Dáil Éireann - Volume 353 - 07 November, 1984

Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill, 1984: Second Stage.

Minister for the Public Service (Mr. Boland): I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

I am glad to say that the Ombudsman, even in his short period of operation, has proved a resounding success. To date, he has already received approximately 1,300 complaints and has dealt with more than 1,000 of them. He has already, therefore, made a major impact on behalf of citizens in their dealings with bureaucracy. The volume of complaints he has received has shown how justified was the all-party agreement to establish the office of Ombudsman. The high number of complaints finalised is a tribute to the efficiency with which the Ombudsman, [1301] assisted by his capable staff, has discharged his responsibility.

Of course, the success of the Ombudsman's office depends, to a great extent, on his receiving the full co-operation of Government Departments and, indeed, from every individual civil servant. I need hardly draw attention to the fact that any absence of co-operation would be tantamount to frustrating the intentions of this House.

Before turning to the matter on hands, I should like to say, however, that the relationships of the bureaucracy with citizens is an area which demands constant vigilance by the Government and the Oireachtas. State agencies exist to serve the public who ultimately, of course, pay for them. I have always believed that those who pay the piper must call the tune. We must be particularly careful, therefore, to ensure that, where the organs of the State touch on the daily lives of citizens, they do not forget their basic purpose, whatever their organisational form or the freedom of operation which they have. The principle of service must be a paramount consideration in the operation of all State agencies and there can be no relaxation of this principle in any way.

To turn now to the Bill before the House, the two Schedules to the Ombudsman Act, 1980, indicate the bodies which are subject or not subject to investigation by the Ombudsman.

Amendment of these Schedules is effected by order. Under Section 4 (10) (c) of the Act, the draft order must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. The order cannot be made if a resolution disapproving the draft is passed by either House within 21 sitting days.

This time requirement, however, can lead to delays in making orders. Depending on circumstances — frequency of House sittings, holidays, timing of order and so on — it can take up to five months to make necessary amendments to the Schedules. In many cases, there would be widespread agreement on these amendments. In some cases, the public interest would require early action by the Ombudsman. Given his vital role as a [1302] means of redress for citizens, as I have already outlined, it is important that he be allowed to deal quickly and effectively with relevant issues.

The basic purpose of this Bill, therefore, is to speed up the procedural arrangements for amending the Schedules to the Ombudsman Act, 1980. This is particularly important in the context of making changes in the scope of the Ombudsman's remit, on which I intend to bring proposals before the House shortly.

Where the need for an independent examination of the bureaucracy's operations in particular areas is clearly demonstrated, we must ensure that the Ombudsman is permitted to respond quickly. I am sure nobody in this House would countenance a situation where, because of procedural requirements, the Ombudsman was unduly delayed in acting quickly on behalf of the interests of citizens in their dealings with the bureaucracy.

There is one other aspect to this Bill which I regard as very important. Its provisions envisage the active participation by the Oireachtas in future decisions affecting the Ombudsman's remit. All changes in this remit would require a positive motion of approval by the Oireachtas which, in turn, would give Members the opportunity of making their views known.

This is how it should be. The operations of the Ombudsman touch the daily lives of citizens and offer them a central focus in seeking redress against administrative malpractice. It is right, therefore, that the Oireachtas should be fully involved in determining the scope of these operations.

It might be worth the while of the Oireachtas or of some of its committees to examine at some stage the procedure adopted in so much of our legislation whereby draft orders are tabled and remain, usually undebated, for 21 days on the Table of the House. I suggest that the type of amendment we are proposing in this Bill might be employed in other legislation so that the Oireachtas could [1303] play a more positive role in the confirmation of orders than is the case now in many instances.

For this reason, I am happy to submit myself to the scrutiny of the House each time that such changes are proposed here. As Deputies will be aware, this represents a significant change in present arrangements. In a way, these assign an essentially passive role to the Oireachtas in that they put the onus on it to take the initiative in deciding whether to pass a motion of disapproval where amendments arise.

I consider, therefore, that the changes which the Bill will bring about will make a positive contribution to the effective operation of the Ombudsman and that it will also fully involve the Oireachtas in relevant decision making in this area. For these reasons, I strongly commend it to the House.

Mr. B. Ahern: I agree fully with the Minister on the technical aspects of this Bill and I agree, too, with his remarks regarding the procedure whereby so many items can go through by way of order and without being debated here. Whether this tactic or device was used for one reason or another down through the years, it has outlived its usefulness. There are two reasons for changing that procedure. One is that it can delay something urgent and, secondly, something that should be debated can slip through, the latter being the one with which I would be most concerned. For that reason I support the Bill and I welcome the opportunity to review briefly the operations to date of the office of Ombudsman.

