That Seanad Éireann notes the Annual Report of the Ombudsman.
Vol. 134 No. 1
That Seanad Éireann notes the Annual Report of the Ombudsman.
I welcome this opportunity of discussing the latest annual report of the Ombudsman. Our judiciary and others in high profile public positions are appointed by or on the nomination of the Government. The Ombudsman is unique in being appointed on the nomination of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I consider it appropriate, therefore, that the report should be discussed in the Oireachtas. This is the eighth such report and it affords the reader an excellent overview of the service which the Ombudsman and his staff provide to the public. It also gives politicians a useful citizen's eye view of the day-to-day application of the various public services.
Having read the report, my general reaction has been one of satisfaction on a number of fronts. First, it seems to me — and I hope I am not over-interpreting the words of the Ombudsman — that the report reflects a much improved relationship between the Office and the various institutions which fall within its remit. One noticeable feature of many earlier reports was the recurrent comments by the Ombudsman of the feelings of unease and suspicion which seemed to be held by a small number of public servants towards the activities of the Office. While most public servants would agree that this view was somewhat wide of the mark, it was only natural that the process of adjustment to a new investigative institution should give rise to some trauma. However, any feelings on the part of public officials that the Ombudsman was engaged in an anti-public service "witch hunt" seem, thankfully, to have been fully dissipated in the light of experience of the Ombudsman's activities over the past number of years.
My reading of the latest report suggests that these feelings have been almost entirely replaced by an attitude of co-operation and good-will. The improved environment is due, in part, to the greater awareness on the part of public, officials of the actual role played by the Office — an awareness enhanced by the publication of the annual reports and the regular debates in the Oireachtas of these reports. I am satisfied that the improved relationship between the Office and public servants is also due to a greater consumer consciousness on the part of individual public servants. At political level, we are doing all that we can to foster an ever increasing awareness of the client.
Of course, it would be foolish to imagine that a stage would ever be reached where the Ombudsman's Office and public agencies would always see things in the same light. Inevitably, occasions will arise when the Ombudsman and individual public bodies, as they confront a problem honestly but from different perspectives, do not see eye to eye. I am sure that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Administration in any area, may, of course, develop a particular way of looking at things and having taken a position it may be reluctant to abandon it unless obliged to do so by heavy fire. The function of the Ombudsman is to bring a different, more humane, perspective to bear and to bring, as he has done in this report, individual cases to the attention of the Oireachtas. What I find most heartening in this respect is the considerable evidence that both the staff of the Office and personnel from the relevant public bodies have displayed a willingness to sit down together and talk through the various problem cases which arise in a spirit of co-operation.
It is a source of satisfaction to see that the Office has had a significant impact on the quality of service being enjoyed by the public. Too often, public service bodies have been characterised — unfairly in my view — as hidebound by red tape and more concerned with a rigid adherence to rules and regulations than with meeting the needs of the people whom they serve. Report No. 8 of the Ombudsman should serve to dispel any such notions. Time and time again, the report highlights instances where the Ombudsman and his staff, by dint of judicious intervention, diligence and persistence and with the co-operation of public servants, have managed to unblock the system and ensure that members of the public with a legitimate grievance received satisfaction. Indeed, it is pleasing to note the openness of so many public bodies to review their decisions in an unbiased way in the light of comments made by the Ombudsman. As a rule, where bodies were asked to review their decisions, they seem to have taken on board any recommendation which the Ombudsman made to them, unless they were debarred from so doing by legislation or regulation or some other genuine obstacle.
On a related point, it is also heartening to see that the number of complaints received by the Ombudsman has levelled off at around 3,000 since 1988; before that, the annual level of complaints received was running at over 5,000. There is an ever growing awareness of the existence and functions of the Office since its inception; this enhanced awareness has been brought about by the publication of the annual reports, Oireachtas debates, media coverage and, in no small measure, by the highly commendable programme of regional visits undertaken in recent years by Ombudsman Office staff to various centres around the country. The fact that, despite the undoubted enhanced public awareness of the Office and its role, the number of complaints has decreased since the early years and has seemingly levelled off, indicates yet again that our Government Departments and other agencies are continually improving the quality of service which they offer to the public.
The Ombudsman would not, I know, claim exclusive credit for these improvements. His reports and his comments about these organisations are but one element of the feedback which Departments and their managements receive. Elected representatives still have an important role in conveying to Ministers the reaction on the ground to the operation of public agencies and it would be wrong to play down the contribution which individual Ministers have made to bring Government closer to the people.
In commending the work of the Ombudsman, it would also be churlish not to extend a sincere well done to the great many public servants who continue to perform their duties with efficiency, good humour and sensitivity to the needs of the public.
One feature of this report which I am sure struck the Members of this House as forcibly as it struck me was the painstaking efforts which the Ombudsman and his staff were prepared to undertake in order to establish the facts of particular cases and then, having satisfied themselves that the complainants had a genuine grievance, the unrelenting efforts which were taken to ensure that the problems were rectified. If I might, I would like to select two cases which I felt, exemplify this thorough-going approach.
One concerned a student who had been refused a grant to pursue a post-graduate degree course. In the process of investigating this case, the Ombudsman's investigators interviewed the complainant and her parents, the manager and officials of the local authority involved and officials from the Department of Education. The Ombudsman also sought the advice of senior counsel on the interpretation of the 1981 higher education grants scheme under which the student was making her claim. The investigators also studied the documentary evidence relating to the case. The efforts of the Ombudsman paid off in this instance and the payment of the student's grant was approved.
Another case, where the tireless efforts of the Ombudsman to achieve a satisfactory result impressed me greatly, concerned an elderly gentleman who had had eye operations performed privately because he considered that the health board did not appreciate the gravity of his problems and that they would not treat him in sufficient time to avoid total loss of vision. The health board had refused to meet the cost of the two private operations. The Office undertook a most comprehensive investigation into the complaint made by this gentleman. Detailed inquiries were made of the health board concerned; discussions were held with two consultant ophthalmologists, the gentleman's own GP and, of course, the gentleman himself; investigations were also undertaken of certain hosptial records. Finally, following discussions involving the Departement of Health, the health board agreed to implement the recommendation of the Ombudsman that the gentlemen be compensated in full for expense incurred in having the operations. Such diligence and perserverance, which characterise the work of the Ombudsman, and his staff generally, deserve all our praise.
It would be entirely wrong to conclude, however, that the Ombudsman is prepared to pursue any and all complaints uncritically. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Ombudsman operates within clearly defined legal guidelines. His Office is staffed by high calibre personnel who are experienced in evaluating cases and in forming sound judgments which are entirely consistent with the remit given to the Office by the Oireachtas. It is worth nothing in this connection that of the 2,957 complaints which were finalised by the Office in 1991, 1,129 — or 38 per cent — were not upheld.
Among the useful functions which the Ombudsman has served since his appointment has been the highlighting of anomalies in existing legislation and regulations. I have noted, with pleasure, over the years that many of these anomalies have subsequently been rectified by the responsible Ministers — sometimes arising directly from the comments of the Ombudsman and sometimes following reviews of the areas in question which were being undertaken independently of the Ombudsman's comments — but there is no denying that the Ombudsman has been an influence for positive change.
