After receiving some new evidence recently, I have today sent the letter below to Mr Ger Deering, the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner.
I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Professional Development Service for Teachers in January 2018, seeking copies of their communications with the Roman Catholic Church. The Department of Education has repeatedly promised parents that the State Religious Education course teaches objectively about the phenomenon of religion, such that it is suitable for those of all faiths and none. However, State-funded teacher training events were being delivered jointly with the Roman Catholic Church, such that faith formation material was being included. The communications arranging these joint training events were the subject of my Freedom of Information request.
The processing of this Freedom of Information request has now been ongoing for more than 5 years, and has cost me more than €500 in appeal fees. The Department of Education has provided consistently untruthful responses at every stage in the process. The new evidence that I have obtained demonstrates that they still haven’t provided truthful information, and their excuses for this have become progressively more absurd. Nevertheless, the Information Commissioner continues to accept everything that the Department has said, and continues to insist that the Department shouldn’t be required to hit Ctrl-F and perform a simple search for emails.
In my letter below, a lot of quotes are provided from correspondence with the Office of the Information Commissioner (and with other public bodies) over this 5-year period. Full copies of all the original correspondence are available at the bottom of this article, which includes a lot more detail. The new evidence is available in full at the bottom of this page. Anyone who believes that our Freedom of Information system is currently working well, is invited to explain the situation outlined below.
Dear Mr Deering,
I refer to your Case Number OIC-120832-Q8Y3K0, which relates to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request that I submitted towards the Department of Education (the Department’s Reference is DES-FOI-2022-0032). I have now attached new evidence proving that all aspects of the Decision published by your Office are entirely wrong. During the review conducted by your Office, I explained to your Senior Investigator that only a credulous fool could believe the position being advanced by the Department of Education (DoE). Nevertheless, your Senior Investigator accepted this position wholesale, without question or caveat. Whereas the story proposed by the DoE was reminiscent of the the more outlandish claims made by a North Korean dictator, the Decision published by your Office has recorded and reported upon those claims in the manner of a North Korean news reader.
Your Very Embarrassing Decision
My FoI request to the Department of Education (with reference DES-FOI-2022-0032) sought emails between the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, during the calendar year 2016. Since the State Religious Education (RE) course is intended to teach objectively about religion, it is entirely inappropriate for the DoE to be funding training courses, which are jointly delivered alongside faith formation material presented by the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the PDST annual report for 2016 detailed 8 such joint training events, which they had arranged during that year. Comprehensive descriptions were provided for each of the training events enumerated within that report, including the town in which it was delivered, the nature of the content presented, the number of teachers that had attended, etc.
In responding to a previous FoI request of mine on the same topic, the DoE searched for emails between the PDST and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church by using keywords like, “Church”, “Catholic” and “Diocesan”. On this basis the DoE reported that only 2 email records existed. Of course, it seemed highly improbable that staff at the PDST had arranged travel and accommodation to deliver 8 training events on Roman Catholic Church premises (for example in Tralee, and in other towns around the country) while only creating 2 email records of their communications.
The position of the DoE was that all of these events were arranged by telephone. I explained to your Senior Investigator that not only were the DoE proposing that all of the addresses and dates for these events were only ever mentioned verbally and then memorised by those who delivered the training; but they were also proposing that the same people then memorised the number of teachers who attended each event in order to include those details in the PDST annual report at the end of the year. Your Senior Investigator could find nothing at all unusual at all about this, and could imagine no reason why this story shouldn’t be accepted as unimpeachable fact. Your investigator fully adopted the idea that those within the DoE just have tremendous powers of mental data retention, which are unavailable to the rest of us.
