as the meetings were held in public.  

In relation to the council staff and county councillors, he pointed out that they were attending in their official capacity and so this information could not be considered to be personal.   

The Information Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2021 is available at www.oic.ie

Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information

As Information Commissioner Ger Deering is also the Commissioner for Environmental Information.  The role of the Commissioner is to decide on appeals by members of the public who are not happy with the outcome of their requests to public authorities for environmental information under the Access to Information on the Environment Regulations.

Appeals to Commissioner for Environmental Information treble in 2021 

The Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information received 147 appeals of decisions made by public authorities under the Access to Information on the Environment regime in 2021 - more than treble the total of 46 for 2020.  A record number of 83 appeals were concluded by the Commissioner’s Office in 2021.  

The number of environmental requests to all public authorities almost doubled in 2021 (from 858 in 2020 to 1,651 in 2021).

Speaking at the publication of his annual report, Commissioner for Environmental Information Ger Deering welcomed the findings of the courts in recent years which he said clarified the definition of 'environmental' information.  

However, he said that it was regrettable that some public authorities have made decisions on environmental requests without using the guidance provided by the court decisions, resulting in needless appeals to his Office.  

He called on public authorities to review their procedures to ensure that the guidance provided by the courts is used in their decisions on environmental access requests.  

The Commissioner for Environmental Information’s annual report for 2021 is available on the website www.ocei.ie

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