However, I am disappointed to some extent that the Minister is not at this stage extending the operations of that office to sections of the administration outside the Civil Service. I have in mind local authorities, the health boards and the non-commercial State-sponsored bodies.

The Minister will be aware that when the proposals for the setting up of the office of Ombudsman were being discussed by the all-party informal committee, [1304] the view was expressed strongly that the office should cover not only central Government administration but should be permitted to accept complaints against local authorities, health boards and non-commercial State-sponsored bodies. The Chairman of the committee, the former Deputy Richie Ryan, suggested that it might be best to give the Ombudsman a limited area of work initially and then to add to it in the light of the operation of the system. According to the report of the proceedings, the Minister's view prevailed and the all-party committee, while suggesting that they could “see no grounds in principle for excluding local government from the Ombudsman purview” went on to say that in the early stages a case could be made on the grounds of cautious pragmatism for temporarily excluding local authority matters. While the all-party committee were willing, with a little ministerial arm twisting, to permit the temporary exclusion of local government from the Ombudsman's jurisdiction, they caution that a temporary exclusion of this kind could not be permitted to harden into permanency.

Broadly similar arguments were put forward for bringing the health boards and non-commercial State-sponsored bodies into the Ombudsman's jurisdiction on a phased basis. When it came to translate the proposals put forward by the all-party committee into legislation Fianna Fáil had returned to power. On the eve of the Government's introduction of their proposals for an Ombudsman Bill, which I am sure the House will well remember, Deputy Ryan attempted to make some political capital out of the Ombudsman office by introducing a Private Member's Bill. In spite of the Deputy's advice to the all-party committee when he was Minister, he proposed virtually universal administrative jurisdiction for the Ombudsman. When the Fianna Fáil proposals were debated much was made by Fine Gael and Labour of the fact that the Ombudsman's remit would not run to local government matters. Deputies on the far side of the House made liberal sounding appeals for an [1305] immediate extension of the Ombudsman's remit to all and sundry.

The Fianna Fáil Minister of State at the time, Deputy Calleary, who steered the Ombudsman legislation through the House, indicated that neither he nor the Government had any objection to extending the Ombudsman's jurisdiction but that there existed the practical problem of consulting with the democratically elected representatives in local government. Deputy Calleary undertook to initiate a series of consultations with local authorities on that issue and to come back to the House within three months. Unfortunately he never got back to that because an election intervened. I know the consultations took place in the spring of 1981. With very few exceptions, as the Minister and his Department officials know, local authorities were positive in their attitude to the extension of the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman into their areas. The way was open for the appointment of an Ombudsman with full jurisdiction at that stage. Before any appointment could be made there was a general election and the incoming Coalition regime, after years of preaching on the issue from the safety of Opposition, pulled the plug on the Ombudsman — note that it was a Labour Minister — and deleted £247,000 from the 1981 Estimates thereby ending it for that stage.

The result of the Coalition action was to delay the appointment of the Ombudsman for a further two years. We now have an Ombudsman. His office is fully operational. It appears from listening to Deputies who are regularly in touch with him that he is doing a good job. The office should have its jurisdiction extended without further delay. The administrative injustice that a citizen suffers at the hands of local government, health boards or State-sponsored bodies is no less because it occurs outside of a Department of State. In that a citizen can count on the protection of this House through parliamentary questions when he is dealing with central Government, it can be argued that injustices which occur in other areas are greater because there is less accountability. This is true in the [1306] case of non-commercial State bodies where the citizen does not have the benefit of registering a protest by taking business elsewhere.

One area where a number of my colleagues continually have problems is with An Bord Telecom. Replies which my colleagues have received are far from what is desirable for an elected Member of Parliament to receive. Without naming some of the chief executives, courtesy would be a good lesson for them to learn.

As far as the majority of citizens are concerned public administration is a seamless garment. A citizen suffering a grievance, whether real or imaginery, does not distinguish between central and local government. In many cases citizens' dealings with local authorities and health boards are more frequent and sensitive than their dealings with central Government, except for social welfare. Logic dictates that citizens given the protection of the Ombudsman in one area of government should be given the same protection in all areas of public administration.

We have much to be proud of in our public service. In 1980 when we created the office of Ombudsman we established an officer who was charged with the task of carrying the light of public scrutiny into all areas of public administration. If the Ombudsman who is so empowered highlights something which is bad then it can be corrected. If he highlights something which is good no harm can come of his highlighting it. It is almost a quarter of a century since the first discussions on the creation of an Irish Ombudsman got underway. The time has come to extend the office in this manner and create an Ombudsman with the power, function and jurisdiction enjoyed by the officer's counterpart in other countries. I welcome the Bill and hope that, at an early date, the Minister brings forward proposals in line with some of the things I have mentioned.