There are a number of problem areas, where the Ombudsman considers that anomalies exist, which are highlighted in the current report and which, I know, my colleague Ministers and/or the relevant public bodies will examine with a view to seeing whether reform is feasible in these cases.
One such issue concerned the absence of a training allowance linked to mild forms of handicap. The Ombudsman considers that this position creates a serious problem for both applicants and medical and administrative personnel in the health boards. He reports that he has brought this matter to the attention of the Department of Health.
Another anomalous situation, pointed out by the Ombudsman, concerning the DMPA scheme concerned what he considered to be the negative effects of the present income assessment arrangements on handicapped people who have some savings. As a result of the existing regulations in this regard, the Ombudsman was unable to uphold a particular complaint about a reduction in DPMA because of the existing regulations. He asked the Department of Health to consider this matter in the context of their review of the DPMA scheme.
The report also highlights the difficulty where health boards have shown a reluctance to accept an application for DPMA from a person currently being paid unemployment assistance from the Department of Social Welfare. The Ombudsman has expressed the view that health boards could carry out the medical examination and financial assessment for DPMA prior to the person discontinuing the unemployment assistance claim. If a person was deemed eligible for DPMA they could then "sign off" from unemployment assistance in the knowledge that DPMA payments would commence immediately. He suggested, as an alternative, that the health boards might give an undertaking that social welfare allowance might be paid in the interim period while DPMA eligibility was being examined.
Another DPMA case considered by the Ombudsman arose from the fact that a man's DPMA has been withdrawn on marriage because of his wife's earnings. The Ombudsman has pointed out to the Department of Health that he considers it inequitable that the method for assessment of means of payments for able bodied persons makes certain allowances for the individual circumstances, whereas the method for assessment for disabled persons does not.
The report also draws attention to the difficulties encountered by persons between 16 and 18 regarding payments of DPMA. This issue was raised in previous years by the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman considers that if a health board fails to take the appropriate steps at the time of a person's 16th birthday, any individual qualifying for DPMA should be paid arrears of DPMA from his 16th birthday.
The Ombudsman is also of the view that the Health (Charges for In-Patient Services) (Amendment) Regulations, 1986 and 1987, give rise to an anomaly in that patients on a large income but with a dependant will not be charged for in-patient services arising from a long period of hospitalisation after 30 days, while a person on a very low income without a dependant will be liable for charges. The Ombudsman asked that this anomaly be appropriately addressed within the context of the Department of Health's review of the regulations governing maintenance charges.
The report also draws attention to the fact that the minimum post-rent income guaranteed under the income maintenance system does not apply to a family which rents accommodation from a local authority under a differential rent scheme. As a result, in the case investigated by the Ombudsman, the family in question was refused rent allowance which would in other circumstances have brought their income to the appropriate SWA level after payment of rent. The Ombudsman initiated discussions with the Department of the Environment and the Department of Social Welfare concerning this anomaly and the two Departments undertook to examine the issue raised in the complaint.
The Ombudsman has served an important public function in highlighting these anomalies. I have no doubt that, with the spirit of co-operation which is in general evidence in the report, the issues raised in the report will be given thorough consideration and, where feasible, the necessary reforms put in place.
As a nation, we Irish do not have a tradition of making constructive complaints about the quality of service offered to us. Too often, we have felt — whether consciously or sub-consciously I am not sure — that we had no right to question the decisions of those who provide public services. It is difficult to say why this should be so; it may be an inherited attitude from the pre-Independence generations who frequently saw the State and its agencies as inimical to their best interests. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that up to very recently there has been an insufficient awareness that the function of public servants is to serve us and that, in a very real sense, public servants are the employees of every citizen in this State. A related attitude was the belief that making complaints was a futile exercise as they were sure to fall on deaf ears on the part of an officialdom which was unwilling to consider complaints on their merits. Shades of the old American adage that "You can't fight City Hall".
I personally feel that we, as consumers of public services, are growing in confidence in our dealings with public authorities. We are taking the public service off its pedestal and that is no bad thing either from the point of view of the individual citzen or from the perspective of the public servant himself. I think that most public servants feel more comfortable where their clients approach them on a basis of equality. As politicians we should welcome enthusiastically the growing evidence that citizens are no longer prepared to take second best. By questioning decisions citizens are helping to strengthen our democracy and demonstrating the essential health of our system of Government and public administration. An attitude of complacency or even resignation on the part of the citizen towards the public decision making process is inimical to the development of a strong civic culture and inevitably breeds a culture of alienation which, in turn, gives rise to a whole range of anti-social attitudes and behaviours.
There have been a number of developments in recent years which have contributed to this much needed shift in public attitude. We as a Government are committed to making Government and public authorities generally more accessible and more accountable to the public. One initiative which is under consideration at present is the question of the feasibility and workability of freedom of information legislation. If it proves possible to proceed with such legislation it will serve to bring Government closer to the people and help them to understand the mechanisms through which the decision making process operates.
The weekly briefing sessions for the media, initiated by the Taoiseach are another example of bridge building between Government and the citizen. Not least among the factors which have wrought this change in public attitudes has been the Ombudsman's Office. The Ombudsman has shown — and I feel that this is particularly evident from the report under discussion today — that far from not being able to fight "City Hall", the citizen is now able, often through the good offices of the Ombudsman, to sit down with "City Hall" and help it to see the shortcomings in its own systems and, where necessary, to change these systems to make them more user-friendly.
There are numerous books and booklets, both official and otherwise, which set out in detail the public services which are available to the citizen and the cost of such services to the Exchequer, and these are all very useful to the general citizen, the student of Government and the politician. The Ombudsman's report is, I think, unique in that it goes behind the clinical details of the various services provided by the State to provide an insight into how these services operate on the ground and how these services, and their administration, are perceived by the general public. The report lends a human dimension to any discussion about our public services. As such, I would certainly feel that the annual Ombudsman's report should be on the reading list for every student of civics or of public administration.
As the Ombudsman and his Office complete another year of operation, I have no doubt about the valuable role they play in Irish public administration. They are making a significant contribution towards removing any friction which may exist between public service institutions and the individual citizen. They have done much to ensure that solutions are found to some of the more difficult problems which arise occasionally when the public deals with bureaucracy. Finally, I am convinced that the Ombudsman and his staff are contributing in no small way to the generation of an atmosphere of greater openness and public accountability which this Government is determined should be the hallmark of all our public institutions.
I welcome the Minister to the House. He is keeping to his well established tradition of appearing in this House for any matter under his responsibility.
This is a debate we all welcome because we have rarely in the past had an opportunity to comment on the operation of one of the more important if less publicised offices of State. It is appropriate that this debate is taking place on the day when the Irish insurance industry introduces its new insurance ombudsman to the public. In that regard I would like to wish Mrs. Marilyn Quinn, the new insurance ombudsman, well with her new responsibilities. I think that what is happening in the insurance industry is indicative of a general welcome trend among major industries. These bodies are beginning to realise that they are accountable and that frequently it is in their own interests to have a structure whereby cases can be examined.
