Ombudsman’s Report: Statements.

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.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I felt there were some undertones to his speech and that it made some digs at the Ombudsman, but perhaps I misread it. I will read it again carefully. He appeared to compliment her on one hand but pointed out some faults on the other, but perhaps that is due to the speech writer rather than the content.

I welcome this report. It is good to be debating a report that is only a few months old and remains valid. We often get reports that are two or three years old and it is pointless to debate them. This report is still quite fresh. I am delighted the report is bilingual. I raised this matter on the Order of Business last week with regard to the interim report on e-voting, which was not bilingual. We have to wait two weeks for the Irish version of that report which is ridiculous. Perhaps the Ombudsman could take up that issue. All reports from State agencies should be bilingual and both versions should be issued at the same time.

I was amazed to hear the Leader admit, as I had not realised it, that the report on Seanad reform belongs to the same category. It was issued in English and the Irish version is due in a few weeks'. This is ridiculous in a country where Irish is a first language and where we promote Irish at every opportunity. Every county now has gaelscoileanna and coláistí and Irish is coming more and more to the fore. The debate in this House on the matter of Irish becoming an official language of the EU received widespread support. Now, a few weeks later, we have produced some reports in English only. This issue should be discussed.

I am aware that six months covered in this report relate to the term of the previous Ombudsman, Mr. Kevin Murphy, and that the second six months relate to Ms Emily O'Reilly. We have not had a full year report covering Ms O'Reilly's time in office yet. Pages 8 and 9 of the report are disturbing. They alert us to the fact that people with disabilities continue to be discriminated against, due to mindless bureaucracy. These pages made interesting reading and pointed out the difficulties involved in obtaining essential repairs grants and disabled persons' grants.

I am aware of some of these difficulties. While the staff in Carlow County Council are excellent at their work, the system is so slow that, invariably, some people die before they are allocated a disabled person's grant. That is a shocking indictment of the system. I compliment the South Eastern Health Board in the Carlow area which has taken a pragmatic approach to the home help for the elderly scheme. I feel sure that, like me, many public representatives, when an application to a local authority for a disabled person's grant is turned down, turn to the health boards. I find the health boards more ready to facilitate people and they allow work to start and will pay the grant retrospectively. The administration of the disabled person's grant is not as accommodating. To expect a person who suffered a stroke to wait up to two years for a downstairs toilet or for alterations to a shower or bath is unfair. This area should be re-examined and needs increased funding.

The Tánaiste, quite correctly, pointed out recently that there are issues concerned with ageing and planning for old age. There are certainly related issues in terms of building regulations. I visited the new house of a friend recently and noticed that the light switches were all at a certain level. These regulations are now covered by law, which is welcome, and people in wheelchairs, for example, can now access their light switches.

We should examine the building regulations and adapt houses so that in 40 years' time when we are older we can still live in them. Many older houses in Carlow need major renovation because they were built with steps. Nobody thought ahead. Consequently, rails are necessary on the steps to enable people to gain access to the houses. We all grow old and we need to avoid that kind of scenario. I hope the Minister will examine that issue and provide extra funding for disabled person's grants, essential repairs grants and housing aid for the elderly. If an occupational therapist issues a report that a person has suffered a stroke, the person should get a grant automatically or, if not automatically, work should be allowed to commence straight away and the receipts and a bill submitted later. That would be a sensible approach.

It is regrettable that we need an Ombudsman but we do. I am amazed by stories I hear as a public representative that I find hard to believe. One that springs to mind concerns a neighbour of mine who applied for planning permission to Kildare County Council. He submitted a planning application. New development levies were to be introduced a week after he was due to be given planning permission. The week before he was due to be given planning permission, Kildare County Council wrote to him seeking further information. That pushed him into the new development levy zone and he had to pay a few thousand extra euro in development charges. That was totally unfair and I directed him towards the Ombudsman. Through no fault of his own Kildare County Council pushed him into the new development levy zone. The information Kildare County Council requested could have been furnished seven weeks earlier. It is a bit rich that a local authority should leave it until the 11th hour to seek information. I have no qualms about making the accusation that Kildare County Council acted disgracefully on that front and that it did so deliberately in order to gather more development levies.

I challenged the Minister of State at the Department Agriculture and Food, Deputy Treacy, when he was here for the debate on rural housing guidelines to have the Government investigate that case, but nothing came of it. I wrote to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and he washed his hands of it. I hope the person in question will succeed when he brings his case to the Ombudsman because what happened was totally unfair.

A major issue raised in this report is that of enforcement by local authorities. We have witnessed a building boom over the past few years and it is amazing with what builders are still getting away. The Planning and Development Act 2000 was to solve all problems. Unfortunately, it has not done so. How many builders have been refused planning permission because of past history? That was a major feature of the Planning and Development Act. I am aware of a housing estate that has been built in Carlow where people have been living for six or seven months and still do not have a telephone service because of a row between Eircom and the builder who has not put in the infrastructure which is necessary for Eircom to connect the telephones. The local authority has been tardy in that respect. I have brought the issue to its attention, but matters are not going well in the area of enforcement.

When I was out canvassing lately I was amazed to discover that brand new houses did not have vents as are required under planning regulations if a house is to be connected to the natural gas grid in order to avoid explosions. The Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, is right to highlight that difficulty. We need full-time enforcement officers working in county councils who can inspect building sites while houses are being built and examine, scrutinise and monitor constantly because once a developer has left it is very hard to get him back to rectify problems. This would save the Ombudsman, the local authority and the public much grief afterwards.

