Private Members' Business. - Public Offices (Privacy of Interviews) Bill, 1988: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

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.

Contrary to what the Minister of State has said, this is a very reasonable Bill and one that is long overdue. It is probably more relevant now than ever before because of the longer dole queues. Quite frankly I have always believed that our methods of dealing with the public are quite callous and leave much to be desired. It is humiliating enough for the not so well off and the poor to have to apply for medical cards in order to obtain medical aid for their dear ones or, indeed, to have to queue up and tell their sad tale of poverty and deprivation in front of a number of their neighbours. That is the ultimate embarrassment. I submit that if proper facilities were in place, for example, for unemployment assistance and medical card applicants, we would probably have a 10 per cent or 15 per cent increase in people receiving these benefits and perhaps that is why we do not have them. I certainly know of people who would not face this type of humiliation and would much prefer to do without. Instead, they come to people like myself to see if we can overcome this embarrassing episode for them but, unfortunately there is very little we can do, we have to tell them that they must go back to the office.

We have thousands of unemployed queuing up each week, out on the streets in the cold and rain, for what is due to them. I have seen them myself, in full view of the citizenry, awaiting their turn to be paid and to discuss their business. Surely simple waiting rooms in our towns and villages to allow these people to wait in comfort is not too much to ask.

I agree with the Minister of State that all this does not have to happen together. If there was a consensus in this House of the need for these facilities, they could be provided. I would not accept what the Minister said about it being impossible, nothing is impossible. There is enough humanity on all sides of this House for us to appreciate the problem. Every weekend we are dealing with it in our clinics. I feel very strongly that if money needs to be spent, this is one area where it should be spent.

Also in our employment offices we should have citizen advice centres, a branch of the FÁS office, facilities for interviews for jobs by various local authorities and indeed by employers generally. We hear about the drive to get after people who are abusing the social welfare system but we hear very little about the embarrassment and difficulties of the social welfare applicants in trying in public to have their rights established. This is the reason so many people will not even submit themselves to that type of public interview.

Far too much of the social welfare budget goes on administration. We talk about scarce national resources but the system should be simplified. This applies, too, to health and to other areas. As I said previously in this House, medical ethics ought to be such that when qualified medical people deem a person ill or unfit for work, that should suffice. Think of all the money that would save. For instance, all the appeals and reviews which are at present part of the bureaucratic set up could in these cases be dispensed with completely.

The Government's present treatment of the matter is holding back payment of unemployment assistance. Here again, vast sums of money could be saved. I know of a family living at present on £17 a week, who are now entering their third appeal, trying to obtain a few extra pounds from the Southern Health Board. These are deserving people. This surely must be without precedent. I know of families who, for the third and fourth time, have gone before appeal boards, having been told that they are fit for work despite the fact that medical experts have told them that they are not fit for work. Who is right in all this? That is surely a waste of money and makes for much office work.

This Fine Gael motion is reasonable, worth while and civilised. When I started out in life, one would go to the bank with a little financial problem. One queued at the counter and the fellow down the road could hear the story. If it suited the bank manager, he shouted loudly enough to make sure that the fellow did hear, to embarrass the applicant a little further. All that has long since changed, because I was talking about the middle fifties. Nowadays there is full privacy with regard to the bank and the ACC. This facility should be offered to everybody. Surely, if private institutions can do that, it should not be beyond the powers of Government to give exactly the same facility.

The banks realised the need for privacy and we can all see the results. It is time for the State to follow suit, especially when dealing with people who, through no fault of their own, are deprived and very often in poor shape physically and mentally. We must treat these people with a little Christian charity and sensitivity. That is not asking too much, from a Government that promised, before the last election, to look after the poor, the sick and the handicapped. I am afraid that they have not done much about it.

We are doing that.

Extra facilities could be coupled with a better strategy of payment. If it is established that somebody is unemployed, a simplified system could be worked out to pay that person by cheque so that he or she would not need to queue up at all. When the person is fortunate enough to obtain employment he or she can inform the office. This is the system in other countries and if they can do it, we can. The massive queues would be drastically reduced. At the minimum, we should offer that to that section of our society that need our special attention, people who do not have powerful lobbies, unions and other organisations to fight their cause and defend them.

Large amounts of scarce national resources are spent on appeals and counter-appeals with regard to social welfare, unemployment assistance and old age pensions. With suitable offices strategically located, it should be possible to deal with most of these problems on the spot. This is not such a big country. Much money would be saved if we could organise in our towns and villages that there and then decisions could be made on a whole range of issues, with immense saving to the Exchequer. Then social welfare would become what it should be, a weapon against poverty and not a battle of wits as it is at the moment.

