It is indeed a privilege and personal pleasure for me, as Minister for the Public Service, to be able to address the House in relation to the annual report of the Ombudsman. The report, of course, is the first annual report produced by the Ombudsman and I welcome its publication. The provisions of the Ombudsman Act, 1980, gave the Ombudsman a very special reporting relationship with the Oireachtas. It means in effect that he reports only to the Oireachtas and that he is totally independent of all other agencies in the exercise of his functions. It is appropriate, therefore, that the Members of the Oireachtas should have an opportunity to discuss this report and the general operation of the Office of the Ombudsman during the past year.
Even a casual glance through the report is sufficient to show that 1984, the year covered by the report, was a busy and eventful one for the Ombudsman and his staff. In his first year of operation the Ombudsman received more than 2,000 complaints from all over the country and from people in all walks of life. The nature and extent of the complaints received clearly underline the need for the office and justify its establishment. By the end of December, the office had dealt with 1,736 complaints. This represents about 77 per cent of the total number of complaints received and is a tangible benchmark of success. It underlines too, the efficient manner in which the Ombudsman and his staff have been discharging their responsibilities
The report raises a great number of issues both of a general and a specific nature. Before going on to discuss these issues I think that it would be useful to make a few general comments about the role of the Ombudsman.
As Members of the House will be aware the Ombudsman was appointed by the President on 8 November 1983 following resolutions passed in both Houses of the Oireachtas recommending his appointment. He took up office on 3 January 1984. Above all else the Ombudsman was appointed to speak and act on behalf of individual citizens. On their behalf he examines the actions of public officials and seeks a satisfactory remedy in those instances where he finds that a citizen has a genuine grievance. He deals with day-to-day administrative decisions rather than with the broad scheme of Government policy or national affairs. During his first 12 months in office he has been examining the actions of Government Departments and their associated offices.
The Ombudsman, of course, is independent in the exercise of his functions. While he has no power to force a body to accept his recommendations, his recommendations do carry a significant moral authority. He is empowered to make a special report to the Oireachtas, to whom the administrators are responsible if he is not satisfied with the response to his recommendations. There can be no doubt in anyone's mind that no official will take lightly the possibility of such public criticism of his Department from such a high and independent source.
While the Ombudsman acts on behalf of the citizen, I must emphasise that he is not an enemy of the bureaucracy. The Ombudsman is not intended to be some kind of overlord avenging the misdeeds of bloody-minded bureaucrats. Rather he is an independent and easily reached mediator. His role is purely to investigate and report. His importance lies in his power to investigate the actions of administrators and to report on those to the Oireachtas.
Going on the experience of Ombudsmen abroad it can be expected that a fair proportion of investigations will show that the administrative actions complained about were fair and reasonable in the circumstances. I think that this is borne out by the statistics in the report which show that quite a number of complaints were not upheld.
To the man in the street, the Ombudsman is seen as an important and independent figure, a known form of redress. Informality, speed and accessibility are the keynotes of his office. In essence, therefore, the Ombudsman is an impartial and independent referee, or, as he himself put it in his report "a kind of mediator between the public and the administration". I am glad to note, and Members of the House I am sure will feel likewise, that the Ombudsman's perception of his role is concerned not only with the legal aspects of complaints, but also with the question of equity and fair play. They will also note the emphasis on informality with which I wholeheartedly agree.
Turning now to the report itself, the statistics show that the Ombudsman received a total of 2,267 complaints during the year. As the report indicates, these complaints came from all over the country and from people in all walks of life. These figures reflect, in my view, the major impact which the Ombudsman has made in his first year in office. Indeed to my mind, they indicate the confidence of the people of Ireland in the office itself and in the appointment of Mr. Michael Mills as our first Ombudsman.
