Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill, 1984: Committee and Final Stages.

Question proposed: "That section 1 stand part of the Bill."

In regard to the point being made by the Minister and by Deputy Wilson and me about what happens in the case of an order before the House, if everybody was to adopt an amendment like this one and change legislation I would envisage a resultant foul-up. I think that is a fair point to make. The Minister has said that perhaps the Director of Public Prosecutions or somebody else should examine this matter.

On the other side of the coin it is important to point out that as the Bill stood and had the Minister not amended it — and I commend him for doing so — he or any of his successors could then come along and change the whole function or purpose of a most important State office. Effectively, orders laid before this House are rarely examined in any great detail. The insertion of the provision for the making of such orders is something which has been followed by the parliamentary draftsman for many years. When it comes to the point of there being restrictions in regard to proposed legislation, the parliamentary draftsman must then deal with the powers of the Minister. To put it nicely, for administrative reasons it can be of benefit to a Minister to be able to do a number of things under a statutory instrument or order.

I totally agree with the Minister, that that provision should be omitted from as many Bills as possible. When such is done and when an amendment such as this is agreed, then there must be some provision in any Bill to meet the point made by Deputy Wilson. If everything is to be laid before this House and if there were, say, ten or 15 Bills with, say, five or six orders to each, how would they be dealt with? Perhaps the Whips could decide which ones should be debated and have them passed through the House within an hour on a Thursday evening. Let the Whips nod them through but allowing that, if a Minister or spokesman wants to say something, he can do so. It would be much more democratic and meaningful to the House to do it in that fashion rather than having some official in a Department suggesting that it be done by an order about which nobody really hears. We must remember the old tradition of having matters laid before the House for 21 days when, it could be contended, everybody would be aware of them, but this is really a total nonsense.

I would say that the Minister's colleagues are not following his good example. For example, in regard to the Nurses Bill, the Minister for Health, who is to be feared in regard to a number of matters on this side of the House, could come along and change the whole ethical code of the nursing profession, which is similar to what this Minister could do under the provisions of the Bill before the House had he not introduced this amendment.

Might I ask the Minister how many orders he would foresee being made under the provisions of a Bill such as this? I presume we are talking about one or two only at any given time. But, bearing in mind his suggestion of extending this to other Bills, would it be advisable that there be a distinction drawn between what is an order in regard to a major matter, such as an amendment of the remit of the Ombudsman, as against perhaps some other minor orders, or does such not arise?

I will have to accept that the responsibility is at least partly mine for perhaps straying somewhat wider than the scope of the provisions of this section. I am now conscious that perhaps I am straying into the area that is more possibly the remit of the Leader of the House or of the Government Whip. But, if common sense were to prevail, I would have thought that obviously orders made under the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act will have quite a major impact on the operations of the Oireachtas, the public service in its widest sense and on the right of redress available to individual citizens. Therefore, in my view, an order such as that renders it proper that it be discussed and understood by the House, that the views of the House should be made clear to the Executive, so that they can be taken into account not only in relation to that order but also in relation to any future orders that may be made.

There are other orders, or draft orders, which are of a relatively minor or technical nature, under many Acts which I doubt the House would want to discuss at any time. But, if the order procedure was changed generally so that orders were made in this positive way, it would then be the choice of the House as to whether it wished to debate them. If there were, say, a series of orders of major consequence, such as that we have been discussing, then they would be the ones which would be chosen for discussion and the others would be voted through, usually without discussion. But the important matter is that it would require a sponsoring Minister at least to formally move them here and have them positively accepted by the House. If the House then chose to feel that they were sufficiently important to be discussed, it would have that opportunity. For instance, under the procedure obtaining heretofore in relation to this matter, the House did not have that opportunity if the Minister concerned did not choose to find some device to invite the House to discuss it.

I cannot resist saying that there is of course the other danger that, as Deputy Taylor said, in regard to a draft order, the "Table of the House" means today the Library of the House. I do not think it is really a great burden for anybody to have to transport himself or herself from the Chamber to the Library to examine something laid before the House. Deputies seemed to feel that constituted somewhat of a burden. I suppose it can be, because from time to time documents are placed in the Library of the House of the Oireachtas, and if and when somebody goes looking for them, if they do not know the right way to go about it, apparently it can happen that even when such documents are there a Deputy can feel that they are not there at all and could even come back to the Chamber here and so announce.

