Appointment of Ombudsman and Information Commissioner: Motions.

I move the following motions:

That Dáil Éireann recommends Ms Emily O'Reilly for appointment by the President to be the Ombudsman.

That Dáil Éireann recommends Ms Emily O'Reilly for appointment by the President to be the Information Commissioner.

I am pleased to move these resolutions recommending Ms Emily O'Reilly for appointment by the President as the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner. This is an important appointment in the framework of our public administration and I hope the House will be able to support the resolutions, as it did when she was first appointed.

Ms O'Reilly was appointed to the Offices of the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner in June 2003 for a term of six years. I am pleased that she is willing to serve a second term, and to nominate her for re-appointment. I believe she is the right person to lead those offices in the challenging times that lie ahead of them and the public administration generally.

Ms O'Reilly is the third holder of the Office of the Ombudsman. Both her predecessors were reappointed and both contributed substantially to the development of the office during their tenure. The first Ombudsman, Mr. Michael Mills, a former political editor ofThe Irish Press, established and developed the Ombudsman’s central role of examining individual complaints against public bodies. During his term, and thanks largely to his efforts, the office achieved widespread respect and acceptance within the public administration. The second Ombudsman, Mr. Kevin Murphy, a former Secretary General of public service management and development at the Department of Finance, was also the first Information Commissioner under the Freedom of Information Act 1997, a role in which he contributed to a fundamental shift towards openness and transparency in administration. The second Ombudsman, Mr. Kevin Murphy, formerly Secretary General in charge of public service management and development, was also the first Information Commissioner under the Freedom of Information Act 1997, a role in which he contributed to a fundamental change towards openness and transparency in administration.

I should mention that the current Ombudsman has also seen her role enlarged. Since 2007 she holds the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information, providing an independent appeals system to cater for applicants whose requests for environmental information have not been dealt with to their satisfaction.

The Freedom of Information Act 1997 made a fundamental change in the relationship between the Administration and the citizen. Where previously most of the business of Departments was conducted in secrecy, today, under the Act, that business is open for inspection. Twelve years on, freedom of information is well embedded in our public administration. More than 140,000 requests have been made over that period to more than 500 public bodies.

The Information Commissioner and her distinguished predecessor have played a central role in establishing the freedom of information regime in Ireland. As one would expect, there has not always been agreement between the Administration and the commissioner about the interpretation of the Act, nor should one always expect there to be. Her office has won the respect of citizens and of public servants alike for a very important and independent role in helping to bring about the necessary culture change and she has been a strong and relentless advocate in articulating the importance of openness and transparency in Government.

While the fundamental role of the Ombudsman's office is to examine individual complaints against certain public bodies, the Ombudsman has often referred to the "added value" that her office brings to bear arising from the complaint examination process. By this she means the wider improvements in public administration which her office brings about by the unearthing of systemic issues which come to light through individual complaints. Where public bodies use the lessons learned from her findings their clients will not have similar cause for complaint, thus improving public administration.

Based on lessons learned from individual complaints over the years, the Ombudsman and her office have produced a series of guidelines for the public service which serve as templates to improve the quality of specific aspects of customer service. These include the Ombudsman's Principles of Good Administration; the Ombudsman's Standards of Best Practice for Public Servants; the Ombudsman's Guide to Internal Complaints Systems; and Redress — Getting it Wrong and Putting it Right.

A long awaited extension of the Ombudsman's jurisdiction is provided for in the Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill 2008, which is now awaiting Report Stage in this House. When the Bill is enacted, the Ombudsman will be empowered to investigate the administrative actions of vocational education committees, higher education institutions and a range of other bodies whose administrative actions have not previously been subject to investigation. The Bill also provides the Ombudsman with additional powers and updates various provisions in the Ombudsman Act 1980 in the light of the passage of time.

Ms O'Reilly in her second term of office will be required to oversee the most significant extension of the Ombudsman's remit in almost 25 years.

I offer the support of Fine Gael for the reappointment of Emily O'Reilly as Ombudsman. She is a native of Tullamore, County Offaly, which no doubt commends her to the Government. She has many other traits that also make her suitable for this post.