Mr. Taylor: I welcome the Bill. Apart from the technicality of the alteration it gives an opportunity to review the role of the Ombudsman, how it has operated to date and how the office could be [1307] extended. It raises the question: what type of person would best be suited to fulfil the role of Ombudsman? It might be argued that it should be a lawyer who would know his rights under the Bill and know how he could probe to the best possible extent what goes on in Government Departments and the other organisations he was empowered to investigate. It might be argued that it should be a civil servant of high rank or a retired civil servant who would have a great deal of expertise as regards the operation of the Civil Service which would enable him to probe the dark and deep depths of the Civil Service and bring to light, for members of the public, exactly what goes on and why it goes on.

Mr. Wilson: It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

Mr. Taylor: It is interesting that the first Ombudsman appointed fell into neither of these categories but was a media man. He was concerned with public relations and communications with the media. That was the right decision. I am not sure what the intention was in appointing a person of those qualifications but it seems that if the role of the Ombudsman is to be really effective, his effectiveness will derive from his ability to focus both public attention and parliamentary attention on citizens' grievances. In other words, this system will not be really effective unless it comes across in the media to citizens and parliamentarians. The record on this to date is a bit of a disappointment. The office has not received the amount of publicity that I would have wished. A higher profile in the media of the work done by the Ombudsman would have been desirable. The idea is that the Civil Service administration would thereby be made much more sensitive to public opinion than is the case. Public service, by and large, is not sensitive to public opinion and in so far as the Ombudsman to date has failed to do that, he has fallen down to that extent.

[1308] The Ombudsman faces a great difficulty in breaking down the barriers under which civil servants hide behind ministerial responsibility. Mistakes are frequently made in Departments by civil servants at all levels. Injustices are perpetrated on members of the public but it is very rare, if ever, that a Minister will come into the House and say that a mistake has been made. During the relatively short period in which I have been a Member of this House I cannot recall that ever happening. Selected cases of a serious nature in which findings of injustice or whatever have been made by the Ombudsman should receive a high level of publicity on an anonymous basis. I do not mean that the name of the complainant should be given publicity or even that the names of the civil servants who may have been involved in a finding of injustice or bias, incompetence or delay should be mentioned but, in certain cases, the details should be reported and made fully available.

It is important that the Ombudsman should have a deep and detailed knowledge of the workings of the Civil Service; otherwise he cannot do his job with any effectiveness or degree of thoroughness. He should have a role in insisting that Departments make the rules and regulations intelligible to members of the public which does not pertain at present. It would be helpful also if a special Oireachtas committee or one of the existing committees could call in the Ombudsman and his officials from time to time to discuss his work and means by which he could keep up the pressure on Departments to ensure that the needs and rights of the citizens are protected.

The Bill was brought in for one purpose, to vary the procedure under which the Minister could make his order from the negative procedure under which the House may annul a draft order into the positive one under which the House must affirmatively adopt a resolution establishing and setting up the order. That as a principle is to be welcomed as far as it goes but it calls into question the whole concept of ministerial orders, the manner [1309] in which they are made and the degree of effectiveness and control which the House exercises over the making of these orders, which is virtually nil. A vast amount of legislation in the form of ministerial orders is enacted into law which the House never sees, has no opportunity to debate and, most critically of all, has no opportunity to amend. There ought to be consistency in the method by which ministerial orders are made and put up for the consideration of this House one way or the other. At the moment there is a hotch-potch of arrangements. There is the negative resolution that the Minister is excluding here, there is the positive resolution that he is introducing here and there are also other methods which are used occasionally but there is no consistency in the system.

The positive method proposed here is welcomed. I wish to criticise the way a particular clause dealing with the approval or rejection of ministerial orders is buried in a Bill. A TD looking at the Bill cannot see exactly where the most important matter of ministerial orders is dealt with. It is buried in the middle of a Bill as is the case here. You find quite aften in a long Bill, there is one system of negative adoption and another of positive adoption appearing in different parts of the Bill. I often wonder if this is a deliberate exercise on the part of the Civil Service or draftsman to try to make things more difficult for us when, under pressure of time, we do our best to examine proposals for legislation.

