Thank you, Chairman. I thank the committee for inviting me to the meeting. In advance of the meeting, the clerk to the committee sent my Department a very informative and useful note setting out the background to our discussion from the committee's perspective and identifying the areas that the committee has considered as potentially relevant to its proposed future role in view of the changed circumstances in the wake of the referendum result.
At the outset it is important to make clear that it is, of course, the responsibility of the committee to agree its proposed orders of reference for approval by the Houses of the Oireachtas. I am happy to assist the committee in doing so, particularly in light of my assessment of the nature and priority of the agenda potentially falling within the purview of this committee. I will take the opportunity in a few moments to discuss in turn each of the three important areas identified in the clerk's note: formal structured engagement with the Ombudsman; parliamentary petitions; and oversight of public service delivery. Before doing so, I will make some general remarks on the potential importance and considerable value of the role and responsibilities envisaged by the committee.
As committee members will know, two of the three functions I just mentioned - overseeing and managing a parliamentary petition system and acting as the formal channel of consultation and collaboration between the Oireachtas and the Ombudsman - were specifically included in the programme for Government and formed the basis for the objective in the programme that the proposed new committee would have a very central and significant role. On the last occasion I met the committee I briefed members on the role envisaged for it under the proposed new system to allow the Oireachtas undertake full inquiries. Obviously, the outcome of the referendum creates a need to reassess the committee's role as proposed in the Bill I published. It was clear that the role envisaged for the committee, while pivotal to the effective operation of the inquiry system, would have been very onerous, time consuming and resource intensive. I am confident that the committee would have been equal to the challenge but the opportunity now, unfortunately, is to develop other elements of its mandate.
It is also important to point out, as the committee highlighted when we last had discussions, that in light of the crucial gateway and oversight role of the committeevis-à-vis Oireachtas inquiries it was not intended or permitted that the committee itself would hold inquiries. While the committee has lost the role envisaged for it under the proposed legislation and the referendum, it has gained the opportunity to take stock of how best it can meet the original objectives identified for it in the programme for Government.
Looking to the future, while there are myriad reasons the electorate did not support the referendum to provide full inquiry powers to the Oireachtas, clearly a basic lack of trust in the political system was a significant factor. I take some responsibility for the presentation of that and we need to take stock of how we deal with a number of constitutional amendments we propose to hold in the immediate future.
There are serious risks facing our political system if the business of politics continues to be viewed with scepticism. All public representatives of all political persuasions need to seriously reflect on the underlying reasons for this diminished trust and, as importantly, what can be done to restore it.
In overall terms, therefore, this committee with its cross-sectoral remit and focus on where, for whatever reason, the administrative system has been found wanting by the citizenry, potentially has an innovative role to play in this regard in countering and working to overturn this scepticism by providing an important and powerful oversight function to enhance the accountability of public administration in Ireland.
As I have already mentioned, it is clear from the programme for Government it was intended that the committee would play a critical role in developing a structured relationship between the Oireachtas and the Ombudsman akin to the long established relationship between the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts. Since the Ombudsman is a constitutional role it is useful to have a direct conduit for its work to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The absence of such a formal relationship in the past had been identified as a weakness or deficit in the structure of the Ombudsman system.
It was envisaged that the committee would be the formal channel of consultation and collaboration between the Oireachtas and the Ombudsman, responsible for receiving and debating its annual and special reports and for ensuring that office's criticisms, commentary and recommendations are acted upon. Often in the past that was not the case. For that purpose, it was envisaged the Ombudsman would attend as a regular witness before the committee.
As the relationship develops, the committee may, as indicated in the note supplied by the clerk, wish to pursue cases from the annual report which cast light on particular trends in public administration or cases worthy of special note with a view to making recommendations to the Oireachtas for possible legislative or policy change. I strongly endorse these proposals as a central element of the committee's responsibilities. If the committee opens this up it will not want it to develop into a super clinic for the people. It will have to confine itself to significant policy areas that require legislative or significant policy change. That is something it will have to work out.
The intention to review, update and appropriately modernise the Ombudsman Act, which will fall to me, will clearly also provide an opportunity for the committee to see how the relationship between the Ombudsman and it, and indeed with the Oireachtas generally, can be improved in light of the experience gained from its interaction with the Office of the Ombudsman. I hope the Chairman would take on that role and help inform and advise the development of the legislation in order that it is not produced solely by the Executive. I would be happy to provide the committee with heads of a Bill which we could tease out. The committee could decide how best to structure the role of the Ombudsman, linked to the Oireachtas, in a better way.
The programme for Government also saw this committee as being the focal point for a new and innovative system of public interaction whereby issues of concern to the public could be highlighted and ultimately accountability enhanced. I understand the intention is that the committee would receive parliamentary petitions from individuals and groups in the community seeking the redress of grievances connected with the public services of the State and with public administration generally. I certainly see this as yet another important role for the committee and one which would be built upon and developed over time as knowledge is gained of citizens' experiences with the system, especially with systems of redress and remedy when things go wrong.
