I am pleased the House has, with commendable speed, set time aside to discuss the report of the Ombudsman. After all, the report was published only a week or so ago.
This is the first report to be presented to these Houses by Ms Emily O'Reilly, who took up her position midway through last year. As it covers the entire year 2003, I appreciate that much of the work behind it took place when her distinguished predecessor was in charge. That said, determining the thrust of an annual report is very much the prerogative of whoever holds the position of Ombudsman when it is finalised. What we have before us, therefore, is unmistakably Ms O'Reilly's first report. It is also, as she points out, significant in one other respect. It is the 20th annual report of the Ombudsman.
It makes a great deal of sense for Members of the Oireachtas to take the opportunity this early in her stewardship to offer her feedback on the areas she has chosen to highlight and possibly share their insights with her on the institution's operation. It is not that I would claim for Senators and Deputies any monopoly in expressing views on what the current or any Ombudsman should do or exceptional wisdom in commenting the problems she has remedied. I do not doubt that several people from other walks of life have told her what they thought since her report was published.
The office of the Ombudsman is an institution with which parliamentarians have a unique relationship. This is not just because anyone taking the job has to be willing to face his or her character and ability being discussed in both Houses or even that the Ombudsman's annual reports are made available to the Houses before anyone in Government sees them, but because the Ombudsman is, in a sense, an extension of our public representative selves who can reach parts of the public service we cannot reach and can spend more time than is available to us in resolving the problems that arrive on our desks. The office of the Ombudsman does even more than that; it probes our system of public administration at several levels and across all its components in an almost random, low-key way. By following up complaints from people who felt hard done by at the way officialdom treated them, it can tell us what needs attention and what could be fine-tuned and it functions as an unspectacular check on the workings of our machinery of Government. Ms O'Reilly describes this as a privileged bird's eye view of public administration and the working through of legislation on the ground, which she promises to share with us and the community generally through her engagements with the Oireachtas and its committees.
In her first report, the Ombudsman gives us, at the least, an inkling of what she thinks is important to her and her task. Many institutions were established in the 1960s and 1970s to deal with dispute resolutions of various kinds and they promised to operate in a common sense way without the presence or expense of lawyers. Many of them turned into quasi-legal fora. When legislation to establish the Ombudsman was being debated in these Houses, similar emphasis was placed on the informality and user-friendliness of the particular institution. It is significant that after 20 years of operation that promise has been kept and our new Ombudsman can boast that her office can still provide resolutions for disputes between individual citizens, at no cost to them, and public servants. Not only that, the staff of the Ombudsman's office actually help inarticulate citizens to put into words what has upset them and help them see the complaint.
The Ombudsman makes the point that she and her staff, by also addressing procedural deficiencies, yield results often more broadly based than those achieved through the formal legal system. There are two features of her office's operation that she highlights. First, it does not see itself as hostile to the organisation against which a complaint has been made but as supporting both parties to bring about resolution. Second, it aims to reduce the need for it to get involved in solving complaints by encouraging each organisation to develop its own internal complaints mechanisms. She is conscious that this has been done on a wide scale as a result of initiatives taken by her predecessor. She notes that the practicalities of setting up such systems have been discussed by the managements of various organisations but she wants to take these further by encouraging organisations, particularly local authorities, to pool information on how effective resolutions to difficult problems have been achieved. These approaches are very much in tune with the customer service ethos that my Department and others are currently inculcating.
Much of the Ombudsman's report is taken up with selected cases under various headings. They make interesting reading for anyone who is charged with running a public service organisation or anyone who in a personal or representative capacity has been involved in tussles with various Departments, offices or boards. I do not know which ombudsman in what country started including in his or her reports selections of the complaints which came his or her way. Whoever it was had a clever inspiration because such selections give a flavour of the problems with which an Ombudsman must deal. I am conscious that they are not provided for the entertainment of readers although they can help to get the office and the assistance it can provide better known to members of the public who feel they have no come back against an official decision or action which harms them. I appreciate that they are sometimes brought to our attention because the Ombudsman feels they illustrate a problem she hopes to eradicate or one in respect of which she believes there is a satisfactory solution that is not being taken up by officialdom and which she feels is of such importance that she needs the help of Members of these Houses to sell to the powers that be. The House will share my pleasure that none of the cases recounted in the 2003 report seems likely to fall into the latter category. Obviously, the Ombudsman is more patient, more tolerant or meets a better class of complainant than most of us; we do not get in her select cases any example of a "chancer" who tried to pull wool over her eyes or those of her staff.
