Some of you will recall my efforts to get access to the invoices and receipts submitted by TDs and Senators as part of their expense claims.
I’ve written previously on this, and how these invoices and receipts are now being classified as the “private papers” of politicians, and therefore exempt from Freedom of Information legislation.
Not satisfied with this, I have restarted the process of getting access to them, this time seeking to get copies of the receipts and invoices that were submitted for audit in 2014.
My original request for this new set ofÂ documents was submitted back in February andÂ a month letter, access was again unsurprisingly refused by the Oireachtas.
Extract from the letter refusing access
I have soughtÂ an internal review – which I am republishing here – and intend to update the blog at everyÂ stepÂ of this process.
If the internal review fails, I will appeal to the Office of the Information Commissioner, and if that fails, I think this issue is of sufficient public interest to take itÂ to the High Court.
The Freedom of Information Act 2014, we were told, was supposed to increase transparency and openness … not bring furtherÂ secrecy toÂ something as fundamental as political expenses.
If anyone has any advice or suggestions as this progresses, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com. Many thanks to solicitor Fred Logue for his assistance so far.
Text of letter seeking internal review
Under the FOI Act 2014, I am seeking an internal review of the decision made in the case R1066 where IÂ sought the following records:
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Copies of all receipts/invoices held by the Oireachtas in relation to the 2014 audit of theÂ public representation allowance conducted by Mazars.
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Copies of all receipts/invoices submitted for review by the members chosen for the 2014Â audit.
I am making this appeal on two grounds.
Firstly, there is no way in which these papers can be considered â€œprivate papersâ€ when they clearly do notÂ meet that definition under the legislation.
They were not created or transmitted in confidence nor are they exclusively held in possession or control ofÂ that member in relation to his/her political role or capacity as a member.
They are invoices and receipts, which are provided by a third party, who is also by default a holder of theÂ records.
Furthermore, the member is obliged to give these â€œprivate papersâ€ to an independent audit agency MazarsÂ and are under instructions to retain them for a set period of time without destroying them.
Therefore, it is impossible to see how they are in the possession or control of that member when they canÂ be compelled by an outside agency to hand them over, and compelled by the Oireachtas to hold thoseÂ records for a set period of time.
Secondly, the definition of â€œprivate papersâ€ is not an arbitrary one, which can be used at the whim of theÂ Houses of the Oireachtas Service to withhold documents of considerable public interest from the publicÂ domain.
Instead, as outlined by Minister Brendan Howlin in June 2013, such documents have to be designated andÂ regulated so that it can be determined that they constitute â€œprivate papersâ€.
This process was explained in response to a parliamentary question by Mr Howlin (Ref: 31442/13):
â€œIn the first instance, it is a matter for the Houses to regulate which documents will be designatedÂ as private papers. Section 107 of the Bill provides that a member may at any time apply to theÂ committee designated for this purpose (the â€œPart 10 committeeâ€) for a determination as to whetherÂ a document is a private paper.
â€œAdditionally, Section 108 of the Bill empowers a House to prepare and issue guidelines to provideÂ practical guidance for members including protocols to be followed relating to maintaining aÂ document as a private paper.â€
As you might be aware, I submitted a press query to the Houses of the Oireachtas Service on October 29,Â 2015 seeking the following:
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Has either House, or a Committee of either House considered or passed a resolutionÂ regarding members private papers for the purposes of Article 15 of the constitution, or for theÂ purposes of Section 42(k) of the FOI Act 2014. If so, can I get details of that resolution.
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Has a Part 10 Committee been appointed in either House, and if so, has the committeeÂ met? If a Part 10 Committee has been appointed, who are its members, what are its terms ofÂ reference, and what guidance, if any, has it received in relation to its role and procedures. IÂ also wanted to find out how exactly members were chose, or will in future, be chosen to sit onÂ a Part 10 committee.
On October 29, the Oireachtas press office responded to say that neither the Dail nor theÂ Seanad had appointed a committee to perform those functions.
I am given to understand that no such guidelines or protocols have issued to members regardingÂ procedures for maintaining a document as a private paper.
In the absence of any determination, regulation, guidelines or protocols on what constitutes a â€œprivateÂ paperâ€, I therefore can see no grounds by which the Oireachtas can maintain the records requestedÂ constitute â€œprivate papersâ€.