It is dependent on what they are told.

The point I was trying to make was that first of all the Deputy has to direct his mind to the fact that there is a particular order in draft in the Library on a particular subject. He has to know that it is on a subject that may possibly be of interest to him and he has to make his way there and study it in the context of the enabling Act under which it was brought in. He may do that a dozen times and find that the proposed order is inconsequential and may get tired of trying to investigate and search out the gold from the dross by sheer reason of the weight and volume of these ministerial rules and regulations. That is really the problem. Perhaps the Members of the House could be assisted in having those which would be of interest to them separated from those of a routine nature. The overwhelming bulk is purely routine and would not be of interest to Members. Perhaps some procedure could be devised which would be of help.

The Bill raises a matter of general principle. While the Minister may be reluctant to stray into the arena of the Leader of the House, the mere fact that he introduces this Bill for this one purpose means that he is straying into that area. That is to be welcomed. More power to him for doing it. While I welcome the Bill which is directed to the single objective of changing it from a negative resolution to a positive resolution, it seems a bit strange when we recall that there is scarcely any Bill or Act of this Oireachtas that does not contain one or many cases authorising a Minister to bring in rules and regulations. That is to be found in virtually every Act which has ever gone through this House. Very often there are many sections in an Act which will contain such provisions.

There is no logic in the procedures for adopting the ministerial orders. I have often thought that it just depends on the whim of the secretary of the Department. He may feel that the negative procedure would suit him or alternatively the positive method. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. These different provisions are included in all these Acts and there does not seem to be any logic applied to the approach. When this legislation was brought in the Minister or the secretary felt that the negative procedure was appropriate but the current Minister feels that the positive procedure is more appropriate. It seems strange and illogical to pick out this one section in this measure from the mass of legislation and enabling provisions. If the principle is that when ministerial orders and rules are being made they should be drawn more positively to the attention of the House, that is a good thing, but why select this one section? Why not introduce an overall interpretation measure or something of that nature to tackle the problem on a global basis and try to bring some consistency and rationality into procedures as a whole? The Minister is acting as a trail blazer in trying to bring matters before the House in which Members would have a special interest. To that extent it is to be welcomed but I hope that this will be used as a trial and that his colleagues will use it as a basis for similarily ensuring that the rules and orders they make under the powers granted to them by the Oireachtas will likewise in appropriate cases be brought to the specific and positive attention of the House.

It is important that the availability of the Ombudsman service should be widely advertised. I have referred at least half a dozen complaints I have received to the Ombudsman. If that were taken as an average for Members of this House it would be found that possibly all the complaints he received were passed on by third parties. That is regrettable. I wonder if the Minister's Department would engage in advertising the service. An idea might be to put a note on the bottom of all application forms sent out by Government Departments to the effect that if somebody has a complaint about the procedures involved the matter can be referred to the Ombudsman. All leaflets from Government Departments could also advertise this fact. As Deputy Owen said, the service is not widely known to the general public.

It would be very handy for Deputies if we were to follow that line and pass on many of our complaints but it would probably be very difficult for the Ombudsman. Deputy Taylor asked why this legislation should be singled out. The Minister obviously intends it to be of a helpful nature but to ensure the success of this amendment it should be written into Standing Orders that orders can go through automatically. The Minister said one of the reasons for this amendment was to avoid delays involved in waiting for 21 sitting days to elapse. If we do not have some system we will run into the type of difficulties mentioned by Deputy Wilson and could be months waiting. The system might prove to be more ineffective.

My agreement to this amendment is on the basis that the Leader of the House with our co-operation will try to make sure that it goes through. If an order was in the Library and the Member had read it it would be more helpful. Some of the orders are so vague that they say absolutely nothing and do not give the bones of the story. At least under this system we will be able to question the intention of a Minister.

