At the outset I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of the Public Service. I have no doubt that his term of office will be a little less difficult than his last job because then he had to go to all ends of the world. Now he will be sent all over Ireland but he will be at home, and I am sure he will be glad of that.
Since the Ombudsman Bill first came before the House there has been all-party agreement in regard to the establishment of the post. All Members for a number of years saw the need for this post. Fianna Fáil took the initiative in this matter and tried extremely hard to get it through the House, particularly Deputy Gene Fitzgerald and Deputy Calleary, when they held the offices now held by Deputies Quinn and O'Keeffe: they spent much of their time with departmental officers trying to structure this very important post and to make it meaningful for the people. Though it is late to be debating the 1984 Ombudsman's report, it is well that we have it before us. In recent times we have had three or four debates on the Ombudsman's office, particularly during the passage of the Bill last April to extend his remit.
We on this side greatly appreciate what the Ombudsman and his staff have been doing in highlighting so many anomalies in Irish law. If the report does nothing more that highlight for legislators the many anomalies that exist in our laws, and have existed for decades, it will have served a useful purpose. Many of these anomalies tended to remain in the different Departments until the next piece of comprehensive legislation was enacted.
Following the Minister's statement tonight, and the highlighting of the many anomalies that exist, the Departments have been put on notice that these things must be looked at. It is the job of the Opposition from now on to force Ministers to take action on certain matters referred to by the Ombudsman. There would be no point in having an Ombudsman with an increased staff and having his reports debated here if his conclusions were not acted on. I ask the Minister of State to take this matter extremely seriously. His colleagues in the Cabinet must be forced to take this matter seriously, and I am sure the Minister for the Public Service will be anxious to co-operate. Unless all Ministers take the contents of the report seriously, it will become just another annual report like those of various committees and commissions which will find its way into the libraries of various Departments. We have too many such reports and commissions and studies.
In his relatively short time before the next general election, the Minister would do well to try to ensure that the contents of the 1984 and 1985 reports will be implemented by way of legislation. There is no reason on earth why a small Bill making the suggested amendments could not be brought before the House. Whoever is in Opposition will be glad to agree with legislation that would remedy clear anomalies in law which have been causing hardship to people.
I was a member of a social welfare consolidation committee in 1981. We tried to correct anomalies that arose before I was born in the forties because no comprehensive piece of legislation in this field had been brought in. Various anomalies in social welfare law had been changed, but not properly. Recommendations on budgets over 30 years were never followed through. Mr. Mills and his staff will be coming up continually with recommendations and it will be well if they are highlighted.
The Minister referred to some of them on which action has been taken, like the law of domicile and the tax anomalies, delayed payments, the valuation of property and antiquated laws. Some of the remedies suggested have not yet taken place. In regard to antiquated law, local authorities are still taking the line they took before the matter was highlighted. I am sure a circular from the Department of the Environment would help.
I had one case about water pipes which I submitted to the Ombudsman, and to which he referred in his report last year. Water pipes and sewerage pipes throughout this and other cities are continuously damaged by people engaged in road works and laying telephone cables and new Dublin Gas pipes. Old people are being intimidated by water work departments and others to pay substantial costs because some ancient law states that there is a responsibility on the householder to fix everything from the main pipe to the stopcock. This continually arises in the older parts of Dublin, and I was delighted that the Ombudsman pointed it out. Unfortunately, it is not being treated urgently, has not been dealt with in the Housing Bill before the Dáil or referred to in speeches by the Minister for the Environment. Perhaps Deputy Boland who was responsible for introducing the Ombudsman legislation will have the same concern as the Minister for the Environment, in regard to implementing some of the suggestions in the report.
One of the major recommendations of the Ombudsman is in regard to social insurance. He has made a number of speeches throughout the country referring to the law which prevents people who had contributed to insurance stamps from getting contributory old age pensions. The report points out the inequity of people who had paid more in social insurance contributions getting less benefit than those who had paid less, because the deciding factor was the number of years from 1953. I knew that once that was highlighted the answer from the Social Welfare Commission would be scarcity of money. Here is a clear anomaly in our social legislation. Thousands of citizens are being victimised and being treated unfairly because of bad information given to them in 1953 when they did not become voluntary insurers or were in employments that did not encourage it. They are now in a worse position than if they had only started work in 1960. The Government must be seen to amend that unjust, inequitable situation which has created hardship for many of our senior citizens.
There is not a Deputy here who has not come across it, or a group dealing with the elderly who have not pointed it out. It is more than a year since the Ombudsman referred to this. There has been a Social Welfare Bill in the meantime and there will be another soon, but I gather from what the Minister said tonight that this anomaly will not be remedied in it. The job of the Social Welfare Commission is to streamline and rationalise other things. It is not necessary to have a commission to deal with this. I will raise this on the Social Welfare Bill. If this anomaly is costing people £50 million, why is it necessary to raise it here?
Nine months ago I asked the Minister for Energy, Deputy Spring, about this and he said action would be taken in the next Social Welfare Bill. Is it a question of the Government making a U-turn so far as the Ombudsman's report is concerned, ignoring what the Minister, Deputy Boland, said and not implementing any of these recommendations? Everytime the Ombudsman highlights something we are told nothing can be done because it might upset somebody, it might create problems for the computer or it might cost money and so on. If no account is taken of any of these recommendations, there is no point in having an Ombudsman. I ask the Minister to give a commitment tonight that action will be taken on the Ombudsman's recommendations because unless some action is taken the Government will lose credibility and I will have to reconsider the co-operation I have been giving over the past 18 months. I ask the Minister not to give a silly answer but to take my comments seriously.