Most of our towns have pretty elaborate town halls, with plenty of scope, having reception areas and much else. In many areas with which I am familiar there would be no need for extensive building. There are these massive buildings divided into reception areas, with a special room for councillors to meet in. Those complete buildings could be utilised by the Departments of Social Welfare and

Health, to deal with these delicate problems. Properly organised, this legislation should not cost that much extra money. On the contrary, with more efficiency a great deal of money will be saved.

The people mentioned in the Schedule to the Bill must conduct their business in public in matters that are to them very confidential and private. The result is that very often these people do without, rather than face the embarrassment of conducting their business in public. Deputy Jim Mitchell said in his introduction that it was a double embarrassment listening to other people's personal affairs and knowing that one's business would be overheard when one's turn came. For that reason, we should all support this Bill. It allows adequate time to carry out the necessary restructuring and the changes needed for implementation. Since we introduced this legislation only a week ago, the public are loud in their praise. Already there is an awareness that something is being done to correct what they consider to be a very serious flaw in our society. They are happy about it. There are rumours about this matter going to committees. The Minister should take the bull by the horns and start working on this aspect. He should support the Bill and get to work, not with a massive outlay on buildings, but on a stage by stage basis, to tackle the pretty bad areas, which are probably in the cities and work his way around. It may take a long time, but people are prepared to wait.

In certain areas there are some improvements and these are welcome. To achieve what this Bill sets out to do, major reform is needed. If what is needed cannot be achieved in the time limit set out in the Bill, the legislation can be amended to allow for additional time. Even if we decide to move in the direction of the thrust of the Bill, that will be an achievement.

We must never say that because of the number who use health and other facilities it is impossible to guarantee privacy. We should never use the word "impossible" in this respect. It should be our aim, as Deputy Mitchell pointed out, to move in that direction. This Bill is to be commended, and Deputy Mitchell is to be commended for his initiative in bringing it before the House. Anybody in public life cannot deny that there is a major problem in this area. Solutions, with good will, will be found. I would not agree at all that Deputy Mitchell was in any way hampered by lack of facilities, or that the Bill has shortcomings. I have been in this House for a few years and find that the better legislation is simple and uncomplicated. Tying legislation up with too much legalistic jargon and too many little clauses takes from its major thrust.

Basically, the Bill sets out to achieve a simple, straightforward task, of offering privacy to members of the public in the areas of health, social welfare and revenue — even in agriculture. Our agricultural offices are no better than the rest. Right around the country, this is the sort of thing for which the public are looking. The idea is right. Of course, one can find reasons for not doing anything. So many people can find a problem to every solution but here we must find solutions to a very real problem. I do not want to detain the House, but I came here to appeal to the Minister and the Government. They certainly will have my support if they adhere to the main provisions of this legislation. They should not pick holes and raise difficulties, but rather should look at the good points and have the legislation implemented.

I listened with great interest to the last speaker and, in particular, to the very moderate terms in which he concluded his contribution. It is a pity that we must at times come into the House and pit ourselves on opposite sides on issues on which clearly we all agree. I do not believe that the proposals in this Bill are unreasonable. I am on the record elsewhere as saying that this is one of the types of reform that must be introduced. I am not certain that the appropriate way of introducing an incremental change in public administration, which is a very worth while change, is via legislation. I do not want to nitpick. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance last week pointed out that the Government readily accepted the general principle of ensuring privacy for individuals being interviewed on matters of a personal nature in public Departments and offices. That is the aim, I take it, the mover of the Bill wishes to achieve. It is not so much a wish to score a political point as to move an issue here to be debated and highlighted. That is welcome.

Ireland's public administration suffers from many ills. A lack of privacy in public offices is just one of them. We have an over-centralised public administration. Deputy Hegarty made specific reference to the appeals system. I can never for the life of me understand why, in the days of modern information technology, it is necessary for every little bit of paper in the Department of Social Welfare to go from the various offices around all the various parts of this country and up to Dublin as if there was some greatalter ego up there, some great presence who would lay hands on these things and wisdom would flow forth. Our public administration is excessively, extraordinarily and repressively centralised, and we should debate that issue.

One reason I welcome the Bill is that it gives us the opportunity to look at these issues. As every public representative and every Deputy in this House knows, these are the real things that bear down on the life and livelihood of ordinary citizens. There is a feeling in Ireland that somehow or other the administration has been removed from the people, that it is repressive, not by intention and certainly not because of the specific intention of the people who are in public administration, but because of the way it has emerged and evolved over the years, and the fault is ours as politicians.

