Private Members' Business. - Annual Report of Ombudsman: Motion.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann takes note of the Annual Report of the Ombudsman for the year ended 31 December 1984.

When the Office of the Ombudsman was established it was widely regarded as a major development in Irish public administration. A cheap and effective appeals mechanism was made available to citizens which they could turn to in their dealings with the bureaucracy. It is particularly interesting, therefore, to have the opportunity to examine and discuss the outcome of the first year of operation of this initiative.

As Minister of State at the Department of the Public Service I welcome the publication of this, the first annual report of the Ombudsman. The report indicates that the office has made a big impact in the relatively short period since it was established. During the first 12 months over 2,000 complaints were received from all over the country. This high volume of complaints alone clearly underlines the need for the office.

I would have preferred if the House had had an opportunity of discussing this report for the year 1984 before now, even though I am aware that it was debated in the Seanad some months ago. Regrettably, pressures of other legislative business in the House precluded an earlier debate. However, every effort will be made to ensure that, in future years, the Ombudsman's reports can be debated within a reasonable time after their publication.

The report raises many issues both of a general and specific nature. It would be impossible, in the limited time available, to comment on all aspects. I would, however, like to address some of the main issues contained in it.

The Ombudsman has highlighted a number of areas where he feels it is desirable that legislation should be reviewed. This must be a prime concern to all of us in this House in our capacity as legislators.

The All-Party Informal Committee on Administrative Justice felt that one of the main functions of the Ombudsman should be to review, through the examination of complaints, the operation and execution of the legislative provisions enacted by the Oireachtas. Furthermore, the all-party committee envisaged that the Ombudsman, in the discharge of his functions, would bring to the attention of the Oireachtas those areas in which the rights of the citizen could be safeguarded by the amendment of legislation. Therefore, the identification in the report of areas of legislation which might be reviewed will be widely welcomed.

I would like to comment briefly on these anomalies. The comments of the Ombudsman on these matters have been brought to the attention of the Government, who have agreed that each Minister concerned should examine carefully the cost of removing the anomalies and, in so far as it is possible to do so within the resources available, take appropriate action to remove them.

Remedial action has already been taken in some cases. Section 4 of the Finance Act, 1985 has removed the tax anomaly referred to by the Ombudsman. The recommendations for changes in certain statutory dates affecting the valuation of property have been implemented and the rating authorities have been requested to ensure that all persons affected by proposed revisions in valuation are notified individually. They will also be informed of their right to appeal against the revised valuation.

The Ombudsman has also expressed concern at what he calls "antiquated law". The particular matter at issue refers to a situation where a private householder can be liable for repairing part of a water pipe serving his house which is outside his property, even though damage may have been caused by factors outside his control such as heavy traffic on a road. The Minister for the Environment intends to include provision in forthcoming legislation to confer a new general power on local authorities to assume responsibility for repairs in such cases.

Possible remedies to some of the remaining anomalies will require serious examination. This is illustrated by a number of cases in the social welfare area to which the Ombudsman has drawn attention.

On the question of social insurance, the Ombudsman considers that the conditions to qualify for the old age contributory pension are inequitable whereby persons who had paid more for social insurance stamps should get fewer benefits than those who paid less. This anomaly raises many complex issues, not the least of which relates to the Exchequer financing involved, which has been estimated at £50 million in 1987 terms. There is also the case of deserted husbands who may get substantially less by way of social welfare assistance than deserted wives in similar circumstances.

The problems regarding old age contributory pension and the deserted husband are being examined by the Commission on Social Welfare and the position will be reviewed in the light of the commission's recommendations. I know that Deputies will readily agree that any attempt to sort out these problems must avoid the creation of new anomalies or further inconsistencies for other groups.

The whole question of payment of unemployment benefit during trade disputes and the role of the Social Welfare Tribunal is under consideration by the Department of Social Welfare at present. Any legislative changes necessary will be made when this examination is completed.

