DRAFT CODE OF PRACTICE ON FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FOR NORTH SOUTH IMPLEMENTATION BODIES AND TOURISM IRELAND LTD CONSULTATION PAPER Introduction The North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) was established on 2 December 1999 on the entry into force of the British-Irish Agreement of 8 March 1999, which was signed by the British and Irish Governments as part of the Belfast Agreement reached in the Multi-Party Negotiations in Belfast on Good Friday 1998. The March 1999 Agreement provided that at least 12 subject areas would be identified for co-operation and implementation. Six of these would be taken forward by means of new North South Implementation Bodies, and in the case of at least six others by means of existing bodies in each jurisdiction separately operating at a cross-border or all-island basis. The six areas to be taken forward by new North South Implementation Bodies are Inland Waterways, Food Safety, Trade and Business Development, Special EU Programmes, Language (Irish and Ulster Scots), and Aquaculture and Marine Matters. Code of Practice on Freedom of Information Provisions within Annex 2 of the March Agreement provide that the Northern Ireland and Irish Ministers with responsibility for freedom of information will draw up a code of practice on access to information for the Bodies for approval by NSMC. Officials in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), in consultation with their southern colleagues, have now drawn up a draft Code of Practice, which is non statutory, and in doing so have had regard to the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003 in Ireland and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in the United Kingdom as well as other standards and best practice, North and South, in the area of access to information. It is intended that the Code will also apply to Tourism Ireland Ltd which is a publicly owned company set up to take forward tourism as an Area of Co-operation under NSMC. The Code facilitates public access to information held by the six North South Implementation Bodies and Tourism Ireland Ltd in a number of ways. It provides that each body should publish certain types of information relating to its functions, structures, organisation and services, together with a general description of the type of information held by that body. It sets out the process under which a member of the public can request information held by a body and the steps that a body must take in handling such a request. The Code also sets out the time period within which a body should normally responds to a request. The Code also contains the facility for members of the public to obtain a statement of the reasons for an act of a body affecting the person. The Annex to the Code sets out the categories of exempt information, If the information requested falls into a category listed in Part 1 of the Annex, the body is not obliged to release the information. If the information requested falls into a category listed in Part 2, the body must carry out a public interest test in deciding whether or not to release the information. The Code provides for an internal review mechanism of decisions taken by the body under the Code. Public Consultation The next stage in the process for progressing the draft Code of Practice is to consult publicly on its contents prior to seeking the approval of the draft by NSMC and the Code becoming fully operative in the Bodies and Tourism Ireland Ltd later this year. The process for public consultation in Northern Ireland must take into account relevant equality considerations. Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act requires all public authorities in carrying out their functions relating to Northern Ireland to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between persons within nine social categories, namely: between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation; between men and women separately; between persons with a disability and persons without; and between persons with dependants and persons without. The North South Implementation Bodies are subject to Section 75 by virtue of them being listed in Schedule 2 to the Ombudsman (NI) Order 1996. OFMDFM is also subject to Section 75 which means that any new or amended policy introduced by the department must be assessed in terms of the impact of that policy on the nine categories above. This is normally undertaken by means of equality screening, and, if necessary, an Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA). Prior to considering an EQIA, a screening exercise is undertaken to indicate the potential for impact of the policy on groups within the equality categories. In bringing the draft Code of Practice to this point, screening has indicated that there are no anticipated negative equality impacts, therefore it is not considered necessary to carry out an EQIA. The screening pro forma is attached at Appendix A of this document. If you have any comments on it or on other equality issues, we will be happy to consider them as part of this consultation. Consultation period The public consultation period begins on 20 June and concludes on 7 October. During this 16 week period, all six North South Implementation Bodies and Tourism Ireland Ltd will operate the draft Code of Practice on a pilot basis. This means that requests for information from any source will be handled within the framework set out in the draft Code of Practice. However, as staff in the Bodies will be using the pilot period to prepare for the full operation of the Code later this year, some flexibility may be applied to the various timing and other provisions associated with the handling of requests. The Bodies and Tourism Ireland Ltd will continue the pilot exercise at the conclusion of the consultation period until approval is obtained from NSMC. Copies of this consultation paper and the draft Code of Practice will be placed on the websites of each of the six North South Implementation Bodies, Tourism Ireland Ltd and their Northern Ireland sponsor departments as set out below. The documents will also be placed on the North South Ministerial Council website. www.intertradeireland.com www.safefoodonline.com www.loughs-agency.org www.seupb.org www.ulster-scotsagency.com www.waterwaysireland.org www.tourismireland.com www.forasnagaeilge.ie www.northsouthministerialcouncil.org www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk www.centralconsultationni.gov.uk Copies of the documents can also be obtained from the address below. If this document is not in a format that meets your requirements please contact us as below. Comments/contacts If you or your organisation wishes to offer comments on the documents, these should be sent, before 7 October, to: Carol Blakley Executive Secretariat Room A 4.02 Castle Buildings Stormont Belfast BT4 3SR E-mail <email@example.com> Fax: 028 9052 8697 Tel: 028 9052 3203 Textphone: 028 9052 2526 Appendix B contains details on the confidentiality of consultation responses under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. APPENDIX A Screening Questions Q1. Is there any evidence of higher or lower participation or uptake by different groups within any of the nine categories? A: The draft Code of Practice on Freedom of Information for the North South Implementation Bodies and Tourism Ireland Ltd takes into account the central Freedom of Information policy for Northern Ireland developed by OFMDFM, together with relevant policy in the South and best practice on access to information in both jurisdictions. Experience to date has shown that there is no evidence of higher or lower participation or uptake within any of the nine categories. Q2. Is there any evidence that different groups have different needs, experiences, issues and priorities in relation to the particular policy? A: There is evidence that both disabled and minority ethic groups have different needs with regard to the accessibility of the information contained in the draft policy. In relation to disabled groups, these needs are likely to focus on the availability of policy documentation in alternative formats. For minority ethnic groups, there is a need to ensure that language and culture do not represent particular barriers. Q3. Is there an opportunity to better promote equality of opportunity or good relations by altering policy or working with others in Government or the community at large? A: The central Freedom of Information policy for Northern Ireland developed by OFMDFM took equality issues fully into account, including the needs of these groups. The draft Code of Practice for North South Implementation Bodies and Tourism Ireland Ltd takes this policy into account, as well as policy in the Republic of Ireland, and experience to date in both jurisdictions. Q4. Have consultations with relevant representatives, organisations or individuals within groups indicated that particular policies create problems that are specific to them? A. OFMDFM has consulted the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, Disability Action and Mencap on this policy and they have indicated that the draft Code of Practice does not create problems which are specific to them.