One aspect of the report that caught my attention was the idea of visitors to the office of the Ombudsman. That is an excellent idea. With Senator Feeney, I was privileged to join a parliamentary visit to Lesotho in Africa. We spoke very highly of the office of the Ombudsman when we were there. Unfortunately, Lesotho is still in the early stages of democracy. We explained the idea of committee structures at parliamentary level and also the idea of an ombudsman who is independent of the parliamentary system and acts as an extra voice for the public. Lesotho is examining these concepts and that is a very welcome development. The Ombudsman has met a number of people and should continue to do so, especially in developing countries.

The trends referred to in the report are worrying. The number of valid complaints received is up in almost all areas — the Civil Service, local authorities and health boards. That is not the direction in which we should be going. An Post features prominently. I am not surprised by that because An Post needs a major shake-up. I certainly am not satisfied with its performance. The service it gives is atrocious. We cannot depend on next-day post arriving. As long ago as the mid-1800s same-day post was guaranteed. That is hard to believe given that there was far more post than there is now because we have e-mail, faxes and other forms of communication now. An Post needs to get its act together in that regard. I am sure there will be many more complaints if it does not do so.

I have dealt personally with Ombudsmen and found them very courteous. However, there was a long delay in dealing with queries. I was a member of a residents association in my estate, which was dealing with the issue of boundaries. The planning permission granted to the developer was very sloppy and did not clearly specify what boundaries were to be put in place. We went to the Ombudsman to obtain a ruling. He contacted the local authority, came out to see the estate and gave us a report. Unfortunately, it took longer than I would have expected and, in that instance, it did not yield a result. Perhaps it is a question of allocating extra resources to the Ombudsman. The office should be given every possible resource to enable it to give a speedy response.

I was appalled in the context of section 7 of the Ombudsman Act, which can be invoked by the Ombudsman where there is a significant delay on the part of a public body in responding to the office of the Ombudsman, that the Department of Education and Science came out on top for the fourth year running. If the Department of Education and Science is slow in responding to the Ombudsman, what chance does an ordinary member of the public have? I hope the Minister will communicate with the Minister for Education and Science on that point. It is unsatisfactory and should not be allowed to continue. He should also communicate with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government because local authorities are also guilty in that regard. A public body should automatically respond as quickly as possible to the Ombudsman without the need to invoke section 7 to remind it to reply quickly.

The Minister mentioned the fees people must pay to secure requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Deputies, Senators, public representatives and county councillors should be exempt from such fees if their request is genuine. It is not fair to expect them to spend money investigating issues on behalf of the public. The Minister should re-examine that issue. In any case where there is a clear public interest involved, the fee should be waived for public representatives.

I am also concerned about recent trends regarding forms. I regard myself as fairly well educated. I am certainly not the cleverest person in the world but I am by no means the least clever. However, forms are becoming more difficult to complete. Members of the public find it difficult to complete forms relating to pensions and medical cards. Something will have to be done to simplify such forms.

The Minister of State admitted in his speech that 156 bodies remain outside the remit of the Ombudsman. They should be included in the Ombudsman's remit on a phased basis. Perhaps the Minister of State will outline the plans that exist to include such bodies. Ms O'Reilly indicated that she would like some of the public hospitals to come under her remit. The public would welcome such a move. I am sure that certain bodies cannot be included for various reasons. Will the Minister of State indicate the number of bodies that can be included? What is the relevant timescale for their inclusion?

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, and his officials to the House. I am an enthusiast for the office of the Ombudsman, which was established in 1980. The establishment of the office was one of the many excellent administrative reforms introduced by the much-maligned Government that served between 1977 and 1981. The creation of an independent electoral commission was a similar reform. The office of the Ombudsman has stood the test of time.

I agree with Senator Browne's suggestion that the remit of the office should be extended to the rest of the public sector and his point that some forms are too complicated. He may have been a little unfair in another respect, however, because the report under discussion is a bilingual one, as all reports of a public nature should be. It is necessarily the case that such a report should be drafted in either of the two official languages, before being translated into the other language. It is obvious that a report may be urgently needed in some circumstances. The recent publication of the report of the Commission on Electronic Voting may be an example of such an instance. It could be argued that it is acceptable for a summary to be produced in the other language in such circumstances, if it is impossible to produce both versions of the report simultaneously.

We have been fortunate to have had three exceptionally distinguished holders of the office of the Ombudsman — Mr. Michael Mills, Mr. Kevin Murphy and Ms Emily O'Reilly. Part of the report we are discussing covers Mr. Murphy's period in office. I pay tribute to him not only for his work as Ombudsman but also as a very distinguished and able senior official in the Department of Finance. He had particular responsibility for the public service and social partnership and he made a major contribution to the development of the economy and social partnership over the years. I am sure that Mr. Murphy and many others will be given honourable mentions when the second volume of the history of the Department of Finance comes to be published, the first volume having been written by Professor Ronan Fanning.

I differ slightly from the Minister of State in one respect. The office of the Ombudsman is a public office, but I consider that it relates more to the system of administration than to the political system. I was impressed by the manner in which the office dealt with a case some years ago. I advised a widow in Cork to take her case to the Ombudsman to claim entitlement to a widow's pension. There was some uncertainty about her exact entitlement because some documents had gone missing. She was given an award following the intervention of the Ombudsman. The then Department of Social Welfare agreed to pay arrears of £14,000 or £15,000, which was quite an amount of money. The Ombudsman is a real recourse for individuals who fear they have exhausted every avenue, but still feel they have a strong case that is being ignored.