Secretiveness is another aspect of Irish public administration. A predecessor of mine in University College said Ireland's public administration guards its most lowly file as if it contained the last extant copy of the formula for eternal youth. It is extraordinary. You look for even basic information as a citizen, information you should be entitled to and you are told you are not getting it. That creates an "us and them" syndrome; it creates a veil behind which public administration operates and which obscures the value of public administration. Not only are the citizens paying the cost of this excessive secrecy, the public administration pay the price too, because there is a sense of division between the citizen and the administration. Anonymity, the concept of the faceless, mindless, removed bureaucrat, flows from secrecy. I worked for many years in many different Departments of State and I can say that all civil servants have in common basic humanity and a wish to serve. A few years back the then Department of the Public Service commissioned a major study of attitudes and for some reason it was never published. It was the Davis and Fine-Davis report. One thing that came across in that was a very interesting observation by the people surveyed that if somehow or other they could break through the secrecy, anonymity and institutionalisation of the State machine and make contact with individual civil servants, they would get justice, be listened to and receive consideration. However, the feeling in that report was always that the people were removed from the State, the State and the people were somehow or other at loggerheads.

As has been mentioned time and time again in this debate, there is an excess of bureaucracy in this State. We need a very serious reform of the whole system of public administration — not just in the matter of privacy which is just one small aspect, one dot on the great tapestry of what needs to be done. Within our public administration we have an excess of forms, regulation and institutionalised procedures which belong more to the Victorian era than to the latter kick of the 20th century. The report of the Public Service Organisation Review Group of 1969 — 20 years ago — attempted to address these issues and failed for a number of reasons. The most commonly argued reason is that it failed because politicians did not wish it to succeed. The argument that has been put forward time and again was that politicians did not wish it to succeed because they were interested in perpetrating a gombeen man type of politics on which politicians fed. That is a grotesque, crass untruth. The Public Service Organisation Review Group got support from only one sector in the community, and that was a variety of Ministers and politicians that crossed across the scene through this House. First of all, there was no great demand for it. The Irish people never demanded that public administration be put on the agenda. Something Deputy Hegarty said touched the truth in this issue. The people most affected by the secrecy, anonymity, excessive bureaucracy and centralisation are what has become known as the underclass, the people who depend on the State. The problem is they have no great pressure group, no great interest group to argue their case. Because their case is not articulated it is not put on the political agenda for reform and pressure in this House. The Bill is welcome in that respect.

Undoubtedly our media must take some responsibility in this. I remember years ago writing for a newspaper a series of articles on public administration. The first, second and third were published and reasonably well received. They were not necessarily the best journalism that ever flowed across the pages of that newspaper, but the fourth and fifth articles did not appear. I asked the editor why and he said that the fourth article could not appear because they were doing a special on Richard Clayderman. Maybe my journalism was not up to the standard of that of the person who wrote the piece on Richard Clayderman, but public administration reform is an issue that should seize the public attention and demands to be debated not just here but elsewhere.

Throughout the period since the publication of the Devlin report this country went through a variety of changes with the situation in Northern Ireland, the economic depression, economic and political instability and changes of Government, all of which meant that it could not demand a place on the political agenda. One other issue that prevented public administration being reformed during the last 20 years, was internal opposition within the administration.

Over the years there has never been a dearth of expression of political willingness to achieve reform. In 1969 when the Devlin report was published the then Minister for Finance — it happened to be a Fianna Fáil administration — was very strong in support of the reforms. In 1973 when the administration changed the then Deputy Ryan, who moved into Finance and became shortly afterwards Minister for the Public Service, put into operation legislation which Fianna Fáil had left behind for them. Again there was an expression of political will. In 1977 the Government changed again and one interesting thing runs through the first day's debate as recorded in the Official Report. That was the commitment that came from the highest political level to achieving public administration reform. That was reiterated. I must be generous now and say that commitment to reform did not exist just in Fianna Fáil administrations. It got expression in Deputy John Boland's White Paper, yet none of the major proposals made by any of those Ministers or Ministers of State who served in the Department of the Public Service ever saw the light of day in any significant way. Our public administration remains now as encumbered as it was with all the problems it had in 1969. Why? The answer is simple. The whole basis of our public administration is a Victorian concept which really has no place in a modern State. It is the notion, the nonsense of ministerial responsibility, the view that somehow the Minister must and can be aware of everything that happens within his or her Department and therefore must be responsible for that Department. That is a nonsense. It stretches credulity that even in a small Department in a bygone era this could have been the case. In a Department like Social Welfare, Finance, Energy or Transport — any of the major Departments of State — this nonsense could not be put into practical effect. The biggest problem in our administration is that we do not recognise the nature of the problem. I wish this debate could be broadened to incorporate the full range of problems in public administration. I say not in a critical way but as an observation that the very weakness of this legislation is that it focuses on minutiae, not small to the public who are affected but too small in the vast array of things that need to be done in public administration.