She has brought great effectiveness to this office, which is now 25 years old. In that time the office has done excellent work, handling more than 70,000 complaints. It has been an important service to those who are not otherwise protected. The Ombudsman's office singularly pioneered an issue which is before the House today, the inequity in the way people who had cover under the Health Acts were abandoned by the State when it came to nursing home care. The Ombudsman's office continually highlighted this unfairness in its reports. The ultimate end of that process is in the legislation before us today which, flawed as it may be, tries to address something the Ombudsman has been pursuing for more than a decade.

The issue of holding power to account is one about which our society must think long and hard. Today we are seeing the fall-out from the failure to hold to account power in the church and the appalling impact that has had on people's lives. We are also grappling with the failure to hold to account power within the financial services system, with the appalling results for our economy. We must look afresh at how effectively we in the Dáil hold power to account. That includes political power, which is poorly held to account compared to other more forensic and powerful parliamentary systems. The accountability of agencies that are doing the work we fund must be also more powerfully monitored. Monopolies, private and public, that have the protection of being exclusive in their role in particular sectors sometimes abuse that power.

In the wake of all these problems we should look afresh at the effectiveness of the Oireachtas at holding power to account and consider whether we should think about new avenues. The Ombudsman and the Freedom of Information Act are important protections and have had significant victories. We have a long way to go, however, to get a system where those elected by the people are in a position to shine a light into all corners of Irish life, ensuring those who are vulnerable are treated properly and that people are doing their work with due care and prudence, protecting all of our interests, including the interests of those who cannot express their concerns.

This is not the occasion for that debate but recent experiences underline the importance of Oireachtas Members taking this role more seriously and equipping our committees to deal with it more seriously. Hopefully that will be one result of the debates we will soon have on the protection of children, the protection of people against financial buccaneering and other debates that are necessary on holding power to account. It is to people like Emily O'Reilly we can look for advice on doing that.

I welcome the Minister's decision to reappoint Ms Emily O'Reilly as Ombudsman and Information Commissioner. I also thank the Taoiseach for his courtesy in contacting and consulting Deputy Eamon Gilmore, leader of the Labour Party, in respect of the appointment. Ms O'Reilly has performed her functions as Ombudsman well and has been well served by a diligent and dedicated staff.

The Ombudsman is often the point of last resort for individuals who have been aggrieved by systems of public administration. There has been massive development of public bodies in the past 20 years, with large numbers of middle and senior managers appointed. Many of those appointments and structures are not amenable to the more informal advising and provision of information that was the norm at one time. Having an Ombudsman who can take up issues of how public authorities deal with those who pay their wages is a vital form of recourse. It is valued by those who approach the office.

Sometimes it takes a long time. The issues must be thoroughly investigated and there can be constraints on resources. We have made proposals for the extension of the office to cover information being made available to taxpayers independent of the Revenue Commissioners where an issue has arisen related to a taxpayer's rights.

That brings me to another question. Over the years of her appointment, the Ombudsman, on a number of occasions, has written to the various committees and the House in a number of reports about her dissatisfaction with her powers and has recommended substantial increases in the powers under her various offices or the extension of the remit of her powers to additional bodies. I welcome the fact that when the legislation is completed, her powers will be extended to vocational educational bodies. However, it is very bad that her powers do not extend to the financial area. We have a system of financial regulation in this country involving the Financial Regulator, the Central Bank, the NTMA, the National Development Finance Agency and the National Pensions Reserve Fund, and all of them are pretty much exempt from the freedom of information legislation and the Information Commissioner.

The Freedom of Information Act was introduced by the Labour Party and implemented by Fianna Fáil after it came into office in 1997. It has probably been responsible for some of the most important cultural changes in this country. Today, we have all been talking about different tragic aspects of the Ryan report on the abuse of children in institutions by clergy and others. If recourse to freedom of information had been available to many of the individuals who suffered in those institutions, it would have made an enormous difference.

Tens of thousands of people, pensioners and ordinary people have invested relatively small to medium and large sums of money in our banks. They have no recourse to freedom of information and the best tribute the Minister could pay to the Ombudsman would be to extend her remit to those areas. While we are all praising her here, the highest form of praise from the Minister would be to extend her remit to those areas that have been requested and serve the public demand for freedom of information.

