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.