I have reviewed with interest the committee's report of its study visit to the Scottish Parliament to examine its model. The detailed design of the proposed petition system will need careful examination by the committee. It has already given consideration to these issues through its study visit to Scotland, its examination of the European Parliament's petitions system and its meeting with the Ombudsman. The European petition system minded us to have some replication of it here.
Clearly, it will be the case that in practice, at least initially, many of the petitions may not have exhausted normal administrative process and the committee needs to ensure that happens before it becomes directly involved. People must go through the normal appeals mechanisms rather than jump directly onto the floor of the Oireachtas. Those that have exhausted those avenues will, of course, need to be examined to assess whether they highlight any substantive issue for the committee.
The committee will, I am sure, based on the pre-existing knowledge and expertise of its members and its own collective endeavours, put in place an effective system through a network of relationships with various public bodies to process the cases brought to its attention. It would reach out to various public bodies that might attract a degree of public annoyance or focus in terms of a lack of efficiency in order that they can be accountable here.
The most important role of the committee will be in regard to those petitions that might highlight an important gap in the existing administrative appeal redress and review mechanisms or the possibility of new systems for best practice. The identification of such issues is an important first step. Examining and making recommendations on how those issues should be addressed is where the committee, I expect, will make its mark.
I note with interest the proposal contained in the note received from the committee relating the oversight of public service delivery. Clearly, any issue of duplication or overlap with the work of other committees in regard to oversight of the public service reform plan would need to be considered in principle. It is worthwhile for the committee to continue to examine and to further elaborate this possible aspect of its work.
In view of the particular focus in the public service reform plan on placing customer service, or citizen service, at the core of everything we do, there may well be a valuable role for the committee relating to citizens' interaction with the public service generally, especially when things go wrong and the systems for redress or appeal appear not to be working as expected. The committee may wish to consider how, in view of its other responsibilities, it can develop an important oversight role to help assess the impact and effectiveness of redress mechanisms and, where necessary, propose recommendations for change.
The interaction and combination of the insights and experience gained by the committee from the close liaison and formal structured interaction with the Ombudsman and the operation of a working petition system to provide an appropriate and effective means to citizens to highlight their experiences of maladministration or ineffective administration would prove invaluable. In turn, it would ensure that appeals redress and reviews are effective in the future.
The vision I have always set out for the reform agenda has been to address the existing deficiencies which see the citizen alienated from what he or she perceives to be an unresponsive system. We need to build a more efficient public service, manifestly fit for purpose and which will deliver the essential services we all need in the most integrated, transparent, accountable and cost effective manner possible. This, allied to an ambitious programme of constitutional and political institutional reform to deliver a fundamental change in democratic and public governance, is essential to help rebuild public confidence in politics and the institutions of the State.
I welcome the work that has been done to date and wish the committee every success in the important work it is now finalising and it brings together its orders of reference and so on. The committee has set out three bodies of work, the last of which is overviewing the reform agenda. It is important that we tease that out in order to ensure there is no overlap with the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and the Committee of Public Accounts. It might be useful at a future date, perhaps early in the new year, if the committee were to invite the programme director of the new reform and delivery office of my Department, Mr. Paul Reid, to make a presentation on the reform agenda and the plan for public service reform. Such an engagement would assist the committee in defining its role in this area.
Based on the material contained in the latest committee report and the material forwarded to me in advance of this meeting, there is clearly a rich seam of important work available to the committee. As such, it can make a key contribution to assisting the Government in the implementation of its ambitious reform programme, which has as its ultimate aim the restoration of trust and confidence in Government and governance and in the organs of the State, and the creation of a more efficient public service which is manifestly fit for purpose and which will deliver the essential services all citizens require.
Something that came to mind on my way to the meeting is the constitutional convention that will take place next year. Exactly how that is to develop is not yet finalised between my Department, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. We are currently engaged in preparatory work in that regard. Again, I might usefully come back to the committee to discuss this matter before we settle on a proposal. The committee's primary role, as I see it, is to facilitate a re-engagement between the public and the Oireachtas, public administration and the public service. In regard to the constitutional convention, there is the question of how to engage effectively with the citizenry so that, for example, the difficulties which arose in respect of the last constitutional referendum do not recur. There may be a role for the committee in that. I will come back to the Chairman on the issue.
I thank the committee for allowing me the opportunity to make this presentation, which I hope has been of assistance to it. I wish members a well-deserved rest in the coming weeks. This time last year we were preparing for an election following utterances by members of one of the parties in government at the time. It has been an extraordinarily eventful year. I wish members a restful Christmas break before we return to our ambitious programme of work in the new year.