In the past the secretive cumbersome procedures of these companies often created the impression that the big guns would always win and that the individual with a grievance was unlikely to be successful. It is good to see these old-fashioned attitudes breaking down in the insurance industry and in some other industries also. I hope other industries will follow that example.
There is a growing need in our society for better appeals procedures. The Ombudsman, effectively, is an appeals procedure whereby an appeal is made, the evidence examined in a factual, objective, non-partisan way and a conclusion reached. Much frustration in different areas of society results from people's belief that they will not get a fair hearing, that the dice is loaded against them and that their reasonable grievance will not be addressed. This belief applies in a range of areas. Senator Costello would probably agree that problems are created in the penal system by the absence of proper appeals procedures in certain cases. It is certainly the case with examinations and there is growing popular concern that while justice may be done in an examination, it is not always seen to be done. There may be a need, where a student has a legitimate cause for grievance, for a case to be properly openly and comprehensively investigated — I am not talking about a frivolous or a vexatious case.
The communications media could look at the example of other countries where an Ombudsman has been appointed. Politicians and others in public life, frequently feel a sense of grievance against the media. We may be right or we may be wrong but we learn quickly to develop thick skins in politics. If the media had an Ombudsman system which would investigate complaints speedily and fairly — the complaint may be found justified, or not — people would feel that they were getting a fair hearing. An appeals system might dissipate much frustration and current anti-media feeling and much of the extraordinary expense attaching to legal cases might not be necessary.
The late James Dillon was fond of saying that within the world of Parliament the parliamentary question was the guarantee of the right of the citizen. It meant that the rights of the most humble person could be raised in a sovereign Parliament and that the Executive would be held accountable for its actions in dealing with that person. There is not much doubt that over the years the Dáil question — unfortunately we do not have a similar system in this House — was a substitute for much of what the Ombudsman is now doing, although the Dáil question, as the Minister well knows, continue's to fulfil that purpose also. It is important for people to know that if they have a grievance against the public service it can be raised in the national Parliament.
Over the years we have seen the growth of Government lead to complexity and to a proliferation of agencies. The Dáil question was frequently not the best way to have grievances redressed. The best way is to have a grievance addressed on the spot through normal representation by the person or by a public representative. Where that is not feasible the Dáil question has been enormously useful but growth and complexity of administration made that more difficult. Clearly, by the 1980s that system was not working adequately and many people in those years had the impression that bureaucracy in many cases appeared to be self-serving rather than orientated towards the public. Frustration was felt at all levels, by the complainant and by public representatives who frequently came up against what they saw as a stonewall, where they were passed from Billy to Jack, where red tape appeared at every opportunity, where a problem that looked almost resolved would suddenly return again. Frequently, the way in which it might be resolved appeared disproportionate, necessitating either raising the matter on the Adjournment in this or the other House or the launching of an attack on the area public service allegedly involved.
The arrival of the Ombudsman was designed to ensure that the public service would be accountable. The office of Ombudsman has been one of the great success stories of the past eight or ten years of Irish politics and today, it is an accepted part of our public service. It has been successful, first, because the legislation was sensible, and allowed for a reasonably slow start. The number of functions allocated to the Ombudsman has increased over the years but not quickly enough for the office to be submerged and its functioning obstructed.
The second reason for the success of the office of Ombudsman has been the personality of the Ombudsman and the quality of his staff. The Government of the day, in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, made an inspired choice when Michael Mills was asked to become the first Ombudsman. The term "ombudsman" was unfamiliar, a strange word which most people did not know, but the association of the office with Michael Mills gave it a public face and an immediate acceptability. People knew that this person was not on one side or the other but commissioned to ensure fair play. With acceptance by the public came credibility and perceived integrity.
The office of Ombudsman is not a one man show. Those of us who have dealt with the Office over the years appreciate the general quality and dedication of its staff. The Minister rightly paid tribute to the painstaking way in which the Office goes about establishing the facts of every case, coming to problems with an open mind, establishing rights and reaching an objective conclusion. The Minister rightly said also that the Ombudsman does not start off from an anti-Establishment position; he starts off by trying to establish the facts. An office is partly defined by legislation but even more so by the personality of the incumbent and those who work with her or him. The growth and acceptability of the Ombudsman's Office owes a great deal to the only holder so far and to his staff.
The Office has also shown the commendable features of tact and patience. The Minister was more gentle today than he might have been a few years ago in referring to the reaction of many people in the public service to the Office of Ombudsman. I, too, might have shared his outlook on this a few years ago. In the early years of the Office, some Departments were resistant and regarded the Ombudsman as an intrusion into their way of doing things. They felt that his appointment cast a slur on their integrity or they were not prepared to accept the greater degree of accountability to which the Minister referred and which is becoming part of public service ethos. Undoubtedly, hard battles were fought in those days and the Ombudsman had to fight hard to ensure that he was accepted, not as a whim but as a result of Government Statute with an obligation to fulfil.
Those battles have been fought and almost won, although I still hear varying stories that not all Departments or sections of the public service accept fully that the Ombudsman has a statutory right to investigate, to seek documents and to examine all that happens. He does not have power to impose his will but it would be unconscionable for any section of the public service not to accept the findings of the Ombudsman. I am happy to hear the Minister say he believes that that attitude is now a thing of the past. I hope it is but this happy state was not achieved without some tough battles and I am glad to say that the result has been very much in favour of the Ombudsman.
The Minister has looked at different aspects of the current report of the Ombudsman. I do not intend to go into this in detail because, to a great extent, the report speaks for itself. I compliment whoever wrote and presented this report for the clarity of the language and the easy, straightforward way in which the cases are set out. This is an example of what an official document should be, designed so that the ordinary public and public representative can understand it.
It gives a very good account of what the Ombudsman has been doing for the past year. I am interested in what he had to say about Telecom Éireann. There is no doubt, and any public representative will confirm this, that in the eighties a large part of the representations of any public representative concerned Telecom Éireann, especially from old people and people who felt they had been wrongly billed. In many cases it was manifest that they had been wrongly billed; many old people fear using the telephone and others use it very sparingly and it seemed almost impossible to get a satisfactory response from Telecom. They were judge and jury in their own case. Clearly, new technology has improved the situation. I also hope the efforts of the Ombudsman and better public relations will improve the situation so that Telecom Éireann will be mentioned less in future reports.
The Ombudsman has some very wise things to say on pages 35-37 of his report on the increasing problems arising out of the closure of pedestrian ways in residential areas. There can be all sorts of reasons some people want them closed. Local authorities may want them closed in response to representations by people who see these pedestrian ways used for cider parties, as places where criminals hang out, etc. There may be good reasons for closing them but that can be a great inconvenience for other people.
The Ombudsman in his report has set out very good guidelines which should be followed in future by all local authorities — it is predominantly an urban problem. On page 37 he lays out the approach he took. Local authorities would be well advised to look at that because it could save them problems in the future.