Consequently I submitted another FoI request, asking the DoE to search for emails received from Roman Catholic Church email domains, by using keywords such as “@dublindiocese.ie”. They refused to conduct that search on the basis that all of the training events were arranged by telephone. Their empyrean mental powers foretold that no additional records would be found, even if more meaningful search terms were used. The Decision published by your Office enthusiastically endorsed this DoE prophesy, stating:
“The Department says that PDST does not correspond regularly with Catholic Church diocesan advisors. It may respond on an occasional basis to requests for curricular inputs in relation to RE. It says that only a small number of records were found because most events are arranged by telephone … This Office’s Investigator put the above details to the applicant. She also said that, having particular regard to the Department’s description of PDST’s interactions with churches generally, she felt that the additional searches he had suggested were not reasonable steps.”Quote from OIC Decision
Your Office decided that if the DoE says all of these events around the country were arranged by telephone, with comprehensive details relating to each event being memorised by those involved, then that is good enough. Your Office decided that I may not make any further FoI requests with more appropriate search terms, since the DoE had already reported that they had memorised the dates and addresses of each training event, rather than creating records. I was informed that there would be no point in searching for records, however precisely the search terms might be defined, if the DoE has already said that they committed everything to memory and recorded nothing else in writing. Your Office explained to me that searching for emails from a “@dublindiocese.ie” domain would therefore be pointless, as DoE augury had already concluded that there would be no more records found, other than the 2 emails already provided.
This was transparently absurd at the time, and unsurprisingly the emails I have attached now demonstrate that it is absolutely false. These training events were not arranged by telephone. They were arranged by email. The details of these publicly funded events were not recorded only by committing them to memory. They were recorded within public documents that I am entitled to access. The more appropriate search terms that I had proposed would indeed have found the attached emails, and likely many more emails from the Roman Catholic Church that have also been improperly excluded from FoI responses. When the DoE stated that no more records existed because the events were arranged by telephone, they were not providing truthful FoI responses. When your Office published the Decision stating that for this reason, no more records would be found if a search was conducted for “@dublindiocese.ie”, your Office was entirely wrong
On its own, this Decision demonstrates that your Office has been acting merely as a stenographer, to record whatever risible position the DoE offers and then publish that as your own Decision. The quantum of skepticism applied by your Office to even the most transparently absurd FoI responses from the DoE, has been precisely zero. However, the situation is actually much worse than that. In fact, this Decision is the just the latest publication in a now 5-year saga.
I first sought these records under the terms of the FoI Act during January 2018. Since then, the DoE has consistently provided untruthful information to your Office, which your Office has been universally and uniformly eager to repeat as its own position. Despite more than 5 years of consistently untruthful responses to every FoI request on this topic, and many hundreds of euro that you have charged me in appeal fees during this period, the attached emails demonstrate that there has still not been an adequate search conducted.
Your Very Appalling Record
The Decision that your Office published (your Case Number OIC-120832-Q8Y3K0) related to my request for records of communications between the PDST and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. The following is a summary of my efforts to acquire these records in the 5 years since January 2018, and the long series of mutually contradictory responses from the DoE during this period. Each of those responses has been credulously accepted by your Office, as if it had been handed down in stone from a mountain top.
The National Director of the PDST responded to my initial FoI request for communications with the Roman Catholic Church by stating that “there has been no such correspondence or communication between PDST and representatives of the Catholic Church”. In fact, the National Director of the PDST had herself been personally involved in quite a lot of such correspondence. I have repeatedly asked your Office over several years to comment on this FoI response, during which period your Office has made heroic efforts to pretend it doesn’t exist.
My request had also sought a list of the joint training events that the PDST arranged with the Roman Catholic Church during 2016. In response to this part of my FoI request, the DoE wrote to me claiming that, “there are no such records held on Department files” and that they had conducted “a search of the electronic database and records including individual staff email accounts”. In fact, the PDST had sent an annual report to the DoE every year in an electronically searchable format, and each of these annual reports included exactly the list of joint training events that I had requested. Nevertheless, your Office concluded at the time that, “having considered the searches undertaken by the Department and the details it provided of its record management process, I am satisfied it has taken all reasonable steps to ascertain the whereabouts of relevant records”.
The DoE then told me that the PDST is managed by the Dublin West Education Center (DWEC) for the purposes of the FoI Act. Your Office agreed with this position. When I submitted my FoI request to the DWEC, they told me that the PDST is managed by the DoE for the purposes of the FoI Act. Your Office agreed with this position too. By this stage I was several hundred euro less well off, for the privilege of hearing your Office agree with every one of these mutually contradictory views. Your Office explained that your first Decision was wrong because it was based on “the Department’s explanation of its relationship with the DWEC”. It seems your Office wished to blame this costly debacle on information you received from the DoE, which was incomplete at best. However, this did not diminish the eagerness of your Office to accept every subsequent word written by the DoE as if had been pontifically delivered ex cathedra.
