Thursday, 16 November 1995
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. Neville: I welcome the opportunity to debate this report. I congratulate the Ombudsman, Mr. Kevin Murphy, and his staff on the excellent service they provide to the State and on their objectivity in handling their duties.
The Ombudsman's Office was established as an independent body by the Dáil and the Seanad. Its role is to examine complaints and to report to the Houses of the Oireachtas, to identify the causes of maladministration and to recommend redress. His independence gives the Ombudsman the public credibility to perform his functions and also leads to various bodies within his remit having confidence in him. It gives citizens the capacity to question the administration and in many instances the office represents an avenue of last resort for citizens aggrieved by actions of the public services.
It is important that the office plays a strong part in rooting out the causes of many complaints encountered, as it is important to identify the underlying causes of maladministration and suggest improvements. It is incumbent on the authorities to examine closely and implement the suggestions of the Office of the Ombudsman. It is obviously a matter for each Department or agency to take whatever steps are necessary to redress and prevent the recurrence of any maladministration reported to them. I note that the Ombudsman has called for increased co-operation and dialogue between his office and the individual  organisations on improvements in administration practices and procedures. It is important that this is developed and introduced and that the Government supports this approach.
An effective democracy requires that both elected and non elected public servants should be held accountable for their actions. Politicians are accountable in the democratic system in that they put themselves before the people for reelection. The people are asked to pass judgment on their performance and, if satisfied, to re-elect them. It is important that there is also accountability for non elected officials. It is important to ensure that public service activities and exercises of decision making powers, whether discretionary or otherwise, are carried out not only in a proper legal manner but in a manner consistent with fairness and good administrative practice. This is the area which is policed by the Ombudsman. He is similar to an auditor in that he checks if the audit of the administrative practices is up to standard.
The Ombudsman endeavours to reflect his views on the efficiency and effectiveness of the public administration system in his report, in which he has outlined the principles of good administration, to which I wish to refer directly.
—public bodies must ensure that an appropriate balance is achieved  particularly in relation to any penalties or adverse effect — known as the principle of proportionality; this may be of particular interest where a body must decide between the needs of the common good and the rights of a particular individual;
—in addition, where discretionary powers are involved, public bodies must ensure that they are exercised in a reasonable manner having regard to the foregoing principles, all the circumstances of the particular case and without any undue fettering of their actual discretion e.g. by exclusion of classes of persons from eligibility for services or otherwise.
One of the principles outlined as part of the role of the Ombudsman is to strive to persuade public bodies to adhere to such principles. Where they fail to do so, the Ombudsman has a strong role to ensure that they adhere to the principles of good administrative practice.
Citizens' rights are often referred to. I presume that if Senator Quinn was here he would agree that the citizen is a consumer of the facilities of the public service as well as their owner, and should be recognised as such. As with any product, the customer is always right and it is important that I outline the rights of the users of the public service, as outlined by Mr. Murphy in his report. The citizen has a right to be heard, to receive sufficient information, to assistance and representation, to be given reasons and to be told what remedies are available to him.
The customer — that is, the public — must be facilitated in putting his point  of view and arguments before the decision is taken. These should include arguments for an exception to be made in the individual circumstances of their case. This is often the most difficult area in which to obtain success, as bureaucracy and the fear of precedent limits the discretion which public servants have or wish to have. Citizens should have information available to them on any general guidelines which apply to the particular scheme or programme involved. Advice and representation must be available, especially for those least able to make their case. The reasons for a decision are particularly important where a decision is an adverse one and they must be told of remedies or avenues of address, especially rights of appeal to independent bodies where they are available to them.
It is important that we promote a greater awareness of these rights among the public bodies. In some other jurisdictions, guidelines on good administration practices are regularly used and should be the overriding principle for all public bodies.
On a few occasions the Ombudsman has been disappointed with the level of cases referred to him by public representatives. In a way, public representatives are a type of Ombudsman in much of their work. Adverse comment is often made on the amount of work done by public representatives in representing their constituents, raising issues of concern to individuals and making representations on their behalf. In Ireland we tend to be overly critical of the work done by public representatives, who have a very important role to play in that area. They also have an overriding role to involve themselves in legislation, the development of society and the implementation of good laws. However, we should not downgrade or overly criticise the work done by politicians in representing their constituents. There is a balance between the legislative and representational roles. We feel that this is more prevalent in Ireland than in other countries, but that is not so; constituency work is the norm  for parliamentarians in almost every country.
