Due to time constraints, I was unable to complete my address to the House on the last occasion the Bill was debated. For the benefit of the House let me briefly run through the main points I made on Wednesday last.
I expressed my reservations about the practicalities of legislating in this area, a point reinforced most eloquently by Deputy Bell during his excellent contribution to the debate. In relation to my own Department I also mentioned that, because of the numbers of individuals who use health agency facilities, it would be impossible to guarantee privacy without serious disruption and delays in the level of service being provided in these offices.
In addition, I pointed out the improvements which have been made in Hawkins House in relation to the provision of privacy for the public. With regard to the health agencies, I mentioned that straightforward business is dealt with at public hatches while facilities are available to deal with matters of a sensitive or confidential nature in private.
Before I go any further, I feel I must rebut in the strongest possible terms, the assertion made by Deputy Bernard Durkan last Wednesday that Government speakers denigrated the motives behind the introduction of this Bill and that they regarded it as being mischievous. This is simply not the case. If the Deputy examines the record of the House he will see that each Government speaker in turn applauded the principle of the Bill and advised the House that they fully subscribed to the motives which inspired Deputy Jim Mitchell's Bill. That is a matter of record.
Deputy Durkan also seemed to suggest that a dual system incorporating both a public counter and private facilities would not be acceptable to him. Instead he said that, and I quote, "a system whereby each person receives equal treatment and the private audience" was necessary. This proposal goes far beyond the provisions of Deputy Mitchell's Bill. Needless to say the cost of providing such facilities in every single public office throughout the country would be prohibitive. His suggestion that areas be screened off would simply not be practical in every instance.
I would also like to take issue again with Deputy Barnes about her contention that the public should be dealt with by senior officials. Given the large volume of callers to employment exchanges, tax offices, health boards, FAS offices and many other public offices, it would not be possible to achieve this without serious and unacceptable implications for the Exchequer pay bill.
I would like to take this opportunity to assure the House that the Government are committed to a progressive improvement in facilities in public offices where there are blatant deficiencies. Indeed nothing would please Government Ministers more than to be in the strong financial position to effect the necessary improvements in the public offices under their control overnight. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case. Any improvements must have regard to the overriding spending priorities determined by the Dáil during the Estimates and budgetary process.
It is the Government's firm belief that legislation is not the appropriate means to effect these improvements in facilities. Once the budgets for the various Departments and State agencies have been determined by the Dáil, it should be up to the local management in each area to devise and implement strategies, within budgetary constraints, which provide basic services as well as improvements in areas such as accommodation and privacy. It is not appropriate that minimum standards of privacy should be enforced on local managements by central Government, through the Minister for Finance, as envisaged in Deputy Mitchell's Bill. Local managements are best placed to make the necessary decisions.
The present debate is serving a useful purpose in focusing the attention of both the public and officials on the question of privacy and confidentiality in public offices. Indeed the debate has thrown up some useful pointers for Departments as to where they might best concentrate their efforts to bring about improvements. As far as the health area is concerned, I will be asking my Department to convey the views expressed by all sides of the House to the various health agencies with a request that present arrangements be critically reviewed. I am sure that other Ministers will adopt a similar positive approach.
I am anxious to ensure that members of the public who are in personal contact with my Department have the facility to conduct business in private if this is required. As an example of the arrangements currently in place, I draw the attention of the House to the General Registrar's office located at Joyce House in Lombard Street, Dublin. Some 25,000 members of the public call annually to this office for birth, marriage or death certificates. While some of the details required for this purpose can be regarded as of a private or confidential nature, it is not something which might be overheard by the general public, consisting as it does of form filling. Members of the public are given every assistance by the staff in Lombard House in completing the request forms for certificates.
Of the 25,000 callers I have mentioned, approximately 1,100 per annum would be transacting business of a confidential or sensitive nature. Facilities are available for this business to be dealt with away from the public counter. In my view, this represents a reasonable approach to a difficult problem.
That office is in a position to cater, with the minimum amount of delay, with a large volume of callers on straightforward business while, at the same time, providing suitable facilities for business of a personal or confidential nature. Indeed, I should like to avail of this opportunity to compliment my departmental staff in Joyce House who deal so effectively and efficiently with so many members of the public constantly seeking information and assistance. I have never received any complaint whatsoever about the workings of the General Registrar's office.
I am fully satisfied with the service being provided to the public in Joyce House. I believe that the facilities being provided for the public to conduct any necessary personal and confidential business in private are adequate. If full private facilities were to be made available to every caller to this office it is obvious there would be a serious deterioration in the level of service provided to the public, resulting in unacceptable delays in dealing with cases.