A total of 1,544 of the complaints came within the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman. This represents 68 per cent of the total number of complaints received. The Ombudsman succeeded in completing his investigation of 1,013 of these cases and the balance of 531 were carried forward. I note from the report that apart from resolving 400 cases, the Ombudsman was able to provide assistance in 148 cases. In general, this means that the Ombudsman did not uphold the original complaint but was able to point the complainant in the direction of other benefits or other schemes or other courses of action that were open to him and from which he was likely to benefit. This I think is an aspect of the Ombudsman's work which is worth nothing.
We all have a tendency to think in terms of cases which are resolved or not upheld. It is reassuring to see that even where cases cannot be "resolved", assistance can nevertheless often be given. The fact, of course, that a sizeable number of cases were not upheld is, as I have already said, evidence that the Ombudsman acts impartially and is not involved in any type of "witch-hunt". He is, therefore, in a real sense the man in the middle. He is the friend of the public but he is not an enemy of the bureaucracy.
The original complaint was not upheld in 294 cases. The report indicates that 122 of these referred to the system of averaging insurance contributions for the purposes of contributory old age pension. There are no details given of what the balance of these complaints referred to. However, I understand that in general they referred to items such as claims for social welfare benefits, grants, and refunds of tax, to which the complainants felt that they were entitled but which, on examination by the Ombudsman, proved to be unfounded.
There were 171 cases where the complaint was discontinued or withdrawn. Again, we do not have a specific breakdown of these cases. In general, I understand that in some of these cases, the complaint was withdrawn because the complainant received satisfaction from the body concerned before the Ombudsman had completed his investigation. In other cases, complaints were withdrawn when the facts presented by the body concerned, refuting in detail the complaint made, were put to the complainant. In some other cases, the complainant would have also been referred to a solicitor and on reconsideration the complainant might have opted for a legal course of action rather than pursuing his case through the Ombudsman.
Almost all Departments and offices listed in Part 1 of the First Schedule to the Ombudsman Act, 1980 were the subject of complaint. Not altogether surprisingly the bulk of the complaints were in the areas administered by the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Welfare. These are areas of public administration which affect the daily lives of almost every citizen in one way or another.
I was interested also in the relatively high number of complaints which lay outside the Ombudsman's jurisdiction. The total involved was 723 and constituted almost 32 per cent of the total number of complaints received. I was very happy to note that the Ombudsman was able to resolve some of these cases despite the fact that they were outside his jurisdiction. Many of these related to health boards and local authorities. These bodies are of course now within the remit of the Ombudsman since 1 April last.
A number of others related to such issues as pensions, conditions of service, recruitment and so on. The whole area relating to personnel matters is specifically excluded from the Ombudsman's remit at present. 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 House in 1980 the then Minister of State did not favour this idea. I should also mention that a very detailed procedure has been agreed with staff interests regarding steps that are to be taken when a civil servant finds himself in dispute on a particular matter with his employer. That is a very detailed procedure and leaves open to the individual recourse to quite a series of steps.
The other potential objection, as I have pointed out before in this House, 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.
Other complaints referred to the Garda, courts and Defence forces which are all excluded from investigation by the Ombudsman. The exclusion of the Garda was recommended by the all-party committee, after detailed consideration. They were excluded on the grounds that their work is mainly subject to the scrutiny of the Judiciary or else related to security or subject to existing appeals machinery. The courts are excluded as it was never the intention that the Ombudsman would interfere with the judicial process. The Defence Forces are excluded on the grounds that they do not greatly impinge on the everyday life of the ordinary citizen.
There were also a number of complaints about State bodies. Senators will be aware that a major extension of the Ombudsman's remit took place on 1 April last. This extension covered local authorities, health boards, An Post and Bord Telecom Éireann. In deciding on the framework for the extended remit, the Government took into account the availability of resources and the areas where resources could be employed to the optimum advantage. In essence, resources had to be balanced against priorities. Even with the major increase in staff resources, it was necessary for the Government to make a choice as to which areas the extended remit should cover. Since An Post and Bord Telecom Éireann were established at the same time and since their operations had such an important and immediate impact on the public in the postal and telecommunications area as a whole, it was decided to include these two State bodies in the Ombudsman's remit.