The DoE released 2 emails to me “outside the terms of the FoI Act”, which had been exchanged between the PDST and the Roman Catholic Church. Your Office then wrote to me stating these were “the only records that the Department states it holds in relation to the FoI request”. Your Office then asked if I was “satisfied to settle the case on this basis”, so that you could “close the case”. I was not in fact satisfied to settle the case, on the basis that the DoE was transparently providing entirely untruthful responses to my FoI request. Your Office remained determined not to find any difficulty whatsoever with anything that the DoE told you.
In some further correspondence with your Office, I sought to understand how it could have been the case that the National Director of the PDST could have been personally arranging an off-site training event with the Roman Catholic Church roughly every 6 weeks for several years; while also responding to FoI requests by stating that “there have been no such jointly arranged training events”. In response, I received an exquisitely patronising letter from your Office that refused to deal with the specific issue in question, but did explain that sometimes people just forget about these things and that “there is no reason to conclude that the bodies concerned acted other than in good faith”. Perhaps it would be more credible for your Office to insist that the PDST had merely forgotten about all of these events, if your Office wasn’t at the same time also insisting that the same people could remember with perfect fidelity and clarity that all of these events were arranged by telephone. Your Office has been simultaneously chastising me to accept that the DoE are the most forgetful people imaginable; while also admonishing me that the DoE are memorisation super-humans who make all their travel arrangements only by telephone and never write anything down.
After the DoE wrongly sought to make the DWEC responsible for this FoI request, I again had to submit the same request to the DoE. As part of another appeal process the DoE again told your Office that, “following a full review of its files relating to the applicant’s request, and having sought detailed advice internally … the 2 records released … are the only records the Department holds”. Moreover, they also quoted the search terms that they used, stating that “under this internal review the PDST has conducted a search of its electronic files using key words, Church, Catholic, Diocesan”. You will have already noticed that this FoI response was also then untruthful. If it were true that a search had been conducted for the term “Diocesan”, then the emails I have now attached to this correspondence as new evidence would have been returned. Those emails use the word “Diocesan” many times. However, the emails attached to this correspondence were not returned. It seems like Ctrl-F on PDST computers does not work as reliably as Ctrl-F on everyone else’s computer, or maybe they have forgotten how to perform an electronic search?
I did explicitly ask your Office how it could be that the DoE could both have forgotten entirely that they had been arranging off-site training events with the Roman Catholic Church every 6 weeks; and also that they could remember with perfect lucidity that all those events were definitely arranged by telephone. Your Office responded to tell me that “it should be noted that this Office does not have a role in seeking the Department’s response to various questions that the applicant asks”. Since your Office does seem to have a role in transcribing every ridiculous position offered by the DoE, then faithfully publishing this as your own Decision, it must certainly be convenient not to have a role in answering any questions about this process.
This was the context in which I submitted yet another FoI request seeking the same documents, but specifying some more useful search terms. Up until this point, what the previous FoI responses seeking the same documents had told me in chronological order was:
- there were no training events with the Roman Catholic Church
- there has been no correspondence with the Roman Catholic Church
- there are no lists of any events with the Roman Catholic Church
- we record detailed lists of all events with the Roman Catholic Church every year
- we arrange such events roughly every 6 weeks with the Roman Catholic Church
- there are only 2 emails relating to the 8 joint events we arranged in 2016
- all of those events were arranged over the telephone without creating records
- there are no more records, as the annual reports were produced from memory
Every single one of these responses in the 5 years since January 2016 was very obviously untruthful, which was clear at the time. Every single one of these mutually contradictory positions was accepted without caveat or qualification by your Office. In response to my most recent FoI request, the DoE told me that despite their consistent track record over many years of being unable to get their story straight on these joint training events, that they would not use my improved search terms. The DoE said that because their off-site training events were typically arranged by telephone without any records being created, there was no point in even searching for records. Your Office enthusiastically supported this position too.