The Minister of State was right to emphasise the fact that the office of the Ombudsman is not an adversary of the public service, a point that was made by the Ombudsman in her report. The office works with the public service. Many of us in the political system are aware that it is generally unfruitful, with few exceptions, to treat the public service as an adversary. The Minister of State emphasised that the Ombudsman is right to encourage various public offices to develop and refine their complaint procedures, so that only the most difficult or insoluble cases reach her. The Ombudsman mentioned in her report the impressive statistic that half of all complainants are better off as a result of contacting her office. People can contact her office only when all other means of recourse have been exhausted.

We need to bear in mind when considering particular cases that many schemes are quite complex, as the Ombudsman mentioned. The finances of public authorities are quite tight, generally speaking, although a strong social and humanitarian dimension needs to be brought to bear. The cases that have been brought forward absolutely vindicate the value of the office of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman has pointed out that there is an unequal balance of power between those making complaints and, from their point of view, the relatively amorphous authorities with which they are dealing. She stated that she exercises the powers of her office by "persuasion, criticism, publicity and moral authority".

I am glad that the case involving the Revenue Commissioners has finally been resolved. A ruling from the office of the Ombudsman should be automatically binding, except where it is clearly unreasonable or based on a misapprehension of the facts. If such problems have not arisen, public authorities and Departments should have to accept the Ombudsman's rulings. It is important, in the interests of confidence in the system of public administration, that an absolutely impartial person should be entrusted with making the final judgment about whether the system of administration is right or wrong.

I notice that one of the cases cited in the Ombudsman's report related to the refusal of Tipperary Town Council to pay the disabled person's grant to a person who was quite sick. The case was satisfactorily resolved. The type of case highlighted by the Ombudsman may involve urgent remedial works, for example, particularly if the person involved is ill. The office may investigate promises made by public authorities that have not been fulfilled for one reason or another. It emphasises the importance of transparency and consistency. The Ombudsman deals with administrative errors. In exceptional cases, the office may prefer not to set a precedent, for example by providing for a resolution "without prejudice". There may be strong humanitarian arguments for such decisions — one may not want to prejudge relatively similar cases in the future. There is also the issue of where a public authority has mistakenly overpaid an individual a grant or allowances to which he or she is entitled, as well as those fraught cases where a public authority has overcharged, such as patient charges in nursing homes.

A Member earlier referred to Mr. Tom Sweeney who is on hunger strike outside the gates of Leinster House. Protests by individuals outside Leinster House or Government Buildings are nearly always based on an administrative complaint. The complaint may have been made to the appropriate Minister but the person feels the Department or public authority involved has not given him or her justice. Is there merit in allowing the Ombudsman a fast-track procedure to reach judgment on emergency situations that arise? I appreciate there could be dangers and downsides to such a process, but no one wants a stand-off when an authority disagrees with a person's entitlement. Some cases requiring a quick judgment are better off not being put to a Minister but to the Ombudsman who is recognised as an independent and impartial arbitrator.

At present, and in the future, some public services are farmed out to the private sector for pragmatic reasons. I would not like to see such services removed from the Ombudsman's remit. Regardless of whether a public service is run by the public sector or privately on the State's behalf, it should legitimately be within the Ombudsman's remit.

I welcome the Minister of State. The Ombudsman and her predecessors in the office have been praised, quite rightly, by all sides of the House. When they were appointed, we all knew the job they would have. However, no Member realised how they would seize it with such enthusiasm. Many people are grateful to the office of the Ombudsman when they were not in a position to seek legal advice or their cases were unsuitable to go before the courts. The holders of the Ombudsman's office are owed a great debt of gratitude.

The report is not very long but it is interesting. I welcome, as the Ombudsman has, the appointment of the Ombudsman for Children. Ms Emily Logan is a sad loss to the National Children's Hospital; however, she is highly experienced in dealing with children and has a splendid background for the job. I look forward to seeing her report next year which I hope is produced with the same speed as this one. It is good the Leader of the House has arranged for the report to be debated in the House so soon after its publication. These reports should not just be considered historical documents. There is little value to reports that gather dust in the Oireachtas Library. I am always anxious when a document is laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas because it can mean the end of it. However, that has not been the case with the reports of the Ombudsman. All Members have seized on them because they are interesting and so apposite to what we do, making them good and useful reading.

Some of the cases in the report on medical provision need to be publicised more. One case concerned the Midlands Health Board and the provision of orthodontic treatment. The delay in getting orthodontic treatment for children is a serious problem in all health boards. When parents see their children with a jumble of teeth and how, through the lack of treatment, it affects them psychologically and physically, they often seek treatment from a private scheme. The Midlands Health Board has a three year waiting list for orthodontic treatment. In one case cited in the report a mother decided, after some time, that she would bring her child to a private practitioner who removed one of the child's teeth. When eventually the child was called by the orthodontic dentist employed by the health board, it was noticed that treatment had already begun with a private practitioner. The dentist involved said he could not continue the treatment under the public scheme and that the child would have to return to the private practitioner. The child's mother felt this was unfair as she had not been made aware that the child, if taken to a private practitioner, would be taken off the public list and, moreover, since the health boards, as the Minister of State is aware, frequently employ private practitioners to do public work. It was hard for the woman, who was simply trying to do the best for her child, to find that she would have to bear the whole cost of treatment. However, the Ombudsman got the health board to give anex gratia payment of €1,000 towards the costs of the child’s private treatment.