The law of domicile can affect claims for widows' pensions under the Social Welfare Acts. The Ombudsman has suggested that the rule of law under which a married woman takes the domicile of her husband should be changed. The recommendations of the Law Reform Commission on the question of domicile have been examined by the Minister for Justice and he has recently introduced legislation to abolish the domicile of dependency of married women.

The Government refused to accept the Fianna Fáil Bill.

We have produced a Bill which I understand is far more technically correct to deal with the problem. The Ombudsman received several complaints that delayed payments of money by Government Departments were less than the current value on the date the money was due. This situation is of particular concern to the more needy members in our society. This question of delayed payments was raised by many of the speakers in the other House during the debate on the Ombudsman's report. The Government are concerned about all the anomalies highlighted by the Ombudsman in his report. They are particularly concerned about unnecessary delay on the part of various Government Departments, particularly when such delay results in real hardship for members of the public.

I should point out that the question of introducing legislation to provide for the payment of interest by the State has wider implications than just the social welfare area. I am taking the matter up with the Departments involved but I would have to say that any solution will have to be found within the present financial constraints. Personally, for the future, I am even more committed to the ideal solution, which is to ensure that there are no avoidable delays which could give rise to this kind of hardship.

The proposals contained in the White Paper,Serving the Country Better, will, I am sure, lead to an improved delivery of services to the public. In particular, improved use of technology and modern management techniques must be key elements in any sustained programme aimed at tackling reduction in delays. A reduced work-load for the Ombudsman will be the real testament to the success of these reforms.

Turning then to other aspects of the report, it was very interesting to note that the complaints came from every county and from people in all walks of life. This clearly indicates that people in general are fully aware of the existence of the office and of the confidence of the people in the office.

During the debate in the Seanad, one Senator suggested that were he to conduct a poll of his neighbours and constituents he felt that a large number of them would not be aware of the role or functions of the Ombudsman and that some of them might not be sure of his existence. I do not believe that there is such a low level of awareness of the existence of the Ombudsman's office.

There was quite a lot of publicity attached to the establishment of the office. I know that the Ombudsman regularly avails of invitations to speak at various public functions in different parts of the country and to speak on radio and television.

Since the extension of his remit on 1 April last there has been an increased level of publicity associated with the office. The Ombudsman has begun a series of visits to towns in various parts of Ireland. It is intended that these visits will be a regular feature. On these occasions members of the public, who have an unresolved complaint against certain public bodies, are able to meet with the staff of the Ombudsman's office to have their complaints examined.

As part of the arrangements for these visits, temporary offices for the Ombudsman's staff are established in local hotels. Posters advertising the visits are displayed in post offices, libraries, community welfare offices, tax offices, employment offices and other public offices. Advertisements are placed in the local papers. Where possible, interviews are held with local journalists to ensure adequate advance coverage of the visit. Members of the public are invited to call to the hotel to meet the Ombudsman's staff.

To date, the Ombudsman's staff have visited Navan, Monaghan, Dundalk, Limerick, Ennis, Longford, Mullingar, Cork city, Carrick-on-Shannon and Cavan town. Other areas will be visited in the near future.

Experience to date has shown that these visits are well worthwhile and beneficial to all concerned. First, there has been a steady stream of callers to each of the centres indicating a clear demand for this service. Secondly, it has been found to date that few, if any, of the complainants interviewed would have been prepared to go to Dublin. They would not have put their complaint on paper, generally because they felt that their complaint was too complex and that they were unable to commit all the details to paper. I should say, of course, that expenses of those required to travel distances in connection with investigations by the Ombudsman may be recouped.

There is one further feature of the report which is of particular concern. The Ombudsman reported that some senior civil servants resented his intrusion, particularly when their decisions were under scrutiny. He also reported that there were legal challenges to his authority which seemed to be more concerned with preventing an investigation into particular complaints than the question of whether the complaints were justified. As Deputies will be aware, the Ombudsman's role is purely to investigate and report. His importance lies in his power to investigate the actions of administrators and to report on those to the Oireachtas. Therefore, the efficient discharge of the Ombudsman's role depends, to a large extent, on the co-operation he receives from public servants.