Important as the select cases can be in helping us to understand the Ombudsman's role, the fuller story is, I suspect, to be found in the tables and charts at the back of the report. They tell us the number of complaints which reached the Ombudsman last year and what happened to them. These are interesting and probably show a pattern none too different from our own post-boxes. Slightly more than 3,000 complaints were received last year but when those falling outside the Ombudsman's jurisdiction were winnowed out, 2,213 remained.
The report does not tell us what happened to this particular bunch of complaints because the processing of a complaint often spans a number of years. However, it does tell us about complaint cases completed last year — a mixture of complaints that came in during 2003 and those carried over from previous years. The way those complaints panned out is probably instructive. Of 2,359 complaints, 346 were fully or partially resolved, more than a third were not upheld, over a quarter were discontinued and 20 were withdrawn. When we move to complaints related to the Civil Service, 440 of 1,027 were not upheld and another 256 were discontinued.
Across the board the pattern is for complaints to cluster most heavily around those Departments, which give out money, namely, the Departments of Social and Family Affairs, Agriculture and Food and Education and Science. Looked at in the light of the throughput of individual transactions in these Departments, the number of complaints to the Ombudsman they generate may seem minuscule. However, two facts must be remembered. Some people cannot cope with official forms and are driven to distraction by the details of complex schemes or the niceties of material they must provide if they are to get some benefit to which they are entitled. In this report the Ombudsman has segregated a clutch of case reports involving these vulnerable and marginalised people towards whom she feels a special responsibility. When one reads the particular cases, they give a sense of the importance of what her office does beyond what the crude statistics might lead us to believe. The second point to be borne in mind when looking at the small number of complaints upheld is that the Ombudsman deals with complaints of last resort. He or she cannot deal with a complaint unless it has already exhausted the redress arrangements in a particular organisation. That said, the assistance rendered by the Ombudsman's staff sometimes involves helping their clients to use those mechanisms.
I was surprised to find that that the number of invalid complaints received in the Ombudsman's office massively exceeds the number of disallowed votes at a general election in any Irish constituency. Of 3,075 complaints in 2003, 862 were invalid. I can understand the 48 concerning pay, the 87 on Garda and courts and even the 156 on public bodies outside the Ombudsman's remit. However, almost 400 invalid complaints related to private companies, banks and insurance. I suspect that the publicity the ombudsmen, the banks and insurance companies created leads to many invalid complaints to the "real" Ombudsman.
A category of complaints that caught my eye concerns cases in which a member of the public did not get a reply from a public service organisation. I appreciate that this may happen by accident in the best regulated organisation and I have no details on how in any particular case it occurred. In my early days in this job, someone mentioned a comment made in this House by T.K. Whitaker that in his life as a civil servant and a Senator he had noticed a correlation between courtesy and efficiency. That struck me as a sensible rule of thumb for dealing with public bodies. Therefore, I do not need to see reasons behind unanswered correspondence in order to be unhappy about it. Most public bodies have some kind of customer charter which obliges their staff to answer all letters within a certain number of days unless they raise complex issues needing more time to resolve. From my experience in the Department of Finance and the OPW, I know they are strongly policed in this regard.
Ms O'Reilly wears two official hats, which impinge on these Houses, those of Ombudsman and Information Commissioner. I do not accuse her of insider trading in bringing to our notice in this report an issue with a freedom of information dimension, because the complaint clearly falls within the Ombudsman's jurisdiction. She is worried about an approach by Louth County Council to the release of information which resulted in an applicant being directed to go through FOI to get information, hence having to pay the up-front fee. Lest there is any feeling that this is part of an orchestrated campaign, I would like to make it clear that public bodies have always been encouraged to adopt a proactive approach to the release of non-contentious information so that the need to go through the formalities of the FOI Act is kept to a minimum. The recommended approach in this regard is enshrined in a notice from the central policy unit on FOI in the Department of Finance. In addition, since the introduction of up-front fees, the unit has emphasised that people making FOI requests should not be put to unnecessary expense and should be given the opportunity to obtain a refund where information can be obtained outside of or exempt from FOI regulations.
The Ombudsman mentions new responsibilities that she expects to be conferred on her under new legislation, notably the Disability Bill and an amendment of her own governing statute. She also mentions the arrangements being made to divert appropriate complaints to the Ombudsman for Children. She looks forward to all of these. I expect we shall hear more about them between this and her next report. In the meantime, I commend the report to the House.