Unwelcome attention for D(C)ENR

You wait and then two come along at once…

We’re talking about the Department of Communciations, Energy & Natural Resources (DCENR; formerly also Marine hence the still-in-use Web address of DCMNR) in Ireland.

1. The Department posts the outcomes of and releases documents pertaining to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. There’s even one from me in there, if you search hard enough. Anyway, they published a bundle of documents released in response to Damien Mulley’s request, which are quite interesting. Damien has posted some of the most interesting bits, and the Irish Times ran a story too.

One interesting paragraph – interesting for how it illustrates the difficulties that the Department has had with its broadband programme, though also interesting to see a document that was probably never intended to see public light – is this one. It’s taken from an email between two senior civil servants in the Department, speaking about a person who has been employed as an stagiare (intern) about to complete her term of work; one of them wants to hire as a consultant to continue work on the National Broadband Scheme and writes to the other:

“I would like to find some way of retaining her and may have to break procurement rules in order to do so. Given the dire situation, I feel I have no other option. I’m not inclined to seek permission from HR for this proposal and I’m unlikely to get it. I’d rather face the consequences after the NBS is up and running” (source: page 30 of this PDF)

It’s easy, indeed to respect the determination of the author to ‘get things done’ and cut through what is presumably nasty paperwork, though of course the trade union in the Department rightly raised legitimate concerns about the process, which are all described here, and the paperwork is there for a reason. I don’t think this is a legality/illegality issue but it’s certainly an awkward one for all concerned.

Just as a sidenote to all this, yet again we see our ‘Freedom’ of ‘Information’ system in action – the big black marker was in full action, and Damien was charged over €100 for this (the fee varies based on the cost of digging out the information). A friend of mine made a request to a third level institution some years ago and was quoted over €1000 for the information (he withdrew the request rather than pay it). Alongside this, there is a fee to make a request and a fee to make an appeal – and, perversely, if you win your appeal, you don’t get your money back – it is not a refundable deposit but a penalty charge that the wronged party must pay for the incorrect decision of the decision-maker at first instance. The Information Commissioner, Emily O’Reilly, criticises the fee-related aspects of FOI in this great speech from earlier this year here. A Private Members’s Bill (PMB) from Joan Burton (Labour) (here) to reverse the legislation that introduced these punitive charges will come before the Oireachtas shortly. In the meantime, Damien deserves our thanks not just for his spending on a charge that shouldn’t exist, but his persistence and his well-constructed requests.

2. Not needing FOI for this one (yet): Michele Neylon, who is involved in the ISP Association of Ireland (ISPAI) publishes the correspondence between the ISPAI and the Department regarding the proposed law on data retention, which Digital Rights Ireland and others are doing their best to oppose. The Minister replied by saying that as a different Minister (Justice) has responsibility for incorporating the relevant bit of European law into Irish law (transposition of the directive by way of SI, for those who care about such thing), he “has no function in this matter”. All the PDFs are on Michele’s post.

Note that the ISPAI didn’t ask if the Minister had a “function” in the matter – they asked to meet him to discuss how the legislation would have an impact on the Internet industry in Ireland. As the Minister responsible for communications, one would expect that he might be in the slightest bit interested. An Opposition TD (member of parliament) has no “function” in all sorts of things, but that doesn’t stop them hearing from concerned individuals, groups, businesses, trade unions and lobbyists. Furthermore, as we saw during discussions on defamation and privacy legislation, it’s not just the responsible Minister (again Justice) that has an interest in the Dept. of Justice’s legislative programme in or outside Cabinet – surely the Minister for Communications should at least be aware of the concerns of the communications industry, so that he or his staff can raise those issues in appropriate fora? And let’s not begin to talk about the nonsense that our politicians do, like cutting ribbons on off-licences and turning up at everything from a christening to a funeral if it’s in their constituency.

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