My Department issued guidelines to all Departments before the office of the Ombudsman was established. These guidelines set out the procedures to be followed during the investigation of complaints by the Ombudsman and his staff. Therefore, every civil servant must have been aware of the fact that he or she was expected to co-operate fully with the Ombudsman and his staff.

Without the co-operation of civil servants, the Ombudsman would not have been able to function as effectively as he did in his first year. Like the Ombudsman, I would take a very serious view of any deliberate reluctance to co-operate with the scrutineer of the Oireachtas. I imagine it was inevitable that, when a new institution such as the office of the Ombudsman was established, there would be a period of tentativeness, even defensiveness and a testing of legal positions. The initial learning period is over and I would hope and expect to be able to report to this House on future occasions that the Ombudsman is satisfied with the level of co-operation he is getting.

I am also aware that some Deputies experienced delays in getting replies from Bord Telecom Éireann through the Ombudsman's office. I am glad to say that the company were in touch with the Ombudsman some time ago and the board took special measures to recover the situation. The Ombudsman considers that these measures have improved the situation significantly.

At the outset, I mentioned the high volume of complaints received by the Ombudsman during his first year in office. The vast majority of these complaints were dealt with during the year. This reflects great credit on the Ombudsman and his staff for the efficient manner in which they have discharged their duties. It also provides us with optimism for the future of the office. I am confident that the future of the office will be successful both for the Ombudsman and his staff and, most of all, for the ordinary man in the street whom it was primarily established to assist.

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.

I, too, would like to be associated with the welcome for the publication of the first annual report of the Ombudsman. The success of the office is due in large measure to the foresight of the former Minister for the Public Service, who moved very rapidly to establish the office and give the holder a wide remit which he has shown in the first report to have been effective. He has dealt with many areas. The Minister tonight outlined where some reforms had taken place. The public have welcomed these changes.

Some people have expressed doubt about the Ombudsman and his communication with people in the country but, as a Deputy representing County Clare, I can say that the Ombudsman came to Ennis and his visit was well advertised and was well attended. The Ombudsman, Mr. Mills, has done the office justice in seeing that there was a certain amount of decentralisation. The visit was welcomed by older people who were not able to travel to Dublin. They were very happy with the visit. The office of Ombudsman has worked well even though there were teething problems with the officers of the various Departments but that was to be expected. This has been a good step to bring the human face of the public service more to the fore.

Deputy Ahern's proposal about the Department's public relations is a fair comment. The Departments seem to be afraid to open out. The Ombudsman is there to protect the public service as much as the public. Would the Departments have confidence enough in the Ombudsman to see that progress is made for the sake of the public at least?

I have received many representations about the old age contributory pension and I have spoken on many occasions about the post 1953 applicants for contributory pensions. I am amazed at the figure of £50 million which has been computed as outstanding. That seems to give great scope to applicants. Would the Minister consider in the Social Welfare Bill or would the Ombudsman recommend limited qualification for those old age pensioners who, because of this anomaly, are being denied pension rights? I suppose in the long run the people will pass away. It is regrettable that a scheme which was intended to be compassionate should not be made effective now by introducing at least a small scheme which would allow a number of those old people to qualify.

I receive numerous complaints about the Valuation Office. The public are not aware of the continuing valuation and how the scheme works. Many of them are not aware of the appeals system. The law needs to be changed with regard to notices about valuation and how it is effected. Some people feel let down when the officer arrives and comes to his final calculation. They dispute those figures. A lot of the blame should be addressed towards the legal advisers. The Ombudsman should consult with the Law Society and ask solicitors to brief clients better about the Valuation Office.

I am very happy with the work of the Ombudsman and the courteous way his officers have investigated the claims that have been made. I am impressed by the way they receive people in their office in St. Stephen's Green. I hope that when the second annual report comes before the House more progress will have been made. I am happy that much progress has been made in the first report.

