ANIMALS AND FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
What is the Freedom of Information Act ? Why is it important for animals? What is going wrong in Ireland?
Governments allow many animal industries to operate but recognise (or are compelled to recognise because of public concern) that they need to be regulated. The enforcement of the regulations is usually tasked to some kind of public body that is funded by public money and carries out these activities for the public good. Central to the idea of our democracy is that governments who are there to serve the public and who are funded by the public, are also answerable and accountable to the public. One of the ways to ensure that our governments are doing their jobs as they should is to obtain information about how they are conducting themselves – this can be done through freedom of information requests.
The reason why FOI requests are so crucial in respect of animal industries is because animals can’t advocate for themselves. So where an industry operator is failing and a government body is not regulating them properly, the animals have no way of alerting us to these problems. Information obtained from public bodies provides us with an important tool to understand whether public bodies are doing their jobs as they should. One really good example of this arises in relation to a puppy farm in County Cavan. In May 2016 BBC Panorama aired “Britain’s puppy dealers exposed” which provided footage of bitches kept in whelping crates in Raymond Cullivan’s puppy farm in County Cavan.
Images from BBC Panorama: Britain's Puppy Dealers Exposed
Whelping crates like this – just not OK. The regulations don’t allow them. Only, the Cavan County vet saw them and thought they were ok – all he required was for some natural light to get through (just to be clear – even with some natural light – these were not OK). How do we do we know that the vet did this? It was recorded in his inspection reports (extracts below):
Extract from an inspection of Raymond Cullivan's farm undertaken by Cavan County Vet Michael O'Sullivan and Charlie Grant (DAFM) on 29 May 2015
These inspection records were obtained through the FOI process.
How does this help? Well it allows us to call the vet out on his mistake and what appeared to be a complete lack of understanding of the regulations he is there to enforce. It allows to take the vet to task for breaching his duties under the veterinary code. It allows us to call out the County Council who initially said that this farm was operating in compliance with the regulations (see Cavan County Council statement to BBC Panorama Programme 17 May 2016) . It allows us to work to ensure that this won’t happen again. It allows us to write content for this very page. It allows you to help us to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. It also lets people know what actually happens on puppy farms, what takes place behind the breeders Facebook posts and the DoneDeal ads.
So what’s the problem?
Ok – so this is all well and good, right? There are regs, there’s a FOI system to allow checks and balances – where’s the problem? The problem lies in the application of the Freedom of Information Act. Since obtaining inspection records from Cavan, we have made numerous FOI requests to other councils and the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine and every single one has been met with the same refusal – inspection records from dog breeding establishments have been refused because to release them will allegedly threaten the lives and safety of the dog breeders or the vets inspecting these farms. They say most animal rights activists are fine – but there is a small cohort that they can’t trust not to be violent. You’re thinking – “I’m sorry – whooooot?!” Yeah we know – we are also wracking our brains to try to remember all the violent protests in Ireland by animal rights activists…. And the reason we can’t think of any -is because there haven’t been any.
These refusals are justified without reference to any actual substantive threat. The Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine have cited, as examples of supposed animal activist violence – fur farm protests and Dublin Circus protests. But they never provided any evidence by way of newspaper articles or similar to evidence these supposedly violent protests. Here’s the thing – there was no violence from those concerned about animal rights. There was a circus protest in Dublin in 2016 that turned violent –but it was the circus workers who were violent. The violence of those who confine and abuse animals is being used as a justification to refuse information to those who seek to help animals.
The thread that runs through all of the refusals appears to be that the mere existence of a protest means a request for information will be refused. These government departments are weaponizing the right to protest against the public. It is as if they equate protest with illegality and violence. This is an extremely concerning and dangerous position.
Music credit: Invincible by Jonezen ft Lakin Marie
OK – but there is an appeal mechanism, no?
Yes there is an independent body tasked with reviewing decisions by government bodies relating to freedom of information requests – this is the Office of the Information Commissioner. Yet the OIC has consistently endorsed the refusals for information and in doing so have blatantly misapplied the act and misunderstood their statutory obligations. On at least 5 occasions (see our case list in Resources for details of these decisions) the OIC has upheld a refusal without a shred of evidence to substantiate the supposed threat the release of the information will cause. In fact the OIC have done this in direct contradiction to their submissions to the Supreme Court that the onus is on a public body to displace the presumption in favour of disclosure. In other words, the OIC and the highest Court in the land agree that a public body must justify the basis on which they are refusing to release information. Yet in animal cases- this does not happen.
This is a serious problem.
Every misinformed decision by the OIC chips away the foundation of a democratic society and creates a sense of impunity amongst some public officials. This is serious stuff. This is important stuff. This is not just stuff that affects dogs in puppy farms (but it does affect them – a lot) – it affects huge sectors in which animals are used.
OK – this is all very depressing – what can we do? Simples. There’s a bunch of stuff we can try:
We can raise money so the next time we get a completely ridiculous FOI refusal we can appeal the decision. This means we take the matter to the High Court.
We can write to politicians about this and demand a review of the OICs operations.
We tell the head Ombudsman he’s not doing his job properly in overseeing this department.
We spread the word about the OIC – we raise awareness of the problems (and share our video above).
Ok but how does this help animals? Well to bring it back right to the beginning – we need information to know whether public bodies are doing their jobs well. Without information we are stymied in our efforts. If we know what is going on where – we can devise what to do and how.