We need not chastise ourselves unduly because the grand reform strategies which failed in the Devlin report here failed elsewhere as well. The UK had its Fulton Report which came and went and did not change a great deal. One American academic noted that implementation is and remains the Achilles heel of all public service reform programmes. It remains the Achilles heel of public service reform programmes; it dies simply because of neglect, a lack of interest. In politics and public life people must pay attention to the screaming babies and the crises which arise from time to time. Changing public administration deserves and requires a wholly different approach. One of the things we could and should perhaps do is have a standing committee of the Dáil or an Oireachtas joint committee which would consider on an on-going basis the whole issue of public service reform, not just the issue of privacy, secrecy or how we handle information in public administration but how we could continually review, update and generate a public debate on public administration.

One thing which can be said for the public relations aspect of our work is that the 166 Members of Dáil Éireann, a good few Members of Seanad Éireann and many councillors around the country have an innate grasp of precisely where the crises lie in public administration. Every day in their clinics and correspondence they are put in touch with the problems that public administration unconsciously gives rise to. We should really use the expertise not just in the on-going activity of constituency representation but somehow as a feedback into a reform process that would produce a public administration which would obviate the need for public representatives spending so much of their time on the constituency caseload.

I did a survey of Members of this House in 1981 when I was not involved in politics and had just left the Civil Service. It produced some very interesting results. Approximately 104 contacts per week were made on average between Members of this House and citizens. We did a comparative study in another country and we found that Irish public representatives were more in contact with their constituents than any other public representatives. It is a great pity that we cannot use to good effect that contact and the information which each of us receives in the hundreds and thousands of cases we handle every year, use and cannot generate an on-going debate. There is no mechanism or committee of this House which is dedicated to that task.

The proposal in this Bill is not at all unreasonable. I would have grave difficulty voting against this Bill because it is a desirable thing, but it is not enough in itself. That is the criticism I would have. There is a weakness in this Bill, but I do not say this in a critical sense since I have already congratulated the mover of the Bill. The weakness of our approach to public service reform is well illustrated by what has been done in other countries. In 1981-82 I undertook a study for the OECD. We looked at 12 OECD states and considered what had happened in those states which had public administration reform programmes. In most of those states the major reform programmes had collapsed, but this had brought forward a political debate on the nature of public administration and on the relationship between public administration and the ordinary citizen. This is a critical issue. If public administration unconsciously grinds down the individual citizen then it does a great wrong. The modern state machine has in its hand life and death decisions each day about ordinary citizens. When decisions are made in the Department of Social Welfare they are not made simply against file X or file Y. Those decisions percolate out from that Department and hit at the life and well-being of the individual. They can have a very profound effect. We spend all our time in public life ameliorating that effect, going around with band aids trying to overcome the negative effect.

What has been done elsewhere? Broadly speaking we could take initiatives under five different headings. I apologise if the language is a little jargonistic. There were a great deal of measures aimed at ameliorating the general relationship between the citizen and the state. In many ways these were costless measures and they have had tremendously beneficial effects on citizens in other developed states. It would be appropriate to introduce measures like this here. The second type of measures we found were information measures, which again were largely costless. The third type were consultation measures, then measures of institutional improvements and finally de-institutionalisation measures. Let us look at the first set of measures because they are relevant to what is proposed in this Bill.

Under amelioration measures we found that OECD countries were becoming very concerned at what the French called theguichet, the point at which the citizen interrelates with the State machine. The following measures were introduced in many OECD states and could be copied with effect here. There were, first, reception measures which include privacy measures but go far further. The first aim in reception measures was to improve physical access for both the able-bodied and the non-able-bodied citizen. There were measures aimed at improving the environment within public offices, including the creation of areas where privacy could be ensured. Sign posting was improved. A survey in France showed that one of the most important and popular measures introduced by the Government was improved sign posting in public offices. Staggered and improved opening hours were another factor. There was also common location of field offices and reciprocal case handling arrangements. If, for example, an old age pensioner goes into a health board and has a problem relating to social welfare as well, the official in the health board will take the social welfare aspect of the case to the Department of Social Welfare. If this measure goes through we could expand this proposal by looking at these other measures and seeing what has been done elsewhere.