I, like my colleagues, Deputy Ahern and Deputy Carey, would like to give a very warm welcome to this report particularly since it is the result of legislation that I, on behalf of Fianna Fáil, had the privilege of putting through the Houses of the Oireachtas. I welcome it also because it is a vindication of a general feeling that while the majority of civil and public servants are civil and public there are others who are not. Like Deputy Ahern I am afraid I, too, have had the experience of a very small band of public servants who thought and continue to think of themselves as the sole judges and arbiters of matters, answerable to nobody. To quote from the report they were: "suspicious about the new institution and resented its intrusion particularly when their decisions were under scrutiny". Like Deputy Ahern I should stress that my experience with the vast bulk of public servants has been satisfactory and I could make complimentary remarks about them only. Unfortunately a few give the general public service a bad name. All of us have had such experiences. I remember once coming on a deputation to this city with people who had given up their day to travel on that deputation with regard to a special project. The deputation were told by a lady public servant that if people like them did not come up and waste her time, perhaps action could be taken. Only later did she discover that I was a TD. I am certain that the Minister's confidence as expressed in the course of his remarks, will be fully justified, and that those public servants who resisted the change will have seen that there is no danger to them from the office of the Ombudsman.

Three years after the establishment of the office it will have been fully accepted that the public have the right of a final appeal through his office. Indeed the number of complaints received by him in the first year, over 2,200, is an indication of the need there was and is for its establishment.

It is interesting that all Departments have been involved. However, from the results the Ombudsman has catalogued, it will be seen that the very high number of complaints received about social welfare matters points to the complexity of the social welfare legislation and the need to bring some degree of realism into that minefield. I suppose it is natural that the Revenue Commissioners — whom all of us feel are out to extract the last few pence from us — should be second in the league of complaints and that Bord Telecom should be number three.

In another section of the report one wonders about the relevance of the fact that two of the three complaint leaders were Departments who challenged the authority of the Ombudsman in the early stages. Apart from listing various complaints and giving excellent examples — on which I will not elaborate — the main thrust of this report is to bring to the notice of the Government the very many anomalies and contradictions that exist in our law. I am glad to note from the Minister's speech that some of these anomalies have been receiving consideration.

I might point out to him that the Government refused to accept a Fianna Fáil Bill which would have taken into account the question of the law on domicile which the Ombudsman has brought to their attention. Successive Governments have been somewhat remiss in not taking on legislation suggested by the Opposition. I have no doubt that the Bill I brought through the House was all the better for the many amendments the Opposition suggested and which I was pleased to take on board at the time.

The Government now have a duty to be faithful to the Ombudsman, to take on board the many points he has raised even if only to prevent those points being raised continuously and maintaining his workload. It would help if the anomalies he has pointed out were removed from legislation. Here I fully endorse Deputy Ahern's remarks.

The Ombudsman points out that the decision to extend his writ to local authorities and health boards, of necessity, will lead to a larger number of complaints which he will have to investigate. I was glad to be able to give a commitment to have enshrined in the legislation the provision that, once the office had got off the ground, the health boards and local authorities would be considered for inclusion. The ordinary citizen will be better helped by the decision to include health boards and local authorities within his writ. Very many people now experience problems in relation to local authorities.

One might ask the Ombudsman to examine the laws in relation to the Department of the Environment which enable them to have the best of both worlds. For example, as the House knows, in housing the height from floor to ceiling has to be of a certain measurement to qualify for a grant. However a person, having built a house and having decided, before the Department inspector arrives, to use the attic space and have a ceiling height of, say, seven feet when it should be eight feet, has led to departmental inspectors refusing to allocate grants in many cases, maintaining that the floor area was over and above the statutory limit. This, despite the fact that the rooms upstairs were less than the adequate height. Therefore, it is a question of the Department having the best of both worlds.

