Thursday, 15 December 2011
Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions DebatePage of 3
I welcome the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and thank him for the paper he gave to the committee. Since his last appearance before the committee the members have been reflecting and have done a great deal of work on the terms of reference of the committee for the future. We might not have the statutory oversight that was envisaged, but there is a view in the committee that we should create as robust a committee as possible to give value to citizens. The areas we have been examining are the relationship with the Ombudsman, receiving petitions submitted to the Oireachtas and investigations into public service delivery. The committee will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that remit and to get an understanding of how he envisages the committee developing.
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Brendan Howlin): Thank you, Chairman. I thank the committee for inviting me to the meeting. In advance of the meeting, the clerk to the committee sent my Department a very informative and useful note setting out the background to our discussion from the committee’s perspective and identifying the areas that the committee has considered as potentially relevant to its proposed future role in view of the changed circumstances in the wake of the referendum result.
At the outset it is important to make clear that it is, of course, the responsibility of the committee to agree its proposed orders of reference for approval by the Houses of the Oireachtas. I am happy to assist the committee in doing so, particularly in light of my assessment of the nature and priority of the agenda potentially falling within the purview of this committee. I will take the opportunity in a few moments to discuss in turn each of the three important areas identified in the clerk’s note: formal structured engagement with the Ombudsman; parliamentary petitions; and oversight of public service delivery. Before doing so, I will make some general remarks on the potential importance and considerable value of the role and responsibilities envisaged by the committee.
As committee members will know, two of the three functions I just mentioned - overseeing and managing a parliamentary petition system and acting as the formal channel of consultation and collaboration between the Oireachtas and the Ombudsman - were specifically included in the programme for Government and formed the basis for the objective in the programme that the proposed new committee would have a very central and significant role. On the last occasion I met the committee I briefed members on the role envisaged for it under the proposed new system to allow the Oireachtas undertake full inquiries. Obviously, the outcome of the referendum creates a need to reassess the committee’s role as proposed in the Bill I published. It was clear that the role envisaged for the committee, while pivotal to the effective operation of the inquiry system, would have been very onerous, time consuming and resource intensive. I am confident that the committee would have been equal to the challenge but the opportunity now, unfortunately, is to develop other elements of its mandate.
It is also important to point out, as the committee highlighted when we last had discussions, that in light of the crucial gateway and oversight role of the committee vis-à-vis Oireachtas inquiries it was not intended or permitted that the committee itself would hold inquiries. While the committee has lost the role envisaged for it under the proposed legislation and the referendum, it has gained the opportunity to take stock of how best it can meet the original objectives identified for it in the programme for Government.
Looking to the future, while there are myriad reasons the electorate did not support the referendum to provide full inquiry powers to the Oireachtas, clearly a basic lack of trust in the political system was a significant factor. I take some responsibility for the presentation of that and we need to take stock of how we deal with a number of constitutional amendments we propose to hold in the immediate future.
There are serious risks facing our political system if the business of politics continues to be viewed with scepticism. All public representatives of all political persuasions need to seriously reflect on the underlying reasons for this diminished trust and, as importantly, what can be done to restore it.
In overall terms, therefore, this committee with its cross-sectoral remit and focus on where, for whatever reason, the administrative system has been found wanting by the citizenry, potentially has an innovative role to play in this regard in countering and working to overturn this scepticism by providing an important and powerful oversight function to enhance the accountability of public administration in Ireland.
As I have already mentioned, it is clear from the programme for Government it was intended that the committee would play a critical role in developing a structured relationship between the Oireachtas and the Ombudsman akin to the long established relationship between the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts. Since the Ombudsman is a constitutional role it is useful to have a direct conduit for its work to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The absence of such a formal relationship in the past had been identified as a weakness or deficit in the structure of the Ombudsman system.
It was envisaged that the committee would be the formal channel of consultation and collaboration between the Oireachtas and the Ombudsman, responsible for receiving and debating its annual and special reports and for ensuring that office's criticisms, commentary and recommendations are acted upon. Often in the past that was not the case. For that purpose, it was envisaged the Ombudsman would attend as a regular witness before the committee.