The position of other state bodies will have to be considered at a future date. I intend to keep the legislation under review and further additions could be made to the Ombudsman's remit as appropriate.
Another point about the statistics given in the report on which I would like to comment briefly is the number of complaints received in the closing months of the year. This is graphically illustrated on page 60 of the report. I have said before in the House that it is vital that the public become fully aware of the Ombudsman's role, especially now that his remit has been expanded. I was interested to hear Senator McGonagle's remark regarding the necessity for a continuing campaign of publicity so that the greatest number of people are aware of the existence and operation of the Ombudsman's office. Following discussions which I had with the Ombudsman last year, he launched a major publicity campaign. The result of this campaign was the large inflow of complaints to his office in November and December of last year. This is probably a major factor in the number of complaints carried forward into this year. The need for adequate publicity for the office, especially in its early years, is vital to ensure its effective operation. I am sure that the Ombudsman will take the remarks of the Senator into account in deciding on the type of publicity campaign and literature which might be employed in the coming months.
The geographical spread of complaints is also interesting. Complaints were received from every county. This will raise in many people's minds the question of the Ombudsman and his staff operating in some way on a regional basis. This is all the more important now that he is dealing with complaints about health boards and local authorities. Any discussion of this issue must take cognisance of the independence of the Ombudsman in deciding how to carry out the functions of his office. I know there have been requests from time to time from Members of the Oireachtas that there might be even regional offices established.
The Ombudsman has recently decided that members of his staff should visit regional areas for the purposes of interviewing complainants at a local level. It is intended that these visits will be a regular feature of the work of the office. During these visits, members of the public, who have an unresolved complaint against certain public bodies, are able to meet with the staff of the Ombudsman's office to have their complaints examined.
Navan, Monaghan and Dundalk were visited during the week commencing 9 September 1985 and Limerick and Ennis were visited during the week commencing 23 September 1985. Longford and Mullingar were visited during the week commencing 7 October 1985 and it is intended to visit Cork city on 22 and 23 October. Other areas will be visited over the coming months.
As part of the arrangements for these visits temporary offices for the Ombudsman's staff are established in local hotels. Posters advertising the visits are displayed in post offices, libraries, community welfare offices, tax offices, employment offices and other offices of that type and advertisements are placed in the local papers. Where possible, interviews are held with local journalists to ensure adequate advance coverage of the visit. Members of the public are invited to call to the hotel to meet the Ombudsman's staff during ordinary office hours and in the evening time between 7.30 p.m. and 8.30 p.m.
Experience to date has shown that these visits are well worthwhile and beneficial to all concerned. Firstly, there has been a steady stream of callers to each of the centres indicating a clear demand for this service. Secondly, it has been found to date that few, if any, of the complainants interviewed would have been prepared to go to Dublin. They would not have put their complaint on paper, generally because they felt that their complaint was too complex and they felt that they were unable to commit all the details to paper. Expenses of those required to travel distances in connection with investigations by the Ombudsman may be recouped.
I would like now to turn to an aspect of the report which is of deep concern to me. The Ombudsman reports that while the response of many civil servants to the creation of his office was most encouraging, some senior civil servants resented its intrusion, particularly when their decisions were under scrutiny. He also reports that there were legal challenges to his authority which seemed to be more concerned with preventing an investigation into particular complaints than the question of whether the complaints were justified. This was also referred to earlier by Senator McGonagle.
The efficient discharge of the Ombudsman's role depends, to a large extent, on the co-operation he receives from the bureaucracy. Bearing this in mind, my Department issued guidelines to all Departments before the office of the Ombudsman was established about the procedures to be followed during the investigation of complaints by the Ombudsman and his staff. These guidelines did not leave any civil servant, irrespective of at what level he was serving, in doubt that they were expected to co-operate fully with the Ombudsman and his staff.