I welcome this historic report. I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State to his new Department. Like Deputy Ahern I feel he should benefit from the additional time he will be able to spend at home. I hope that the 1985 report will come to hand very shortly. However, the first official report of this office clearly identifies the tremendous need there was for the establishment of the office. One might well wonder what happened the many people who used this office, who had their complaints investigated, who benefited from that investigation, in the years before that office was available to them. Many people have benefited according to this report and many people will benefit in the future from the establishment of this office. I welcome the report. I congratulate the Ombudsman and his office on the tremendous work they have done and also for the manner in which they deal with people. The general public service could take an example from them in this regard.

First of all, I would like to wish the Minister every success in his new position. Many of our people seem to be anxious to keep him at home. I do not know why that is. The general feeling among the public is that the setting up of the office of Ombudsman was worthwhile and has proved to be very successful. The work being done by the Ombudsman and his staff is appreciated by politicians and by the general public. I welcome this report, even though it is a bit late. Like my colleagues, I hope the Minister will act upon this report and enact the legislation necessary to correct the anomalies in the different Departments as outlined in the report. Unless this is done, the Ombudsman will become bogged down by recurring problems. I know that the Minister is concerned about this and it is important that he should move to correct the imbalances stated.

Bureaucracy is one of the major problems which all public representatives and the public in general come up against. While the majority of civil servants are excellent in their field, a minority of them see themselves as little gods who have the right to decide upon everything. Their decisions are not always in the best interest of the general public. There were over 2,000 complaints within the first 12 months of the establishment of this office. That proves that there was a need for the Ombudsman. People are now confident that they can get a fair hearing. They feel happier that they have recourse to fair play.

The Minister referred to the cost of removing the anomalies involved. It is suggested that much time is being wasted by politicians. We hear constant criticism that they are doing the wrong job and not acting as legislators, that we spend most of our time as messenger boys for the public. If we were to correct most of those imbalances, while it would cost a lot of money, it would be very worthwhile in the long term.

I welcome the changes in section 4 of the Finance Act and also the recommendations for change in certain statutory dates affecting the valuation of property. This is one major bone of contention among the people. Their property is revalued for many different reasons. Deputy Carey pointed out that the legal people do not advise their clients as they should. They do not seem to appeal within the specified date and, as a result, they have to wait for another year before they can make a new appeal. This causes severe problems for people who have renovated their premises and where there are proposed revisions in the valuation. I would welcome any change that would make it more beneficial to the people whose valuations are being revised.

The most antiquated law is where people are responsible for the water pipe outside their door which has been broken by circumstances beyond the control of the houseowner. I would like to see the local authorities assuming more responsibility in that area.

The biggest problem arises with regard to social welfare. Problems have existed here for years. I am glad the Ombudsman and his office recognise this. Serious delays in the payment of social welfare benefit are causing severe problems to families. It is the one area which we come up against constantly in our clinics. In some cases people go to the clinic or to the local social welfare office and this causes more problems because by the time we notify the Department extra delays occur. People suffer severe hardships in this area.

Deserted husbands and widowers are not getting a fair deal. In the case of a widower he has to claim unemployment assistance which goes nowhere towards meeting the same criteria as apply in the case of a widow. A deserted husband is not in the same league financially as a deserted wife. I would welcome changes in that area. I hope the Minister will tackle the serious anomalies that exist in this area. We hear much talk about equality but in this case there is no equality on the man's side.

I welcome the report. I know it is not the Minister's fault that it was not made available earlier. I compliment the Ombudsman and his staff for the excellent job they are doing. They are satisfying the political arena and, more importantly, they are making a major contribution towards solving the problems of the ordinary public who feel frustrated and disillusioned with bureaucracy and red tape.

I thank Deputies for their contributions to this debate. I appreciate the congratulatory remarks which were made in relation to myself and my new appointment. I will attempt to pick up some of the points raised during the course of this debate.

I will start with the historical background of the Ombudsman which goes back quite a long time. I understand that the idea was first introduced by Richie Ryan during his term as Minister for Finance and the Public Service. Following on that there was the setting up of an all-party committee by the Minister for Justice which reported in 1977. We then had the Bill which was introduced in 1980 by Deputy Calleary. Finally, we had the appointment by the Minister, Deputy Boland, of the Ombudsman in 1983. Thereafter there was an extension of the writ of the Ombudsman to cover local authorities, health boards, An Post and Bord Telecom Éireann in 1985. This history confirms that, over that period of time, different impulses, as it were, to the office were given from different sides of the House.