Even though the Minister's amendment is undoubtedly an improvement which I welcome because it means draft orders come up for positive consideration and are debated and voted on if necessary, it does not get over one basic critical difficulty — it does not give the House an opportunity to amend the order. The order is put up, a resolution comes up and it is open to the House either to adopt or reject it. These orders are legislation, they are laws which are every bit as effective and widely binding as an Act of the Oireachtas. It is open to a Member of the House to put down an amendment to a Bill but Members cannot [1310] amend one of these draft orders making laws which will affect everybody.

Mr. Wilson: Except by amending the statute on which they are based.

Mr. Taylor: Unless the statute made provision for the House to amend the order as it came up, the enabling statute would have to say that the order coming up for discussion and resolution could be amended by the House. The enabling statute would have to specifically provide that.

Mr. Wilson: The statute could be amended which would define the nature of the ministerial order.

Mr. Taylor: The enabling statute would have to provide that the order in draft which the Minister puts up would be open to amendment. If that was done it would be welcome and most helpful. However, the enabling sections never provide that and some consideration ought to be given to this matter. A large part of the problem is that the volume of law made nominally by the Minister but factually by the Civil Service is vast. It could be 20 or 30 times the volume of law which is enacted by the Houses of the Oireachtas. However, it is still law. A huge amount of that material deals with routine matters. It would be fair to say Members of the House would not be particularly interested in the bulk of them. But included among that bulk are a considerable number of measures, rules, orders and regulations which, if Deputies were aware of them, would be of intense interest to them. The logistical problem of sifting through that massive volume of Civil Service regulations to find the part they would be interested in would be overwhelming.

It seems to me that a procedure should be devised under which the regulations and draft orders could be brought in a more simplified and clear manner to the attention of Deputies. At the moment none of these orders or regulations is brought to the attention of Members of the House. If any Deputy wants to see [1311] what is proposed or what is going on, he has to go to the Library, not to the Table of the House as it is referred to, and locate it there. It is not left on the table in the Library either. I think it is kept in a locked cupboard and it requires some degree of positive effort to go to the Library and locate it.

These orders and regulations are not circulated in the way Bills are circulated. I realise that it would be a major operation to circulate them. Perhaps an annotated version of the proposed regulations could be circulated to Members of the House who would then have some chance of picking out the matters of concern and interest to them.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Legislation are given a role in their terms of reference to try in some way to supervise the delegated legislation and ministerial orders. As the Chairman of that committee I would be the first to admit that the committee have not been particularly successful in playing an effective role in that regard. Much more co-operation will be required from the Departments and from the Ministers if we are to be enabled to perform a useful and effective role. However, the fact that regulations to be made by this Minister on this issue will come up for debate in the House is to be welcomed, as far as it goes. I hope the Minister's colleagues in the other Departments will take a leaf out of his book and insist that uniformity on this procedure will be adopted and that a similar procedure will be adopted throughout the entire legislative system. That would be some small step forward.

Mr. Wilson: A couple of minutes will suffice to enable me to make the point I want to make. Like our spokesman I welcome the Bill. I should like to pay tribute to the incumbent Ombudsman for the reputation he has earned for himself. The emphasis in the Minister's speech is on the bureaucrats and the citizens. I want to mention bureaucrats.

I had occasion to write to the Ombudsman about a civil servant who felt he was [1312] unjustly treated in his office and subjected to various pressures to which, on a human rights basis, he should not have been subjected. I got a reply from the Ombudsman stating that he was precluded from dealing with this matter because civil servants are excluded from the provisions of the Act. The Minister said:

The basic purpose of this Bill, therefore, is to speed up the procedural arrangements for amending the Schedules to the Ombudsman Act, 1980. This is particularly important in the context of making changes in the scope of the Ombudsman's remit, on which I intend to bring proposals before the House shortly.

I want to urge the Minister to extend the Ombudsman's remit to the relationship between civil servants, superiors and inferiors, and inferiors and superiors. Deputy Ahern has already dealt with the public service and local government service. If a civil servant comes to me and I write to the Minister, which is the protocol in the matter, in 99 cases out of 100 the Minister refers the matter to the person in charge of the office who originally caused the complaint to be made. In such cases there is no way that a fair, objective, dispassionate judgment will come back to the Minister. He will write to me, or to any other Member of the House, in the terms suggested to him by the civil servant. When the Minister is having a look at the Act I urge him to include civil servants in the remit.

With regard to what Deputy Taylor said, I can see a great deal of sense in his suggestion that ministerial orders should be subject to some kind of review. If the Oireachtas had to pass a Bill covering every specific point the whole situation would be impossible. From experience in Government I submit that it is very difficult to get your elbow in, so to speak, and get your Bill before the House. Generally there is a long queue of Ministers with Bills, all very important, but in one Minister's eyes his Bill is more important than his fellow Ministers' Bills. [1313] We could load the House with legislation that can be covered by ministerial orders and statutory instruments. I urge the Minister that when he is expanding the remit — and I understand that is what he will be doing — to make it applicable to civil servants.

