562. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Justice if a recent contract for the provision of new Garda roads policing unit vans was put out to tender and if so, when the new vans will come into the fleet. [43892/21]
Minister for Justice (Deputy Heather Humphreys): As the Deputy will be aware, the Garda Commissioner is responsible under the law for the management and administration of An Garda Síochána. This includes decisions on the allocation of Garda resources, such as the distribution of Garda vehicles among the various Garda divisions, in light of identified operational demands. As Minister, I have no direct role in these matters. I am assured, however, that Garda management keeps the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities, to ensure their optimum use.
Significant capital investment is being made in An Garda Síochána, including a total of €46 million specifically for the Garda fleet over the period 2016 and 2021. This continuing investment is intended to ensure that An Garda Síochána has a modern, effective and fit-for-purpose fleet and that Gardaí can be mobile, visible and responsive on the roads and in the community to prevent and tackle crime.
I am informed by the Garda authorities that all vehicle tenders and contracts for Garda vehicles are handled through the Office of Government Procurement (OGP). An Garda Síochána Fleet Management Section engage with OGP on an ongoing basis to agree their vehicle needs and specifications. The OGP put in place suitable contracts with suppliers and AGS draw down vehicles as required from these OGP contracts to meet their operational requirements.
Again, I have no role in these matters as Minister for Justice.
I am advised by the Garda authorities that a contract is currently in place through the OGP for the purchase of small, medium and large vans with various specialist conversions up to 5 October 2022 with the option of a 12 month extension. I am further advised that there is no planned purchase of roads policing specific vans or conversions at present.
Separately, the Deputy may be interested to know that there are currently 3 Road Policing Vans attached to the fleet.The FOI system is one key element of this broader movement. I am glad to have the opportunity this evening to reflect on the operation of the FOI system, as well as on the challenges we undoubtedly face in moving forward. In June of this year, well before the recent controversy, I announced that a thorough and comprehensive review of the FOI Act and related issues would be undertaken by my Department. The approach to the review is currently being finalised and I will bring a memorandum to Government with the details. I expect that we will shortly publish a roadmap setting out the process and the details of how anyone interested can get involved. I want to put on the record that, from my perspective, this review is not about narrowing or limiting the scope of FOI; it is about strengthening it, modernising it, and reforming it in a way that speaks to our priorities for openness and transparency.
It is now almost seven years since the 2014 Act was put into being. I want to acknowledge the architect of that legislation, former Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, for his great work in bringing forward what was genuinely reforming legislation, which has served us well. Indeed, it is now almost a quarter of a century since the FOI model first became firmly established as part of Irish public administration. When we think of the kinds of changes that have occurred in the intervening period, in how people seek out and interact with information, and the rise of the Internet and the information society, it is clear to me that a review at this point is timely and necessary. At the time that FOI was first introduced, it was fairly unusual for households to have a home computer or Internet access. Now, of course, the majority of us carry smartphones in our pockets giving us finger fingertip access to a world of information that could only have been dreamt of in 1997. Undoubtedly, these developments present challenges to the FOI model, which was devised to deal with an operating environment where record-keeping was generally paper-based and relatively discreet, rather than the proliferation of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of electronic records generated on a daily basis across the civil and public service, scattered across various devices and servers. These issues go far broader than just the FOI access mechanism, taking in knowledge management and record management in a more general sense. Of course, every Department has its own records management policy, which reflects the legislation in place: the National Archives Act, the Data Protection Act and, indeed, the FOI Act.
Work has been ongoing in my Department, particularly in the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, OGCIO, to support an approach to data and systems that is suitable and fit for purpose for the modern world. In addition, a record management plan for the public sector is being developed as part of the data strategy to provide a baseline for the constant improvement of the handling and use of information in the sector. Despite these challenges - and there are undoubted challenges, which I have readily acknowledged - in general terms, I believe that the overall system is operating well. My Department monitors the operation of the legislation on an ongoing basis and it is likely, of course, that this review will result in the need for legislation. I look forward to seeing the Deputy’s legislation. I have not yet seen it and I will engage with her on it in good faith.
I want to put on the record again some of the key figures. The Freedom of Information Act 2014 widened the scope of FOI to take in approximately 600 bodies. Between 2014 and 2019, the number of requests processed across the civil and public service roughly doubled to more than 41,000 requests in 2019. The 2014 Act removed the application fee for making an FOI request. In addition, no application or search or retrieval fees apply for requests or for reviews that involved requests for personal information. As such, no fee whatsoever applies at any stage to the approximately 60% of FOI requests in most given years that involve individuals seeking their personal information. Sometimes we forget that that is in many respects the use of the Act in its current form. In the majority of cases, people are looking for their own personal information. That, too, is important, as well as all of the other roles the Act plays. In 2020, clients of public sector bodies comprised by far the largest single group of requesters - when we say "clients", we mean people, individuals - at 50% of the overall total, while journalists comprised 23% of requesters. A range of supports are in place for the implementation of FOI across the civil and public service. My Department maintains a range of guidance, documents and manuals, while the Office of the Information Commissioner has also issued guidance on the correct interpretation of the legislation. In addition, my Department is put in place a standardised training framework that all bodies can draw on in meeting their FOI obligations. More than 7,000 public sector employees have received training under the framework from its introduction in 2015 to date. By and large, I believe they are doing a good job.
Independent review by the commissioner and his expert staff is the key oversight of FOI decision-making standards. In 70% of cases in which the commissioner issued a formal decision, the approach taken by the public body was affirmed as having correctly applied the legislation, which is an important point. I, therefore, believe that while there is scope for improvement and modernisation - which I absolutely accept and will implement - the overall FOI system has a lot of merit, providing a solid footing from which we can move forward. I acknowledge that while these stats allow us to understand at a glance the basic outline of the system, standing alone they are not sufficient. Indeed, the figures themselves suggested issues that may require further examination, such as whether there is a case for refining the system in certain areas, such as the large number of requests for personal information from the health sector and bodies such as Department of Social Protection. It is for these reasons, and others, that I have directed a comprehensive review to commence. The review process will allow an opportunity for stakeholders across the system, from public bodies and FOI officers, to journalists, academics, activists, as well as the public, and, of course, Oireachtas, to have their say.
In conclusion, I want to ensure we have a system whereby we reduce the need for more and more FOI requests; that by default we publish more information; that we genuinely embrace openness and transparency; and that we reduce the dependence on the need to apply for freedom of information to access records that should be published in the normal course of events.