There are other issues covered — the anomalies which affect separated people who can often feel friendless and lost within the system. I was interested also in the section on the rights of those who want to use Irish as the language to conduct their official business. We have had experience of that in this House in recent times. I have great sympathy with people who feel their right to conduct their business through the Irish language — the first official language of the State — is not always possible through the procedures and mechanisms which are available and that their constitutional rights are less because of that. I am glad the Ombudsman has taken up that point. We have to be consistent. We cannot have constitutional provisions or adherence to the Irish language and then, because it costs money or it is inconvenient, deprive people of the full use of those rights.
I also notice from reading the report and from my own experience that the work of the Ombudsman has been enhanced by regional visits. It is very important that the Ombudsman and his staff get out of Dublin and set up their offices in different parts of the country. There are obvious reasons for this. The people who will most want to avail of the services of the Ombudsman are not often able to travel to Dublin or to find their way to the Office of the Ombudsman to make their complaints. I repeat, the telephone answering service in the office is always courteous and is clearly designed to ensure that people who are not used to making official phone calls are properly accommodated. As I said, the regional visits are very important and bring the Office to regional areas. Through advertising in the local newspapers people will be aware that the Ombudsman or his Office will be present at a particular time and they can go in person and talk about their complaint.
I hope the profile of the Ombudsman could be further enhanced through having a regular slot for the Ombudsman on a radio programme, not high profile television programmes. The radio phone-in, talk-in, the conversational type programme, has become a staple part of public life. In one sense, part of the nation talks to the other, or the nation talks to itself. It strikes me that the work of the Ombudsman could be enhanced by having access to these programmes where the Ombudsman would explain just what it is he and his Office can do. Thus, people will be aware what complaints can be dealt with by his Office.
The Ombudsman is symptomatic of the more open society in which we live, a more accountable society, but nobody would deny it still has a long way to go. I am doing historical research on Dáil debates of the thirties, forties and fifties and I am often struck by the contrast in the attitude of Ministers then with the attitude of Ministers today. In those days Ministers felt they did not have any obligation to tell either House very much. The official attitude was tell them as little as possible. For the most part, Deputies and Senators did not seem to think there was anything remiss in that. It was a more closed, authoritarian type society. The newspapers were not investigative. We did not have the proliferation of media, for good or ill, that we have today. The Government did not see any need to publicise what they were doing. Government publications were spare and sparse and written in language that was often unintelligible, couched in legal and official language that no ordinary person could understand.
There has been an enormous change in that attitude. We are a much more open society now. The Office of the Ombudsman is a good example of where the public service is accountable in an open way for its actions and in the interest of the ordinary citizen. The report of the Ombudsman, written in good, clear, crisp English, is an extension of the right of people to know what is being done on their behalf and with their money. In spite of the recent Supreme Court judgment we are a much more open society. I listened with interest to what the Minister had to say about the possibility of a freedom of information Act. I will believe that when I see it, nonetheless I encourage the Minister to go ahead with it. It is a privilege to be associated with this debate on this most worthwhile report.
Before calling Senator McKenna I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am sure he will enjoy this debate.
I, too, welcome the Minister of State and wish him well in his new portfolio. This is the first formal opportunity I had to convey my best wishes to him.
I will begin by complimenting the people who prepared this report. As Senator Manning said, it is written in plain language. It is not couched in legal jargon or anything like that. Anybody reading this report will readily understand it. That is extremely important because the Office of Ombudsman operates as an appeals mechanism on behalf of the general public. It is very important that whoever wishes can read the report and see exactly what is going on.
I also compliment and congratulate the Ombudsman and his Office on the marvellous work they are doing. It highlights the long distance we have come since the Ombudsman was first appoined by the Oireachtas. It has been said by the Minister and by Senator Manning that there was a lot of scepticism, fear, doubt and a kind of "hands-off" sentiments expressed by the public service in many areas in relation to the Office of the Ombudsman. There was fear and doubt expressed by many public representatives in relation to the Office. Many public representatives felt that the Ombudsman would take over a lot of the jobs and problem solving that they would see as being directly related to them.
Senator Manning mentioned Question Time in the Dáil and the Adjournment debate in this House as the means generally used by which Members highlight problems. That was the traditional method of doing things. That was the type of attitude displayed towards the Ombudsman initially which I am very glad to say has disappeared. All accept now that the Ombudsman is a necessary Office in the scheme of things. It indicates the great distance we have come.
In relation to protection of consumers, the basic protection they had was the Sale of Goods Act which was enacted in 1893. That was their only protection for a considerable period of time. Then we had the Hire Purchase Acts, 1946 and 1960, the Consumer Information Act, 1978, the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act and the Data Protection Act, which is the most recent one, and is very important to the general public.
The credit institutions have introduced an Ombudsman also. I very much welcome today's development in relation to an Ombudsman for the insurance industry. Consumers are also protected by the law of contract. They now have the means at their disposal to rectify their complaints. While we had legislation on the Statute Book, very few consumers knew their rights and even if they did, the fear and cost of the court process prevented many people from undertaking actions for compensation. The appointment of the Ombudsman was a very welcome development and it educated the public in relation to what their rights are. This is where the Ombudsman comes into his own.
The Ombudsman is a defender of the people and his Office operates a type of appeals mechanism. He comes at the same problem from a different direction. That is not, by any means, to cast aspersion on any individual in the public service. Everyone recognises they have a job to do and, by and large, they do an excellent job. Their terms of reference are different from those of the Ombudsman. That is why with the introduction of the Office of Ombudsman, more and more of the public became aware of their rights and of the responsibility of the public service towards them.
In relation to cases in which the Ombudsman would not be directly involved and which would not be within his terms of reference, he can advise people on what direction to go and who to contact. By educating the public they will become very much aware of the avenues that are open to them. Apart from the fact that his Office are doing an excellent job in terms of appealing on behalf of certain individuals, he is also educating the general public in relation to a whole range of other areas where they have rights under the law. That is good.
The Ombudsman mentions in his report — and it was mentioned already by Senator Manning and the Minister — that the number of complaints have levelled off in the region of 3,000 per annum. That is significant. Everybody was of the opinion at one time that no matter what area of the public service one dealt with, whether it was with Bord Telecom, the ESB, local authorities, health boards or whatever, there was a multiplicity of difficulties under which people operated and that everyone who dealt with those sectors had problems. That is by no means the case. In relation to Telecom Éireann the Ombudsman stated in his report that there is a significant fall-off in the number of complaints received in relation to services provided by Telecom Éireann. He instanced the fact that many of the problems would have been solved by the itemised billing service that Telecom Éireann have recently introduced.
I have had a number of complaints in relation to Telecom Éireann about the number of card operated telephones as opposed to coin operated telephones. The Ombudsman in his report highlighted a cross-section of complaints; I know he could not include all 3,000 complaints. I wonder if any of the complaints he got related to this problem. I have had numerous complaints from people who say that if it is late at night and they wish to make a telephone call they cannot do so because most of the public telephones have now been converted from coin operated telephones to card operated telephones. I appreciate that the reason behind it is a very good one. At the same time, it causes problems for many people where they do not have access to call cards to use in those telephones. I wonder if, in the course of his work over the years, the Ombudsman has come across that type of complaint.