What has emerged over that period of time is that there has been almost total all-party support for the office of the Ombudsman. I am very conscious of this. In my term of office in the Public Service and in this House I would be very keen to see that that all-party support for the office continues. Deputy Ahern raised a number of aspects of the report and I appreciate his interest in it. His interest in the office of the Ombudsman goes back a long time. He raised the question of the antiquated law which is referred to by the Ombudsman in his report. I felt his tone might have been a little accusatory as far as the local authorities are concerned. I did refer to the position in my opening remarks and it is important to note that the Minister for the Environment has included provisions in the forthcoming Local Government Bill to eliminate the specific anomaly identified by the Ombudsman. In the meantime, it must be recognised that local authorities are creatures of the law and to act otherwise would beultra vires and could lead to other problems. That fact has to be borne in mind when one considers the present actions of the local authorities. At the same time, I would hope that in the light of the specific issue highlighted by the Ombudsman local authorities would take as sympathetic a view as they can within the limits and constraints that are on them so that any hard luck or hardship cases which had been identified by the report could be dealt with.

Deputy Ahern also referred to the question of follow-up action. As I outlined in my opening remarks, and Deputies might be happy to note this, there have been a number of actions which have dealt with anomalies and other points raised by the Ombudsman. We will continue to ensure that every point raised by the Ombudsman is looked at very seriously not just by myself but my colleagues in Government. From the point of view of the House, there will be, of course, a further opportunity, when the Whips can come to an arrangement, when we will be able to debate the 1985 report. This will provide Deputies with a further opportunity to examine and discuss the situation.

A number of Deputies commented on what is referred to as the social insurance anomaly. From my own experience in my constituency this problem, highlighted by the Ombudsman, has caused difficulty for a number of individuals. I gather from the figures available there may be a considerable number of people in the country affected by it. On the other hand, it is important that we have the full facts and that we do not rush into a judgment either from the point of view of misunderstanding the background or from the danger of creating further anomalies by precipitate action. There is also, as I mentioned earlier, the question of costs. The background relates to the changes made in the remuneration limits for social insurance purposes in the fifties and sixties. In 1953 non-manual workers earning more than £600 a year ceased to be compulsorily insurable. That limit was raised in subsequent years. In 1974 compulsory insurance was again introduced for all workers irrespective of income. Let us be clear on one thing, the Ombudsman has made it clear that he is satisfied that there is no question of maladministration on the part of the Department of Social Welfare and that the refusal of claims arising under the broken period of insurance is fully correct within the existing terms of social welfare legislation.

Deputy Ahern also raised the point that the anomaly arose because people were given the wrong advice in the fifties. I am advised that at that time every effort was made by the Department of Social Welfare to bring people's attention to the advantages of voluntary contributions which were permissible in the post-1953 period. While some people may not have been fully aware of the situation there must have been quite a number of other people who decided that voluntary contributions were not worth the cost. That is a factor that also has to be borne in mind. The question is a complex one. One also has to consider the situation, if there were to be a change, of the person who did pay his insurance either on a compulsory or voluntary basis, particularly the latter, during that period. If we were now to extend the pension provision to those who did not pay, what would be the position of those who had paid? Would they be entitled to a refund?

These are some of the questions that arise in connection with a possible change. I have to say, overall, that the overriding issue is one of cost. Figures which have been mentioned to me are substantial. One has to bear in mind that even if money of that order — the figure I quoted was £50 million in 1987 terms — were available for an improvement of the social welfare provisions, would this be the top priority for Deputies or are there other areas of greater hardship where this money might be better devoted? I raise these points to indicate that while I take on board the points raised by the Ombudsman the solution is not as simple as it might first appear.

