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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 29 Nov 1984

Vol. 106 No. 4

Ombudsman Act (First Schedule) (Amendment) Order, 1984: Motion (Resumed).

Debate resumed on the following motion:
That Seanad Éireann approves the following Order in draft:—
Ombudsman Act (First Schedule) (Amendment) Order, 1984
a copy of which Order in draft was laid before the House on 23 November, 1984.
—(Senator Dooge).

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

May I remind Senators that this motion is being discussed with item No. 4?

I would like to thank the Seanad for the warm welcome which they gave to the order before the House in relation to the extension of the Ombudsman's remit. Senator Hillery, in particular, inquired about the proposed additional staffing that might be necessary for the office of the Ombudsman in connection with the extension of his remit to the four areas: local authorities, health boards, An Post and An Bord Telecom. It is intended that there would be an additional three senior investigators and 12 investigator staff together with back-up clerical staff appointed for each of the areas; broadly speaking, one senior investigator and four investigators for each of the areas of the local authorities, the health boards and telecommunications. When one bears in mind that the present staff comprises one senior investigator and four investigators in relation to the Civil Service, I think the Seanad will agree that the staff provision should be more than adequate to meet the demands being placed upon the office through the extension of the remit.

Senator Hillery also raised a matter which was adverted to during the passage of legislation here some weeks ago as to whether questions of personnel matters involving civil servants ought to be subject to investigation by the Ombudsman. This area is specifically excluded at present. Whilst the case has been made to me on a number of occasions about the possibility of the Ombudsman investigating this area, I remain still to be convinced of the necessity for it. At the time the legislation was going through the then Minister of State did not favour this idea. I should mention that in the last year there has been a very detailed procedure agreed with the staff interests regarding the steps that are to be taken when a civil servant finds himself or herself in dispute on a particular matter with their employer. That is a very detailed procedure and leaves open to the individual recourse to quite a series of steps.

The other potential objection to the concept of the Ombudsman investigating areas such as this is that the Ombudsman might well become a personnel grievance officer in so far as civil servants are concerned and that might not be the best image for the Ombudsman to have. However, I still have a relatively open mind on this issue. And if in the future it appears there is gain to be had in extending the Ombudsman's remit into this particular area, then certainly I would be prepared to consider it.

I agree with Senator Ferris regarding the emphasis which he placed on the need for courtesy to be shown by public bodies and their staffs towards their customer who, is, in effect, the general public. The difficulty is that very often with a bureaucracy when a service is being delivered the emphasis is placed upon efficient delivery of the service. I am not always sure, because so many of the public sector bodies are operating in a monopoly situation, whether the treatment of the general public and the courtesy extended to them and the amount of information given to them is commensurate with the way in which a private sector body operating in a free market and trading against competitors would always operate. I would hope that the extension of the Ombudsman's remit to the areas concerned would also serve to help to remind staff employed in public bodies of the overriding need not only to carry out their duties to the public efficiently but to ensure that when they come in contact with the public, whether personally at public counters or through telephone conversations or in correspondence, the extension of courtesy and the imparting of information should be one of the overriding factors in their attitudes towards the general public.

I would hope that the level of complaints which have been experienced by a number of the Members of the House in relation to the general attitude shown to the individual subscriber, for instance, in the case of the telephone service, may be an area that would be given particular additional attention by the authorities operating that service and that that aspect will be one which will also receive the attention of the Ombudsman.

There seems to be a belief that the majority of the complaints which the Ombudsman may have to deal with in relation to An Bord Telecom will have to do with the question of subscriber accounts. There are very many other areas where public representatives regularly receive complaints from the public both in relation to the length of delay on the part of potential subscribers in having telephones provided for them and the lack of real information given to them as to when they might realistically hope to have telephone service provided to them and indeed difficulties experienced by the general public in having service restored following breakdown.

While there has been considerable progress made in the telephone network in recent years through an enormous capital investment on the part of the customer, the general public, the taxpayer, that has not always been matched by a realistic imparting of information to persons awaiting service and to people who contact the service with a genuine complaint. Regrettably, as Senator Ferris mentioned, some public representatives on a committee of the House have experienced from time to time over the last year an attitude from An Bord Telecom which perhaps was adopted because of the great pressures upon them to catch up with service being required but which is not designed to improve the general image of the service in the minds of the public. I would like to urge all of those who are engaged in the public service in dealing with the general public to remember that the public is the customer and is the person who is paying the bill and in many instances not only paying the bill but paying the overall operational costs through their general taxation and that the customer is entitled to basic courtesy as well as efficiency. I hope there will be particular attention paid to that area.