I do not know if the Passport Office comes into the Ombudsman's bailiwick but we have received complaints in relation to the difficulties people experience applying for passports, particularly at high season. There are huge queues outside the Passport Office all through the summer and one would pity the members of the public who queue there for hours to get a passport.
I am delighted and compliment the Passport Office on their initiative in offering passports for the months of October and November at the reduced rate of £35. It is a marvellous opportunity and encourages people to get their passports during the off-season. We are all at fault when it comes to renewing our passports. We decide to go on a holiday or a business trip and find at the last minute we do not have a passport and there is a big rush to get one. The people we find fault with are the staff in the Passport Office and not ourselves. I compliment them and the Department of Foreign Affairs on their initiative I do not know how many people are aware that that facility is available for the months of October and November and I appeal to the public to avail of it.
The Ombudsman has to deal with a significant range of cases which we, as public representatives, have come across. Public representatives were sceptical and looked with a jaundiced eye when the office was set up by the Oireachtas but I am glad to say that in a number of the case studies mentioned in the report, he says that public representatives made representations to him on behalf of members of the public. That is a good development. The more we co-operate in providing a service for the public, the better the service.
Senator Manning had a side swipe at the media when he referred to an ombudsman for the media. That might not be a bad thing. In relation to the media, a good development in recent times has been the fact that many programmes discuss current affairs and problems affecting the general public. That is very much in evidence in local radio where almost daily there are slots where people phone in complaints and the radio station usually has some expert to advise what course of action should be taken. That is a very welcome development.
It was a marvellous decision by the Ombudsman and his staff to undertake regional visits so that people in the country could make their complaints in person. It is important that problems are discussed face to face rather than over a telephone because it is easier to explain on a one-to-one basis. That is a great development. The Ombudsman indicates also in his report that it is his intention to extend that programme for the next year. His staff are to be complimented for doing that. As a result, his Office and his work will be highlighted and more people will be aware of this service.
The Consumers Association of Ireland produce a monthly magazine called "Consumer Choice" which gives details of the protection and redress available for consumers. As well as that, it is an educational experience because when people have a grievance and deal with the Ombudsman, the Director of Consumer Affairs and Fair Trade or the Consumer Association of Ireland they find out the situation.
It is significant as stated in the report, that only 18 per cent of all complaints were upheld. The Ombudsman said there were a number of cases where he would have preferred to give a decision in favour of the complainant but because of the legislation in place at the moment he could not do so. The majority of the cases were ones he could not justify. He went on to say that almost half of the complainants got assistance in some form or other. What he probably means is that he advised them on the direction they should take — I referred to this earlier.
People are satisfied when they know that a case was made on their behalf and that because of X, Y or Z their case did not warrant compensation or the Ombudsman could not find in favour of them. That is very important because the alternative is that people would be under the misapprehension that they were not getting the service the help from the public service to which they are entitled.
He also mentioned higher education grants and means testing. He instanced case studies of individuals who had problems in some areas. I appreciate there are problems because there is a lot of controversy about higher education grants; there is a divide I am not too happy with and a misunderstanding about the breakdown between the PAYE sector and the self-employed. PAYE people are under the impression that there is nothing they can do about higher education grants but that self-employed people have a means by which they can get around many of the regulations. Some self-employed people who appear to be in a better financial position qualify for higher education grants for their children while some PAYE workers who do not appear to be so well off, do not qualify. From my experience, the number of cases in which that would happen is not large but the Ombudsman's office could be used to examine this aspect.
I welcome the generous increases in income limits for higher education grants announced by the Minister for Education. I am concerned, however, that when the self-employed submit their accounts for higher education grants, by a strange anomaly interest on particular loans, which is allowable by the Revenue Commissioners for income tax purposes, is not allowed by local authorities and vocational education committees for higher education grant purposes. I do not understand this.
We have all had occasion to decry the Revenue Commissioners and to tell them in no uncertain terms what a mean bunch of individuals they are in the way they treat the general public. They throw the book at you at every opportunity. Incidentally, I had the pleasure of attending the official opening of the Revenue Commissioners offices in Nenagh which took place as a result of the Fianna Fáil decentralisation programme and the 200 staff involved are very welcome. However, by and large, the perception of the Revenue Commissioners is that it is very difficult to get anything from them but if they are owed something they must be paid immediately. However, they allow interest on loans for certain expenses but when the same type of accounts are sent to local authorities and vocational education committees for higher education grant purposes the interest on those loans is not allowable. As a result, the income on the basis of which entitlement to a higher education grant is determined is higher. I ask those responsible to reconsider that matter.
The difficulties in relation to home improvements grants and differential rent schemes were also mentioned. People find it difficult to understand that they have to pay X number of pounds one week and X + Y pounds the next week. The Government introduced a house buy-out scheme a couple of years ago and it was an unbelievable success. I was amazed at the number of people who opted not to get involved in the scheme, although it offered them the opportunity to buy their own homes at a very low cost. In many cases one would not get half a site for the price at which people bought out their homes. It is only with hindsight that those who opted not to do so realise the great opportunity they lost. I had occasion some time ago to ask the Minister for the Environment to consider such a scheme again because I think it would be of enormous benefit to many people. The responsibility for maintenance would be transferred to those who would buy their own homes. Much money is being spent on repairing local authority housing at the moment.
Regarding people who apply for house improvement grants, there is a delay between the date on which they apply for the grants and when the inspector comes to inspect the type of property involved and the work undertaken. There can be a substantial time lag. In many cases people have arranged for a builder to do a job at a particular time and, in all innocence, they decide to go ahead. As they have made the application they think there will be no difficulty. Then the inspector arrives and they subsequently get a letter from the Department stating that, because the work was started before the inspector had passed it, there is no grant payable. We should look at that problem. It should be stated quite categorically that people should not begin reconstruction until such time as they get the all-clear from the Department. We should try to shorten the time span between the date of application and the inspection of the property.
Like the Minister and Senator Manning, I wish to compliment the Office of the Ombudsman for the tremendous work being done, for the efficient and sensitive way they handle people's complaints and for making people more aware of the fact that there is somebody there to protect them, there is somebody there to whom they can appeal. Allied to the developments that have taken place over the years, it is a reassurance for the public and for specific individuals who may have felt, heretofore, that there was nobody they could turn to. If they had a complaint, they were deterred from taking any action because of the enormous cost involved. Now they know there is somebody to whom they can turn.
The Ombudsman is the forerunner for all of the other developments that have taken place. There is now an ombudsman for the credit institutions, and one for the insurance industry. I have no doubt there will be an ombudsman for a variety of other activities coming onstream. This is a result of people being educated, knowing their rights, of getting involved and expressing their unhappiness with the way in which things are being conducted. The reactions from institutions, financial institutions and the insurance industry has been on a voluntary basis. One has to recognise that. The only Ombudsman whose office has a statutory basis is the Ombudsman we are talking about here. The ombudsman for the credit institutions and for the insurance industry is a facility those institutions themselves have undertaken to provide. It is most worth while.
Like Senator Manning, I would definitely welcome a Freedom of Information Act. It is most necessary and I would be an advocate of it.