My Department are fully committed to the policy of providing facilities to members of the public to conduct business in private if the circumstances of the case so warrant. As I said in the House on Wednesday last, my Department are satisfied that the existing arrangements for dealing with such confidential matters are adequate. However, where there is scope for improvement of these facilities, my Department will be requesting local managements to review the position and effect improvements within their budgetary constraints.
It is my firm belief that legislation is not an effective means of effecting improvements in the area of privacy in public offices. One cannot enforce strict statutory controls in this area, such as are envisaged in this Bill, without providing the necessary additional resources in terms of staffing, accommodation and finance. That is not possible in our present difficult financial circumstances.
It is also my belief that Members' contributions to this debate, ranging over four evenings of Private Members' time, will alert staff nationwide, working in the public or semi-public sector, to be aware of public needs as far as the transaction of their business in private is concerned Indeed, where hatches are used, business should be transacted without having to close the hatch on the person being dealt with — as it happens, this was brought to my attention at my constituency office — because it does cause offence to members of the public. It should not be necessary to close such hatches in public offices when dealing with queries on behalf of members of the public.
I am of the opinion that Deputy Jim Mitchell was faced with an impossible task when he attempted to draft this Bill. It is simply not possible to reconcile the laying down of enforceable standards of privacy in all public offices — which cost money — with the budgetary imperatives of the day which may dictate that there are other priorities in the spending of that money. I sympathise with Deputy Mitchell in a sense because it is difficult in Private Members' time to have the back up to provide a Bill that would be fully scrutinised by the drafting office. The objective is good but the details are not thoroughly worked out. Thus, the obligations in the Bill are qualified by the words "wherever practicable". Thereby, it becomes unenforceable and, indeed, meaningless.
Despite these major reservations about the necessity for legislation on this subject and the form of any such legislation, I believe that Deputy Mitchell should be applauded for his initiative in bringing this matter before the House.
The Bill is a testimony of his deeply felt concern to ensure that members of the public can discuss private business with dignity and in total confidence. We must also recognise, and I am sure Deputy Mitchell in his summing up of this debate will recognise, the major improvements which have taken place in public offices over the last number of years under successive Governments. There has been a major investment in the improvement of facilities for the public in State offices and rightly so. It is unacceptable that the highest standards would not be available at all times to allow the public carry out their business in a proper manner in public offices. I believe that the facilities will continue to be improved.
When I was Minister of State with responsibility for An Post we carried out major improvements and renovations to post offices throughout the country. In so doing we provided excellent facilities for the public but it had to be at a counter or hatch. The nature of transactions which take place in a post office, generally speaking, in relation to the sale of stamps could not be regarded as of a confidential nature but in relation to pensions and lodgments that could certainly be considered as private. I believe the facilities have been dramatically improved both in general post offices and in local post offices over the past number of years. Indeed I would like to compliment An Post for the continuation of the improvements in the offices throughout the country which were initiated under a previous Fianna Fáil Government.
The Government are convinced that this procedure is the most effective way of achieving improvements. The enactment of legislation in this area would be unworkable and would not serve the interests of the public. While totally supporting the underlying principles of the Bill towards setting standards of privacy in public offices the Government must reluctantly oppose this Bill for the reasons which I and other speakers have outlined. This should not be a Bill which would give rise to a vote in this House. The Government have clearly indicated that they are in favour of the principles but not of the actual details of the legislation which has not been worked out to a great degree.
The debate has certainly elicited views from all sides of this House on an interesting topic which many people have brought to my attention in relation to services. I was never in favour of hatches in the council offices. When transacting business either as a councillor or as a member of the public I always felt it appropriate to be given the facilities to speak with the other person across the table. Generally speaking those facilities are available to the public in most local authority offices.
I am sure that when Deputy Jim Mitchell reflects on the debate he will accept the Government's goodwill in striving to continue to provide and improve facilities for the conduct in private of sensitive personal business in public offices. I would also hope that he would accept the arguments put forward by Deputy Bell and by speakers from this side of the House that legislation does not provide a workable solution. Legislation that cannot be enforced is bad legislation and should not be on the Statute Book.
It is clearly evident from this Bill and from the advice from the Departments of the Environment, Finance and other Departments who have carefully scrutinised it that it would be unworkable, unenforceable, and, in the circumstances, flawed legislation and of no benefit whatsoever. It would create more difficulties for the public in having complaints lodged if there were no methods or structures to enforce the legislation which would be passed by the Oireachtas. When legislation is not enforced it reflects very badly on the Oireachtas in the sense of having brought forward the Bill in the first instance. In the circumstances, I strongly recommend that the Bill be withdrawn but that the views of this House be conveyed to all public offices in regard to the improving of facilities.