Department believed “private papers” law should never have been applied to political expenses

The plot thickens in the saga of the “private papers” and how a law meant to protect sensitive communications has been cynically misused to keep political expenses secret.

In February of this year, the Department of Public Expenditure answered some questions from me after I asked about the decision by the Information Commissioner to refuse public access to the expenses of TDs and Senators using the “private papers” excuse.

The Department said they had no comment to make on the ruling by the Information Commissioner.

But they did say that any paper in possession of a TD or Senator in relation to their political (or party-political) role falls within the definition of a “private paper”.

DPER Response

But now it turns out they didn’t believe that at all but perhaps felt they could not interfere in the Information Commissioner’s decision.

In a series of internal emails released to me following a subsequent FOI request, a number of senior civil servants and advisers were expressing serious disquiet about the “private papers” defence.

The most damning is from Assistant Secretary William Beausang to Ronan O’Brien, the special adviser to then Minister Brendan Howlin:

Beausang Email

The second was the query Ronan O’Brien had sent to William Beausang in the first place:

O'Brien Email

And lastly, an email between two civil servants in the Department, both of whom have considerable expertise in the area of Freedom of Information:

O'Connor Email

Between this and the video of Minister Brendan Howlin explicitly saying that expenses were “procedural” and would not qualify as private papers, it is hard to see how this shameful decision can be allowed to stand.

One or other of the Information Commissioner, Oireachtas, or Department of Public Expenditure needs to reexamine this in the public interest.

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