Cases such as this need to be made more known. As a member of the Joint Committee for Health and Children which has debated the difficulties in orthodontic treatment provision for the past four years, I cannot recall a situation where those who availed of private treatment were taken off the public list. Parents, whose only wish is to do the best for their children, could easily find themselves in such a situation. The three years waiting list in the Midlands Health Board is much shorter than in other areas. Some children, reaching adolescence with unattractive teeth which may be prone to rot, will seek some private treatment. However, they will find that they strayed over a line and must then go the whole hog with private treatment. This may not have been their choice, particularly in view of the costs of orthodontic treatment. The Ombudsman's report highlights the need for the provision of explanatory leaflets to parents of children on orthodontic waiting lists.

I was surprised by the case in the East Coast Health Board area of a woman who was charged maintenance in a hospital, though her husband had a medical card. The one thing that should have been as clear as a bell to everyone was that people who have medical cards should not be charged when they are in hospital. It is very odd that a sophisticated group of people such as those who run the East Coast Area Health Board should charge a person €45 per day who was not liable to pay. This is sloppy behaviour and I wonder how often it goes on. While some areas are fairly obscure — for example, people might not know they were obliged to go either totally public or totally private — I thought everyone in the country would have known this since medical cards were introduced. I cannot understand how it happened that this woman was charged.

When the Ombudsman pointed out to the health board that this was wrong, the money was refunded. The amount concerned was €7,746.30, which is a large amount to anyone but for someone whose income level allowed her to have a medical card, having to pay this amount would oblige her to economise heavily in other areas. Nobody would wish to do this and any health board that behaves in this manner needs to be severely reprimanded.

The Ombudsman said that the error should not have occurred, but there was no element of compensation to cover the loss of purchasing power in the intervening period until the woman was refunded her money. She could have failed to receive any compensation at all if it were not for the fact that the Ombudsman continued to complain about this and managed to obtain €2,102.58 extra based on the consumer price index.

This sort of thing should not happen. The Ombudsman only gave sample cases but from quite obscure areas to matters that are perfectly straightforward and well known by the public and should be known by every official in the land, it is unfortunate to see cases such as this coming before her. They should not arise in the first place. I commend the Ombudsman on the splendid job done by her and her predecessors. I hope that cases such as these, which she should not have to deal with, are investigated carefully by those who run the health boards.

Like other Members, I recently received a letter about the complications of the EU subsidy scheme, which are also creating work for the Ombudsman. It is a most complicated scheme to understand. However, the examples I have given here, especially the case in which a person with a medical card was charged by a hospital, should not have arisen. I hope the Ombudsman's office is freed from such complaints in future.

I welcome the report. It is a transparent document which makes it easy for all of us to understand the role of the Ombudsman and her office. It is important to realise that for many people the Ombudsman may still be an unknown service. On the other hand, the report suggests that more people are becoming aware of their rights. Many of the people who have recourse to the Ombudsman are those who would not normally want to find themselves in a conflict-type situation. They would not want the embarrassment that goes along with it and would rather remain privately worried about the lack of justice in their treatment.

As a result of the improvement in public services through local authorities and Departments, which means they are well laid out and easier to understand, people are now aware of their entitlements and are able to express themselves much better when making a complaint. This is mentioned in the report. It is important because if we are worried that a major part of the population who might have complaints would not consider using such a service, we should highlight the service and make it more accessible.

It is interesting that the Ombudsman points out that up to 50% of all complainants felt better off as a result of the intervention of the Ombudsman. In other words, they received some positive reaction. That is a large and impressive number. It is often felt that when one makes an appeal to any public body, one's chances of succeeding are less than might normally be the case. I find it encouraging that 50%, or one out of two, complainants had some success.

I also find it encouraging that according to the figures in the report, public bodies, by and large, are responding quite promptly to any queries they receive. Only 16 section 7 notices, which are the notices requiring compliance, were sent out, which is the smallest number since the office was set up. This suggests that the public bodies themselves, probably because they want to do the right thing but also because they might find themselves named in a specific case, are now anxious to ensure that their services and their responses are beyond question.

I was interested to see the small number of complaints made in one case concerning An Post. I found this very surprising, but then I remembered a programme I had seen on BBC the other night which said that normally, for some strange reason, people in the UK do not complain about inadequacies in the postal system. They were given figures of many millions for irregularities in postal deliveries, yet they accepted it and did not complain. I am not suggesting that An Post should have a higher rating in the area of complaints. This is an area in which one hears many complaints, regardless of whether those making them avail of the services of the Ombudsman, about post not arriving on time and so on. Some areas of the country are particularly bad, especially one area in Dublin which is infamous for bad service, yet the number of complaints is small.

When it comes to postal services, should we just accept weakness and feel we have no redress or that it does not fall within the remit of the Ombudsman? I would not like to think we would all start sending in thousands of complaints, but there are areas that need attention. I am not picking out An Post for any particular criticism because it is not warranted in my experience. Hearing the discussions outside, however, one might suggest that much of it is not credible in its own right.

The area of planning accounted for 27% of all complaints. That is a very large number — over a quarter of the total. Many of the complaints may have been related to enforcement orders but they seem to be mostly to do with planning. This does not surprise me because this is another area in which we hear much discussion among people who are dissatisfied. It is not a matter of not receiving permission to build a house but the procedures or lack thereof. Often when people go to the local authorities the relevant files are not available. In many cases papers are missing from the files. I am not sure why this should be the case. It may be one of the reasons there is so much dissatisfaction with the implementation of the planning code.