Mrs. Owen: I welcome this Bill. We must ensure that the Ombudsman's own house is in order and that there cannot be any criticism or complaint about the legislative measures that apply to him. It is appropriate that we should see that the Bill is in its correct form. I welcome this amending Bill which will allow the Minister to bring about changes expeditiously.

Like Deputy Wilson I also welcome his indication that he intends to make changes in the remit of the Ombudsman very speedily. I am sure he will take into account what Deputies have said. The Ombudsman can take action where something has been done to a member of the public without proper authority, or on irrelevant grounds, or as a result of negligence, or carelessness, and so on. There are many areas where those criteria apply. In some cases people cannot go to the Ombudsman and seek redress if they feel action has been taken against them on irrelevant grounds, or if that action was contrary to fair and sound administration. I am thinking about the areas we politicians hear about in our clinics. We have to tell our constituents, regretfully, that these matters are not in the remit of the Ombudsman and that they will not have recourse to his services. Areas such as the health boards and An Bord Telecom might be considered by the Minister for inclusion in the remit of the Ombudsman.

Unfortunately, in recent times people have become more critical of the structures of the State, sometimes criticism without validity. The role of the Ombudsman is not only to examine the complaints of the public but also to protect the institutions of the State and ensure that groundless complaints are shown to the complainant to be without foundation. Confidence can thus be restored in the particular State Department under [1314] attack. This is an important role and I hope that the Ombudsman in the annual report which he must lay before this House will refer to areas in which there have been many complaints which have been found to be groundless.

There is another area which I would welcome the Ombudsman making known, not only to Members of the Oirachtas but to the public. I understand that some of the complaints received cannot be dealt with, chiefly because of legislation needing reform. I appeal to him to try to highlight those areas which can only be dealt with by reforming legislation, in social welfare matters or others. It is important for us to use his services to highlight the legislation which, because of pressure on the House, has not been examined. There may be very small anomalies in the legislation, but they can give rise to enormous problems. This function would help us to get our legislative house in order.

The Ombudsman has received 1,300 complaints and has dealt with 1,000. Obviously, one would need a detailed analysis. The public tend to think, when they go to an Ombudsman, that dealing with the problem means solving it in their way. We all know that that cannot always be the case. Perhaps the Department complained about were justified in the action they took. It is a little like taxation reform: everybody talks about it as if it were synonymous with a reduction in taxation, but that is not the case. The credibility of the Ombudsman may be questioned if people do not get the answer which they want, so the function of that office must be made clear.

In a more jocose vein, I have had letters asking if I can attend, send, or recommend people to the Ombudsman. The name itself causes great confusion and I shall not tell the House some of the spellings which have been used. It reminds me somewhat of a well-known advertisement — it is a quare name but it is great stuff. That is the role of the Ombudsman. He may have a strange name and many do not know what it means but are willing to give the functions of his office a chance. I hope that he will [1315] do all that the Minister has indicated, that he will act as a liaison between the structures of the State and the general public so that we can continue to have confidence in our State institutions.

Mr. Calleary: I rise very briefly to give a very warm welcome to this Bill and to agree with a number of other Deputies. As Deputy Taylor has said the number of ministerial orders passing through the House which it has no opportunity to debate makes the House a lot less relevant to those outside. The Minister has today, by bringing forward this amendment, taken a step which will make the House much more relevant to ordinary people, and I congratulate him on that.

I notice that he is thinking in the very near future of making changes in the scope of the remit of the Ombudsman, and this I welcome. During the passage of the Bill, I took into account quite a number of suggestions made by the Opposition. The time is now opportune for the remit to be extended. When the Bill went through, we were all a little doubtful as to how the Ombudsman would operate. Those doubts have finally been laid to rest and the operation has been a tremendous success.

It has been argued that local councillors are all ombudsmen in their own right but local authorities should be taken into the remit of the Ombudsman at this stage. The same applies to the various State and semi-State bodies and particularly, as mentioned by Deputy Ahern, An Bord Telecom and An Post. The time is now right for the prisons also to be included. The Minister will probably run into a tremendous amount of resistance on this, but he should take his courage in his hands and press very hard with the Department of Justice and other Departments involved on the whole question of prisons and prisoners being included in the remit of the Ombudsman.