When the Ombudsman was appointed I met him and the Minister, Deputy Boland, and we discussed a number of matters which I thought his office could deal with, but which are still outstanding. Very few proposals in the White Paper will be implemented in the foreseeable future. As regards information and communications I believe this is an area where the Ombudsman could make some contribution. I have been speaking about this for some time but the Minister did not then have responsibility for that area. I believe that in every city, be it Dublin, Cork, Limerick or anywhere else, every person should be able to go to a Government office and to senior civil servants — dressed in a manner proper to a receptionist and not as many of these people are dressed nowadays, in rag order — for advice. If he has a letter full of legalistic jargon these senior civil servants should be able to explain it to him, tell him if he is in the right Department, what the letter means and what action needs to be taken. Sometimes a phone call would solve the problem. If a person has a social welfare problem, he can go to Oisin House. He may then be sent to Pearse Street, then O'Connell Street and then he is told he has to go to Lord Edward Street because of a tax problem. Old people are harassed and harangued by people who are not over paid but who are well paid by the State.
I do not understand why we cannot have a proper information centre staffed by senior people. I have the greatest regard for civil servants. I think they are great. Their loyalty and commitment to the State and to different Governments is unbelievable, but it must be said that some of these people drive old people mad, send them from Billy to Jack, because they do not care a damn if it is raining or snowing and they are not committed to trying to help people. I have said this many times before. There is a very high proportion of people serving on these counters who are completely disinterested in helping others. If they were trying to sell a service, the company would be in liquidation, but because they are in safe jobs they do not seem to have any interest in helping others. Most of these offices are in my constituency and I usually drop in for information, but once you meet a knowledgeable, helpful and efficient person, he or she is transferred and a young person is put in their place who does not understand the problems.
The Minister will make himself a hero and will go down in history if he establishes one information office, staffed by senior civil servants, which would open through lunch hour and would not close at 5 p.m. These senior people could be a great help to old people and those who are not as knowledgeable as they are. The Ombudsman has pointed this out on numerous occasions. The Minister, Deputy Boland, spoke about thisad nauseam but left office before he did anything. I am sure it will not be easy to do what I am asking. The Minister will be told there is no difficulty because anyone who calls in with a problem will be helped. It is not easy to talk to somebody serving behind a hatch which often looks like a cage in the zoo. About a year ago some of my colleagues and I went to have a look at some Government Departments and found that this was so, although some improvements have been made since. Having named rather than nameless people dealing with the public is a great help because it makes these civil servants take responsibility for their actions in case people have complaints.
I have no doubt that there are some people in the Departments who are bored to tears with their jobs but who would be excellent in dealing with the public. Perhaps the Minister would call on his able officials in the Department of the Public Service and tell them to set up a centrally located information office dealing with tax and social welfare problems. This would be a great boon.
We are all aware of the lobby for deserted wives but there is an organisation lobbying very hard to get rid of the anomalies in the social welfare system as it affects deserted husbands. These people are worthy of help. I am also very interested in trade disputes. I assume they come under the reform of industrial relations, the right to strike, immunity and so on. These are ongoing issues and do not necessarily have to be handled immediately but they are extremely important.
I am glad we have an opportunity to debate this report. I appreciate that the Whips were not able to have it discussed earlier, but there is still time for the major social welfare anomalies to be corrected. Hopefully the next Ombudsman report will not be just a litany of his achievements. I commend the Department and those responsible for the changes which have been taking place. I know they will admit that by having a Bill on the law of domicile we in Opposition have highlighted these matters and helped in this area.
The role of the Ombudsman is to help people in the less privileged sections of the community, people who do not have recourse to solicitors and lawyers or who do not have organisations and advertising agencies highlighting their cases or going to court to argue constitutional law. There are things which affect the ordinary public which they consider to be unfair. They normally put these points to the Ombudsman and make representations to him.
We seem to be speaking regularly in the House in regard to the relationship between ourselves and the Ombudsman. At one stage people believed that when the office of the Ombudsman was set up we could do away with TDs making representations, but the longer I am in this House the more I see the need for making representations in regard to certain things, though there are many other things we should be involved in. There are clearly points which we can usefully put forward and try to have changed but there are other things in regard to which we are codding ourselves and those we represent.
We see in the Ombudsman's report areas where we have the total power as legislators to make changes. It is the job of the Government, in relation to the finances of the State, to move money in whatever way is appropriate to handle the State and to see that there are areas where there are inequalities and inequities which are unfair to the ordinary people, particularly those who are unable to handle their own arguments. That is what the Ombudsman's office is about and that is what the Minister's role is. He has a fairly large and strong Department which has recourse to all other Departments and could force them into doing these things. His Department has good relations with all the Departments. I ask the Minister to take this job seriously.
Some people feel that to discuss this late at night and to have the debate 15 or 20 months after the Ombudsman sends in his report is not the way to do it. I know the Minister does not see it that way and that other Members of the House do not see it that way. I ask the Minister to ensure that the conclusions and recommendations in the report are acted on and if that is done he will be seen to be doing an effective and efficient job.