Another area of intense activity in OECD states has been the sensitivity training of staff. Sometimes staff are unnecessarily brusque and sharp with citizens. All public servants must recognise that however trying the citizen is, at the end of the day, the citizen is the person who employs that public servant. This concept of sensitivity training, communications skills training, training on how to use telephone techniques, is widespread on the Continent of Europe and yet it has been dismissed here. Good work was done in this area a few years ago in the Civil Service Training Centre. There was a very amusing little film calledDarby O'Gill and the little problems. Unfortunately the good measures did not continue.

Another major improvement under this broad heading of amelioration—and it does not cost the State a lot — is language improvement measures. This is the most important of all areas because public communications, the correspondence that flows from State Departments and State agencies to the citizen, very frequently defy interpretation. Very frequently they are couched in language which is obscure and which hides the real meaning. So one of the areas that clearly we could and should be debating is how to handle language. Staff training in language, the production of manuals as to how to deal with the public in the written word, is a very important innovation in a number of countries. Interestingly enough the first country to actually produce such a manual was this country. We produced, back in 1973, a little booklet calledWrite it Better. It was the very first document produced by the Department of the Public Service. It was widely circulated at that time. It showed people how to move away from the official format of letters and how to get into a more humane, a more day to day, discursive type correspondence. Unfortunately the booklet is no longer circulated.

The official application form is the most commonly used source of communication between the citizen and the State and, as we all know in this place, it is the form of communication that causes most difficulty. The French have come up with a very novel and worth-while innovation. They have introduced an agency called CERFA which is attached to the Prime Minister's office and which audits every single form which is in circulation in public administration. A form is looked at to ensure that its language is not obscure, to ensure that the questions on the form are not hurtful or excessively prying, to ensure that the information which is required is pertinent and that the form comes up to a certain drafting standard. If the form does not comply with those standards it is declared illegal and its use would be considered a technical breach of the administrative code. The French are not the only country operating this. In Austria I came across an extraordinary experiment which could again with effect and without any cost, be tried here in this country. I refer to a system of readers/committees, people on whom they test market forms. These committees are made up of people right across the board, from academics with linguistic skills to the people who actually have to fill in these forms. The people say what they think about the forms and so there is a feedback within the public administration. We could, with effect, and for very little cost, if we put our mind to it, introduce rafts of amendments, rafts of changes in the way we handle the public.

The most elaborate forms of amelioration that one finds in OECD states is where they move into law, and that is one of the dangers of the position before us, where one moves to try to create a law which says how one actually administers. Public administration is the most human of all arts and one cannot legislate, in effect, for good public administration because one is trying to legislate for common sense. Good public administration is not a science; it is an art. It is something that grows up, it is common sense expressed. Some countries of course do not take that view and they have gone the route we are proposing to go here and produce long lists of codes of administrative practice. The French, for example, have acode admistratif which would fill a fairly large library. Public administration Acts are common place enough.

A second area of reform which does not cost a lot of money but simply requires the use of one's head occurs under the broad heading of information measures. Citizens are very frequently starved of real information and we need to address that. It is interesting that, in a number of the contributions here today, people made reference to that. There is a need for improvement in the way we present printed information. We need to establish or consider institutions to improve information. Let me give some examples. Again I refer to the French experiment. The French have attached to a number of the major telecommunications centres agencies called CIRA. These are centres for orienting people.

In the case of CIRA one rings the telephone exchange with, say, a problem with a social welfare or customs and excise form or whatever. There is an appropriate expert in the exchange, officials of the various departments, to handle those cases. They do not resolve the cases there and then. What they do is listen to the problems and tell the people who in the state agencies can deal with the problems. They then send the information to the agency and the agency then contacts the people. So the citizen's relationship with the state is improved and assisted. The French have gone very much into technology in this area. In public libraries one finds the use of computer technology to bring information to the citizen. We do not necessarily need to go down that route but certainly what is being done could, with effect, and with very little cost, be replicated here. There is no reason we should not have a system for decentralising, for example, decisions and information in the Department of Social Welfare, by putting computer terminals in each office which can query the central record so that the office where the people come in can make a decision. That is something that should happen. Not just this Minister but Ministers in a variety of administrations have been anxious that we move along that road.

