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Public Sector Reform

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 4 July 2012

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Questions (5)

Sean Fleming


4Deputy Sean Fleming asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the actions he will take arising from the issues raised across the public service in the recently published report of the Ombudsman; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32626/12]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Minister for Public)

As stated by the Ombudsman in her annual report, the ongoing consequences of the economic and financial crisis are reflected in the record number of people who have sought the assistance of her office. The Ombudsman also indicated in her annual report that in the immediate aftermath of the economic downturn, which commenced in 2008, many people were forced to seek State benefits and services for the first time. In that regard, I strongly support the crucial role the Ombudsman plays in ensuring that such changes as the Government decides must be made to the availability of certain services and benefits, in order to restore the long-term stability of our public finances, are implemented in a fair and equitable manner and that any anomalies are highlighted.

The Ombudsman's report stresses the need for public bodies always to explain and clarify the basis for entitlement to particular benefits and services and the functioning of internal complaint mechanisms in public bodies.

While responsibility for these issues in any set of circumstances resides with the individual public body concerned, in terms of my objectives for public service reform, one of the key themes of the public service reform plan published in November 2011 focuses on the needs of the citizen and has the objective of placing the customer or citizen at the core of everything we do.

The measures being undertaken under the reform plan include introducing initiatives to improve the citizen's access to, and interaction with, Government services and promoting better communications with citizens, which should help to ensure the basis or qualification for any entitlement is explained by the relevant public bodies to individual claimants in a straightforward and open manner. I took a petition last week from the National Adult Literacy Association on its campaign for plain English, a point we should take up with regard to forms and imparting information.

In addition, my Department has produced guidelines for customer charters which involve public service organisations consulting customers, setting service standards and measuring and reporting publicly on their performance to ensure the public service provides the best service possible with the resources available.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The Deputy may wish to note that I am finalising proposals for the reform of the Ombudsman Act and the extension of the remit of the Ombudsman to all public bodies in line with the commitment in the programme for Government. In this context, I intend to consult the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions in terms of any legislative change consistent with the broad thrust of the Ombudsman's existing statutory roles and responsibilities which will help to strengthen the relationship of the Ombudsman with the Oireachtas in ensuring effective oversight of the provision of public services.

I compliment the Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, on another fine annual report. I will give the Minister the opportunity to comment on the lessons to be learned from the report which is perfect. We support everything in it. Some 3,600 cases were dealt with last year, one third of which originated in the Department of Social Protection, one third in local authorities and one quarter in the HSE. We all agree on the need for the Ombudsman's office. Many of us have helped constituents to make complaints to the Ombudsman and much to our distress we can get satisfaction from a public body if we write a letter to her on behalf of constituents having failed to receive a response as public representatives.

Will the Deputy, please, frame a question?

Perhaps this question might be more appropriate for the Secretary General or an official in the Department. Perhaps the Secretary General of the Department might bring together the other Secretaries General and the key players identified in the report to deal with the issues highlighted every year. As the chief managers of the public service, they could consider putting a system in place to address these points in order that they will not continue to recur. There is no point in having a list of 20 cases every year and specifically highlighting when the Ombudsman helps people.

Will the Minister consider talking to the Department of Health? A section of the report, on page 15, deals with non-compliance with a recommendation of the Ombudsman. The Department of Health accepted the recommendation that the mobility allowance scheme was not in accordance with the Equal Status Act. The Ombudsman gives details of how it discriminates on the basis of age. The Department stated it would deal with the matter within six months, but it has still not dealt with it. The Ombudsman must include the matter again in the annual report. I ask the Minister to tell public servants who have had findings made against them to either accept the findings made or explain why they do not accept them.

I have no doubt the Deputy will raise this point directly with the Minister for Health who is the proper channel. I agree with much of what the Deputy said. We examined this issue in advance of the drafting of the programme for Government in which we stated it was our intention to establish a new committee - the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions - to operate as a formal channel for consultation and collaboration between the Oireachtas and the Ombudsman. It has since been established. I discussed the point with the Ombudsman who is enthusiastic about it. The committee can receive the report and cause the relevant departmental officials to be answerable and invite the Ombudsman to provide for that interaction. This should be done, but it is a matter for the committee which I know is seeking additional powers to send for people and papers. I do not want to trespass on the powers of the Oireachtas, but that matter is before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The committee has an important role to play which is yet to be fully developed.

Because it has not been set up.

It has been set up. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald's colleague, Deputy Peadar Tóibín, is its Chairman.

Perhaps the Minister might provide whatever assistance he can. On page 16 of the Ombudsman's report she talks about the Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill 2008. She says her office is working closely with the Department to progress this important initiative. In the recent annual report, however, there is no mention of the Oireachtas committee. It looks as if it has not yet come across the Ombudsman's radar. If there had been soundings between the committee and the Ombudsman, she would have referred to them. Perhaps the Minister might expedite the process.

It is my intention to introduce legislation to amend the Ombudsman Act. The Deputy is familiar with the Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill 2008 which passed Second Stage in the Seanad. I intend to revise it to include the recommendations made by the Ombudsman. I will refer it to the Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions in order that it can examine it. If the committee needs further powers, I am open to considering the matter. I will communicate with the Chairman of the committee to see how the matter can be advanced.

Question No. 5 answered with Question No. 2.