I read an interesting article on this some years ago which distinguished between a client and a broker. The role of a politician is more that of a broker than client. The term “client” infers that there is an agreement to deliver something for some payment whereas a broker just offers assistance. The work carried out for individual constituencies would be more properly referred to as brokerage rather than clientelism. A broker provides people with access to those who control resources rather than directly to the resources themselves. A situation may exist where someone may wish to obtain something but is unable or unwilling to obtain it from the person in whose possession it rests. The services of a broker or public representative might be useful in such a case. I use the term “public representative” in its broadest sense because Deputies and Senators are not alone in offering assistance to constituents. Urban and county councillors and town commissioners involve themselves in this area.
However, when the service is provided, the brokerage relationship ends. A continuum does not exist. Many politicians would hope that a continuation might occur but no deal has been made that it should be so. Brokerage in politics takes many forms. It can involve advising constituents with regard to the benefits for which they are eligible and how to obtain them. Such benefits might include receipt of a grant or pension or having a hole in the road repaired, which is often the case at present.
Brokerage in politics also involves mediation — with regard to an apparently harsh decision made by the Civil Service — and helping or seeming to help someone obtain local authority housing or a job. People can be assisted in this way. Very often politicians fail because they create an expectation that they can do more than is actually possible. If we were more honest about our role and powers, it would enhance that role and our standing in the public eye. Work carried out by public representatives  can involve activity on behalf of a community, village or local association. This could include, for example, persuading central or local government to introduce or improve a water or sewerage scheme in one's area.
It is widely accepted in most democracies that contacting the local or national representative can be of help. The main value of this lies in the fact that it enables people to discover the existence of benefits, grants or rights of which they would otherwise have been unaware. They can also discover how to obtain such entitlements and if they are eligible for them. Politicians should be in a position to inform people how to secure those entitlements. This involves work for politicians but saves time for constituents, many of whom are not used to the bureaucracy which surrounds the obtaining of information.
In all non-urban societies, the capital city and machinery of central government tend to be regarded with some suspicion. This is the case in most post-colonial states where that factor was reinforced by the ruling elite who, at a previous time, were seen to have access to power and influence. An expectation exists that today's democratically elected politicians, who replaced such elites, retain similar power and influence. Historically, this is the reason politicians in post-colonial countries are regarded in this way. However, I understand that MPs in the UK now spend over 50 per cent of their time writing to constituents.
In conclusion, I congratulate Mr. Murphy and his staff for their excellent work. They are carrying on the work of the office so efficiently established by Mr. Michael Mills. Politicians must ensure the development of the office and their role. They must respond to the recommendations in the report.
Mr. Roche: The creation of the Office of the Ombudsman was a relatively novel development in Ireland's administrative tradition. I suggest that it is time to review the jurisdiction of the Office of the Ombudsman and the powers he  himself retains. Some extraordinary deficiencies exist in the legislation which deals with the Irish Ombudsman.
The current Ombudsman, Mr. Kevin Murphy, and his predecessor, Mr. Michael Mills, have filled that office with distinction. Their staff have conducted themselves extraordinarily well. They have established the office in the minds of the people and engendered an important sympathy and regard for that office. Nonetheless, the Office of the Ombudsman is one of the most fettered institutions of its kind in the world. In the past I had the opportunity to review some 80 pieces of legislation connected to the Office of the Ombudsman. Under 25 or 26 different headings, I discovered that literally every possible exclusion that existed, in every similar law in every other country, had been carried into the Irish Ombudsman's Act.
Some years ago a book was written on the British Parliamentary Commissioner entitled Our Fettered Ombudsman. Like most things British, the title could be recycled for this country without any difficulty. Despite the fact that the Ombudsman's jurisdiction has been somewhat extended since the office was established, the Irish Ombudsman still suffers from restrictions which have no parallel — in terms of jurisdiction or powers — in any other comparable piece of international law. I believe that the Ombudsman's Act was drawn up in a deliberately narrow manner. The Act underwent debate and discussion in an all-party Oireachtas committee 15 years ago. I believe that committee was treated like a mushroom and kept in the dark. Some of the information given to it was highly suspect.
The Ombudsman's jurisdiction is excessively narrowly drawn. No reason exists today for such conservatism. The Ombudsman's remit is deliberately limited to matters of administration. There are areas within the public service, other than matters of administration, which can cause a sense of grievance and injustice for the population as a whole. The formula of complaint which the  Ombudsman follows was drawn from comparable international legislation, particularly the more conservative elements of the original Ombudsman's Act in New Zealand. It is a pity we have not followed the example of other countries and broadened that particular aspect of the remit. With the exception of An Post and Telecom Éireann, for example, the commercial and non-commercial State-sponsored bodies are still excluded from the Ombudsman's remit. Key elements of health administration, specifically matters where clinical judgment is involved, remain outside the Ombudsman's powers. The Ombudsman has no powers in relation to the Prison Service, an area where he should, could and, if international were followed, would have powers.