There is one other matter which should be looked at. Where a proposal for an order is put up in appropriate cases, the order in draft should be referred to an appropriate committee where it could be looked at, examined and reported on to the House. If proposed orders were examined by an appropriate Oireachtas committee there would be a chance to probe the implications in some detail and perhaps hear evidence from the Minister or a senior official of his Department. Provision could be made for a referral. It could possibly speed up the procedures in the House. One could visualise a situation where the stated objective of the Minister — namely, speed — might not be achieved due to delay in finding time for it in the House, whereas if it had been debated in committee and came into the House on the basis of an agreed report it could be quite time-saving.

I will take a number of the points that have been made by Deputies. Deputy Ahern mentioned the multiplicity of orders and said that there would need to be a method whereby those which might be discussed would be chosen. I do not think there would be any insurmountable difficulty were there to be a general change in procedure. Those that require discussion could be easily identified and the rest could be formally enacted.

As the debate has widened, it is well to remind the House of one particular difficulty which is often advocated as the reason for the provision for orders being prescribed in a different form of legislation, that is, because of the delays when the House is not sitting where the making of an order may be particularly urgent, or where it may be necessary to change an order provision at very short notice. There is a provision in some legislation whereby an order is made and comes into force immediately; it may be annulled if a motion proposing its annulment is put to the House any time within the next 21 sitting days, but without prejudice to anything which had been done while it was in force. That was one of the procedures we looked at but we did not think that in this case that provision was necessary. Obviously if the Minister or the Government were considering extending the remit of the Ombudsman they ought to be able to order their affairs so that they could put forward the motion during the sitting time of the House. I can envisage other areas where because of changed circumstances of an urgent nature, it might be necessary for a Minister to make an order which could come into effect immediately. In certain legislation that type of provision would have to remain even if there were to be a general change.

The other option we considered was to reduce the 21 day provision for the draft orders to lie on the Table of the House to seven days but it was felt that certain Members might consider seven sitting days too short a time to enable them to consider a matter which might be complex. On balance it was decided to advance this type of change. When this matter was being discussed by the Government there was general goodwill towards the idea of changes such as this in the order procedure where it was feasible and would not inhibit the operation of Government.

As a result of this draft legislation the Attorney General was asked to look at the order machinery generally to see if a procedure which involves the House more might be arrived at, if not for existing legislation at least for future legislation, and with the instructions that one enabling piece of legislation might be introduced which could cover the core of existing legislation. While some of this morning's discussion might not be relevant to the narrower areas of this Bill as it stands, it will be of interest and will be very helpful to the Attorney General and I give Deputies an undertaking that I will bring this morning's discussion to his attention.

There is possibly a role for a committee to examine this matter, but I am not sure that the Committee on Procedure and Privileges ——

It is within the terms of reference of the Committee on Legislation.

I am glad to hear that Deputies are referring complaints to the Ombudsman. When we debated this matter some time ago I said I hoped that over the passage of time a tradition would develop whereby Members would refer a number of constituents' complaints to the Ombudsman and that that development would enable Deputies to devote more time to their parliamentary duties. Deputy Harney said she had referred six complaints to the Ombudsman. That might seem to imply that some 800 or 900 of the 1,300 complaints have come from the Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas on a third party basis, but that is not the case. I do not have the statistics to hand but I know from discussions with the Ombudsman that the number of complaints referred to him by Members as a proportion of the whole is relatively small.

I did not refer directly to him. I told my constituents to get in touch with him.

That information would not appear in the statistics. Deputy Taylor mentioned people's knowledge of the Ombudsman operation. So far, 1,300 complaints have been received in the first ten months. This compares more than favourably with international statistics. We provided a relatively handsome sum of money in the Ombudsman Vote for advertising purposes. Possibly because the Ombudsman had to change from temporary to permanent premises during the year he did not feel disposed to spend a great deal of that money in the early part of the year but in the last few weeks I have noticed small advertisements in the national and local newspapers. I gather the Ombudsman hopes to expend the provision for advertising before the end of the financial year. We are providing an advertising budget in the Ombudsman Vote in the 1985 Estimates which will be put before the House shortly. As the Deputy said, it is important that the activities of the Ombudsman be advertised not just by media advertising, but it is his intention to have posters and items of that nature produced which might be made available to community information centres and possibly schools.

What about the application forms?