As the relationship develops, the committee may, as indicated in the note supplied by the clerk, wish to pursue cases from the annual report which cast light on particular trends in public administration or cases worthy of special note with a view to making recommendations to the Oireachtas for possible legislative or policy change. I strongly endorse these proposals as a central element of the committee’s responsibilities. If the committee opens this up it will not want it to develop into a super clinic for the people. It will have to confine itself to significant policy areas that require legislative or significant policy change. That is something it will have to work out.
The intention to review, update and appropriately modernise the Ombudsman Act, which will fall to me, will clearly also provide an opportunity for the committee to see how the relationship between the Ombudsman and it, and indeed with the Oireachtas generally, can be improved in light of the experience gained from its interaction with the Office of the Ombudsman. I hope the Chairman would take on that role and help inform and advise the development of the legislation in order that it is not produced solely by the Executive. I would be happy to provide the committee with heads of a Bill which we could tease out. The committee could decide how best to structure the role of the Ombudsman, linked to the Oireachtas, in a better way.
The programme for Government also saw this committee as being the focal point for a new and innovative system of public interaction whereby issues of concern to the public could be highlighted and ultimately accountability enhanced. I understand the intention is that the committee would receive parliamentary petitions from individuals and groups in the community seeking the redress of grievances connected with the public services of the State and with public administration generally. I certainly see this as yet another important role for the committee and one which would be built upon and developed over time as knowledge is gained of citizens’ experiences with the system, especially with systems of redress and remedy when things go wrong.
I have reviewed with interest the committee’s report of its study visit to the Scottish Parliament to examine its model. The detailed design of the proposed petition system will need careful examination by the committee. It has already given consideration to these issues through its study visit to Scotland, its examination of the European Parliament’s petitions system and its meeting with the Ombudsman. The European petition system minded us to have some replication of it here.
Clearly, it will be the case that in practice, at least initially, many of the petitions may not have exhausted normal administrative process and the committee needs to ensure that happens before it becomes directly involved. People must go through the normal appeals mechanisms rather than jump directly onto the floor of the Oireachtas. Those that have exhausted those avenues will, of course, need to be examined to assess whether they highlight any substantive issue for the committee.
The committee will, I am sure, based on the pre-existing knowledge and expertise of its members and its own collective endeavours, put in place an effective system through a network of relationships with various public bodies to process the cases brought to its attention. It would reach out to various public bodies that might attract a degree of public annoyance or focus in terms of a lack of efficiency in order that they can be accountable here.
The most important role of the committee will be in regard to those petitions that might highlight an important gap in the existing administrative appeal redress and review mechanisms or the possibility of new systems for best practice. The identification of such issues is an important first step. Examining and making recommendations on how those issues should be addressed is where the committee, I expect, will make its mark.
I note with interest the proposal contained in the note received from the committee relating the oversight of public service delivery. Clearly, any issue of duplication or overlap with the work of other committees in regard to oversight of the public service reform plan would need to be considered in principle. It is worthwhile for the committee to continue to examine and to further elaborate this possible aspect of its work.
In view of the particular focus in the public service reform plan on placing customer service, or citizen service, at the core of everything we do, there may well be a valuable role for the committee relating to citizens’ interaction with the public service generally, especially when things go wrong and the systems for redress or appeal appear not to be working as expected. The committee may wish to consider how, in view of its other responsibilities, it can develop an important oversight role to help assess the impact and effectiveness of redress mechanisms and, where necessary, propose recommendations for change.
The interaction and combination of the insights and experience gained by the committee from the close liaison and formal structured interaction with the Ombudsman and the operation of a working petition system to provide an appropriate and effective means to citizens to highlight their experiences of maladministration or ineffective administration would prove invaluable. In turn, it would ensure that appeals redress and reviews are effective in the future.
The vision I have always set out for the reform agenda has been to address the existing deficiencies which see the citizen alienated from what he or she perceives to be an unresponsive system. We need to build a more efficient public service, manifestly fit for purpose and which will deliver the essential services we all need in the most integrated, transparent, accountable and cost effective manner possible. This, allied to an ambitious programme of constitutional and political institutional reform to deliver a fundamental change in democratic and public governance, is essential to help rebuild public confidence in politics and the institutions of the State.
I welcome the work that has been done to date and wish the committee every success in the important work it is now finalising and it brings together its orders of reference and so on. The committee has set out three bodies of work, the last of which is overviewing the reform agenda. It is important that we tease that out in order to ensure there is no overlap with the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and the Committee of Public Accounts. It might be useful at a future date, perhaps early in the new year, if the committee were to invite the programme director of the new reform and delivery office of my Department, Mr. Paul Reid, to make a presentation on the reform agenda and the plan for public service reform. Such an engagement would assist the committee in defining its role in this area.