The examples which the Senator gave in relation to the health area and the exclusions in connection with clinical judgment, of possible delays in the provision of community care services, are clearly examples which would be, under the proposed order, within the remit of the Ombudsman to attend to. The question of delay in the provision of service is clearly one which the Ombudsman within his remit is entitled to investigate and is quite exclusive from the clinical judgment which might be exercised when eventually the case comes to be examined. This question of clinical judgment has been exempted from the remit of Ombudsmen in, as far as I know, all of the countries where an Ombudsman operates. It is only right that that should be so. The other question of delays in the provision of medical services is clearly an administrative one and will be within the power of the Ombudsman to investigate.

Senator Killilea made a number of points which were more of general interest than relating specifically to the question of the extension of the Ombudsman's remit. Perhaps he did not really expect a detailed reply from me to them. He may have been making them more for the edification of the House or as points of general interest. I appreciate his experience as an office holder in the former Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Despite the remarks which he made regarding the operation of that Department, he did say that there was, during his time there, a rapid response to complaints made by members of the public. I am not sure that everybody would be in agreement that that was the situation. I can recall, particularly during that period and other periods, having to wait for as long as six, eight, nine months to receive a reply to legitimate representations made to that Department. Many of my constituents and, I know, the constituents of other public representatives, found themselves in a similar situation. It is galling for a potential subscriber who is looking for service to be without that service over a period of time and to find that he is unable to elicit accurate information as to when he might reasonably hope to get that service. It is particularly galling to people who are invited to pay their connection fee, which is now quite a sizeable amount of money and having paid that connection fee, to be still left for quite a length of time without service. One would hope that the improved methods of operation of Bord Telecom, together with the extension of the remit of the Ombudsman into this area, will help to bring about a greater dissemination of information to the subscriber and potential subscribers.

I can only say, in relation to the Senator's remarks, that it must be a great consolation to be able to announce categorically that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the administration of a large public body of which he happens to be a member. It is a very wide and proud claim and I am sure the Senator believes it absolutely. I have no reason to disagree with him except to say that in any large organisation, whether in the public or private sector, there will always be an element of customer dissatisfaction and whether that dissatisfaction is reasonable and legitimate or otherwise it is reasonable, if the organisation happens to be a State one, that the State should provide an apparatus such as the Ombudsman's office to which the person who has a perceived grievance can refer that grievance and where an impartial adjudicator such as the Ombudsman can then decide as to the legitimacy or otherwise of the grievance. As I said in my introductory remarks, the Ombudsman should act both on behalf of those who work within the bureaucracy and on behalf of the general public. I think when the Ombudsman's first report comes before the House it will be ascertained that his findings will have concluded that in many of the cases of complaint the bureaucracy acted both fairly and impartially and there were not real grounds for the complaint. It is as well that that should be so, so that there can be a yardstick whereby complaints that may be unfairly made against public bodies can be adjudicated on and where an impartial adjudicator such as the Ombudsman can come to a decision and make that clear.

I appreciate particularly the remarks of Senator McGonagle who, as the House knows, is a former Ombudsman in Northern Ireland. He made a number of points which were of great validity including the fact that the Ombudsman should neither do the job of the courts nor the job of the trade unions. In that respect I was reminded of the remarks of Senator Hillery regarding the question of personnel difficulties, complaints or grievances within the Civil Service. Senator McGonagle's remarks are worthy of attention by people who have a concern in this area and I would refer Senator Hillery to them. The office of Ombudsman is designed to act on complaints about malpractice or delay in administration on behalf of the general public. There are other organisations whose functions include that of ensuring the adequate representation of their individual members.

The Senator concluded by saying that this extension of the remit was essentially an extension of democracy. I am glad that was the note on which the debate concluded last evening, because I do believe that both the establishment of the office of Ombudsman and the progressive extension of his remit into further areas of the public service is an extention of democracy itself and is an important safeguard for the continuation of democracy. In that respect I welcome the remarks of the Senators who contributed yesterday and their welcome to the concept of the extension of the remit. I would hope that at some stage during 1985 the House will have the opportunity, and I am sure it will find it an interesting one, to consider the first annual report of the Ombudsman's office in relation to his activities during 1984. I look forward to having the further helpful contributions of Members of the Seanad on that occasion.

Question put and agreed to.