Many of the exclusions and limitations should be examined. The institution has an 11 year history. Fear and trepidation existed within the public service when it was established. I carried out a survey of Deputies and civil servants at the time, and it was interesting that Deputies were particularly disposed towards the office while senior civil servants were cautious about it, to say the least. There is no need for such caution now. Any novelty regarding this office in our administrative setting which may have been pleaded 12 years ago, cannot now be pleaded.
I would like to see three specific limitations lifted and I will address those limitations in this debate. These are the power to consider complaints which include or touch upon clinical judgment; the power to inspect and the power to take complaints against all State-sponsored bodies, commercial or non-commercial. I will draw attention to some other weaknesses if time permits.
I will first deal with the issue of inspection which is the neatest and most self-contained. It is an extraordinary fact that the Ombudsman has no real power. The Ombudsman can request papers and review administrative actions that have been taken. He can then give judgment within the terms of the Act. The Office of the Ombudsman  is extremely successful within the context of the limited powers available to it. However, the Ombudsman has no power to inspect, to prosecute or to cause a prosecution to take place. These seem to be extraordinary deficiencies.
If, for example, one looks at the home of the Ombudsman institution, the Scandinavian countries, one finds that inspection, particularly that of closed institutions, is a common feature of the Ombudsman's activities. Outside the Nordic countries in the common law states which adopted the Ombudsman, there has been a tendency to extend the powers and to give Ombudsmen power to inspect corrective and closed institutions.
In the context of some recent events in Irish life, there is an unanswerable case for giving the power of inspection and of initiating prosecution to the Ombudsman's Office. For example, in the case of the child care institutions which recently attracted such unfortunate publicity, including Trudder House, Madonna House and other institutions, it would have been appropriate and proper for the Ombudsman to have had some power of inspection because no other public institution has or fulfils the inspectorate power in those particular institutions.
There is an inspectorate for medical health institutions but it is within the institutional setting. We need an autonomous inspectorate too and the Ombudsman could and should provide it. Within the Prison Service there is an abundance of precedent for Ombudsmen being given powers to look inside prisons, to arrive unannounced and to examine what is happening within the closed institutions.
An interesting point about powers of inspection is that where they exist, Ombudsmen have been able to highlight good administration and, occasionally, to feature what is bad. If an Ombudsman can bring the light of public scrutiny into otherwise closed areas of public administration, then a great public benefit flows from that. If the Ombudsman falls upon good practices,  then citizens know what is being done in their name is good. However, if the Ombudsman highlights something that is wrong, then corrective action can be taken.
If we look at Ombudsman institutions around the world we see there is an increasing tendency to give it powers of inspection and powers to prosecute. For example, the Finnish and the Swedish Ombudsmen can initiate proceedings in their own right. Although in New Zealand, Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Hawaii and Nebraska Ombudsmen do not possess direct powers or authority to initiate proceedings, they may, if they have witnessed a breach of duty or misconduct, institute proceedings by contacting the appropriate body to request the equivalent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, for example, to initiate a prosecution. I cannot understand why we denied these powers to our Ombudsman.
As far back as 1980 I highlighted what I regarded as an extraordinary deficiency in judgment when the Act was being drafted. I pointed out that a major problem with the Act was that not only did it initially exclude the health boards but, even in the long term, it was the intention of the drafters of the Act to exclude matters of clinical judgment. We slavishly copied the worst aspect of the British Parliamentary Commissioner legislation.
We now have a situation where an action against a health board can be investigated. If I complain that a member of my household is badly treated by the health service, the administrative and clerical aspects of that complaint can be investigated. If a person goes to hospital for attention to their left leg and by accident their right leg is cut off, the Ombudsman may investigate to see if the administrative details were correct but can make no judgment on the clinical aspects. That is a farce which we have put into law and have lived with for ten years because we do not have the wit, intelligence or the capacity to develop autonomous thinking in areas  of important legislation. We are still slavishly colonial in that regard.
Many cases in the health administration services will involve the crossing and recrossing of the boundaries between administration and clinical judgment. It is wrong and unacceptable that one cannot have a full and thorough investigation of all aspects of health administration by the Ombudsman. In my constituency an elderly lady died in a public hospital of MRSA. It caused great pain and anxiety to her family because during the period of her care and attention complaints were made. Only the administrative aspect of that case can be examined. In another case, a patient went into trauma and died after a hospital bed collapsed. The only aspect of that case which I can have examined is whether the next of kin was appropriately contacted by telephone on the day in question. That is a farce which we should not tolerate. We have a duty to the people to ensure the legislation we put on the Statute Book is sensible. In this case, this good legislation is not sensible.