There are other major propositions and other major changes that have been made in innovations and information handling, and the creation of specialist centres is something we should look at. There is a youth and services information services centre here in Dublin, but that is the only place one will find such a service in this country. Youth in every other part of this country have specialist information requirements. Why do we not have information centres dotted around the country? In the communications information centres we have a citizen based information service but it is starved of funds not just this year but over the last ten years.

We need to look at how we can use the explosion of information technology to improve the relationship between the citizen and the State. We have not done that here. We have not even begun to consider how modern information systems and modern communications systems can improve the relationship between citizen and administration. We are light years behind some of our continental neighbours, particularly the French.

There are other areas of changes in information which we should look at. For example, the Austrians have tried to change the way law is expressed so that law becomes comprehensible to the ordinary citizen without the need to go to senior counsel to get contradictory views. The Austrians have tried to express law in readable language. It does not seem like a revolutionary concept, but when one looks at some of the stuff we produce, it certainly is a revolutionary concept because what ordinary citizen can sit down and read their way through the Finance Act and fully understand it? What official in the Department of Finance can read their way from the beginning to the end of the Finance Act and understand it?

There are vast areas out there that we need to consider. This legislation proposes just one specific aspect. Under the heading of consultational and institutional measures a great deal has been achieved. We have taken some institutional measures here. The creation of an ombudsman was a very welcome institutional measure; the creation of an institution to handle data protection is a worthwhile measure; the creation of a Garda complaints mechanism is a worth-while measure, because all of these institutions help to redress the aftermath of citizen administration relationships.

In this context I would like particularly to welcome what the Minister for Social Welfare has been saying about his intentions to look at and to bring forward proposals to Government about taking the appeals system out and institutionalising it.

I wish to conclude by saying that I do not consider the proposal before us at all unreasonable. It is a worthwhile proposal. If nothing else it has given a number of people in this House the opportunity to come in here and ventilate views as to how they see the relationship between the citizen and the State. I wonder whether trying to put a privacy requirement such as this into law is the most workable way of achieving it. I do not know what the answer to that is but I think there is a query there.

The legislation before us deals with a small pinpoint on a whole tapestry of issues that need address. The debate we are having is a very worth-while one and I compliment the Deputy for introducing the measure. We should be considering where we will go from here. A committee that would audit the way the citizen is dealt with by the State machine is at least as important as the committee that deals with public accounts or with State bodies or any of the other committees we set up from time to time. As I have said, I do not think the proposal is unreasonable. The Government have already indicated that they accept the general principle behind this proposal but I would just put a small question mark about the feasibility of putting this type of proposal into law.

I want to say a few words on the Public Offices (Privacy of Interviews) Bill, 1988. I have listened to a learned treatise from Deputy Roche who seems to be very well informed on public service reform. He obviously put his time in the public service to good use and he certainly brought some of the newer ideas with him into this House. He covered an extraordinarily wide area, contrary to what Deputy Mitchell had in mind when he introduced this Bill. It seems the main purpose of the Bill was to deal with some of the problems that arise for the least well off people who attend the Departments mentioned in the first section, such as the Department of Social Welfare, the Department of Health, the health boards, the local authorities, the Department of Labour and so on. What most people do not seem to realise is that there are quite a number of people who need assistance and who are illiterate. I have been very surprised to find that in my town there is a substantial number of people who are not able to read or write. Most of these people are now unemployed and need assistance and they have to discuss very private matters openly in public offices. I commend Deputy Mitchell for bringing in this Bill which proposes to reform, in a minute way, an area that has caused great degradation and great depression.

I am not saying that the officers administering these Departments have not made sacrifices. Deputy Leyden, the Minister of State, who denied there was any problem in the Department of Health, should communicate with the health boards. I can give an instance in my constituency where the community welfare officer, out of the goodness of her heart, interviews applicants for medical cards and other aids to which people are entitled, in her motor car and this has taken place for a number of years. That is the most private place she could find. That community welfare officer has been very generous in helping the community and this has been acknowledged. However, she has been transferred and the people in this parish now have to travel seven or eight miles further for their interviews for medical cards and other basic requirements. The introduction of this legislation will have the effect of forcing health boards into a reexamination of the facilities they are making available to the public for private interviews such as I have outlined.

Local authorities and county councils do not have enough private facilities either. Many people are interviewed in their homes, some of which are not in the best of condition and leave a lot to be desired. In the compilation of medical reports, health board officers interview people in their houses but a lot of the private information that is required should be teased out in the county council or the local authority offices. I am sure one office in each county council area could be set aside in order to comply with the requirements of this Bill.

