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

The number of access to information requests to public bodies in 2021 increased by 13%, with a 17% increase in requests to the Information Commissioner to review decisions made by public bodies under freedom of information law.

Speaking on Wednesday June 22 at the release of his office’s annual report, newly appointed Information Commissioner Ger Deering said 35,673 access to information requests had been made to all public bodies in 2021, compared to 31,591 in 2020.

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

Despite the increased demand for reviews to be performed, the Office of the Information Commissioner handled 20% more cases (498) than in 2020 (414). It also processed files faster, with 62% of files processed in four months, compared to 57% in 2020.

The Information Commissioner has expressed concern about the high percentage of ‘deemed refusals’ his office has seen – cases where no decision is made by the public body on an access to information request. at the initial “decision-making” and “internal review” stages of the application.

31% of notices accepted by the Information Commissioner in 2021 were “deemed refusals”, compared to 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 FOI Act review.

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

Most Access to Information Requests Received in 2021: Top 5 Public Bodies

  • HSE – 8,737 in 2020 – 10,025 in 2021
  • Social Welfare Department – 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
  • Ministry of Justice – 818 in 2020 – 903 in 2021

Type of access to information requester from public bodies – 2021

  • Customers of public bodies – 50.9%
  • Journalists – 19.8%
  • Businesses – 5.4%
  • Staff of public bodies – 2.6%
  • Oireachtas members – 1.6%
  • Other – 19.7%

Requests for Review Accepted by the Information Commissioner 2021: Top 5 Agencies

  • HSE-83
  • Defense Forces – 31
  • Ministry of Justice – 21
  • TUSLA – Child and Family Agency – 19
  • Dublin City Council – 15

Decisions of the Information Commissioner in 2021

The Information Commissioner’s 2021 Annual Report outlines some notable decisions made by his Office in 2021, including:

  • Records of any violations of social distancing/COVID measures at Oireachtas Houses (Case OIC-105916)

In response to a freedom of information request, the Oireachtas Houses Service refused to release the vast majority of records it had regarding compliance by Oireachtas members and others with complex of COVID measures such as social distancing and hygiene protocols.

Following a request for review of the decision, the Information Commissioner contacted the Service, resulting in the release of the majority of the records to the requester. The Service redacted certain information on the grounds that it was personal information relating to staff and members of the Oireachtas.

The Commissioner agreed and concluded that the public interest in knowing the level of compliance with COVID measures had been satisfied by the publication of the redacted records.

Access to Video Recordings of Meath County Council Special Planning Meetings (Case OIC-110190)

Meath County Council has refused access to audio and video recordings of special council planning meetings attended remotely and in person by council officials, county councilors and members of the public.

He said the recordings contained the personal information of those involved. The Information Commissioner rejected the Council’s allegations. He said members of the public who attended could not expect the information to be treated as confidentially as the meetings were held in public.

With regard to the municipal staff and the county councillors, he pointed out that they were present in their official capacity and that this information could therefore not be considered personal.

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

Environmental Information Commissioner

As Information Commissioner, Ger Deering is also the Environmental Information Commissioner. The Commissioner’s role is to adjudicate appeals from members of the public who are dissatisfied with the outcome of their requests for environmental information from public authorities under the Access to Environmental Information Regulations.

Appeals to the Environmental Information Commissioner triple in 2021

The Office of the Environmental Information Commissioner received 147 appeals of decisions taken by public authorities under the environmental information access regime in 2021 – more than triple the total of 46 for 2020. A record number of 83 appeals were concluded by the Commissioner Office in 2021.

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

Speaking at the release of his annual report, Environmental Information Commissioner Ger Deering welcomed court findings in recent years which he said had clarified the definition of environmental “environmental” information.

However, he said it was regrettable that some public authorities had made decisions on environmental claims without using the guidance provided by court decisions, resulting in unnecessary 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 2021 annual report of the Environmental Information Commissioner is available on the website www.ocei.ie