Based on the material contained in the latest committee report and the material forwarded to me in advance of this meeting, there is clearly a rich seam of important work available to the committee. As such, it can make a key contribution to assisting the Government in the implementation of its ambitious reform programme, which has as its ultimate aim the restoration of trust and confidence in Government and governance and in the organs of the State, and the creation of a more efficient public service which is manifestly fit for purpose and which will deliver the essential services all citizens require.
Something that came to mind on my way to the meeting is the constitutional convention that will take place next year. Exactly how that is to develop is not yet finalised between my Department, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. We are currently engaged in preparatory work in that regard. Again, I might usefully come back to the committee to discuss this matter before we settle on a proposal. The committee’s primary role, as I see it, is to facilitate a re-engagement between the public and the Oireachtas, public administration and the public service. In regard to the constitutional convention, there is the question of how to engage effectively with the citizenry so that, for example, the difficulties which arose in respect of the last constitutional referendum do not recur. There may be a role for the committee in that. I will come back to the Chairman on the issue.
I thank the committee for allowing me the opportunity to make this presentation, which I hope has been of assistance to it. I wish members a well-deserved rest in the coming weeks. This time last year we were preparing for an election following utterances by members of one of the parties in government at the time. It has been an extraordinarily eventful year. I wish members a restful Christmas break before we return to our ambitious programme of work in the new year.
Deputy Michael McCarthy: I thank the Minister for his overview of these matters. He indicated that he envisages an important function for the committee in terms of advising on legislation to modernise the role of the Ombudsman. He also suggested that we might consider how a linkage could be developed between this committee and the work of the Ombudsman. In this regard, the Minister has undertaken to bring the heads of the Bill to the committee. Will he expand on what he proposes in terms of a structure for such discussions and the opportunity for meaningful input by the committee? It is one thing to bring heads of a Bill to the committee for debate, but how does he envisage a process of meaningful input evolving?
The Minister also referred to the role of the committee in regard to parliamentary petitions and in highlighting and seeking to address gaps in existing systems of administrative redress and appeal. Will he elaborate on that? While we are fortunate in general to have such a good public sector, we would all acknowledge that there are aspects of it which are very frustrating. I do not mean to home in on the Health Service Executive, but an example that comes immediately to mind is the medical card processing system. In this case, we had a system which was quite effective, whereby applications were processed locally through the superintendent of community health. Since the system was centralised in Finglas, there have been delays and other administrative difficulties which are proving extremely frustrating for applicants. Unless these difficulties are unique to west Cork, which is unlikely, I am sure the Minister knows what I am talking about. In that context, will he expand on what he has in mind in regard to systems of redress and appeal?
In terms of how we deliver services to the public, it is important that we use the language of citizenry, an issue to which the Minister has alluded on previous occasions. The people who use public services are citizens, not customers. The Minister made a very good point about this at last week’s meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts in reference to a former colleague of ours. The people of Ireland are citizens of a republic as opposed to customers. The focus on the notion of “customers” is part of the consumerism of the Celtic tiger era which destroyed many parts of our economy and society.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: In regard to the plan to review and update the Ombudsman Act, this is something the Ombudsman herself has requested in several reports. There are changes the Government is willing and anxious to facilitate. I might, as a first contribution to our engagement on this matter, submit a paper to the committee for members’ consideration. It would be useful for the committee to discuss that paper with the Ombudsman with a view to offering recommendations to me in advance of the drafting of the heads of the Bill. When the heads are drawn up and I receive approval from Cabinet for them, I will bring them to the committee immediately thereafter for discussion. The committee may also wish to invite delegates to make observations on the proposals. That type of consultation process will ensure the Bill is as inclusive as possible.
The Deputy asked about the role of the committee in regard to parliamentary petitions and the review of appeals mechanisms. He referred in this regard to the centralising of the medical card processing service in Finglas, which he seemed to suggest was almost like it was gone to the moon. I am sure Finglas is a very fine place.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: Yes. Finglas is a fine place to have centralised services. This is the type of issue where the committee can have an input from the very beginning in the context of a reform agenda which will seek to provide a greater level of centralised services. Part of this will involve favouring cross-cutting services as opposed to individual services, so that we do not have a situation, for instance, where there is one means-testing system being operated by the HSE and another by the local authorities and so on. Different means-testing systems may come to different conclusions. We want to avoid that type of duplication and inefficiency.