We have had a discussion about one-off housing in rural Ireland. We have discussed cases where people jumped the gun and went ahead of their own volition without a commencement notice, even though they had planning permission. This is more fundamental than the specific cases to which we are accustomed. If there is need for an improvement in the area, it should be made. A person wishing to set up a home will feel particularly vulnerable not simply as a result of getting a refusal, but by not knowing why the refusal was made or by not having access to certain information. Such information might allow people to understand the reason for the refusal or whether the ruling differed in other cases. As there are so many complaints in that area, I hope the issue will be tackled by the public bodies concerned.

Another important area has been touched on today. Some cases require more urgent attention, such as the one involving the unfortunate man currently on hunger strike outside Leinster House. This shocking case has been raised on the Order of Business in the House. It should not occur in this day and age. An emergency or express service should be available, similar to the intervention of the Labour Court. Such a service, which it may be possible to establish, could intervene almost immediately in the case mentioned where a health issue is involved. The matter should be examined.

The Ombudsman has raised the matter of the Official Languages Bill 2003. Ominously, she reports that she expects a much greater workload as a result of the Bill. She is right. If several hundred public bodies mentioned in this legislation have to deliver a bilingual service, and produce a report which could be the subject of Oireachtas discussion, there will be pressures in this area, even though a commissioner, the equivalent of an ombudsman, has been appointed by the President. In order to help the Ombudsman, it would be helpful if public bodies thought about this matter as soon as possible, availed of the back-up service and advice available, and decided to deliver in the manner required and within the specified time. The Ombudsman has a reason for saying she expects an increased workload as a result of the Official Languages Bill.

The Ombudsman is doing an exceptionally good job. She has kept her nose to the grindstone. There has not been a great deal of public controversy, but it is clear that she is beavering away quietly in the background. She has great public credibility, always an important starting-point for such a service, which must also seen to be independent and effective.

I am glad to have the opportunity to debate the Ombudsman's report, which I welcome. I congratulate the officeholders who preceded Ms Emily O'Reilly. Michael Mills, the first Ombudsman, was exceptional. He set the agenda for those who followed him, and did a wonderful job. Mr. Kevin Murphy brought an independence to the office and was totally committed to the job. I have no doubt that Ms Emily O'Reilly will also do a wonderful job over the next few years.

I often wonder about the Ombudsman's back-up service. Going by the various complaints involving so many different backgrounds, the Ombudsman's office must be an authority on all matters. The Government should consider giving that office more backup. The issue of getting a response from the Ombudsman's office has been raised. I have no doubt that office is overworked, which is one of the reasons for the delay in response times. The Government should put extra resources into the office because it is doing a wonderful job for the public at large.

Like Senator Ó Murchú I have noticed that 27% of the complaints made to the Ombudsman, more than a quarter of all complaints, involve planning issues. At the end of the day, planning decisions simply reflect somebody's view. We all have various views, but decisions on planning law must be properly made. Planning is a very specific area in which great expertise is needed. The number of complaints about planning issues made to the Ombudsman, representing 27% of all complaints received, is enormous. We have seen great inconsistency in planning decisions across the country and within local authorities. Such inconsistency is responsible for the number of complaints made.

Senator Ó Murchú noted that 50% of the complaints received a positive response. It is heartening that when one complains to the Ombudsman, one has a 50:50 chance of a positive response. The Minister of State noted one category of complaint involving a member of the public not getting a reply from a public service organisation. He said he appreciated that this may happen by accident in the best regulated organisation and that he had no details on how in any particular case it occurred. Unlike Deputies, the Members of this House may not table a question to a Minister. All we can do is write to the various Ministers. Over the past ten years I have noted that when one writes to a Minister about a problem, one gets an acknowledgement within a week or fortnight, but will not get an answer for at least three to six months. The Minister of State should tell his colleagues in Government that when a Member of this House writes to a Department, a positive response, rather than a mere acknowledgement, should be made. I have no doubt that many public representatives invite people to write to the Ombudsman if they have problems. If public representatives received proper and prompt replies to the many letters we write to the various Departments, that might well lessen the workload of the Ombudsman. I ask the Minister of State to relay this to Deputy Parlon. The latter raised the matter in his speech, and I have no doubt that he would be sympathetic to the wishes of the Members of this House. It is my experience,and that of many Senators, that we do not get prompt replies, although we may receive acknowledgements.

It is important that this report has reached us so quickly after the end of 2003, because it brings us up to speed with what happened last year. Unfortunately, many reports we receive are very much out of date, and are old news by the time they come before this House and the Dáil. Compliments have been paid already to the Ombudsman and I welcome the report in so far as it goes. It shows that over a ten year period the number of complaints has been fairly static. For example, in 1994 there were 2,487 valid complaints. That number is down slightly this year but it demonstrates that over a ten year period, the number of valid complaints has remained more or less the same. I would have expected that figure to be dramatically lower because public bodies and official organisations must now be fully aware of the office and the necessity to ensure that in their regulations and dealings with the public they are more cautious and caring.

The positive outcome attained in half the number of cases that came before the Ombudsman is welcome and indicates clearly that it is a very useful office which is working effectively and doing the job it is legislated to do. The wide variety of issues covered in the period, including nursing home subventions, disabled persons' grants, housing for the elderly, orthodontic treatment, tax incentives or allowances, expenditure on education etc. indicates clearly the effectiveness of the office and the necessity to give it further support and direction.

In that regard I welcome the indications in the report that the office has been holding regional meetings. When the Department of Social and Family Affairs regionalised its services, it provided more effective and efficient services,which were more easily accessible to the public. I note from the report that the office made a number of visits to some of the regions. I would encourage that and I strongly urge the Ombudsman to establish an office, perhaps in liaison with the Citizens Advice Bureaux, in many major towns.