I ask the Minister to consider seriously Deputy Wilson's suggestion in relation to civil servants. Like that Deputy, I know of a number of cases and one in particular [1316] in which the amount of undue pressure on an individual was unbelievable. That individual is no longer in the Civil Service and that is due to the tremendous pressure under which he was put.

I welcome especially the suggestion that the ministerial order be discussed. Would the Minister investigate whether that order could be changed without changing the main Act? In other words, if the House felt that nine-tenths of the Minister's suggestion was good but asked for some minor alterations to be made, could that be done? That, in essence, is what democracy is all about — the Minister taking on suggestions made by Members of the House, generally made in good faith. The Minister is long enough in office now to know those made in good faith and those politically based. In this case, most suggestions from the Members of the House would be made in good faith and should be taken into account by the Minister when he brings an order before the House. I again welcome the Bill and give it my full support.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister to conclude the Second Stage debate.

Minister for the Public Service (Mr. Boland): I should like to thank the Deputies who have spoken for the welcome given to this measure. At the outset, I congratulate the new Opposition spokesman on the Public Service. I gather that he is also spokesman on Labour. I wish him well in his endeavours.

I should like to thank Deputy Ahern for the constructive manner in which has reacted to this Bill. I am not sure that the present incumbent of the office of Ombudsman would take kindly to being compared to a brand of agricultural produce that is recommended for the treatment of cattle, but, as Deputy Owen suggested, the slogan used to advertise that product perhaps describes the office of Ombudsman relatively well.

Many Deputies who spoke were anxious that I would extend as soon as possible the remit of the Ombudsman. In my opening remarks I indicated to the House that it would be my intention to [1317] come back virtually immediately with proposals for the extension of that remit. That is in line with the commitment I gave last year when the name of the present incumbent was being put forward to the House. Deputy Calleary, as he mentioned during his contribution when introducing this Bill originally, agreed to suggestions that the Ombudsman's remit should be extended to the area of local authorities and health boards within the first three months or so after the Ombudsman would take up duty. I took the view that it was probably impracticable to expect a new office to be created and staffed carrying out a function that was entirely new to the experience of this country and then ask it to enlarge upon its activities within such a relatively short time. However, I said last year that I would hope that within the first year of the Ombudsman's operation we would be in a position to come back and make suggestions regarding the extension of the remit.

The Ombudsman has been in office now for almost ten months. Obviously, the first number of months in the creation of a new office is a particularly testing time for that office and its staff. I think the time is now appropriate to consider the extension of the Ombudsman's remit and I hope that, on the assumption of the speedy passage of this Bill through this and the other House, I will be in a position to come back virtually immediately following clearance by Government with proposals for the extension of the remit.

As is generally known, the Government have always been anxious that the first extension and widening of the remit would involve the local authorities and the health boards. It is no harm to mention that of the 1,300 complaints which the Ombudsman received and of which 1,000 have been dealt with so far, approximately 850 were valid. Of the 450 or so which were invalid the Ombudsman, nevertheless, attempted to deal with quite a number. A quarter of the invalid complaints or somewhere over 100 of the 1,300 complaints received were in connection with local authorities, [1318] although many people would have realised that the local authorities were outside his remit at present. It is interesting that only 6 per cent of the 450 invalid complaints related to health boards. That is an interesting comparison as opposed to the numbers who felt a sense of grievance about some action of the local authorities.

I noticed particularly that Deputy Ahern, Deputy Owen and Deputy Calleary suggested that the Ombudsman remit should also be extended to the operation of Telecom Éireann. That contrasts strangely with some of the original suggestions that the Ombudsman should become involved not only in the Civil Service but in the operation of the local authorities, health boards and non-commercial State bodies. I thought that that was what Deputy Ahern suggested originally. He went on to refer specifically to Telecom Éireann who are and are intended to be a commercial State body. Nonetheless, I take the point made by several Deputies. While this in itself is a new body taking on myriad problems, and it has been in operation technically for only the same length of time as the Ombudsman himself since the beginning of this year, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that during the past year 150,000 complaints were made by subscribers regarding the telephone service and in particular the accounts served upon them. Of that 150,000 complaints only 12,000 have been resolved to the subscribers' satisfaction.

On any law of betting averages I do not accept that there was validity in such a small proportion as 12,000 out of 150,000 complaints, and I accept that an amount of criticism implicit in the suggestion made by several Members of the House regarding the public's dissatisfaction at present with the operation of Telecom Éireann, and in particular their method of billing their subscribers, merits attention. Whether that attention should be afforded through the eye of the Ombudsman being cast upon Telecom Éireann, as it was in the period from July of last year until Christmas because of the way in which the orders were introduced for [1319] setting up of the Ombudsman's office, or whether it should be done through the operation of the users' council which is provided for in the legislation which set up both the Ombudsman and Telecom Éireann, remains to be seen. Certainly in so far as customer satisfaction is concerned it must be a cause for concern to the Oireachtas and public representatives generally that such a high level of complaint and such a low level of resolution as I have outlined should exist at present.