I was somewhat taken aback by Deputy Ahern's suggestion that the White Paper will not be implemented. Perhaps he did not put it in such blunt terms but he seemed to suggest that a substantial portion of it would not be implemented. I must say that there is total commitment to the implementation of the White Paper. On that point, legislation will be necessary. I can tell the House that this legislation is in the course of preparation at this time and I would hope to present it in the near future. The measures which do not require legislation are, in many instances, already being implemented. My Department and myself will continue to make every effort to ensure that all such measures are fully implemented. I am sure that the Minister, Deputy Boland, will be very happy to know that the excellent work he put into this area will continue when he has moved on to other fields. The whole thrust of the White Paper is to put good service, good management and value for taxpayers' money at the top of the priority list. That approach commends itself fully to all Deputies. I look forward to full co-operation from the House when I come back to them with legislative proposals.

The question of the Civil Service being both civil and public was raised by a number of Deputies. The vast majority of civil servants are very civil and are doing a very good job although I would be the first to admit that there are occasional examples of people who do not come up to that very high standard. As in relation to any other profession, those who are giving dedicated service should not be tarred with the brush that could perhaps be applied to the very few. From the point of view of service to the public, the White Paper addressed this problem in a number of ways.

Reference was made to the Department of Social Welfare where arrangements are being made to have offices open at times suitable to the public. The Department of Social Welfare were the first to set up an executive office as described in the White Paper and a director has been appointed. This is probably the biggest single step in the direction of single-minded concentration on service to the public. Giving a good service to the public will be its only mission and there will also be a programme of training for public office staff. While we have not reached the optimum situation, much has already been done to implement the provisions in the White Paper in this regard from the point of view of training, the presentation and lay-out of Civil Service forms and other aspects such as the personalisation of the Civil Service. The idea to remove the anonymity behind which it was suggested civil servants wanted to hide was an outstanding idea of Minister Boland. With few exceptions there was no hesitation among civil servants to deal with the public on a one-to-one basis. There are several proposals in the White Paper bearing on this area. I assure the House that proposals about the removal of hatches will certainly have my attention and every effort will be made to ensure that these proposals will come into effect in the shortest possible time.

Deputy Carey referred to certain legal aspects. Only complaints against administrative actions by Departments, local authorities, An Post and An Bord Telecom Éireann can be investigated. There is not an entitlement to investigate actions by solicitors in the private sector. Legal decisions by Departments' legal advisers would also not normally be the subject of complaint to the Ombudsman. These have to be borne in mind when considering the report of the Ombudsman. Following on that there would seem to be an implied criticism of the legal profession. I am here on behalf of the public service but as a person who was a practising member of the legal profession I would point out that there are the good and the bad in the legal profession just as in the Civil Service and in every other profession.

Deputy Calleary pointed out that this is an historic report as it is the first report of the Ombudsman. In concluding, it is appropriate for me to indicate my appreciation of the contributions made to this debate. It is clear that we share a strong concern that the public service should give a caring and sensitive service to all citizens and especially to the most needy. We also share a belief and determination that the Ombudsman will be successful in drawing attention to defects in the administration and having them remedied. To an extent the existence of an Ombudsman is an indication that there is room for improvement and there must always be room for improvement in the quality of our administration. This office has been in existence in other countries for a long time. In Finland it goes back to 1919, and in other European countries it is an office with a long and proud history. In trying to trace the country where it all began I inadvertently overlooked Sweden where the office has been established since 1809. I am glad to say that to that proud history and tradition our Ombudsman has already made his contribution and established his mark.

I expect that as the services of the Ombudsman become well known there will be a greater demand for the service. Hand in hand with this will go the determined efforts which we are now making to improve enormously the service given by Departments and other public bodies. I hope these efforts — their direction is clearly spelled out in the White Paper — will gradually reduce the Ombudsman's workload simply because the extent of dissatisfaction with public services will be reduced. I am sure all Deputies in this House will share my feelings in that regard.

Question put and agreed to.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.12 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 27 February 1986.