I turn to the issue of jurisdiction. For some extraordinary reason which I could never understand, the initial decision was taken to exclude local authorities, health authorities and State-sponsored bodies from the Ombudsman's jurisdiction. Subsequently, local authorities and the administrative aspects of health care were brought into the Ombudsman's jurisdiction. The Ombudsman may also examine complaints about An Post and Telecom Éireann. Those who advised both Houses and who put words into the mouths of different Ministers who brought the legislation before us ten to 15 years ago suggested that the sky would fall if State-sponsored bodies could be examined by the Ombudsman. What a farce.
The argument put forward was that this would allow the Ombudsman to intrude his or her office into areas of potential commercial secrecy. Nothing could be further from the truth. There  are approximately 120 Ombudsmen internationally at national level, the majority of whom can examine complaints about State owned enterprises. There is no evidence that an Ombudsman, wittingly or unwittingly, has gone out to destroy a state enterprise. If we look at Canadian provincial Ombudsmen, in particular, evidence suggests that their scrutiny of state monopolies has been beneficial from the point of view of the institutions, the agencies and the citizens. For example, in Alberta, a Canadian province, a pylon was put in the driveway of a citizen. That person could not get any redress from the electricity company. If our Ombudsman legislation applied in that Canadian province, the unfortunate citizen would only have recourse to the courts. I am not suggesting the ESB would deliberately do something as patently stupid as that or that it and other State-sponsored bodies are so endowed with wisdom that they will not make the occasional slip up which trespasses or intrudes upon the rights of the citizen.
There is no evidence to suggest that expanding the Ombudsman's role would have anything other than a beneficial effect. Ten years ago when the Ombudsman's Office was set up there was a brouhaha about telecommunications bills and the Ombudsman was finally given the power to oversee Telecom Éireann. If we look at the ten reports over the past 11 years we will see that there has been an extraordinary decline in complaints against Telecom Éireann which improved its system because the Ombudsman was there to defend the citizen. We have no reason to fear this office which has served the people well. It is time we adopted a more mature approach by expanding the office and giving the Ombudsman additional powers and, above all, jurisdictions.
Mr. Townsend: I congratulate the Ombudsman and his staff on compiling such a readable report. The examples he gave would be helpful to me as a practising politician. I was also delighted  that his report put down some markers on the way forward.
When the Office of the Ombudsman was set up we were lucky that someone with the integrity, capability and commonsense of Michael Mills was appointed as its first chairman. Over ten years in office he established the independence of the Ombudsman's Office and he did not accept orders from Government or any organisations which came within his remit. He did his job as it was supposed to be done in a fearless and courageous way. During those ten years he was successful in resolving many thousands of complaints, most of which would never have been resolved without his assistance. The reason for this is that most of the complaints were brought by ordinary people who got no hearing from the Departments in question. On inquiring, these people were told that a decision had been made and that was that. People working in various Departments refused to admit they could make a mistake. It was as simple as that.
Not only was the Office of the Ombudsman responsible for resolving many complaints, it also was responsible for changes in our legislative and administrative systems, which led to the mistakes in the first place. Mr. Michael Mills left the office in great shape and great credit is due to him. Not only did he resolve the problems which confronted him, he also got to the root cause of them and put mechanisms in place to prevent them recurring.
The new Ombudsman, Mr. Kevin Murphy, had a hard act to follow, but all the indications are that he has his heart in the right place. In particular, I like what he had to say about accountability in the 1994 report. It states:
An effective democracy requires that both elected and non-elected public servants should be held accountable for their actions. Accountability may take different forms and operate at different levels. The most demanding is political accountability which requires elected  representatives, at fixed intervals, to put themselves before the people for re-election. Accountability for the management and use of resources is another form with which we are all familiar. This is aimed at ensuring that monies raised by, or given to, public authorities are not only properly used but are also used in an efficient and effective manner. [I do not think anyone can complain about that.] The process is validated by independent external auditors;...
Another form of accountability, which is perhaps not so widely discussed, is what I would like to call administrative accountability. This is a process of ensuring that public service activities and, in particular, the exercise of decision making powers, whether discretionary or otherwise, are carried out not only in a proper legal manner but in a manner consistent with fairness and good administrative practice. [That applies to a great extent to health boards and local authorities.]
This is the area in which I and my Office and indeed, the courts operate. Just as financial auditors examine the activities of the public service against certain financial principles and criteria, I examine their activities against the background of what are commonly referred to as the principles of good administration.