Much of the work they do would be similar and it might be possible for the Ombudsman's office and the citizens advice offices in various towns to co-operate in providing a regional local service. That is one of the areas, in terms of social welfare in any event, which saw a dramatic improvement in the service and brought about a resolution to many problems at local level that would normally go to appeals officers or other mechanisms. I welcome the effort to regionalise the service and the commitment in the report to the provision of a high quality service and closer co-operation, liaison and dialogue with the bodies and institutions, which is essential because many problems can be resolved at local level by discussion between the local authorities and the Ombudsman's office.

Like previous speakers, I am not surprised at the huge increase in the number of complaints relating to planning; 27% of all the cases last year related to planning issues. There was an increase from 93 cases in 1994 to 185 cases in 2003 relating in the main to planning enforcement. In a recent television documentary, although I did not see the programme in question, certain allegations were made in regard to planning, local authorities and local councils. In that regard, in so far as the party I belong to is concerned, we hold no brief for any individual developer or planner who is flouting the law by not obeying the regulations or conditions laid down in respect of planning.

While some people in my party might have friendships with individual developers, in so far as the Fianna Fáil Party in Clare is concerned, we hold no brief for any developer who is not complying with the conditions and regulations laid down in the statutes. In the view of the Fianna Fáil organisation in my constituency, anyone who flouts the law should be prosecuted and due process engaged in. They should not be allowed to flout the law and engage in practices which are not in accordance with those laid down in the planning regulations.

Many of the complaints we get about planning would not refer to enforcement but it appears there is a real problem about the enforcement of conditions laid down in planning permission applications. That was referred to in the report and it is something about which the Ombudsman has given some advice. I hope the next report will indicate a major improvement in this area because it is not satisfactory that there should be such a large number of complaints about planning.

A number of individual cases were discussed in the report, and I am sure it would not be possible in any report to cover the huge volume of cases dealt with by the Ombudsman, but it is timely that the people in the various bodies carefully examine the reports published since the office was established in 1984 to understand how it is possible that legislation still has not been changed, an issue referred to here on a number of occasions, to minimise the necessity to go through these procedures. Each Department should be given a copy of this report and asked to indicate precisely, within a certain period, how it intends to deal with, for example, cases involving disabled persons' grants, whether somebody has a tax certificate to complete work if it is holding up a job and allowing people in very bad housing conditions to continue to suffer or a homeless person who cannot be dealt with because of some red tape or regulation.

This report should be sent to each Department which should be asked to make a submission to the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, who is in the House, indicating clearly how they are dealing with issues raised by the Ombudsman over a number of years and the reason the legislation has not yet been amended to avoid similar cases happening again. It is welcome that individual cases are resolved but the underlying causes of these and shortcomings in the legislative area need to be dealt with quickly. It is important that when valid cases are raised and solutions found, and those solutions necessitate further legislation, we should be in a position to expedite that process to avoid them occurring in the future.

Overall, I welcome the commitment in the report to streamline the office, modernise its systems, speed up decision making, in so far as it is possible to do so, engage in closer co-operation and dialogue with the various bodies and institutions and to have close co-operation with the children's ombudsman, who was appointed recently. There may be some overlapping but it is necessary to avoid it and duplication of services like these. There should be close liaison and co-operation between both bodies.

I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss the first report of the new Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, who does justice to her office in the report. I welcomed her appointment and, on reading the report, I believe that welcome was justified. I welcome also the clarity and openness of the report but perhaps the most positive reflection on the work of the Ombudsman is, strangely, the fact that from 1994 to 2004, the number of complaints dropped by approximately 10% despite an increase in the population and a more demanding population in general. That is important and it reflects very well on the positive impact of her work on other areas.

I want to underline a point that we might be inclined to miss but which was touched on by Senator Daly. The fact that the Ombudsman gives so much space in her report to the administrative streamlining of the operation of her own office is welcome, praiseworthy and is something we should reflect on. It might be a role model for many of us.

Senator Mansergh and I, as members of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, will certainly be looking closely at that, since those are the kinds of developments that are important in increasing the efficiency of any type of operation. I welcome what she has done. I am appalled but not surprised that for four years in a row the Department of Education and Science has headed the section 7 list as the most culpable Department in the State for the non-availability of information. When one thinks back on discussions we have had here on various aspects of its work, the fact that three speakers today have mentioned Tom Sweeney being on hunger strike outside the gate, and the difficulties that the redress board and others have had in getting information from the Department, it rings a bell somewhere. It is so difficult to access information from the Department that the Ombudsman has had to issue section 7 notices against it.

I notice also, in her tuarascáil, go ndéanann an tOmbudsman tagairt do fhostú Sheáin Ó Cuirreáin mar choimisinéir don Ghaeilge. Sa méid atá scríofa aici, tá sé soiléir go bhfuil sé cosúil go mbeidh an-mheadú ar fad ar na gearáin ag teacht chuici as ucht an Acht teanga a reachtáladh le déanaí. Ní thuigim é seo go soiléir: ós rud é go gcuireann an tAcht teanga dualgas ar dhaoine, ghrúpaí agus institiúidí eagsúla rudaí áirithe a dhéanamh agus go bhfuil plé leis sin ag an Ombudsman, conas is féidir leis an Ombudsman cur i bhfeidhm a dhéanamh ar an méid atá ag teastáil tríd an Acht when she says herself on the first page that her work is done? It is a marvellous quotation:

Where some form of redress is merited my Office relies on persuasion, criticism, publicity and moral authority to have its recommendations implemented.