I again want to compliment the Ombudsman and his staff for the excellent work they are doing and to hope they will continue the good work in the future.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is entirely appropriate that we should have this matter as the first item of business on our first day of work in the autumn session. It is appropriate that we should be discussing a matter concerned with the extension of democracy, with consumers rights and the right to know — a report from that watchdog of the public, the Ombudsman. It is appropriate that we in the Seanad should give our support to open democracy so far as possible.
I welcome the report. I am delighted to see that the Ombudsman is doing the work with the same degree of efficiency and effectiveness as has been the case over the years. It is extremely important that the Ombudsman should be an independent and impartial person entirely separate from the Government and that he should deal with the public affairs and matters of concern to the public in relation to all the public institutions of the State. Above all, it is important that the Ombudsman actually has the powers to do what he is delegated to do under the law. He can summons the people responsible for the decisions leading to a complaint to appear before him and he can summons all files, decisions and all other matters relating to any complaint before him. That is the essence of a watchdog institution like the Ombudsman. It must be an independent body with powers to ensure that all necessary information is made available and that nothing can be withheld.
I have no doubt that the existence of the Ombudsman has prevented many petty actions being taken in the courts. Complaints that can be dealt with through an honest broker — which, of course, the Ombudsman is — might otherwise have gone to costly law cases which would have been of little benefit to the consumer. The Ombudsman has also taken some of the burden of work off us, the politicians, because until the Ombudsman was appointed politicians were seen as the first in the line to be consulted when a complaint arose and were expected to deal with that complaint. The Ombudsman is now known throughout the country and is often the person first contacted, frequently by phone. We should be delighted that some of the burden of our work is being taken from us by the Ombudsman's Office.
I am unhappy that a number of areas have been omitted from the scope of the Ombudsman's brief. The first such area is the private sector. The Ombudsman's functions relate to public bodies — semi-State bodies, local authorities, health boards, Government Departments, Civil Service, Telecom Éireann, An Post and so on — but they do not extend to the private sector. That obviously has its problems because, naturally enough, public complaints are not limited to within the public sector. We need an extension of ombudsman type facilities to cover areas in the private sector about which there is a large number of complaints from time to time.
I note with approval the establishment today by the insurance industry of its own ombudsperson. That is very much to be welcomed. I have here before me the annual report of the Ombudsman for the credit institutions, that is, the banking institutions and the building societies. It is tremendous to see private bodies producing such reports. This ombudsman was appointed under the Central Bank Act, 1989, and the Building Societies Act, 1989, which gave powers to the Minister for Finance and the Minister for the Environment to establish such schemes. These are voluntary schemes which dealt with a wide variety of complaints. Over 400 complaints came to this body alone, about 70 per cent of which related to the banking sector. Quite clearly, there are certain areas of private enterprise where there is need for such schemes. Numerous other areas could be covered as well. There are many complaints relating to the construction industry, the retailing sector and the farming sector.
Another area I would be concerned about is the whole area of recruitment to employment. Pay and conditions of employment are specifically excluded from the brief of the Ombudsman. That is good enough. The employer/employee relationship is regulated by means of trade union negotiation. However, very often, and increasingly so at the present time, many companies are specifically preventing trade unions from organising within their area of employment. Now we have what has become known as the "yellow pack worker", where the employer goes for the cheapest possible unit on the labour market, the most effective unit from his point of view. By and large it is the young people in our society, fit, eager and well educated, who are employed on a part-time basis and not given their full entitlements under the legislation.
The 1977 legislation is subject to much abuse and we need some watchdog monitoring system to deal with the very low wages being offered in these institutions and the very poor working conditions that exist there. We can see around us in the city areas such as fast food outlets and various public houses. Young people are taken on, but when they reach the age at which they would have statutory entitlements they are either let go and replaced, or taken on on a parttime basis, specifically to ensure that they do not get any statutory entitlements. Thus the employer can avoid paying as many State contributions, taxes and PRSI as possible. That is an area into which we could very usefully see an extension of the Ombudsman scheme.
There is another area which has been specifically deleted from the Ombudsman's responsibilities and that is the area of the Department of Justice in relation to the Garda Síochána and the prisons. In the Scandanavian legislation from which we derived the office of Ombudsman, one of the primary functions of the office was to look into the system of justice and the prison system. Our Department of Justice specifically had that provision excluded. They did not want anybody prying into their affairs, least of all a public watch-dog like the Ombudsman. They operate under the Official Secrets Act and do not want an impartial or independent observer.
The Garda have gone some way towards rectifying the problem by establishing a Garda Complaints Body in recent years. That is to be welcomed. However, there are still many cases outstanding, we still have the Nicky Kelly case, the calls for inquiries into the heavy gangs etc. I will not go into that. Nothing has been done about the prison system. There is no appeals system within the prison system nor is there a public appeals system. There is no independent, impartial body to which staff, prisoners, their relatives, or anybody else, can appeal. The general public might have queries to raise. We know about the high level of suicides and drug abuse in our prisons and we have heard, from the Annual Visiting Committee of the vicious assaults and activities in the prisons, yet, we do not have a public body or a public individual who has the authority to listen to those complaints, to compel those people against whom the complaints are being made to appear before them or to make information available. The riots etc. in prisons will continue until this is done. I would ask the Government to reconsider that situation and to amend the 1980 Ombudsman Act to extend the operation of the Ombudsman's powers to cover the prison system.
Perhaps it would be possible to set up further ombudspersons in the public area. According to the report 45 per cent of the complaints related to the public service, and the Civil Service, and 28 per cent related to Telecom Éireann.
There has been a significant increase in the number of complaints about health boards, local authorities and social welfare. One can see that this coincides with the cutbacks in those areas in recent years, particularly in the health boards. The quality of the health service is very difficult to maintain, given the cutbacks in funding. The local authorities are finding it impossible to make ends meet, particularly in relation to maintenance of local authority housing.
Social welfare is becoming a major issue in itself. The cutbacks and the statements by the Minister for Social Welfare over recent months will lead to an enormous increase in complaints. There has been a significant increase already but there will be an enormous increase reflected in next year's report.
The importance of the Ombudsman's Office is both symbolic and real, symbolic in the sense that we can say, as a people, that we know there is a service that can be availed of even though we may not need it. We have an open democracy. The consumer has rights. The person who is appointed as watch dog for consumer rights has the power to carry out the functions for which he was appointed. The figures show that roughly half of those who lodged complaints benefited; 18 per cent of the complainants had their complaints fully resolved and 31 per cent received some assistance from the Ombudsman. In other words, roughly 50 per cent of complaints were justified. That is a high proportion. Some assistance, if not full assistance, was given by the Ombudsman in 49 per cent of the cases that came before him.
The cases which came before him are probably only the tip of the iceberg because the Office of the Ombudsman is not as universally known as it should be. In the advice centres I operate, it is very seldom that anybody suggests going to the Ombudsman. I go to the corporation, the health authority or the Department of Social Welfare but it is extremely seldom anybody suggests that the Ombudsman be approached. I would be the one to make that suggestion.
