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 someÂ questions from me after IÂ askedÂ about the decision by the Information Commissioner to refuse public access to the expenses of TDs and Senators using the “private papers” excuse.
The DepartmentÂ said they had no comment to make on the ruling by the Information Commissioner.
ButÂ they did sayÂ that any paper in possession of a TD or SenatorÂ in relation to theirÂ political (or party-political) role falls within the definition of a “private paper”.
But nowÂ it turns out they didn’t believeÂ 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 followingÂ a subsequent FOI request, a number of senior civil servants and advisers wereÂ expressing serious disquiet about the “private papers” defence.
The most damningÂ is from Assistant Secretary William Beausang to Ronan O’Brien, the special adviser to then Minister Brendan Howlin:
The second was the queryÂ Ronan O’Brien had sent to William Beausang in the first place:
And lastly, an email between two civil servantsÂ in the Department, both of whom haveÂ considerable expertise in the area of Freedom of Information:
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 toÂ stand.
One or other of the Information Commissioner, Oireachtas, or Department of Public Expenditure needs to reexamine this in the public interest.