I agree completely with Mr. Murphy when he says citizens and users of the public service have the right to be heard, to receive sufficient information, to assistance and representation, to be given reasons for being refused something and to be told what remedies are available. He is setting out on the right course when he has all that in mind.
I am also delighted that the Government is committed to the extension of the powers and remit of the Office of the Ombudsman. I understand discussions are taking place in that regard at present. Some people might say the  Ombudsman was not given wide enough scope when the office was set up. I think it was correct to ease him into the job rather than have him snowed under with piles of complaints in all Departments. It was the right decision. At the same time, I am not convinced that it would be good to bring some of the areas which Senator Roche suggested within the remit of the Ombudsman.
I want to refer to the number of complaints which the Ombudsman received in 1994. The report makes interesting reading from a public representative's point of view. Senator Neville hit on this too. A public representative in rural Ireland — I do not know about Dublin — is also a kind of Ombudsman. When people have complaints, they come to their local representative. Some would be ordinary representations and others would be complaints.
I looked through my notes and the complaints I receive would not differ from the type of complaints which the Ombudsman received about the various Departments. The report states that in 1994 there were 3,160 complaints. Of these, 671 were outside the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman. This indicates clearly that a lot of people do not know their entitlements or whether various Departments come within his remit. That left a balance of 2,489 valid complaints. In addition, there was a carryover of 641 complaints from 1993, resulting in a total of 3,130 complaints to be dealt with in 1994. Of these, 2,321 were finalised during the year, leaving a balance of 809 to be carried forward to 1995. It appears from the latter figure that the Ombudsman's Office might require more staff and that would be a step in the right direction. The carryover of complaints from last year was greater than that from the previous year.
The report also states that of the 2,321 complaints finalised in 1994, 414 were resolved in favour of the complainant, while in 580 complaints assistance of one form or another was provided.  The number of complaints not upheld and those where assistance was given is not a great one considering the vast number of transactions in the Department of Social Welfare, An Post, Telecom Éireann and other areas covered by the Ombudsman's remit. The number not upheld was 914 which was reasonably high. A further 355 complaints were discontinued and 58 were withdrawn.
A breakdown of the number of complaints is fairly interesting and coincides with the types of complaints which I get as a public representative. According to the report, 48 per cent of concerned Civil Service Departments. Of these, 54 per cent involved the Department of Social Welfare, 15 per cent concerned the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and 12 per cent were against the Revenue Commissioners. Of the total handled during 1994, 23 per cent concerned local authorities, 14 per cent involved health boards, 12 per cent were against Telecom Éireann and 3 per cent were against An Post.
The continuing high level of complaints received outside the Ombudsman's jurisdiction, which amounted to 21 per cent of the total received in 1994, indicates a level of confusion, as I already said. The Ombudsman intends remedying that through a publicity campaign to make people aware of what comes within his remit.
The numbers are not excessively high. When I go to county council or health board offices to try and push a case in a certain way, I am often told that they have to look over their shoulders to ensure everything is right or the case may be brought to the Ombudsman. It is an indirect benefit of the Office of the Ombudsman that people in public offices are more careful. They know that if they make wrong decisions, the Ombudsman can have a further look at the situation.
Professor Lee: Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an tuairisc seo. Is tuairisc fíor mhaith agus tábhachtach é. In welcoming the report I congratulate the new Ombudsman on the direction his thinking is taking. He is expanding the authority of the Ombudsman and extending its activities. His reflections on the importance of a culture of openness — such a culture is at an early stage in this country — should be taken on board by all of us.
When he talks about the citizen's right to receive sufficient information, he puts his finger on one of major weaknesses in the functioning of effective democracy in this country and I hope he will be able to make progress in that direction. The Ombudsman reflects generally on the implications of the implementation of the provisions of the EU Directive on freedom of access to information on the environment. That is a classic case study of the difficulties one can encounter when trying to instill a culture of access to information in our public bodies and local authorities. Like Senator Roche, I have spent years advocating that local authorities should have greater authority and that decision making should be brought closer to those affected by it.
It is sad that resistance to providing access to information seems at least as deeply ingrained in many local authorities as it has historically been in the central authority. I do not know why that has to be. Senator Neville made some interesting observations about how citizens remain suspicious of Government and how such suspicion seems to be characteristic of many post colonial societies. Even more striking is the suspicion of the citizen by the Government and the administrator at various levels. One must overcome this suspicion when implementing a culture of access to information and openness. It is a difficult and attritional campaign which must be waged against the forces of resistance in that regard.