I am very concerned and disappointed, therefore, that the Ombudsman should have been hindered in any form while attempting to carry out the functions of his office. I need hardly say that I regard this absence of co-operation as tantamount to frustrating the intentions of the Government and of this House. Any lack of co-operation with the Ombudsman, irrespective from what quarter it emanates, will not be tolerated.
Some public officials may be hiding behind the illusion that, because the Ombudsman has no powers to force a body to accept his recommendations, they need not co-operate with the Ombudsman and will remain untouched. I would remind officials that the Ombudsman can make a special report to the Oireachtas where he is not satisfied with the response that he gets. If such were to happen, I need hardly say that a very serious view would be taken of the matter.
It was understandable, as the Ombudsman points out, where points of principle were involved or where, as in the case of the appeals officers of the Department of Social Welfare long established procedures were in question that legal clarification would be sought. However, legal challenges to prevent the Ombudsman from investigating specific complaints are totally unacceptable.
Early suspicions were, of course, to be expected. Senator McGonagle drawing from his own experience has confirmed that. This has been the international experience. However, the full co-operation of all the agencies covered by the Ombudsman's remit, and indeed each individual member of their staff, will be expected from now on. I will be keeping a close eye on this matter and I hope that no further adverse comments will be called for.
Another item which the Ombudsman considered to warrant special comment in his report was the unnecessary delay on the part of various Government Departments and offices in replying to letters and decisions. As the Ombudsman has pointed out, delay, in any circumstance, is frustrating for people. Very often it can also result in real hardship, particularly when the most vulnerable sectors of our society are involved — the old and the needy.
I am particularly concerned about the comments of the Ombudsman in relation to instances of apparently unreasonable delays in administration. I am sure that all Departments — especially those specifically cited in the report — will note the Ombudsman's comments and take action to eliminate or reduce the sources of delay. My Department have been addressing this problem, and will continue to do so, in the course of their efficiency reviews in Government Departments and offices. Progress in eliminating delays will be a major element in improving service to the public.
Apart from efficiency reviews my Department are endeavouring to improve service to the public by providing an increased level of training for those in face to face contact — both oral and written — with the public. A special unit has been established in my Department to improve the presentation and layout of Civil Service forms.
Another important change — what I call the personalisation of the Civil Service — has been made. Civil servants dealing with the public, whether face to face, by telephone or by letter, are required to have their names and designation typed below their signature on all correspondence and to wear name badges when serving in offices open to the public. Other proposals are included in the White Paper which I have recently published. Improved management methods and greater use of technology are central to these proposals.
The office of the Ombudsman has now been in operation for almost two years. The office is carrying out a function that is entirely new to the experience of this country. Obviously, the creation and staffing of such a new office was likely to give rise to some problems initially for the office and its staff. I note that the Ombudsman reports that the appointment of staff by the Civil Service Commission gave rise to some problems during his first year in office.
The recruitment of staff by the Civil Service Commission ensures a fair and independent means of selection. It is very important for the independence of the office, and its future effectiveness, that the staff are seen to be independent of the political system. Therefore, it is necessary that the system of recruitment is fair and seen to be fair. This can, however, involve the commission in detailed selection procedures.
There were no problems with the appointment of most of the staff to the office. The director and senior investigator were appointed in January and April 1984, respectively, but officials were in fact serving in a temporary capacity in these posts from 1 January 1984. Similarly, there were no problems in regard to the appointment of clerical and executive staff. Such positions were filled without any delay. The only problem arose in relation to the appointment of permanent investigators. However, I should emphasise that temporary investigators were appointed to the Ombudsman's office from the outset. The problem in appointing the permanent investigators arose because there is a time scale involved in the recruitment of staff by open competition. However, this is the only way that I can see to ensure that the best people are recruited and that there is no interference of any kind in the recruitment process.