The medical card processing system has been moved to a centralised basis because we had a situation, under the localised system, where people of identical circumstances might have different results. A standardised system with a common and easily understood appeals mechanism is a positive development. However, I acknowledge that there is a lack of contact points. As a public representative I am aware of the advantage under the previous system of getting to know the staff in the local office where appeals are determined and being able to put case-specific information to a named individual. One feels more confident about that than one does in dealing with a centralised system, the scale of which is such that intimate input into an individual case is less possible. However, this could be seen as a positive change in light of one of the major criticisms of the political system, namely, clientelism. There has traditionally been the view that if one has an advocate, one can secure a better outcome than otherwise. This is the type of issue the committee might properly address in order to ensure that fairness applies to everybody and that those who have advocates do not necessarily have a better outcome. We must ensure that all systems are robust and that appeals mechanisms are fully accountable, even where there is enormous scale.
Senator Susan O’Keeffe: I thank the Minister for providing clarity on these issues. Some of the discussion we have had in the committee has centred on the other ombudsman. I am keen to know the Minister’s view on that and what the potential relationship-----
In regard to the State Ombudsman, the Minister suggested that the committee might have a role in ensuring her criticisms and recommendations are acted upon. The failure to do so is one of the weaknesses she herself has identified. Will the Minister elaborate on how he envisages an enforcement role for the committee in this regard?
Deputy Brendan Howlin: There are several ombudsmen, including the Ombudsman for Children who now reports to the sectoral committee, namely, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission reports to the justice committee and so forth. There is a military ombudsman and other ombudsman bodies as well - the members have a list of them. One of the things we must avoid is duplication. We do not want the same work being done again and the committee has enough to do without duplicating work.
Where overarching issues emerge that are not dealt with on a sectoral basis, for example, they are not directly related to health policy or children’s policy in the case of the Ombudsman for Children, but are more structural or administrative issues, that would be an appropriate purview. However, it might be worthwhile to write to each ombudsman to say that this committee has a function, which is not to deal with the sectoral issues, such as children’s policy in the case of the Ombudsman for Children which is a matter for the committee on health and children, but to deal with the role of the office. In the case of the Ombudsman for Children it is whether the role is robust enough, whether the legislative framework is robust and whether they are acted upon in an efficient way. It is not about the minutiae of the policy but the structure and its general effectiveness.
The second point related to ensuring reports are acted upon. I do not wish to get into a point of contention but there were some contentious reports from the Ombudsman that have either been ignored entirely or in one case voted down by a committee on a partisan basis. That is not good. In dealing with these matters I am confident, as I said regarding the other matter, that this committee should not operate on a party political or Government versus Opposition partisan way. It should operate on the merits of the issues that are presented.
Chairman: I will briefly summarise some of the points we have been discussing. Obviously, members are of the view that they wish to have the strongest committee possible. There is also a view that the delivery of public services is our area. Some members said they did not wish the committee to be a half-way house, as such. It should either have full public service scrutiny or not. There has been a debate on whether it is just the Ombudsman who would work with us or whether it would go further. Indeed, the Ombudsman for Children has made a representation to the committee seeking a close relationship with the committee. On the other side there is a balance to be struck in terms of not replicating systems that are already functioning properly. There is also a view that to achieve that robust scrutiny role there are issues involved such as compellability.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: I apologise for being late. It is good to have clarity about where the Minister had intended the committee to go and for him to hear our views. I am one of the proponents of the Ombudsman not just necessarily reporting to the committee but that the committee would be a clearing house. Over the years I have seen the various ombudsman bodies publish their reports and if the relevant committee wishes, it might invite the ombudsman to appear. However, I believe it should be the duty of a committee to call on its relevant ombudsman, for example, the Data Protection Commissioner, to appear before it once a year. That has not happened in all committees. Representatives of the Human Rights Commission have not appeared as often as they should before the justice committee.