I do not know whether the Ombudsman can do this within the context of his own Office, but we need to highlight his powers, role and work. The suggestion was made earlier that there could be a media programme in which representatives of the Ombudsman's Office would provide information. That would be a wonderful programme on radio or television, or a column in one of the newspapers. I would like to see a development along those lines.
There are areas where we can reduce the work of the Ombudsman by providing professional services. We have already, on our Order Paper today, a motion from Fianna Fáil calling on Seanad Éireann to request the Government to set up a press council. Why not have a press council which would regulate the standards and professional capacity of the press? That would prevent many complaints. I think it would be a very desirable development.
I have represented the teaching profession in the past. For many years we have been looking for a teachers' council who would be obliged to impose a professional element of self-regulation on our members in relation to the way they carry out their duties, and dealing with the conditions of employment, standardisation, teachers' rights and entitlements and complaints about the teaching and education services. Every profession should have a council or body concerned with establishing and regulating standards. That would reduce a lot of the complaints from various quarters against various professionals. The legal profession should also be monitored in this way.
People have looked for a Freedom of Information Act for many years but this Government, and Governments in the past, have been reluctant to provide it. It would be another avenue to reduce the work of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman should be a last resort. We should have suffient structures in place at Government, local authority, health board and education levels as well as in private companies and, in the professions. If we had this self-regulatory mechanism it would be a line of defence and would ensure that standards were maintained. It would also reduce the number of complaints to the Ombudsman.
There are many complaints about local authorities and there is an argument to be made for decentralisation. In the Civic Charter of Dublin Corporation there is a proposal that the services provided by that local authority should be accessible to the people of the area. There is not much sense in having all of the services of the whole city centralised in one or two bunkers down in Christchurch, with people having to travel miles at high expense to themselves and waste considerable time. There should be an office in people's own area where they can get information, where they can pay their rent, ask for their entitlements and make their complaints. That would save the politicians a lot of problems. It is something that we as legislators will have to study.
There are areas where I would see that the Ombudsman legislation should be amended because areas have been specifically excluded. There are other areas that perhaps require a separate ombudsman. For example, in New Zealand, and I think in Australia, there is an ombudsman simply to deal with the whole area of health. He has got similar powers to those of our Ombudsman. We give patients in our hospitals a charter of patients' rights but we do not give them an ombudsman. We are giving them something on paper that will be posted on every wall in every hospital but it will be very hard for them to ensure that those rights are enforced. We could usefully look at high problem areas and think in terms of what has been done in other countries in extending Ombudsman schemes to those areas. We could focus on the work our own Ombudsman is doing in those areas as well.
The message is that we want an open society, we want to ensure that our citizens have access to whatever information they need. If there is some matter that requires redress we want the Ombudsman to be empowered to do that and we would like this extended to the private sector as well. I welcome the annual report of the Ombudsman as a statement of how we are operating our society in a democratic fashion and an extension of accountability by ourselves as legislators.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a ghabháil don Aire go dtí an Teach seo inniu. I would also like to join with the other Senators who had high praise for the Ombudsman and the work he does. Certainly he deserves all our praise. He was known to us before he took this job and he is doing it in a clear, concise and efficient manner. Not alone is his Office easy to approach but he himself is easy to approach. On three occasions when I looked for him in person I was able to speak to him.
It is nine years since the Ombudsman's Office was set up and Mr. Mills was appointed. It is a statutory Office. By and large, most sections of the public service are co-operating with him but there are a small number of sections that are not co-operating with him after nine years. I would appeal to those sections to realise that this is a statutory Office and that they are obliged to give him their full cooperation and support.
The previous speaker mentioned that people do not know enough about those things. In the technical school I went to in Grange we were taught that education was for life and there was always a special time for discussing various subjects that would apply to us in years to come. I have found this very useful ever since. I wonder does any school study the Ombudsman's report? One thing that is lacking in our schools is a sense of pride in ourselves. How many schools hang out the national flag? Instead of looking for more officialdom to enforce this teachers should adopt a more patriotic approach. Patriotism is something I spoke about before and I will speak about it again. It does not mean being involved with subversives; it means love of one's school and of one's area. If we started with pride in ourselves and in our place and educated children accordingly it might be a very good exercise to help us all in the years to come.
When I looked at the report I saw that 28 per cent of the complaints that are received concern Telecom Éireann. Telecom are giving a good service now; I will give them credit for what they are doing well and I have no doubt our telephone service is the best in the world. Nevertheless they seem to act in a very dogmatic manner compared with, for instance, the ESB who do not come within the remit of the Ombudsman. If your bill is overdue you will get a reminder from the ESB and you will get another reminder and indeed a collector will come to collect the amount due but Telecom Éireann will disconnect you straightaway without even notifying you. They did start, and I complimented them on it, to ring and tell people their account was overdue. Very often it is just an oversight.
The problem often arises where people have a private account and a business account and where they usually pay both accounts every two months. Telecom have now put in a system whereby a business account must be paid monthly and people could find their business telephone disconnected after six weeks although they pay their account every two months. This leads to a lot of bad PR for Telecom. It is time they brought down their rates. When I see on the graph that 28 per cent of complaints to the Ombudsman are about telephone accounts, I wonder how many problems do we not hear about? I read with interest the way the Ombudsman went into detail on those and some of them were resolved but the number of complaints is still very high.
I would like to congratulate the health boards and the local authorities. The health boards are providing a very important service in the area of social welfare, disabled person's maintenance allowance, help to the handicapped and so on and yet only 11 per cent of the complaints are against health boards. That is extraordinary when you consider all the services they provide. Again, when you consider all the services the local authorities provide and they account for only 14 per cent of complaints. Those two sections are to be congratulated and complimented. They certainly must be doing their job very efficiently because, by and large, they are dealing with all the problem areas.
A new problem for local authorities is rights-of-way in housing estates. Many rights-of-way have had to be closed because of hooliganism, vandalism, cider parties and so on. When they are closed it causes inconvenience and many problems. In some of the cases which were examined here, planning permission was applied for to close the area, planning permission was received and the statutory time limit had elapsed and only when the bars were going up did the objectors come on the scene. They said they did not know about the situation until they saw the workmen on the job. There is need for better PR in that regard. When an area is to be closed, I know the local authority put a notice in the paper and it is discussed at local authority meetings and so on but it might be wise if they erect a notice in the area itself saying it is the intention of the council to close the roadway and anyone having any objections to same should lodge them in writing by a certain date. That might be one way of solving that problem which seems to be a fairly major one.
Another case I am interested in was where the Department refused to pay a liquid milk subsidy because the farmer did not send in his application within 28 days. Despite the fact that all kinds of representations had been made, the Department refused to pay. The Ombudsman took on the case and it took him quite a long time to get to the root of it but he discovered there was no legal right to deny the man his subsidy because of a late application and eventually the man was paid the subsidy but only after four or five years.
I know one particular case where a man sent in his application for beef subsidy. Three of his cattle had punched ears so he did not include those because the subsidy had already been paid on them. However, when he want in with his cards, the Department told him, there was only one that was punched and that he had put in the card for that one, which was not the case. They would not come out to examine the cattle because there was a strike on at the time and they would not pay his headage. It is something I will be going to Michael Mills with because I believe it is grossly unfair that headage payment was stopped on 27 cattle when the man had a genuine case and had evidence of such, but because of some inefficiency in the Department they punched cattle they should not punch and they did not punch cattle they should punch.
