Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Majority of FoI requests are from the general public

Two members of the public have asked for all correspondence from the First Ministers' Office to Catholic Primate Sean Brady over his elevation to Cardinal, it can be revealed.

And an academic wants to obtain Department of Health details on the number of abortions conducted in the province in 2005 and 2006.

The details are contained in a private internal report for Ministers, seen by the Belfast Telegraph, on the operation of the Freedom of Information (FoI) system.

The report reveals that in October the bulk of FoI requests came from the public - 61 % - and the single department which continues to receive most inquiries is the Department of Environment.

While confirming the media continues to make significant numbers of FoI applications - around 18 % - the report shows the mechanism is also being used by business (7.3 % last month), solicitors (5%) and pressure groups, as well as elected representatives.

Inquiries from business included water consumption and expenditure and consultancy fees.

The Permanent Secretaries Group has now agreed in principle a number of recommendations designed to "sustain and improve" the capacity of Departments to comply with the FoI legislation.

Their decision on October 26 comes after First Minister Ian Paisley called into question the amount of time being taken up by civil servants dealing with FoI requests.

The Permanent Secretaries have also agreed that Departments should definitely assist the central FoI team "even in instances where they have not been in receipt of the request themselves".

A paper on the operation of FoI following Mr Paisley's remarks is now in preparation and is to cover FoI issues in relation to Executive business and specific FoI matters in relation to information provided to the Assembly's scrutiny committees.

The DUP leader told MLAs on October 8: "There is no doubt that the evidence thus far already suggests that dealing with FoI requests takes up a considerable amount of staff time."

He added: "On occasions, the requests are of a wide-ranging and detailed nature that requires many hours of research, and are sent in by lazy journalists, who will not do any work, but who think that we should pay them and give them the information that they want."

Since January 2005, when the legislation came into full effect, Ministers have been provided with updates on FoI requests.

The latest reveals a total of 260 FoI requests for October, up slightly on the 231 total for September, but "considerably down" on the 322 requests received in October last year.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said there should be "the freest possible flow of information between Government and the people".

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