I would be more than apprehensive if a notice was inserted on application forms reminding the general public of the existence of the office of Ombudsman. So far it has been impossible to establish the number of different types of forms in existence in this country. We have 30,000 civil servants and I suspect we have one form for every civil servant, some of which are used much more widely than others. If at the end of each application form attention was drawn to what is in effect the court of last appeal, I am not sure there would be any work for the District Court.

Ignorance must never be justified. The fact that people do not know something is not a reason for keeping them in ignorance forever.

The difficulty with the Ombudsman is that he may deal with the complaint only after a person has exausted the normal channels of appeal or complaint. If we draw attention to the Ombudsman on the initial application form there may be a danger that an enormous bulk of complaints would be sent to him much earlier than would be allowed within his remit. In other words, he would be snowed under. Perhaps a final refusal decision is being made — as happens with planning decisions in local authorities where notice of the right to appeal to An Bord Pleanála is inserted at the bottom of the notices — and it could be very useful to draw people's attention to the existence of the Ombudsman. That is a matter to which I will give consideration.

On the question of publicity for the work and functions of the Ombudsman I was pleased to hear the Minister say that he speaks particularly in country areas and is reported in local newspapers. That is to be welcomed. What is required and what is very helpful from a publicity point of view is not so much talking about the generality of his work, although that is important but the kind of thing that would bring home the situation is if one type of case was reported in full. For example, a citizen might have a problem with the Department of Social Welfare and, while not reporting the names but giving the facts and the outcome of the work done by the Ombudsman, it would have more relevance for the ordinary person reading about it. He could relate to what happened and, if necessary, he could use the office of the Ombudsman to achieve redress for himself.

The ordinary citizen has difficulty in dealing with the executive branch of Government, with the Civil Service. There is not always the degree of assistance given to members of the public that one would wish. In many Departments, and particularly with regard to the Department of Social Welfare, people complain that they get short shrift particularly from officers dealing with supplementary benefits.

People also have great difficulty in obtaining information from Government Departments and even Members of this House find a great reluctance on the part of civil servants to give information about work in the Departments. Very often this extends from the Minister downwards. Information from the Civil Service to the public should be much more readily forthcoming. A defensive attitude pervades many echelons of the Civil Service that has them protecting their corner, afraid to be frank and candid and to give full information about matters that affect the public. The Ombudsman can be of help in that regard. He can assist members of the public to obtain information from Government Departments that may affect them vitally. The role of the Ombudsman should be used and expanded to the fullest extent towards achieving that objective.

The defensive attitude to which the Deputy referred is, in my view, indefensible.

Presumably the Ombudsman will make a number of recommendations in the annual report to which the Minister referred. He said that out of 1,300 cases some 850 were valid. I should imagine there are anomalies in much of our legislation which the Ombudsman will examine, but I do not know if the Minister has given thought to this aspect.

In regard to problems regarding obtaining information from Departments, it would be unfair to criticise Departments, particularly the Department of Social Welfare, which is located in seven or eight different parts of the city. When the Ombudsman was appointed I said it would be desirable to have a number of information centres where the public could speak to people who were trained to deal with them. At the moment when one goes into a Government Department one speaks to the person who is least qualified because the last person in is usually on the desk. If there were information centres in the various Departments comprising senior people they could deal with a range of problems or at least give information to the person concerned. This would cut out many of the problems for the Minister's office and also for public representatives. It would also allow the Ombudsman and public representatives to deal with the real problems and not the many cases that arise from misunderstandings.

I should like to support what my colleague——

We are debating section 1 which relates to the making of orders but we seem to be moving away from that now.

As other people have strayed slightly and as the Minister has replied to previous points, let me just say that I support what Deputy Ahern has said about an information section. There is no point in exaggerating the complaints that are made against the public service. I am one of those Deputies who believes they do a good job. The complaints are concentrated in a few small areas and in particular they refer to delays in having cases dealt with. Much of this could be eliminated if there was an information centre, members of the public could phone and find out where they should go to get basic information regarding their entitlement. That would cut down on the complaints and also on the work of many public representatives who, at the moment, fill that roll. In fairness to the public service they deserve to have an information centre of some kind where people could get basic information. I am not talking about the average person who works behind the desk — here I want to compliment the Minister who has introduced the identification system — but I am talking about people at a fairly senior level who know what people are entitled to and can give the necessary information.

Question put and agreed to.
Section 2 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and passed.