Like others, I wish the outgoing Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, the best of luck in her new role in Europe. She has been an exemplary ombudsman, a fearless champion of people's rights who was genuinely and passionately concerned with vindicating the rights of ordinary citizens, even when dealing with controversial and difficult issues and up against the obstacle of the State and bureaucracy which were not always amenable to criticism and questioning. She pursued issues in a commendable and impressive way.
The work she did on the issue of the motorised transport grant and the mobility allowance was extraordinarily important in itself, but also in terms of its wider implications in highlighting a challenge for this or any Government. She highlighted the fact the State was breaking its own laws on equality, particularly for the infirm, the elderly and the disabled, because it believed it could not afford to vindicate those rights. That issue is still not resolved and when the Minister for Health came before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service, Oversight and Petitions, he put up his hands and said the Department could not afford to give people their rights. This is extraordinary, particularly when we are talking about some of the most vulnerable people in society.
It is to Emily O'Reilly's great credit that she brought this issue to the fore. She had to do so against a HSE that did not want to know and that ignored her. The Government also ignored her, but she persisted and eventually forced the issue into the public domain. It remains a challenge for the Government to resolve the issue in a fair way. We were all shocked when the response to this anomaly was to abolish the scheme. The Government has said that the beneficiaries of the scheme will not suffer, but it has made it clear that it cannot afford to provide for the other people whom they fear may become beneficiaries. I agree with Emily O'Reilly, who was forthright on this, that rights are rights. If they are rights, the State must vindicate them and must find the resources to do so. Ms O'Reilly raised an important specific issue, but she also raised a serious challenge for this and any Government. We cannot talk about rights and then not provide the resources to vindicate those rights.
Emily O'Reilly was also forthright when talking about issues on which we need to direct a spotlight and areas that have been excluded from the remit of the Ombudsman, such as prisons and the asylum process. The situation with regard to the asylum process and the direct provision system is shocking. It is urgent that any Government that claims to be interested in the rights of citizens, equality and fair treatment for people resident in the State should deal with the unacceptable situation that pertains in the direct provision system. People, including families and children, are effectively non-people in this system. They have no rights and no proper recourse to justice. They are certainly not on an equal footing with residents of the State.
Children live in appalling hostel conditions year after year. They spend their childhoods in these places - reminiscent of a 21st century version of the Magdalen laundries and the residential institutions where terrible things were done to less well off women and young people. I believe we are allowing a system to persist in which we will discover the same sort of abuses and injustices are taking place. There is considerable evidence that this is the case. Emily O'Reilly was forthright in saying these areas should be subject to full scrutiny and should not be excluded from the remit of the Ombudsman.
The Minister has commended the work of the former Ombudsman, but is the Government going to take seriously her appeal that direct provision and the asylum process be examined and that there be full transparency and openness in this regard? I believe the direct provision system should be abolished, but those in the asylum process should have rights and justice afforded to them as it is afforded to any other human being. Human rights are rights that are without borders and it is important that the Government vindicate these rights. I hope Mr. Tyndall will follow up on those areas highlighted by Emily O'Reilly.
I wish Mr. Tyndall the best of luck. I am a member of the committee he attended, but I could not make the meeting. I am also a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and, unfortunately, sometimes our meetings clash. His attendance was positive. However, the Minister is aware that questions have been raised about the process. Mr. Tyndall is on record as saying that for appointments such as these, selection, interview and appointment, as happens in Wales where he was Ombudsman, should be dealt with by the Parliament and not simply by the Executive.
It appears the Minister has made a very good choice, and anything I say which is critical or questioning is not in any sense to question the obviously very impressive credentials of Mr. Tyndall or, in this case, probably the Minister's choice, as being a good one. It is still nonetheless important to question the processes because whether things work out well or favourable from the point of view of the public and the public interest cannot be left to the whim of individuals. We need a process which is transparent and open with the widest public oversight of important appointments and decisions. There is a problem in terms of how these appointments happen and it should not be just left to the Minister to present us with his nomination. I do not know who are the other people who expressed interest when the Minister advertised the post, but I am sure there were other good, qualified people. There are serious and fair questions to ask about the nomination and appointment process and these are points Mr. Tyndall himself has raised publicly in the past.
Mr. Tyndall's credentials seem very impressive. He is obviously somebody who is respected by his peers. His range of experience seems very impressive in a diversity of areas in public service, from the arts to the position of Ombudsman itself and also in areas such as social care and housing, which is tremendously important given what other speakers have stated, that the biggest areas of complaints are in social protection and local authorities, and we might say many of the complaints, probably the majority, emanating from local authorities are in the area of housing, which is a real problem which I and others have raised many times. There are real problems about the provision of housing and the right to housing, and also issues to do with tenants' rights, which I raised with Emily O'Reilly and which I hope Mr. Tyndall will examine.
An area I would like to mention, if Mr. Tyndall is listening, is how we deal with antisocial behaviour and the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. Antisocial behaviour is a very serious problem, and we must have a system to deal with it which protects the rights of all residents in local authority housing. An antisocial behaviour officer in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown admitted to me, with regard to a particular case in which I was helping to represent somebody, that he had been given what he described as draconian powers. Many people have examined these powers and lawyers believe they breach the European Convention on Human Rights because antisocial behaviour officers can simply designate, without proper due process, somebody as being antisocial where there is very little recourse for them. Often this may be absolutely fair, reasonable, just and in the best interests of estate management and other tenants, but in other cases there is real potential for an abuse and infringement of people's rights to due process and natural justice and to the right to housing itself. The area must be seriously examined so we vindicate the rights of tenants and human beings generally in the face of State bodies and local authorities.
Ms Emily O'Reilly was positive, as we all were at the committee when it was discussed, about the extension of the remit of the Ombudsman to up to 300 areas, and this is certainly a very positive development. In the area of freedom of information, which is connected, it is a real problem that there are certain exclusions, particularly with regard to semi-State bodies under the general heading of commercial sensitivities. Semi-State bodies are very important: people interact with them at many levels economically and they are big employers. They have many types of impacts on our society and it is deeply problematic that something which is fully publicly owned is at one remove from proper oversight and from where the public can get proper information from bodies such as harbour boards, Coillte and Irish Water in future. To my mind this is a problem and I do not accept the rather catch-all and vague term "commercial sensitivity" should insulate these very important public bodies from proper scrutiny and oversight and being subject to freedom of information legislation.
I wish Mr. Tyndall well in what is a very important role. Emily O'Reilly stated the office had managed to maintain with difficulty its service despite the cuts in its budget. I hope the Ombudsman's office will get the support it needs to discharge its role and support citizens dealing with problems in navigating the difficulties they may have with State agencies and public bodies.