The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food is aware that many public interviews take place with regard to agriculture. There has been an outbreak of bovine disease in some of the western counties, particularly in my own constituency and many problems in this regard are discussed at an open counter where everyone can hear everyone else's business. This leads to irate farmers visiting public representatives. Some of them have come to me, and I am sure to my colleagues, complaining about public office facilities. The office in Ennis which deals with this matter is a modern building and there would not be much structural change needed in order to provide the necessary privacy. Perhaps the Office of Public Works should be consulted about these buildings, many of which are prefab buildings to which the necessary changes could be made without much difficulty.

Small farmers in particular make application for farmers' dole and social welfare officers are reluctant to interview these farmers and their families in their own kitchens. A neighbour may be visiting the house when an officer arrives and the interview has to be conducted at the kitchen fire in his presence. Many problems arise such as misinformation being given with the result that the officer disallows the application. Many people suffer unnecessarily due to the lack of private facilities. The Department of Social Welfare should reconsider the position regarding interviewing people for social assistance. There is a central point in key locations in my constituency for dealing with these matters and perhaps the officers might reconsider the position. Many people have complained about the lack of privacy in this area and wonder if something can be done about it.

Some of the application forms sent out by the Departments can be very difficult to understand. Many interviews with parents of school-going children take place in the home and there is a great reluctance on the part of a parent to admit that he or she is illiterate. This causes enormous embarrassment. In order to relieve the tension that arises, this small reform is necessary. On the other hand in the banks they had big cages on their counters and when one wanted to do business one had to stretch in one's neck and conduct business in that way across the counter. A lot of problems arose and it was very uncomfortable. The banks came to terms with that by opening up their counters. When one visits their premises nowadays one finds them refreshing open places. They have not inherited the kind of Elizabethan style from earlier times. The allocation of more space to accommodate customers is what makes the bank's system so successful in the transition. Of course it would cost more money, perhaps too much, to provide extensive areas in public offices to accommodate citizens. However, small improvements such as the provision of one room in county council offices for interviews should be considered. At the moment interview take place at an open counter behind which a lot of people are queueing, especially in the housing offices. The county councils should have one adaptable room to meet interview requirements.

I commend Deputy Mitchell for introducing this Bill. I do not have anything like the reticence of Deputy Leyden, Minister of State at the Department of Health, in relation to it. The Minister should look at the Department of Health and the health boards and ask them for their views on this Bill and whether they can do something to help the unfortunates who are suffering at present.

It is strange to be discussing this Bill while Deputies in the House have great difficulty in conducting private or personal business in any kind of privacy. It has been very obvious to me since my election to the House in February 1987 that there is no place where a Deputy can meet a constituent in privacy. When constituents come to meet me I have to bring them either to the bar or to my office which I share with a colleague and two secretaries so those places are not private. I know that prior to the renovations in the Seanad, interview rooms were available in the House. I hope they will be restored to Deputies and Senators. It is ironic that we are discussing something like this while we public representatives have very limited access to private rooms in which to meet constituents. Perhaps it is that lack which is reflected throughout the public service. The least we can expect, particularly now that more space is becoming available is that there should be a complete set of rooms where Deputies can discuss business with their constituents in a private and confidential manner. It is slightly hypocritical to pass Bills and impose strictures on public servants in relation to how they conduct their business while the situation remains as it is in the House.

I agree with the principle of the Bill and would be surprised if anybody in the House could not subscribe to its general principle. Every citizen who wants to conduct business privately with State Departments should have the right to privacy and to confidentiality. I realise that certain aspects of business between citizens and State Departments are not necessarily private and confidential and that people would not insist on having private interview rooms for those aspects, but no matter what the business is some semblance of privacy should be extended to all our citizens.

The areas most often mentioned during the course of this debate relate to the Revenue Commissioners and Social Welfare which are very sensitive areas. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the view that everything should be done as quickly as possible to ensure complete privacy and confidentiality between the State and the citizen in their dealings with these areas. No one here would conduct business with a bank manager, an insurance broker or a doctor in public although in many cases the type of business being conducted is quite similar to the type of business being conducted by a citizen with the Department of Social Welfare or the Revenue Commissioners. I do not know why the attitude of the public service or of State Departments should be so different from the attitude in the private sector. The attitude seems to be that anything will do for the general public when dealing with the State sector. In earlier years one got the impression that the State did not want to be bothered with people asking about social welfare entitlements, tax affairs and so on.

