Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 6 Nov 1997

Vol. 482 No. 5

Annual Report of Ombudsman: Statements (Resumed).

When I last spoke on this subject, I referred to the fact that there were more complaints about local authorities to the Ombudsman in 1996 than previously. I was surprised by this because one normally expects issues concerning county councillors and council officials to be resolved locally. However, a good example was given in the report where responsibility for dealing with the flooding of a house in County Galway was in dispute. The householder concerned did not accept he was responsible for dealing with the problem and thought the council was responsible but it did not accept that. The Ombudsman acted as referee and recommended the council contribute £3,000 towards relieving the flooding problems in that person's house. It is interesting that the Ombudsman now receives more complaints regarding local authority matters. In many ways these are the most important matters because they are local. There will be an increase in the number of other local authority areas which are brought to the attention of the Ombudsman. This does not mean that the role of public representatives will be undermined.

There was a 10 per cent increase in the number of complaints in 1996, bringing the figure to over 3,000. One could argue that this is a small number in comparison to the number of inquiries received by public representatives. The Ombudsman is attempting to introduce clinics in various parts of the country. I welcome the fact that more use will be made of local radio and newspapers to highlight the role of the Ombudsman and the fact that the public can lodge complaints at these offices. This will become more important in the future.

The report raises issues concerning school transport. This is topical given the serious accident which occurred yesterday involving a school bus. The report notes that school transport regulations have not changed since 1966-7. The Government must look at this in relation to the fall in population. The Ombudsman has taken up many issues relating to school transport and has recommended a course of action for school boards of management in County Galway who are trying to establish or retain school transport services.

The issue of overcrowding on school transport will become more important. This morning's radio report noted that a seat on a school bus is intended to seat two children. However, in many cases there are three children to a seat. This can lead to overcrowding and jostling and pupils being suspended from school buses. This area will have to be examined by the Government.

Previous reports by the Ombudsman made recommendations concerning social welfare entitlements. This report notes that 50 per cent of complaints related to this subject. In particular, there were many complaints concerning the pension entitlements of the self-employed, including those running small businesses and small farms. Some farmers feel discriminated against because they have not been able to make contributions for ten years before reaching 66 years of age. The Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs is working hard on this issue and I hope he will be able to resolve the unfair treatment of these people and allow them to receive pensions on reaching 66 years of age.

The social welfare issue also involves community care. That is an area which will be highlighted to a greater extent by the public, public representatives and the Ombudsman's office because, with an ageing population, a greater number of complaints relating to this area are being made to the Ombudsman. The stark situation regarding the carer's allowance is that, while it is an excellent provision, the means test has unfortunately prevented many people from receiving that payment. On the other hand, while the maximum payment for those in a nursing home is £120, which is a sizeable payment, many people are not entitled to it because the family of the elderly person must be means tested by the local health board. While supports exist in schemes, such as the carer's allowance and the nursing home subvention, and of course in the provision of full-time care and attention in hospital, which could be in the order of £300 per week where that is necessary, it appears that the question of value for money may not be addressed. I do not know whether there is a role here for the Ombudsman, but I favour any system which helps a person to be looked after in the home and that is why I have always felt — not just because Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats are in Government now — that the carer's allowance should not involve a means test. While the scheme is means tested I hope that the Minister will move, as other Ministers have done in the past, towards a situation where more income will be disregarded to allow a greater uptake of the carer's allowance.

The home help scheme has been disgracefully implemented by the health boards. Some health boards pay only £1.40 per hour for home help whereas the rate in my health board is £2.20 for a maximum of nine hours, so that a home helper may receive a maximum payment of £19.80 per week. That is very little and shows the appalling nature of the home help system. The Ombudsman, who has been dealing with these kind of issues in the community and home care areas, has seen the number of complaints increase over the years and the Government must address them. I hope there will be good news in relation to some of these issues in the forthcoming budget on 3 December. If we cannot resolve all the questions relating to community and home care, at least we will move towards their resolution.

Various social welfare schemes have also been highlighted in the Ombudsman's report. I was interested in a recent press statement by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Ahern, about the number of existing free schemes for which many qualifying elderly people do not apply. In particular he referred to the free telephone rental scheme. This is an excellent scheme. The Government announced measures to reduce the cost of installing a telephone and provide extra units. It is my hope, and that of the Minister, that we will be able to encourage more people to apply for the scheme which is particularly important for people living alone. That scheme, in conjunction with the neighbourhood watch scheme, the community alert scheme and the schemes which provide locks, bolts and pendants to the elderly, is very important.

While the majority of the complaints in the Ombudsman's report relate to social welfare, that does not mean that the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is an unfriendly Department — on the contrary, it provides an excellent service and we have a fine Minister in Deputy Ahern. The officials in the Department are excellent and the structure of social welfare offices, employment exchanges and telephone services is useful and important. I hope they will be used even more, particularly by the elderly.

The Office of the Ombudsman should look into the lack of a national system of medical card appeals. Each health board has its own practice at present. We also have two systems of housing repairs for the elderly — at local authority level and within the health board — and any duplication should be removed. There were many complaints about Telecom Éireann and An Post and both bodies are trying to address them. Rural Deputies are aware of the major problems with having post delivered from Dublin to country areas. It is difficult for business people who receive post in the late afternoon and are expected to reply within an hour.

I hope the issues highlighted in the Ombudsman's report are resolved by the Government. Both the report and this debate have been helpful. I have great regard for the office and hope we will be in constant touch with the Ombudsman in future.