That is a mighty reflection of the positive development of the office. There was a significant debate when establishing the office of the Ombudsman concerning whether to give the office holder legal powers of compulsion. That is an issue to which Senator Maurice Hayes, a former distinguished Ombudsman himself, has made reference on occasion. It shows how effective it can be without having legal compulsion. I remember discussing it at the time and thinking that perhaps such powers should ultimately exist.

It is also important to recognise that the legislation includes the power to allow the Ombudsman to make a specific report to the Oireachtas on various matters. That is something that her predecessor did early last year. It is extremely important the Ombudsman has the independence and authority to do that. I compliment her and her predecessors on doing their job so well on the basis of moral authority, criticism, publicity and persuasion; we can all learn something from that.

I wish she had more impact on the Department of Education and Science. It was impossible to go through all the cases in detail, but I read the one concerning school transport. Why is it that a family coping with all the difficulties and distress that arise from having a child with learning difficulties, finding a place and getting the child to where that service of education, support or therapy is being delivered, must get into a big, long row with the Department of Education and Science to get something that they were entitled to all along? They did not know their precise rights. People often ask why public representatives waste their time doing things for people when it is their right in any case. This is a classic example of where the parents of a child with learning difficulties had an entitlement and did not know the precise manner in which to phrase, frame, contextualise and appeal. Were it not for the intervention of the Ombudsman, those people would have been out of pocket to the tune of €10,000. I have forgotten the exact figure, but it was very high. We public representatives all deal to some extent with casework, and we must certainly welcome the existence of the Ombudsman.

It is also important that politicians are never tempted, as we sometimes are, to try to second-guess the Ombudsman. It is the court of final appeal unless the Ombudsman decides to come to us. Since the Act allows for the Ombudsman to come to the Oireachtas should she wish to do so by way of special report, that is the basis on which we should deal with any cases. It would certainly be unfair for individual politicians to try to second-guess the Ombudsman.

I would like to think the Ombudsman might have some impact on cases such as that outside the gate, about which I am concerned. All of us who have spoken to the man are concerned about the issue. It is not precisely the sort of issue that comes within the authority or discretion of the Ombudsman, and I do not know what the answer is in that case.

In welcoming the Minister, I mentioned the Irish language commissioner. If not in his reply to the debate, perhaps the Minister might come back to me on it at some stage. The Irish language commissioner has a specific function. The Ombudsman also has a function under the legislation. However, does the fact that she does not have the power of legal compulsion as such not create some gap in ensuring the Official Languages (Equality) Act 2003 is fully implemented? I also welcome her co-operation with Seán Ó Cuirreáin, an duine a fostaíodh mar choimisinéir don Ghaeilge. Is duine den scoth é, agus táimid cinnte go ndéanfaidh séjab an-mhaith ar fad. Táim ag súil leis anchéad tuarascáil a thiocfaidh ó Sheán amach anseo.

Idir an dá linn, I welcome the report and would like the House to offer its congratulations to the Ombudsman on what her staff, her office and she are doing and the openness with which she approaches her job. The report is a role model and an example of best practice.

I call Senator Kitt. Perhaps he might consider sharing time with Senator Maurice Hayes.


Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister and also the report of the Ombudsman. I compliment her predecessor. It is good news that there has been a reduction in the cases taken to the Ombudsman. Like other speakers, I am rather concerned, particularly regarding education. There are many issues involved, and there will probably be more to do with special needs, which is a big issue currently, and school transport, which was mentioned by Senator O'Toole. The same is true of the health service, which has been touched on. It is interesting to note that yesterday I was inquiring of the Western Health Board about the number of people on a waiting list for orthodontics, and 868 was the figure provided. They were very proud of the fact that it was fewer than 1,000, since five years ago there were 2,000 people on the board's waiting list for such treatment. That will give Members an idea of the case histories documented so very well in this report.

Like Senator Daly, I find issues regarding planning and its enforcement very important. Every local authority will tell one that it grants 90% of applications, and perhaps more in some cases. However, a serious question about the enforcement of planning has arisen, particularly through the recent "Prime Time" programme, but also on many other occasions. We really need proper staffing of councils on that issue. On local authorities in general, one of the issues which has affected many people — there are many cases mentioned in the report — is the operation of the disabled person's housing grant. It now seems to be the only grant that exists for any house improvements other than schemes for the elderly. It is very popular because it does not require a person to be living alone. If two or three elderly people are living together, there is no investigation of the numbers in the house, which is positive. We see issues regarding tax affairs. In my county of Galway, there was a case where a grant could not possibly meet the provision of a bathroom and bedroom downstairs for a disabled person. The Ombudsman agrees there is no point giving someone a grant of €13,000 towards work that costs €40,000. Where is the balance to come from unless it is decided to go for some type of capital project, as suggested? I would like to see that scheme re-examined in a general way. A few case histories indicate how inadequate it is to try to do work on that scale for a disabled person when the grant does not meet a fraction of the total estimated cost.

Reference is made to the carer's allowance in the report. I remember writing years ago to the then Ombudsman, Mr. Michael Mills, about a person who was providing 24-hour care but was not getting the allowance because he or she was not living in the house all the time. The position now is that someone does not have to be living in the house to provide 24-hour care and that is more sensible and practical. Finally, on the question of heating, as referred to in the Ombudsman's report, in some cases local authorities do not give grants to the disabled, in others, grants of 50% of total costs are provided. This must be examined. Up to 90% of grants are available from the local authorities for most of the works, but to leave people without heating, as happened with Tipperary County Council in one of the cases in the report, is totally wrong. The Ombudsman addressed that properly and I hope all local authorities will provide reasonable grants for heating. Heating is very important, whether for the elderly or the disabled, and hopefully will be provided for in the future.

