I welcome the opportunity to discuss the annual report and the report entitled, Learning to Get Better. Given the constraints on the committee's time, and I appreciate the difficulties it is labouring under, I will keep my presentation brief to allow maximum time for questions.
It was a very busy year, as the committee will see. Much of the growth we experienced in the number of complaints was probably attributable to the number of new bodies that came into our jurisdiction. It was a very smooth transition in bringing new bodies into our jurisdiction. Some of the themes I have previously spoken to the committee about came to pass during the year. The casebook celebrated its first anniversary. Introducing the casebook was one of the commitments I gave when I first came here and I hope the committee finds it useful in its work.
The increase in the year was 11%, which was one of the biggest annual increases we have seen. It posed some challenges for us in terms of dealing with the volume of complaints but in general, we are dealing well with the volumes that reach us, although we did have some difficulties with performance occasioned by some experienced members of staff retiring at the same time, which caused us certain challenges. Members will see the details of where the complaints were, against who they were made and the outcomes were included in my remarks. I will not go through them in detail here. They are also included in the annual report.
As part of our work, we see difficulties with particular agencies that are systemic. I have mentioned a few of them in my remarks. Tusla is one particular example. We continue to have difficulties with the way particular cases are handled where adults are accused of child sex abuse. While I would not for a moment want to do anything that would undermine the measures put in place to protect the safety of children, it is very important that people facing such serious allegations are also treated fairly and expeditiously and this has not always been the case. We had a number of constructive meetings with Tusla to try to address these matters. We have made some progress but it is fair to say that there is still work to be done.
The committee recently took evidence from the Secretary General of the Department of Health about the mobility allowance and motorised transport grant schemes. The committee was reassured that progress is being made. I accept that this is the case. I think we would all take the view that it would be much better if the matter had been concluded by now. I can only hope that the committee's intervention will lead to an early satisfactory conclusion to that matter. I continue to hold it under review.
One of the issues I previously spoke to the committee about is the fact that my remit did not extend to private nursing homes. I am very pleased that this has now been changed. We ran a series of seminars around the country for the proprietors of homes. One of the other themes I have talked to the committee about is standardised complaint handling. As part of taking the private nursing homes into our remit, we published our first model complaints policy and this is being adopted by the private nursing homes in dealing with complaints. This will mean that not only can people come to my office where previously they had no access to independent redress, they can also have some assurance as to the process they can expect the private home to follow when they first deal with the complaint. It is a substantial piece of work. It will be some time before we see the impact in terms of volumes of complaints but we are very pleased that this has come about.
Equally, I attended the launch by the committee of its report into issues around direct provision. My predecessors and I have strongly made the case that people in direct provision and people using the immigration system generally should have the same access to the Ombudsman as people using any other public service. We are pleased that the committee and the judicial inquiry concluded that this should be the case. We are looking to have a dialogue with the Department of Justice and Equality to progress that but I would welcome the committee's continuing support. It still seems that there are groups of people, such as prisoners, who are not in its jurisdiction who should have access to the services of the Office of the Ombudsman.
The cases the committee sees before it speak for themselves. I will not go through them in detail to allow members time to get around to questions. In respect of Learning to Get Better, I want to highlight the fact that this is the first "own initiative" investigation to be undertaken by the Office of the Ombudsman in Ireland. The power has existed for some time but it has not been exercised. In exercising the power, I have been looking to those individuals who may have difficulty for one reason or another in bringing complaints to my office. The kind of groups we are looking to for future initiatives could be homeless people or people with intellectual disabilities - people who for one reason or another are less likely to be able to complain. That seems to me to be the most appropriate exercise of the power.
The report looked at why we were getting low volumes of complaints about health care, which has been a concern of mine because I did not believe that this reflected high standards within the health service. I believed there were factors operating that were discouraging people from complaining to my office. The report identified a number of them, not least the fact that people were afraid to complain because they feared negative repercussions for themselves or their loved ones if they did so. Unfortunately, we did get some examples.
This has been a particularly innovative report. It sparked a lot of interest from other ombudsmen's offices internationally because we used a set of techniques that are not normally used by ombudsmen. We invited members of the public to come forward to the office and say what their experience of complaining had been like or if they had not complained, the reason they had chosen not to do so. We held focus groups. We went into a selection of hospitals and looked at complaint files to see how they had been handled. We did things like review websites to see how easy it was to find out how to complain - not very easy was the initial conclusion. We found that signposting to my office was not happening as it should be. We have addressed all of those. The other thing that was innovative about it was that we did work with the HSE. We shared the draft recommendations of the report so that it could agree to implement them at the point it was launched. It has agreed to do so. However, we have met with it and requested a series of action plans. We have said that we will want updates on the implementation of those action plans and that at a suitable period, perhaps a year after the action plans have been received, we will repeat the investigation on a smaller scale to make sure that the reassurance we have received is reflected in practice on the ground.
I will stop at this point. I know it is a whistle-stop tour but in fairness to the members, keeping it brief is probably preferable.