There is a range of relevant bodies on the list. Rather than this committee taking on the work of having an ombudsman appear before it, other than the Ombudsman, we should have the duty of receiving the report and referring it to the relevant committee. There would then be an onus on a committee of the House to report back to this committee and confirm that it has discussed the report. That would be the oversight role, rather than deal with the specifics of the report. It might require a change in legislation because some of the ombudsman bodies and committees do not have that automatic duty. It is worth considering. It is something we are trying to tease out and there is a variety of views.
When I was a member of the European affairs committee, the original one that set up the procedure of European scrutiny, it had that type of mechanism. It received the documents and forwarded them on to the sectoral committees. The Lisbon treaty has changed that, so the legislation or directives now go automatically to the relevant committees. That is the type of proposal we had in mind. If we set up public oversight bodies such as the Data Protection Commissioner and the Ombudsman for Children, we should be given the courtesy of a hearing at least once a year to discuss their report, and as often as is required if there are other issues.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: That seems eminently sensible. I spent four years on the justice committee. There is so much legislation and so many justice issues to be dealt with, one often does not have time to do the other things. The original idea of this committee was somewhat broader, because of the proposed amendment, but it would have had an overarching role with regard to other committees. Obviously it would be delicate in the way it is developed but it could ensure that other committees are dealing with ombudsman reports in the way the law would expect them to. That seems sensible. It is not a case of dealing with the substantive policy issues involved in any of the reports but of asking the broad range of ombudsman bodies whether they are content with the way their work is dealt with in the Oireachtas, and give them a forum or platform on an annual basis. There is also the teasing out of administrative matters. Everybody looks for more resources so I would not encourage the committee to ask them about that, but in terms of the legislative frameworks it could discuss whether there are impositions upon them that should not be there and if there are obstacles to doing their jobs effectively. We can then fine tune the administrative and legal structure in which they operate.
Chairman: One of the other issues the Minister mentioned was the fact that some other committees and organisations had better competencies to deal with specific issues. It was the view of the committee that while in 99% of cases we would pass on those issues to the relevant committee, there would be occasions, perhaps where it was a cross-departmental issue, where the committee would see itself having a role in that investigation.
Deputy Brendan Howlin: My position would be slightly nuanced since I last spoke to the committee because of the result of the referendum. The role that was envisaged under the Bill I proposed was very specific. The committee was to be the clearing house, and would set the criteria and terms of reference for inquiries. Therefore, it should not conduct them itself. However, since that is not going to happen, at least in the short term, we can relax that a little. There will be cross-sectoral issues and cross-cutting administrative and legal issues where it probably would be appropriate for the committee to hold its own investigations or studies. That would be a resource. In addition, as the Chairman previously indicated, there might well be a requirement for the committee to have the powers to send for papers and people on a case-by-case basis, that is, the power of compellability. That is something the committee should examine when it arrives at that obstacle. If the committee feels there is an issue that requires it, the committee must meet it directly.
Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh: The Minister mentioned the long-established relationship between the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts, and the powers and resources available to that committee. Does he envisage that this committee could have powers and resources such as the Committee of Public Accounts has to undertake that type of role?
Deputy Brendan Howlin: I do not wish to be provocative with the Senator but if we were in a unicameral situation, resources might become available for empowering Dáil committees in a way that they are not currently available. I do not want to be facetious about it. I expect a proposition will be put to the people next year in relation to the abolition of the Seanad. In such circumstances, we will have to look at how the Dáil might work differently. I think the committees would have to be resourced in a much clearer way. There would have to be changes in the way legislation is enacted. There might have to be some kind of statutory or structural limitation on the progress of Bills within the Oireachtas to ensure they are debated robustly. The guillotining of Bills would have to be an exceptional measure. We will have to tease these things out in the future. I have probably gone well beyond the question I was asked.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh asked about resources. The Committee of Public Accounts has carved out a role as the pre-eminent committee of the House. It has a great reputation for operating on a cross-party basis. Every Chairman of the committee, regardless of party allegiance, has been a champion of cost and efficiency in public administration. The challenge for this committee is to develop a similar reputation as the citizens’ champion. It has an opportunity to restore the broken link between the citizenry and public administration and governance. A degree of work and finesse will be needed in that respect. I would not be anxious to deny the committee the resources it needs to do that important job.
Chairman: Go raibh míle maith agat. I am delighted the Minister has attended this meeting. It is important for the committee and the Minister to be on the same page on this issue. I know he has been busy with the budget until now. Gabhaim buíochas leis as ucht an cur i láthair.
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