Having spent literally years chastising me about the “good faith” of the people who simply forgot that all those joint training events ever happened; your Office immediately began admonishing me that the same people can recall exquisite details of how all those events were arranged verbally over the phone. On this basis, your Office decided that there is no point even searching for any records as none were created. However, in the least surprising development imaginable, the attached new evidence now demonstrates that this was all utter nonsense. Whereas the DoE refused to search for records as they insisted there were no more emails with the Roman Catholic Church to find; and whereas your Office enthusiastically supported this position; there were indeed additional records to find. There are very likely many many more such records too, as the DoE story about making arrangements for their 8 training events by telephone is demonstrably false.
My Request To Your Office Now
Your Case Number OIC-120832-Q8Y3K0 informed me that there is no point searching for emails between the PDST and the Roman Catholic Church using more meaningful keywords, because there are only 2 such emails and those have already been released to me. Your Decision states as follows:
“… the Department said the searches already carried out for the purposes of your previous request would have identified the records you are seeking in this request and that any records identified have already been released to you.”Quote from OIC Decision
Since you appear to be unaware of your own process, I’m happy to inform you that I already know what the Department says. I am required to find out what the Department says before you will consider an appeal to your Office. The reason for appealing to your Office is that what the Department says is transparently false. It defeats the purpose of the appeal process if your Office treats that process as consisting of transcribing transparently false statements from the Department and publishing them as Decisions from your Office.
This has been the consistent process you have followed for more than 5 years of seeking an adequate search to be performed with respect to this single FoI request. This 5-year process has now cost me more than €500 in appeal fees, which has earned me nothing more from your Office than the DoE position being repeated back to me on your headed paper instead of theirs. All of these responses from the DoE over 5 years have been false. Every single one. Your Office has unquestioningly accepted all of these responses as being entirely accurate. Every single one.
It is in this context that I would now like to make some very specific requests from your Office:
- Please send me another sanctimonious letter, wagging your finger at me about always assuming the “good faith” of FoI responses, no matter how transparently false they are. Your insistence on accepting the story of the DoE has become more vociferous as the story of the DoE has become more absurd, and it’s really quite funny. Please also repeat to me your ideas about always assuming the good faith of public bodies, because apparently this is “in the best interests of FoI applicants”. That stuff is even more funny.
- Please resend your metrics about the number of FoI requests that are satisfactorily resolved by public bodies. It’s really cute when you boast about these numbers relating to all FoI requests taken together, as if they say anything at all about how public bodies process FoI requests when they will be embarrassed by truthful responses. If you like, you can throw in some of your other commentary about how the FoI process is currently working very well. That stuff is comedy gold.
- Please ask your investigators, with their inquisitorial role referred to in their actual job title, to send me some more requests for me to do their jobs for them. One particularly humorous example was, “in my view you have provided no evidence which calls into dispute the Department’s position … if you have any such evidence I would be happy to consider it”. Of course, this approach to investigation would allow the DoE to claim that their records have been stolen by aliens, such that your Office would perceive its role as demanding that I provide hard evidence disproving the alien abduction story. That example is not hyperbolic, when placed beside the multiple mutually contradictory and fantastical stories told by the DoE in this case. Your investigators reacted to these risible FoI responses, by demanding that I should investigate them, in order to provide your Office with evidence to the contrary. That stuff really makes me belly laugh.
I’m looking forward to another humorous response from your comedy department. The emails attached to this correspondence should have been provided to me more than 5 years ago in response to my original FoI request. They should have been provided in response to every FoI request that I submitted over the subsequent 5 years, which were each given an untruthful reply. It is perfectly obvious that there has been much other email communication between the PDST and the Roman Catholic Church, in relation to the remaining 6 of the 8 training events. Your Office has spent 5 years and charged me hundreds of euro in order to ensure that a simple electronic search for the relevant email domains, should not even be performed. Please do explain to me again why your Office and the DoE have all performed admirably with respect to this FoI request, while I’m just being entirely unreasonable. I could do with another laugh. I’m certain that the DoE is also entertained greatly by your Decisions, but for other reasons.