I remember when I was in the cattle mart business my staff had problems with an official one day and he said there was no room for mistakes. Some time afterwards someone came in with a card they had got from the Department. They called in the official and showed him the card. He said that was a clerical error and he would put it right. My bookkeeper said: "When we make a clerical error it is a mistake but when the officials make a mistake it is a clerical error". I believe officials sometimes take a particular line and they do not look at all the angles. I have always maintained that if someone is entitled to something they should not be penalised because of some technicality or because they made an error, which can be proved was an error. In the case which Michael Mills followed up including the milk subsidy of £5,000 he considered the penalty was too great. He proved the Department were wrong. It is very important that we avail of the Ombudsman if people feel a wrong has been done.
It was said we should avail of radio and television to air grievances and complaints. I do not think radio or television is the place for the complaints because usually it becomes one-sided. When you read this report you realise the amount of work the Ombudsman does and the number of files he reads. Fifty per cent of the cases he received were unjustified, 25 per cent were justified and the other 30 per cent were cases where the local authority or relevant section was right but they enforced rather harsh rulings and the Ombudsman got them to agree to give more time in some of the rent cases and so on. That was good but, again, he found that only 25 per cent of all the complaints were justified. You can imagine cases like that being discussed on television. I saw recently where a person said they were living on £130 a week. According to my assessment, the person in question was getting £220 a week. They were right in saying they were only getting £130 in dole but they conveniently left out that there was £50 a week of children's allowance, free shoes, free clothes, free school books, medical card, subsidised rent. All this was conveniently left out and this is where I feel the media, when they discuss cases, do not give a fair and honest report. I could name several cases of this nature that were highlighted on television and on radio which were not accurate.
With regard to the health boards, I was very pleased to see a break down of the statistics. The North Western Health Board, of which I am chairman at present, had the lowest number of complaints of any of the health boards. Of a total of 26 there were four complaints outstanding, ten were resolved, five cases where assistance was provided, one discontinued, two withdrawn and three not upheld. I believe that is a good record for our health board. For all the health boards the total on hand was, 394; resolved, 75; assistance provided, 101; discontinued, 48; withdrawn, 6; not upheld, 73. I am very proud of the health boards when you see those kind of figures because we all know they are dealing with a very sensitive area. They are dealing with the health of the people and the services for the handicapped. I would like to put on record my congratulations to them on the work they are doing.
Other speakers deviated from the report and so will I. I welcome the ombudsman for the insurance companies. It may remedy a problem and I have been making a case for this for some time. Insurance companies started a system where up to £10,000 would not be contested in court; it was cheaper to pay. Even though insured people said they were not in the wrong they were not listened to. This ended up in many false claims. Now they are starting to carry out checks. I read in a newspaper recently where it was alleged that someone took £230,000 out in those type of claims by faking accidents, putting five people into a car, driving up behind them in an insured car and the five people claiming.
There was an article on the case in the Evening Press a couple of days ago. I hope the ombudsman will listen to the insured because it was the insured who were paying that bill; the insurance company only issued the cheque. You and I and every citizen who paid car insurance was paying that bill. It was our money. As I said, I hope the insurance ombudsman will look into this.
We had debates here on how the cost of motor insurance could be reduced. When there is an accident and an injured person gets into an ambulance or goes into hospital he or she should be blood tested; in fact, everybody involved in a road accident should be blood tested and if they are over the alcohol limit that should be made known. I know of a case in my own county where a man acted as good Samaritan and parked his car at the scene of an accident. Someone banged into him and took an action against him.
The anomalies in the insurance business are colossal and the insurance companies themselves are responsible. I sincerely hope the insurance ombudsman will listen to the insured as well as to the injured party. The injured party seems to get all the attention but the real injured party is the one who is paying the bill. It is the same with crime. All the sympathy is for the criminal but no word about the victims. They are forgotten. We must have psychological services, community services, psychiatric services, etc. It is said of the perpetrator — poor fellow, is not right or he would not do it but there's no word about the person who was abused, whose house was robbed or place broken into. I have had experience of this. I know what it is like to see your windows smashed and your lockup shop raided and damaged. The last time I was raided I did not bother reporting it because it was a waste of time; hundreds more people are not reporting crimes. All you do is try to provide more security to keep your premises safe. There is far too much emphasis on the injured and not enough on the other party. I hope some movement will be made in that direction.
I welcome the report and I am pleased to see it before the House.
I, too, welcome the report and I am also impressed that there is a levelling off of complaints. In addition to the office of the Ombudsman, it is extremely necessary to provide, in the short term, an advice centre in each major town. For example, in the towns of Cavan and Monaghan — this could be repeated throughout the country — there should be a drop-in centre in the form of a caravan in the market square where people could meet a civil servant face to face and discuss their social welfare entitlements, etc. That would take a lot of the stress and strain off local and national politicians and it would be in the interests of the people.
We have too many bureaucratic agencies, too many layers of red tape. I am thinking specifically about people who are seeking to set up new employment and that kind of thing. They have to deal with far too many agencies, starting with the IDA. People have to fill in too many forms. This is clear if you analyse the report and it is causing a problem. For the recent ESF third level grants the forms which had to be filled in providing simple information which could be double checked by the local county councils and vocational education committees were horrendous. It was almost impossible for any lay person to fill in those application forms.
The forms were atrocious. I came across a couple of such cases, they could only be filled in with the assistance of an accountant and a solicitor. That is most unreasonable. I ask the Minister to take this matter back to Government and ensure that we will never again have such application forms. The same applied to forms for headage payment applications and subsidies some years back.
The appointment of an ombudsman for the insurance industry is welcome. That move is not without significance. It is also to be welcomed that a woman has taken up that position. There are many anomalies and great difficulties in the insurance area. For example, there is the cost of car insurance for young people. I refuse to be convinced of the arguments from the industry and others about the need for such a level of car insurance. All these problems must be teased out. There is also the question of liability and the cost of public liability insurance for residents' associations, etc. which must be examined.
There is a need to widen the role of the Ombudsman. I would not object to the Ombudsman being involved with the media. I am not convinced that on all occasions our national media are whiter than white. There has been a tendency in recent years to slip into the tabloid press type of attitude that exists in England. God keep this country from the level of journalism and of comment we read in those papers. If only to preserve existing high standards in the media and to ensure no slippage, we should extend the role of the Ombudsman into the media.
It is important that justice is done and is seen to be done and in this area the Office of the Ombudsman has a particular significance. That is important.
My views on this report would be that we should get rid of layers of agencies and duplication for applications, etc. Application forms which require simple information should be simply worded, simply laid out and capable of being filled in with ease. The role of the Ombudsman should be extended. It would be helpful if the Office of the Ombudsman were complemented by accessible centres of advice, where people could drop in, have a cup of coffee and discuss their difficulty with a civil servant.
When is it proposed to sit again?
It is proposed to sit at 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 14 October.