The office of the Ombudsman is one we can be proud of. By any international standard, it has been an outstanding office and I am glad to see the incumbent is maintaining the high standards of her predecessors. I congratulate her on that. I am also glad she is maintaining clarity of language and communication in her report, which makes it easy to read, and also that she is looking at the administrative procedures in her own office. It is always great to be able to say that the physician is healing herself.

I would like to concentrate not on particular cases, but on general principles. The Ombudsman is an officer of the Oireachtas, working on our behalf and on behalf of the citizens. The office therefore deserves all the support we can give it. As Senator O'Toole has said, it is a moral authority rather than a legal one. It is about one fair person in possession of the facts making a common sense judgment. As Senator Daly said, there are so many of these reports that it is a pity they are not used more as learning tools. They should be used more in the training of civil servants as examples either of good practice to be followed or of bad practice to be avoided. People should see where their policies, regulations or practices were deficient. As Senator O'Toole said, I was an ombudsman in another jurisdiction. Every year I would write to the heads of agencies, outlining the number of complaints received and indicating the specific areas under their control. This was not telling people how to do their jobs but it expressed the hope that they might investigate what was wrong in those particular places.

The other matter I found helpful was that a committee was dedicated to the Ombudsman, in the same way as the Committee of Public Accounts deals with the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General. That was helpful, because it meant that a Department which was performing poorly, as indicated by many complaints, could be interrogated by parliamentarians. The Accounting Officer could be asked to explain why so many complaints had been received. I would commend that to the Minister of State as a possibility to be considered. It is a pity that the Ombudsman puts in so much work and that there is such valuable information in these reports that, somehow, the waves wash over. It gives me great pleasure to congratulate the Ombudsman on the way she is performing her task currently and to thank her for her report and the work she is doing on our behalf.

I wish to protest about the limited time given by the Government to this important debate. Two hours is totally inadequate to discuss the annual report of the Ombudsman. I ask the Leader to take into consideration in future the importance of this report and show respect for the Ombudsman by allocating greater time to discuss it. A number of speakers on this side of the House wish to contribute to the debate, but are not being facilitated this week. I wish my protest to be noted.

The appropriate time for that protest was during the Order of Business. The Order of Business was quite clear. The Minister of State is to be called on to reply at 3.55 p.m. and will have five minutes to respond. The House will move to the next business at 4 p.m.

I thank all the Senators who were here and who participated in the statements. Some others, I understand, were outside promoting their election campaigns while the debate was going on. I would like to refer to a few of the points raised. Senator Browne complimented the Ombudsman on printing the report in Irish and English. This has been the norm for several years. The office of the Ombudsman has a number of fluent Irish speakers, which is helpful. I expect that will obtain for the future. In any event the new legislation introduced by my colleague, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, will ensure that bilingual reports are delivered concurrently.

I note Senator Browne's interest in the disabled and in stroke survivors. It is an area of which we must all be conscious. The Ombudsman mentioned she will be getting new responsibilities under the code that will be more focused on their particular needs. That is a positive step. When the office of the Ombudsman was established, it dealt only with the Civil Service. It was subsequently extended to local authorities and the health boards. The idea was that each extension should take place in line with demand and when the Ombudsman's staff could undertake it without difficulty. For this reason the 1980 Act allowed new bodies to be added by Government order. This option is open, but the Ombudsman indicated she would prefer to follow the route laid down in the new Act, to take account of the way her office's procedures had evolved since 1984. The Government proposes to bring an amending Bill before the Oireachtas within the year and then to decide when each of the 130 excluded bodies will be brought within the Ombudsman's remit. A big bang approach, bringing all the bodies on board at once, could damage the excellent quality of the——

Would it be possible for Members to be furnished with a list of the public bodies that are currently exempted, for reference? That might be of use.

The Minister of State might be able to take that on board.

Senator Mansergh questioned the out-sourcing work of Departments or public bodies. This does not take in areas outside the Ombudsman's jurisdiction. Clearly, this will have to be considered in the context of the impending Bill. Senator Henry raised a number of issues from her professional experience as a medical consultant. She mentioned waiting lists for orthodontic services and, based on cases in the report, highlighted the desirability of producing leaflets to ensure that individuals did not do something that might inadvertently result in them losing benefits. The Ombudsman mentioned the number of section 7 demands she had to make for documents, especially to the Department of Education and Science. I suspect this may be due to the pressure that Department is coming under as a result of the commission on child abuse. Apart from this glitch, it is a consolation that the need to make these demands is falling off.

Senator Daly noted with satisfaction that the Ombudsman held information sessions around the country and is recommending that she establishes regional offices. As an independent office, the Ombudsman has not been included in the Government's decentralisation programme. However, the Ombudsman, committed as she is to an efficient office, may well give thought to doing so when we have more than 10,000 civil servants located outside Dublin city.

Senator O'Toole spoke in very positive terms about the work delivered by the office. He noted that complaints have dropped over the years by 10% against the background of a larger population, which is more inclined to complain now than in 1984 when the Ombudsman was first appointed. Senator Maurice Hayes brought his experience of a very good period as ombudsman in Northern Ireland to bear on the discussion and his suggestion to use the report as a training tool is very important. My Department and others take that issue on board. Training does not always work but the experiences that come out of the report and the comments made here are very positive. I commend the report to the Senators and I thank them for their very constructive and complimentary remarks on it.

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House and dealing with this report.

Sitting suspended at 4.05 p.m. and resumed at 4.15 p.m.