 I am not criticising public authorities particularly, because we can all be defensive about providing access to our own activities for any number of reasons, some of them eminently sensible. We all have a role to play in developing a culture of openness. When the Ombudsman says it is hardly surprising that from the public authorities' perspective the balance of advantage lies in withholding rather than releasing information, he is making an observation which is a sad commentary on our approach to such topics. I hope that debates like this one may make some contribution but legislation is required to give teeth to the thinking being expressed. There is scope for a greater exchange of views.
Senator Townsend expressed reservations about some of Senator Roche's recommendations. I was not clear whether he was rejecting the principle of how one gains access to information or whether he thought that the examples were inappropriate. It is important to ascertain where a consensus might emerge in that respect because my instinct is that somebody must have a right of access to information. In the end the courts can gain access to information but that is extremely cumbersome, expensive and awkward. It is also well beyond the capacity of many of the weaker elements of society to pursue effectively.
I see the Ombudsman as representing those elements in society which do not have the muscle to turn elsewhere to secure satisfaction. For that reason I am a strong supporter of the general principles expressed by Senator Roche and the thrust of his thinking about the extension of the jurisdictional authority and remit of the Ombudsman. It is high time that we emancipated ourselves from the mental enthralment with the British legislation from which we have taken so much of the specifics of our own legislation. A great deal of this comes back to self confidence.
All institutions make mistakes and there are complaints against all of us. I  have no doubt that there are complaints against me in my professional capacity which expose mistakes. However, if mistakes are exposed, they can rectified. There should not be a taint attached to having a mistake exposed in an institution. From time to time serious mistakes may become major issues, but we should all be prepared to accept that none of us is perfect and that even the best institution will make mistakes. As a matter of course it should to be part of the institutional structure that mistakes are rectified as quickly as possible.
As Senator Roche said, it should be one of the functions of a properly supported Ombudsman Office to point to good as well as inadequate administration. We are very bad at praising people for doing something well, but we are quick to jump on them if we think they are doing things badly. If the Ombudsman's Office was not overwhelmed with the responsibilities involved in chasing complaints, it could stand back and offer examples of good administrative practice. Without being an authority on the specific issues raised by Senator Roche, I would be very supportive of the thrust of his thinking. I would hope that in light of its rhetorical commitment to openness, accountability and transparency, this Administration will take major steps in that direction.
Some of the specifics in the Ombudsman's report are expressed in a discreet way but point to potential for extending authority. He intends to publish a report on individual cases in due course which would be extremely interesting. He is following the general principle that information should be released unless it is specifically exempted by the terms of regulations giving effect to the EU directive to which I referred earlier. Such a principle would effect a change in our psychological attitude towards information and the furtiveness with which we try to conceal it. Historically, we have had a differential attitude towards authority. Many officials, whether public or in the private sector, tended to rely on their  authority as the basis for decision making and for the rejection of the possibility of complaint and criticism.
I hope that our culture is loosening up towards accepting the more egalitarian attitude that others might have contributions to make and that expertise other than that of the officials involved in any given case can be drawn on. The Office of the Ombudsman has a significant contribution to make towards inculcating that approach and diffusing that disposition throughout wider society.
It is also unfortunate that authorities should take the attitude of releasing as little information as possible and of relying on regulations to hinder access to information. It conveys the impression that there is something to hide; most of the time I am confident that there is nothing to hide. However, it suggests that decent and honourable officials are somehow covering up something. That is an unfortunate impression to convey to the public and it can only reinforce the scepticism the public sometimes feels about the effectiveness and openness of Government.
Every democracy needs a strong investigative tradition. There must be a capacity to investigate what appear to be injustices or inadequacies. We are developing a tradition of investigative journalism, at times in ways of which not all of us would approve. Sometimes it can go over the top and lack balance but that might be a symptom of teething troubles because the approach is so recent a recruit to our way of looking at things. However, within the public service the Office of the Ombudsman ought to play the crucial investigative role which should be a central part of a healthy democracy.
I welcome this report. I welcome the principles it enunciates and the spirit that informs it. I hope the powers of the Ombudsman will be extended in the direction pointed out by Senator Roche and that the resources necessary to implement those powers will be allocated to the office. When we debate this report in future years I hope we will be  able to look back on this discussion as having initiated something which went in the right direction.
Mr. Quinn: I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this report. As other Senators have said, it is important that we discuss it. It is an important report because it is one of the first and most important annual reports we consider each year. It is also important because it touches on the lives of every person in the country.
I intend to deal with three topics: the number of complaints, the specific issue of delay in the area of public administration and the need to use this report as a springboard for future action instead of seeing it as an end in itself. The Ombudsman receives about 3,000 complaints each year and about one quarter of these are outside his remit. The report makes the point that there is obviously a certain amount of confusion in the public mind about the role of the Ombudsman if a quarter of the complaints should not be sent to him at all.
