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Very clear Labour's Brendan Howlin says all TDs and public office holders must maintain records of Government business

'It seems to me you can’t have a situation where data is deleted in any form, whether it is on a computer or on a mobile phone'

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Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney (Brian Lawless/PA)

Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney (Brian Lawless/PA)

Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney (Brian Lawless/PA)

Labour TD Brendan Howlin has said that there is a very clear responsibility on all TDs and public office holders to maintain records of Government business.

Deputy Howlin, who reformed the Freedom of Information Act in 2014, told Newstalk this morning that this extended to include electronic devices including mobile phones if they are linked to official functions.

“So, there must be a record kept and certainly if there was a request in for information that any person had on any device and then that person deleted them it would in my judgement be against the act,” he said.

His comments come in the wake of the controversy surround Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney who said he deleted text messages with the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and former Minister Katherine Zappone about her appointment as a UN Special Envoy.

While it remains unclear when Minister Coveney, who is due to answer questions at the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee again next week, deleted the texts, he has rejected claims he was in breach of FOI legislation.

However, Deputy Howlin said correspondence about Government business should never be deleted regardless of whether an FOI request has been made.

“The spirit of the act is very clear,” he said. “The whole idea of the act, if you read the pre-amble is to enable the public to obtain access, to the greatest extent possible, consistent with the public interest, to information in the profession of any public body so that all public business is done in a very transparent way.

“It’s there so that once decisions are made you can look behind them and see the build-up of discussions and documentation – the generation of policy up to the point of decision making.

“That really is important, and it seems to me you can’t have a situation where data is deleted in any form, whether it is on a computer or on a mobile phone.”

He said data subject to the act should never be destroyed.

“There is the potential for an FOI coming in well after events so that records can’t be destroyed,” he said.

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“It won’t be destroyed within any official server of a department and shouldn’t be by a minister either and when a minister leaves office that should transfer to a server where it is protected so that any future FOI can encompass the fullness of all information.”

He refused to say whether Minister Coveney should step down if he is found to be in breach of the law but noted that all office holders have a responsibility to follow the law to the letter.

“The bottom line is that the law is there enacted by the Oireachtas for a very clear purpose and everybody has to comply with the law,” he said.

“That follows doubly for any office holder. Law makers must certainly be compliant with the law they make.”

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