I welcome the opportunity to support this motion to reinstate Ms O'Reilly as Information Commissioner. I acknowledge the work Ms O'Reilly has done. It is a pity her views and recommendations have not been taken on board by the Government. In March 2007 the Information Commissioner published a list of suggestions aimed at improving the operation of the Freedom of Information Act. These included that fees for internal review of freedom of information decisions and appeals to her office be brought into line with other jurisdictions which do not charge or have only a nominal fee; that such fees be refunded in the event of a successful appeal of a public body's decision; that some of the amendments to the Freedom of Information Act in 2003 be removed, particularly those relating to Government records and the too-wide definition of Government; and that the Freedom of Information Act apply to all records of the Health and Safety Authority, the enforcement records of which were removed from the scope of the Act in 2005.

The Information Commissioner has also called for all new State bodies to come under FOI as soon as they are established. This is especially important for NAMA, which will place a major financial burden on taxpayers and where transparency is essential. None of these recommendations has been taken on board by the Government, although the Minister for Finance made positive soundings on NAMA and its remit under the Freedom of Information Act at this morning's finance committee meeting. The Government has continued to pursue a policy of making freedom of information requests costly and bureaucratic and this allows State bodies to get away with withholding information from the public, to which it should have access.

Recently, I made a freedom of information request to the National Treatment Purchase Fund, which has a budget of €100 million. I requested information on how much private hospitals are charging the NTPF for operations such as knee and hip replacements. The NTPF refused this information because it is "not in the public interest". It is saying it is not in the public interest that information on money being spent by a public body to the tune of €100 million per annum be given to the public. It is an obscene reply. If so-called State bodies can simply refuse to provide information, there is something wrong.

The Ombudsman's remit should be extended to cover the asylum and naturalisation process. Ms O'Reilly has repeatedly called for this power, which is held by every other Ombudsman in the EU. The Government never hesitates to use the excuse of bringing the State into line with the rest of the EU when it wishes to adopt repressive measures on immigration or other matters. The need for independent oversight of these processes was demonstrated again last week when a freedom of information request revealed that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform deliberately held back a number of citizenship approvals last summer so the applicants could be charged the higher fees which came into effect on 1 August.

Regular violations of fair procedure in the asylum process, such as the continued use ofwww.wikipedia.com as evidence against protective claims, despite stated Department policy to the contrary, show the need for the Ombudsman to be given the power to monitor these processes. Recently, Ms O’Reilly expressed frustration that her repeated request to have the remit of her office extended to cover the asylum and naturalisation process have been rejected by the Government. She has complained that she lacks the jurisdiction of her European counterparts in this area.

At the official launch in Dublin yesterday of the Women's Health Council Report entitled Translating Pain into Action: A Study of Gender-Based Violence and Minority Ethnic Women in Ireland, Ms O'Reilly said:

I have been asking for the remit to be extended in relation to asylum seekers and naturalisation issues. All my EU colleagues have that. I have consistently been told, "No," my remit will not be extended into that area. It is a source of frustration to me that this has not been acted upon.

She said she wanted to monitor the administration of the asylum and naturalisation process rather than become involved in the final decisions in individual cases. She also said: "An Ombudsman does not seek to overturn decisions, which are a matter for the appropriate authorities, including the courts, but to ensure the process has been followed correctly and fairly." Surely that is a very reasonable request. Ms O'Reilly said her proposal was supported by the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, who delivered a report on Ireland last year. Commissioner Hammarberg noted that the Ombudsman has actively sought an extension of her mandate "and is one of the few Ombudsman's office in Europe being restricted in these matters". I support the motion and welcome the reappointment.

I thank Deputies for their unanimous endorsement of Ms O'Reilly as Ombudsman. A number of points were made on the legislation and we will have an opportunity to address that when the amending legislation on the Ombudsman comes before the House in the next few months. Deputy Burton thanked the Taoiseach for his courtesy in consulting the party leaders before the appointment. I am glad when Deputy Burton thanks the Taoiseach for his courtesy, but because the legislation requires the appointment to be made by resolution of the House, the intention was that in all cases the Opposition should be consulted not as a matter of courtesy, but as a matter of right on an appointment as important to the constitutional administration of the country as this.

Ms O'Reilly was well known to all of us as one of the ablest journalists of her generation in this country. We all read her work widely and sometimes heeded it and sometimes did not. The same can be said of her work over the past six years as Ombudsman and Information Commissioner and, naturally, we have heeded her warnings in that role. I am pleased that the House is recommending her reappointment.

Questions put and agreed to.