Earlier in the debate the lack of privacy was defined in two ways in that either one could be actually overheard or could be observed doing business. In many State Departments, especially Social Welfare and Revenue, but also in local authorities it would be unusual for a person not to be overheard or seen conducting his business. I know how the system operates in Meath County Council. I am not being critical in any way of the staff of the county council or the staff of the other public bodies because they have to work within the constraints that exist. They have a very fine staff in Meath County Council, who are understanding and sympathetic to the clients, but sections where the most sensitive of business has to be transacted such as rates, revenue or rent are housed in offices that are completely and totally inadequate. It would take a great deal of money to refurbish them on the lines suggested in the Bill; nevertheless, I think that this should be done.

The local authorities, in particular, would find this very difficult and my reservations about the Bill are that this will cost a great deal of money and that the public offices have to carry out the refurbishment within a limited time span. Deputy Mitchell suggested that public bodies would get one year in which to bring their office accommodation up to the required standard, but I do not think that would be adequate. While I agree with the principle, I think that that is something that we could argue about and change on Committee Stage, if the Bill gets that far.

All Members of the House would recognise that progress has been made in improving the accommodation at employment exchanges. Much work has been completed over the past number of years but I know as a rural Deputy that a great deal more progress needs to be made. I mentioned earlier that people can be observed. I think it is totally unacceptable that people who have to queue for unemployment assistance or benefit may be seen not only when conducting their business at the exchange but can be observed standing outside the employment exchange in many of our towns. Again I know this arises in my own county and in many other counties around the country. People have to queue outside the employment exchange, come rain hail or shine, until they get in to sign on. I think it is bad enough for a person to be unemployed and having to sign on but it is an added insult that they have to stand out in the rain where everybody who is passing can see them. If the Bill did nothing else but brought a halt to that practice, I think it would be well justified.

All Deputies have referred to the tax offices and they best exemplify the lack of privacy, the danger of being overheard and the visual observation. I do not think I need to describe the system again as it has been described already by many Deputies. Everybody knows how the hatch system operates and how you have to go to a particular hatch number. I am very pleased that the Revenue Commissioners have at last published a charter of rights and I am even more pleased that they have given two key commitments, first, people will get courtesy and consideration; second, they will be entitled to privacy and confidentiality.

I am a member of the Committee of Public Accounts and we have had several meetings with the Revenue Commissioners and, in particular, with the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners, and I had advocated changes in the system that they operate. I am pleased that the charter of rights has been initiated and published but I wonder how they will put it into effect in those two key areas, courtesy and consideration. If there are 30 people standing in line with you and 30 more people behind you, how can the person at the hatch deal with you in privacy?

I do not think that that is consideration, and as for privacy and confidentiality, there is no way you can say you have either in those circumstances. I hope that this charter of rights will be more than a written document advertised in newspapers and so on and that it will become a real experience. I suggest that, rather than passing legislation, this might be the way forward and that, instead of producing rules and laws — and I will deal with this point later — we change the attitude prevalent in many Government Departments. That might be more advantageous to the general public who have to use State facilities.

When we discuss confidentiality in public offices, most people cite positive examples in the private sector, but I wonder exactly how confidential is the business we transact with our banks. I understand that in the computerised systems it is possible for any staff member to get information on any person, no matter at which branch they hold their account. If that is true, I do not think we should make great play of the fact that we have confidentiality when transacting private business. If the allegation that any member of the bank staff can read my bank account is sustainable — and they would not have a whole lot to read — so much for confidentiality. We should bear this in mind when discussing privacy at Government offices.

There are some situations, for example, social welfare, where you have to go in person to sign on but in other offices such as the tax office, there is no reason why people have to go there. Confusion arises because people do not understand the system as it operates nor the forms they have to fill in or do not know exactly what they have to do to obtain their rights. Deputy Roche said earlier that this is an area where reforms could be undertaken in the public service. If things were made more simple for the ordinary citizen and public departments responded more quickly and sympathetically at the initial stage, I think there would be much less need for people to call in person to offices and fewer problems in the area of privacy and confidentiality.

I have already mentioned that I am worried about the timespan and the cost that would arise. I am also worried, and this was referred to already, about the power that would be given to the Minister to extend the legislation to cover the private area. In this context, reference was made to the banks, and in the course of his presentation Deputy Mitchell referred to the credit unions. I question the wisdom of including this provision. It would be an unwarranted intrusion. In the case of a credit union, if it did not provide a reasonable degree of privacy and confidentiality, its clients would go elsewhere.

Debate adjourned.