I appreciate the remarks made by Deputy Taylor, Deputy Calleary and other Deputies and I suggest that to some extent they mirror what I said in relation to the introduction of this legislation. It is too bad that so much of our legislation provides that in a passive way, through the tabling of draft orders which very rarely come to be debated, particular and important changes, extensions or contractions in the area of operation of particular legislation, should happen without the positive involvement of the Oireachtas, and for that reason we have introduced this change. I also suggested in my opening remarks that the manner in which orders and regulations are made under various legislation might well receive the attention either of the Oireachtas itself or of some of its component committees, and there are people here in the House who have involvement in certain committees who might have a relevance or interest in this area.

When I invited the Government to agree to the introduction of this legislation my view in relation to this matter appeared to me to be generally shared by Ministers. It is important that this House would be not only relevant but seen to be relevant to the general public. While the provision whereby a draft order could be made and come into force after 21 sitting days, which is seven sitting weeks, which, allowing for breaks and other delays may often end up in delays of up to five or six months as I said at the outset, that does not seem to be relevant any longer in the context of modern life. When, for a specific reason, it is felt necessary to introduce an order initiating [1320] a change authorised by legislation it is not acceptable very often to the general public that that change should take from six to eight months to put into effect especially when, as in the case of an extension of the Ombudsman's remit, after an order comes into effect there is a considerable lead-in delay in the advertising for and obtaining and training of suitable staff. If the Oireachtas in the future wants to carry out changes or extensions they will have to have available a vehicle whereby those changes can be put into effect within a reasonably short time after they are first mooted. Inviting the Oireachtas to take a positive role in the discussion of orders such as this serves to make the Oireachtas more relevant and the views of Members are invited and listened to in a more positive manner.

Some Member referred to cautious pragmatism being advocated by the initial all-party committee that examined the area of the Ombudsman. I am a great believer in pragmatism but one can carry pragmatism to the stage of such cautiousness that one would never initiate any change. Sometimes a small shiver of apprehension runs down the spine of a Minister who advocates a change he or she believes is in the interest of the Parliament, such as this one, to hear Members suggesting that while this is good as far as it goes there are further changes that would make it better. One is inclined to say immediately, “What Pandora's Box have I opened up now for my colleagues or myself?” Deputies Taylor and Calleary suggested that not only should orders be presented in a positive way for discussion by the House, such as this one, but they should be capable not just of acceptance or rejection but of amendment. If one takes the example of the sort of orders for the extension of the remit of the Ombudsman, such as this, I suspect that the only amendment that the House might wish to make would be to extend further the Ombudsman's remit into other areas which might be of interest to the general public but would involve extra cost. They would involve the cost of staffing, offices and so on, a cost on the public purse. That would then involve [1321] the Chair in difficulties with the sponsor of the amendment in that it is not open to a private Member to advocate amendments which constitute a charge or a potential charge on the public purse.

Mr. Taylor: But the order could be excluding a function as well as adding a function.

Mr. Boland: The order may well exclude a function and I suspect that a Minister would endeavour to get the mind of the House. If the House was to suggest strenuously in the course of a debate that a particular area should not be the subject of the Ombudsman's remit it could only be an office holder who was very much out of keeping with the spirit of this type of legislation who would not be prepared to withdraw or suspend a decision on the order before the House so as to consider the views being advocated by Members. However, in general the question of the manner in which orders or regulations are made, or might be made or provided for in legislation in the future is something that might entertain the minds and attention of the House or some of its committees.

Deputy Taylor said he was a little disappointed at the relative lack of publicity given to date to the activities of the Ombudsman. It is fair to point out that the office has been in existence for ten months only and that the incumbent, and his original staff, were in a pioneering role as far as this country was concerned. They had to engage in the best learning activity of all, learning by the experience of doing. They have been particularly busy and so far have had 1,300 complaints. I am aware from conversation, and my perusal of the media, that the Ombudsman has accepted quite a multitude of speaking engagements in various parts of the country, some of which were reported widely in the national press but have been reported in more detail in provincial newspapers through his attendance at provincial centres. I would not have thought that the incumbent was a person who might easily be accused of not having a nice appreciation of the value [1322] of the media. I would suspect that in a progressive way as he sees fit the Ombudsman will use his skills and experience to explain to people the complexities of his office.

