I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am glad to say that the Ombudsman, even in his short period of operation, has proved a resounding success. To date, he has already received approximately 1,300 complaints and has dealt with more than 1,000 of them. He has already, therefore, made a major impact on behalf of citizens in their dealings with bureaucracy. The volume of complaints he has received has shown how justified was the all-party agreement to establish the office of Ombudsman. The high number of complaints finalised is a tribute to the efficiency with which the Ombudsman, assisted by his capable staff, has discharged his responsibility.
Of course, the success of the Ombudsman's office depends, to a great extent, on his receiving the full co-operation of Government Departments and, indeed, from every individual civil servant. I need hardly draw attention to the fact that any absence of co-operation would be tantamount to frustrating the intentions of this House.
Before turning to the matter on hands, I should like to say, however, that the relationships of the bureaucracy with citizens is an area which demands constant vigilance by the Government and the Oireachtas. State agencies exist to serve the public who ultimately, of course, pay for them. I have always believed that those who pay the piper must call the tune. We must be particularly careful, therefore, to ensure that, where the organs of the State touch on the daily lives of citizens, they do not forget their basic purpose, whatever their organisational form or the freedom of operation which they have. The principle of service must be a paramount consideration in the operation of all State agencies and there can be no relaxation of this principle in any way.
To turn now to the Bill before the House, the two Schedules to the Ombudsman Act, 1980, indicate the bodies which are subject or not subject to investigation by the Ombudsman.
Amendment of these Schedules is effected by order. Under Section 4 (10) (c) of the Act, the draft order must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. The order cannot be made if a resolution disapproving the draft is passed by either House within 21 sitting days.
This time requirement, however, can lead to delays in making orders. Depending on circumstances — frequency of House sittings, holidays, timing of order and so on — it can take up to five months to make necessary amendments to the Schedules. In many cases, there would be widespread agreement on these amendments. In some cases, the public interest would require early action by the Ombudsman. Given his vital role as a means of redress for citizens, as I have already outlined, it is important that he be allowed to deal quickly and effectively with relevant issues.
The basic purpose of this Bill, therefore, is to speed up the procedural arrangements for amending the Schedules to the Ombudsman Act, 1980. This is particularly important in the context of making changes in the scope of the Ombudsman's remit, on which I intend to bring proposals before the House shortly.
Where the need for an independent examination of the bureaucracy's operations in particular areas is clearly demonstrated, we must ensure that the Ombudsman is permitted to respond quickly. I am sure nobody in this House would countenance a situation where, because of procedural requirements, the Ombudsman was unduly delayed in acting quickly on behalf of the interests of citizens in their dealings with the bureaucracy.
There is one other aspect to this Bill which I regard as very important. Its provisions envisage the active participation by the Oireachtas in future decisions affecting the Ombudsman's remit. All changes in this remit would require a positive motion of approval by the Oireachtas which, in turn, would give Members the opportunity of making their views known.
This is how it should be. The operations of the Ombudsman touch the daily lives of citizens and offer them a central focus in seeking redress against administrative malpractice. It is right, therefore, that the Oireachtas should be fully involved in determining the scope of these operations.
It might be worth the while of the Oireachtas or of some of its committees to examine at some stage the procedure adopted in so much of our legislation whereby draft orders are tabled and remain, usually undebated, for 21 days on the Table of the House. I suggest that the type of amendment we are proposing in this Bill might be employed in other legislation so that the Oireachtas could play a more positive role in the confirmation of orders than is the case now in many instances.
For this reason, I am happy to submit myself to the scrutiny of the House each time that such changes are proposed here. As Deputies will be aware, this represents a significant change in present arrangements. In a way, these assign an essentially passive role to the Oireachtas in that they put the onus on it to take the initiative in deciding whether to pass a motion of disapproval where amendments arise.
I consider, therefore, that the changes which the Bill will bring about will make a positive contribution to the effective operation of the Ombudsman and that it will also fully involve the Oireachtas in relevant decision making in this area. For these reasons, I strongly commend it to the House.