14 March 2012

Trouble's a brewin'

Not Gavin Sheridan, its Kapitän Biopunk: Fermentation Madness by Julian Abraham at the Science Gallery.
The Science Gallery, Dublin, Wednesday 13th March
Went into a very interesting workshop in The Science Gallery last night on the process of submitting Freedom of Information requests. The talk was given by Gavin Sheridan of TheStory.ie, and hosted by Distilled Ideas and Pixel Apes (both good friends of us here at BoomingBack). Originally set up by Sheridan and Mark Coughlan, TheStory.ie is at the forefront of advocating for open and transparent government, submitting scores of FOI requests each year and making all the subsequent data available for general consumption.

Sheridan took the audience through the Freedom of Information Act 1997/2003, the methodology of submitting a request, common tactics used by government departments to block such a request, and the staggered appeals process to follow in such an eventuality. Also of great interest was his outline of the Access to Information on the Environment Regulations Statutory Instrument, brought in begrudgingly at the behest of the EU, legislation that requires any public body to provide, free of charge, information on its environmental impact. Through this legislation a request could be submitted to a government department asking for the total mileage of all vehicles used by that department, in addition to all travel expenses for its employees (as travel has a major carbon impact on the environment) or a request could be made for the total energy cost associated with each building used by that department. In fact Sheridan argued that almost anything could be labeled as having an environmental impact, so this Instrument could potentially be of even greater use than the FOI Act.

Where this gets really interesting is in the wording of the Environment Regulations Statutory Instrument. The Instrument applies to any public authority, which it defines as:
“public authority” means, subject to sub-article (2)—
(a) government or other public administration, including public advisory
bodies, at national, regional or local level,
(b) any natural or legal person performing public administrative functions
under national law, including specific duties, activities or services in
relation to the environment, and[133] 5
(c) any natural or legal person having public responsibilities or functions,
or providing public services, relating to the environment under the
control of a body or person falling within paragraph (a) or (b),

and includes—

(i) a Minister of the Government,
(ii) the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland,
(iii) a local authority for the purposes of the Local Government Act 2001
(No. 37 of 2001),
(iv) a harbour authority within the meaning of the Harbours Act 1946
(No. 9 of 1946),
(v) the Health Service Executive established under the Health Act 2004
(No. 42 of 2004),
(vi) a board or other body (but not including a company under the Companies Acts) established by or under statute,
(vii) a company under the Companies Acts, in which all the shares are
(I) by or on behalf of a Minister of the Government,
(II) by directors appointed by a Minister of the Government,
(III) by a board or other body within the meaning of paragraph (vi), or
(IV) by a company to which subparagraph (I) or (II) applies, having
public administrative functions and responsibilities, and possessing environmental information;
This use of the phrase "and includes" is extremely important, for Sheridan argues that all the subsequent types of bodies listed automatically come under the Instrument. Why is this important? Because while both The National Assets Management Agency and Anglo Irish Bank are owned by the State and have seen billions in tax-payer money injected into them over the last few years, both insist that they are not government bodies and are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act as it currently stands. However both bodies were either established under a statute or all shares are owned by or on behalf of the Government, which means that both bodies should be subject to the Environmental Instrument.

While the Commissioner for Environmental Information now agrees with Sheridan that the Instrument applies to both bodies, unsurprisingly both Anglo and NAMA reject the interpretation, insisting that the phrase "and includes" actually means "may include", and thus they are exempt. The nice folks in the wigs at the High Court will decide this one, with the case due to be heard on May 17th.

NAMA is incredibly secretive, it is impossible to even get a list of all the properties that have been transferred to it. If the High Court rules in favour of Sheridan and the Commissioner the thought occurred to me that it would be possible to submit a request under the Environmental Instrument for a complete breakdown of the energy costs of every individual building under its control. When mileage details and travel expense claims were obtained by Sheridan from An Garda Síochána and the Health Services Executive the total expenses were listed by individual names, so there is no reason not to believe a similar breakdown by property, with the full address listed, could be requested.

The possibilities are staggering.

The audience seemed to be composed of an even mix of journalists, journalism students and activists, and I was happy to see that I recognized a good few faces from all three camps. One print journalist that I've met a few times now asked Sheridan what was in it for him, why he as a journalist would submit so many FOI requests when he himself said that he didn't have the time to follow up on all the data that he obtained. Sheridan replied that it wasn't about the story, that he was happy for others to use the data to write their own stories, for him it was all about transparency and open governance, that this information is all in the public interest and should by right be freely available to the citizenry.

If you get a chance to hear him talk again, do go. In the meantime he's said that he'll put last night's presentation up at TheStory.ie soon, encouraged everybody to read both the FOI legislation and Environmental Instrument, and implored us all to start submitting our own requests.

It almost feels like our civic duty.

Note on the above Image: Kapitän Biopunk: Fermentation Madness by Julian Abraham, part of the Edible exhibition currently running at The Science Gallery, illustrating a safe brewing process aimed at reducing the number of deaths in Indonesia caused by poorly made homebrew, and sitting right outside the lecture theatre where last night's talk was held.

The latest CSO Household Budget Survey released today says that housing now accounts for 18.2% of average Irish household expenditure, up from 12% in 2005, but average weekly income only rose by 4% in the same period with the amount of money spent on food dropping from 18.1% of total expenditure to 16.2%. We now spend more on rent and mortgages than we do on feeding ourselves and our families. Utility bills rose by 15.3% in this period but alcohol expenditure decreased by 25%, mainly due to an increase in drinking at home, even so the average household still spends more per week on alcohol (€26.40) than on gas and electricity (€24.29). We will sacrifice many things, it would seem, but drink is not one of them.

Poorly made homebrew, here we come!

Update 15/03/12: Namawinelake reports today that legislation has been published that would explicitly apply the current FOI act to NAMA. Proposed by Sinn Fein, I think that any private members bill is highly unlikely to be passed, even given last night's embarrassing defeat for the Government in the Oireachtas finance committee. Namawinelake also draws attention to a Bill proposed by Senator Mark Daly last year that would force NAMA to disclose all of its property portfolio, as with Sinn Fein's Dáil motion this is also highly unlikely to pass.

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