There is an important provision in the legislation which obliges the Ombudsman to table an annual report to the Houses of the Oireachtas. I have discussed already with the Ombudsman the advantage of his endeavouring to table his first annual report as early after the 12 months have elapsed as is possible so that the Oireachtas may have an opportunity, which I invite it to take, of discussing in detail the contents of that report. I suspect that Members will find that report very illuminating in the areas of particular complaint.

Deputy Taylor suggested, with much validity, that mistakes made by civil or public servants are never admitted to either in the house or by office holders. That is because of the system under which we operate whereby each Minister is, in theory at least, absolutely responsible for each single action, or inaction, committed, or not committed, by staff of the Department for which the office holder is responsible. As I said some months ago on a public occasion, is it not a pretty farcical situation where I have the onus or responsibility for what some beauty, terrible or otherwise, says in my name, possibly at this moment, in some letter emanating from my Department which inevitably will be prefaced by, “I am directed by the Minister for the Public Service to say” and so on, when the Minister for the Public Service is in the House and does not know in the wide world what on earth he may or may not be saying? However, that is the legal system that obtains at present under which the office holder bears that responsibility. I suspect that the Deputy is suggesting that is not necessarily a good thing and that the anonymity involved in that system does not lead to positive thought or to the development of the great potential that exists within our Civil Service. As the House is aware, the Government intend shortly to publish a White Paper which will, amongst other [1323] things, deal with this entire area of the relationship between office holders and civil servants. There have been slight changes evident in recent times. I can recall one of my colleagues being quite forthright publicly in saying that some staff in his Department had erred in not ascertaining specific statistical data as expeditiously as they might have. If the Deputy casts his mind back a few weeks he may recall the matter.

Deputy Wilson asked that the question of complaints or dissatisfaction which individual civil servants might have regarding not so much their conditions of employment as the operation of their conditions of employment by their immediate civil service superior ought to be allowed come within the remit of the Ombudsman. That request was supported by another Deputy. There is a degree of validity in that and it is one I will give some attention to although I can see that there are difficulties which lurk there. Deputy Owen asked that the Ombudsman where he has encountered small, what may be regarded as relatively unimportant legislative disbarments but which serve to prevent particular cases, which in natural justice ought be dealt with, from being attended to — those sorts of small changes which might be made, and which would improve legislation — should be adverted to by the Ombudsman in his annual report. Of course that is a matter for the Ombudsman himself to decide as to its appropriateness or otherwise. I have had discussions with the Ombudsman regarding particular instances such as this which have come to light in the conduct of his investigations. In cases such as those I have urged the Ombudsman to contact directly the Minister involved, pointing out to him that the manner in which certain provisions or sections of certain Acts are framed does not always operate in the best interests of the public and inviting the Minister to avail of the earliest possible opportunity to make those changes, which are perhaps of an administrative rather than of a policy nature. I understand [1324] that the Ombudsman has resorted to that procedure.

There was one final suggestion made by Deputy Calleary regarding what in his view has now become an increasingly important matter, that is, the possibility of the Ombudsman being allowed investigate areas of complaint regarding the operations of the prison service. I am sure the Deputy will recall that there are in other countries provisions whereby ombudsmen investigate either the police or prison service. In fact, in certain countries there are separate ombudsmen who deal exclusively with complaints regarding the operations of the police force and the areas of justice in prisons. In one country at least there is an ombudsman who, because of the large size of their armed force, deals virtually exclusively with complaints from members of the armed forces.

All those areas were excluded in the legislation introduced in 1979 and enacted in 1980 from the remit of the Irish Ombudsman. It is right that the Ombudsman here should have commenced with a remit that basically encompassed the Civil Service and that now through the enactment of this Bill — and, I hope, an order being made under its provisions within the next few weeks — we should be progressively extending his remit into the next logical area, such as that of the local authorities, health boards and possibly into some others that have been suggested here this morning. In the light of the experience gained in his operations of that wider remit perhaps the House and the Government should then examine on a regular basis how best the progressive extension of the activities of the Ombudsman would serve to enhance the reputation of the public service and satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Oireachtas and those of the general public.

I thank the House for the positive, constructive manner in which it has reacted to this Bill and indeed for some of the very interesting suggestions offered by Members in the course of their contributions which, I can assure them, [1325] will be fully taken into account in any future consideration of this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

An Ceann Comhairle: When is it proposed that Committee Stage be taken?

Mr. Boland: Now.

Agreed to take Committee Stage today.