There is no need for a publicity campaign to prevent people sending the Ombudsman complaints that are outside his remit. I am not concerned about wrongly addressed complaints because they can be dealt with quickly. However, there is a need for a publicity campaign to encourage more complaints that are within his remit. I am more concerned about complaints that are not made. We have no way of dealing with them if they are not made. Indeed, we have no way of knowing how many there are in the first place.
One might say that an office that receives 3,000 complaints a year needs more of them like a hole in the head. However, we should be positive about complaints. In the short term we should seek more complaints rather than fewer. We need to get all possible complaints on the table before we talk about reducing them. In the long term we are interested in reducing the number of complaints but there is a right way and wrong way of doing that. The shortsighted  way is to choke off complaints. That can be done by making it difficult for people to complain and by handling the complaint so badly that people get discouraged.
The right way to reduce the number of complaints contains two elements. First, one establishes systems to ensure that complaints are resolved as early as possible thereby reducing the number of complaints that reach the person of last resort, the Ombudsman. The second and most important element is that one tries to remove the cause of complaints so that in future one does not receive the same complaints. If this is done correctly, eventually, there are fewer complaints reaching the Ombudsman because they have been resolved satisfactorily inside the system and much earlier than they would otherwise have been. There will also be fewer complaints entering the system because the system has so improved that most of the causes of complaints have been removed.
That is the process we should be working towards in the long term. However, the first step of the process involves encouraging more complaints and not fewer. We should send a clear signal to the Ombudsman that we would like him to do that. We need the Government's support in this regard because more complaints will require more resources. People need to know about the Ombudsman process; they need to know how to make a complaint effectively. They should be able to make their complaints easily; it should not be an obstacle race and it should not require a visit to an advice bureau or their local TD. We must inform people that they have a right to expect.
I compliment the Ombudsman on the excellent first section of the report. It sets out seven basic principles of good administration and five basic rights to which the public is entitled. One page contains most of the information that must be conveyed in order to explain to people whether they have cause to complain. I would like to see the seven principles and five basic rights on a type of  charter that would be displayed on the walls of every public office in the country. They should also be set out on a single piece of paper which, for a period of about two years, would be sent out as an enclosure with every letter and form issued from every Department. This would be a great deal more effective than an expensive advertising campaign in which it would be difficult to get across the level of detail required.
The next step is to ensure that we do not put obstacles in the way of people making complaints. We should make it as easy as possible for them to do so. There should be a freephone number people could ring whenever they have a grievance. The number could connect them to people who would explain how to make a complaint. There should also be tools to help people make complaints. There could be, for example, a form that would walk them through the process which would be available in public libraries, post offices and so forth. My message is that we need more complaints and that we should do everything possible to encourage them.
I turn now to a specific complaint — the question of delay. This is included in the seven principles set out by the Ombudsman and I wish to highlight it for a particular reason. The biggest single difference between the public service and the world outside is the attitude to time. Traditionally, the public service has lacked a sense of urgency, the type of urgency one encounters, for instance, in the world of business. This lack of urgency has always been a problem in dealing with the public. If a person with limited means is deprived of money to which they are entitled it matters a great deal whether they receive it this week rather than next week or even next month. Often, time is an issue; sometimes it is the essence of the problem. The old adage is correct — justice delayed is justice denied.
The report of the Ombudsman gives a number of examples of cases where delay was the sole problem. I highlight this for two reasons. First, the time gap  between the outside world and the public service is getting wider. That is not because the public service is not trying to do something about it but because, in spite of the efforts of the public service to move faster, the world outside is moving even faster. People expect things to happen fast. Delays they would have tolerated 20 years ago are now considered unreasonable. They are more aware of the importance and value of time. The commercial world is responding to those changing attitudes and needs.
My second reason for highlighting the issue of delay is more encouraging. Of all issues to do with the public service, it is the easiest one to tackle. One can measure time but it is not possible to measure fairness or impartiality. Once something can be measured it is possible to get control of it fairly easily. When the managers in the public service set goals for raising the quality of the service they provide, they should focus first on the question of speed. If they can serve the public more quickly they will be serving the public better. The two go hand in hand.
I would like to see more time limits put on public service activities. At the moment, for instance, if one applies for planning permission, the local authority must give an answer one way or the other within two months. That is a reasonable amount of time for all the various interests involved, but the great thing about it is that one knows what the decision is after two months. That precedent could be widely extended throughout the public service. I would like every Department and every office that deals with the public to publish time frames for the most common activities.