I would like to speak briefly about the future of the office. The remit of the Ombudsman was extended on 1 April of this year to cover local authorities, health boards, An Post and Bord Telecom Éireann. This is a major expansion in the Ombudsman's remit. It means that the actions of an additional 100,000 public servants approximately fall within the Ombudsman's jurisdiction. This represents, in numerical terms, almost a threefold increase in his initial remit. Given that the Ombudsman has been in operation for a relatively short period, I think that the expansion that has just taken place must, by any standards, be considered a major one.
An additional 12 investigators and three senior investigators have been appointed, together with back-up clerical staff, to cope with the additional workload. This staff were assigned on the basis that one senior investigator and four investigators would be assigned to each of the areas of the local authorities, the health boards and telecommunications. Before these staff were recruited consultations took place with the Ombudsman as to what would be deemed the appropriate level of investigative staff which might be required. The Ombudsman was satisfied that the number of staff recruited would be adequate to cope with the additional workload.
The additional senior investigator and investigator posts represent a threefold increase in the existing staff complement of the Ombudsman's office at these levels. The authorised staff of the office has now been increased to a total of one director, four senior investigators, 16 investigators and some 20 support staff for the discharge of his extended remit. It underlines the Government's firm commitment, at a time of necessary cutbacks in the public service, to the concept of administrative justice.
I would now like to refer to one aspect of the Ombudsman's remit which I think is particularly important. A suggestion was made last year during the debate on the Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill, 1984 that the Ombudsman should highlight those areas where grievances can be remedied only by reforming legislation. I believe that the Ombudsman has an important role to play not merely in investigating individual complaints, but also in pointing to areas where general remedial action is needed through changes in legislation.
The all-party committee saw this as a very important aspect of the Ombudsman's role. In doing this, of course, he would be of considerable help to the Oireachtas which, because of pressure of business, has not always the time to review the impact of legislation on an on-going basis. The anomalies identified, no matter how slight they might be, could still give rise to very serious problems for large sections of the community.
I am very happy to see, therefore, that the Ombudsman has included a section in his report which suggests that certain areas of social legislation might be reviewed. The report has been brought to the attention of the Ministers concerned and the Government have asked each Minister to take appropriate action to remove them in so far as it is possible to do so within the resources available.
In some cases remedial action has already been taken. The Finance Act includes a provision to remove the tax anomaly which which deprives some widows and other single persons of the single person's tax allowance. The dates in regard to the revision of rateable valuation of property have been altered and the Minister for the Environment issued a circular to each rating authority requesting them to notify individually the owners of property affected by revised valuation together with the details of the rights of appeal. Legislation is at present in preparation which will confer a new general power on local authorities which should enable them to deal with cases similar to that reported by the Ombudsman under the heading "Antiquated law". It is, of course, only right to say that some of the anomalies highlighted in the report involve many complexities. The contributory pension scheme is a case in point. Detailed analysis of this issue shows that to modify the statutory contribution conditions for the people affected would in turn create further inconsistencies for other groups. The cumulative costs of the modification would be of the order of £50 million in estimated 1987 price terms. The deserted husband is another case in point. The Commission on Social Welfare are looking into the whole area of the needs of single parents. The Seanad will readily agree, I know, that any attempt to sort out this problem must again avoid the creation of new anomalies. Again I am sure it is not necessary for me to refer to the complexities involved in the whole area of domicile. Suffice it to say that proposals being developed by the Minister for Justice will have the effect of doing away with the present rule under which the domicile of a married woman is deemed to be that of her husband. As I have said, the Government have asked each Minister concerned to take appropriate action on these anomalies, wherever possible.
Of course, I should add that remedial action is dictated by the financial and economic parameters within which we find ourselves. However, the Government have taken serious note of the Ombudsman's suggestions for the review of legislation and, as I have pointed out, action has already been put in train in a number of the areas involved.
It is clear from the report that the Ombudsman is optimistic about the future development of the office. I share that optimism, having seen the achievements of the office during the first year and I take this opportunity to wish the Ombudsman and his staff every success in the future.