I welcome this debate, which every year allows us to have a say about areas to which more attention should be paid, although it is not my intention to cover every area. I have read the report thoroughly and it shows a 10.5 per cent increase in the numbers contacting the Ombudsman, which shows there are problems in all areas. The bulk of these problems, involving some 3,414 complaints, relate to the county councils, Departments, etc., whereas there were 645 complaints about the private sector. The Department of Social Welfare, as it was then called, was a frequent cause of complaint.

I have criticisms of the Ombudsman related to the agriculture section of the report but I will first deal with the issue of medical cards, mentioned by Deputy Kitt. A medical card is important to a low income family, particularly if it has small children or its members have health problems. Some small farmers with about 50 to 70 acres receive a small social welfare payment but do not have proper audited accounts. The Department of Health and Children has given a direction to health boards that they are entitled to make an assessment of their income. That is wrong and cannot be accepted. I have dealt with many such cases and I do not criticise the health board officials in my county for this but the Department for giving such a direction. An assessment may involve a social welfare officer noting that a field contains ten bullocks or 100 ewes and imagining that a huge income derives from them. Those animals are not income — they are capital, not profit. There may be £100 profit in each of those bullocks or £50 in each of the ewes but that is all.

In some cases over the past 12 months in view of the serious state of the cattle trade, people depending on suckler herds have made a loss. That is unacceptable. If we accept it children may be neglected. A local doctor will charge £14 to £16 and if people do not have the money to pay the GP they may put off visiting the doctor. They do not want to feel humiliated. There may also be a charge for medication and people with low incomes unable to afford the charges may avoid visiting the doctor.

I will contact the Ombudsman on this issue because I have had a number of arguments with the health board about it. It should not be entitled to make income assessments. Assessments are simple accounts which should be easy to follow. However, I have been informed that the health board is not prepared to accept simple accounts of receipted income and expenditure. A reasonable official should accept such accounts from a client, particularly a client in receipt of a social welfare benefit or allowance because the social welfare official will have examined thoroughly the means of the individual involved before awarding the social welfare payment. This issue must be examined especially in view of the sudden downturn in farm incomes. Circumstances were different two or three years ago before the BSE crisis but they have changed dramatically in a short period.

Complaints about Telecom Éireann usually relate to large telephone bills. I am aware of the case of a woman who received a telephone bill for £4,500. I made representations on her behalf and although another bill of such magnitude has not been sent to her she remains in fear of receiving one. The woman lives on a widow's pension with her son who is a reasonable fellow and denies having made the telephone calls. There is no reasonable explanation for the large bill. The Ombudsman has a difficult job because Telecom Éireann claims the bill has been calculated and sent out automatically according to its system.

This phenomenon needs investigation. I come across one or two such cases each year and I am sure my experience is shared by many other Deputies. I would not say Telecom Éireann is unreasonable but customers should have a means of challenging unduly large bills. People become very nervous when they receive large bills.

The Ombudsman did not have many cases concerning the county councils, which is a credit to the local authorities. I believe this is because a local authority comprises a body of elected representatives who can sort out problems with the local authority officials. The low number of complaints is a credit to the councillors and the management of the local authorities. Many Deputies have experience as councillors and would be aware of the importance of contact with local people.

The Ombudsman provides an important service for many people. I have never been other than constructive when critical and I criticise the Ombudsman in respect of agriculture which accounted for 310 complaints, a decrease from 400 or 500 complaints last year. It is disturbing that only 23 complaints were resolved while assistance was provided in 22 complaints, 43 complaints were discontinued and 79 were not upheld. Over the past three years I have diligently fought to resolve three cases with the Ombudsman but have failed to do so. As late as yesterday I contacted his office, told him I would be speaking on this matter today and intended to criticise him in relation to resolving these cases.

I am glad there is an Ombudsman in Europe and that there is ongoing contact between him and our Ombudsman. The Ombudsman's report says:

The relationship between the European Ombudsman and national Ombudsman is one which I value and it strengthens the opportunity for Irish citizens, as citizens of Europe, to air their grievances against those community institutions or bodies which are within the European Ombudsman's remit.

I hope this continues as it is very important.

One case I raised with the Ombudsman related to a man who applied for premia for approximately 160 ewes. An inspector of the Department of Agriculture and Food inspected the herd. However, the regulation had changed from the previous year to a situation where if more than 15 per cent of the flock presented were unacceptable to the inspector then the grant was withheld. It is a serious issue that the grant can be lost for two years. The man lost his grant because 16 per cent of his flock was unacceptable. Every year the inspector excluded up to 20 ewes from the flock for grant purposes but he did not inform the farmer that the regulation changed to a 15 per cent ceiling. We fought the case with the Department which refused to give in and then with the Ombudsman who also refused to give in. This raises the issue of proportionality.

Another case centring on area aid was more serious and involved a father and two sons. On an annual basis they took a ten acre plot from a neighbour. In the year in question they took the plot and included it on an area aid map they sent to the Department. One of the sons had a falling out with the owner of the ten acres who in June refused to allow the son to till the land and gave it to another farmer. That farmer also included it on his area aid map resulting in the plot appearing on two maps. The father and two sons did not inform the Department about what happened or did not think to do so and were disallowed £17,000 in grants over a two year period on the basis of the claim being fraudulent. Penalties should have been imposed but it is unacceptable to do a farmer and his two sons out of £17,000 in any one year. It is a very serious situation and again proportionality becomes an issue. I raised this issue with the Ombudsman but failed to resolve it.

A third case concerned an application for premia for ten month cattle which were sent to the Department with ages, etc., included. The application was accepted and the grant paid. An application for premia for the same cattle at 22 months were also made, but the ages were not consistent with the ten months because the farmer did not keep the age but did keep the numbers.