I have found in business that there is a world of difference between having a vague aspiration and having a specific target. With a specific target you know exactly where you are and if you publish that target then your customers know exactly where you should be and they can pull you up if you slip up. It is good  when your customers get involved in your quality control process.
I wish to talk about using this report as a springboard for action. I have been talking about actions that I believe we should take. The Office of the Ombudsman could do more to publicise its service. The public service could take action to eventually make the Office of the Ombudsman redundant and the Oireachtas can take action to lessen the need for the Ombudsman's Office. As we legislators read this report I am sure we are struck by the difficulties that are caused to the public service by vague, ambiguous legislation. We should perhaps be more conscious of that when dealing with legislation.
The Ombudsman draws attention to the deficiencies in existing legislation revealed by his investigations. That is the most important function of this report. I am concerned about the lack of a system to ensure that these recommendations are looked at and turned into legislation at the earliest possible moment. How many of the legislative recommendations made during the 11 years the office has been in existence have made it to the finishing post? In future, I intend to ensure through the medium of Adjournment matters that the relevant Ministers are reminded of some of the key issues. I cannot help feeling there should be a better way of doing it.
Perhaps there should be a statutory provision to ensure that, unless legislation is introduced within 12 months of the Ombudsman making a recommendation, there should be an immediate debate on the matter in both Houses of the Oireachtas. I would be interested to hear the views of other Members on this. I welcome this debate because it draws attention to a report which in the past has not always received the attention it deserves.
Ms Honan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the report of the Ombudsman for 1994. I congratulate him for the promptness with which he published his first report. Although we  are debating the report in November, the document was published in June of this year. This compares very favourably with the performance of other Government Offices and Departments. The Prison Service, for instance, is one of the most troubled and controversial areas of public administrations, yet the prison report for 1992 was only published late last year. As we move into 1996, there is still no sign of the annual reports for 1993 or 1994. The same could be said of many other areas of Government.
The Office of the Ombudsman is a key part of the apparatus of Government in Ireland. Since Government is becoming more complex by the day and less accessible to the ordinary citizen it is essential that there is a body to which people can go to seek redress for their grievances. As the Ombudsman's report points out, much of his workload in the social welfare area is due to the sheer complexity and inaccessibility of the relevant legislation. We need to look again at our social welfare system. The whole regime is in need of simplification and rationalisation. There has been talk for years now of integrating the social welfare and taxation systems but nothing has been done. If anything, the number of tax and social welfare poverty traps is growing and contributes to our high levels of unemployment.
The Ombudsman makes clear his dissatisfaction with the way many Government bodies conduct their dealings with the public. It seems that we are still a long way from inculcating a customer service ethos into the public and Civil Service. His report is full of references to delays and difficulties in eliciting information from public bodies, and even the withholding of information in certain instances. The Ombudsman continuously refers to the defensive attitude which seems to prevail in some organisations.
The Ombudsman's Office has a short mission statement which begins: “We are committed to serving the public”. This is a message that should be taken on board by Departments and offices  right across the public service. The public cannot be regarded as just some sort of nuisance that interferes with the smooth working of the bureaucratic machine. The public are the customers. At a time when hamburger joints are displaying their quality certificates on the wall, it is unacceptable that few, if any, Government bodies have attained recognised quality standards, such as the Q mark or ISO 9000.
The Government is the single biggest service provider in the country. It is important that it should act to the highest standards of quality and customer service. In this respect, as part of a programme of Civil Service reform, the Government should require each Department and office to attain a recognised quality standard within a reasonable time frame. Taxpayers pay dearly for their public service; they are entitled to the best. If Departments operate to higher quality standards, then I have no doubt that there will be far fewer complaints for the Ombudsman to deal with.
I welcome the fact that the Ombudsman has made efforts to make his office accessible to the 70 per cent of the population who live outside Dublin. During the year staff from his office conducted visits to several regional centres, such as Galway, Carlow, Dundalk, Portlaoise and Tullamore, where they met the public and invited them to bring forward their grievances. In addition, staff attended on a monthly basis at citizens' information centres in Cork, Limerick and Sligo, a programme which has now been extended to other areas. This is a very welcome development in a country which suffers inordinately from over-centralisation.
The Ombudsman is now operating in an area which was once the preserve of public representatives. He deals with complaints on behalf of social welfare claimants, grant seekers and housing applicants, but the volume of work handled by public representatives in areas of this kind is still way in excess of the 2,500 complaints dealt with by the Ombudsman last year. I note that from  this year individual health boards and local authorities will be named in case summaries in the Ombudsman's annual report. This is a welcome development and it will do much to concentrate minds in county halls around the country when the call from St. Stephen's Green comes through on the telephone.
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