Dáil Éireann - Volume 356 - 27 February, 1985

Ombudsman Act, 1980 (First Schedule) (Amendment) Order 1985: Motion.

Minister for the Public Service (Mr. Boland): I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the following Order in draft:—

Ombudsman Act, 1980 (First Schedule) (Amendment) Order, 1985.

a copy of which Order in draft was laid before the House on 5th February, 1985.

Deputies will be aware of recent developments in relation to the Ombudsman which have given the Members of the House a number of opportunities to discuss the role of the Ombudsman during the past few months. A further opportunity will present itself in the near future when the first annual report of the Ombudsman will be laid before the House. In the circumstances, I intend to confine my comments on this occasion to outlining the changes proposed in the draft orders which have been laid before the House and the reasons for those [853] changes which will come into effect on 1 April 1985.

I will deal first with the draft order proposing amendments to the Second Schedule to the Ombudsman Act, 1980 as the most important changes occur here. The Second Schedule lists bodies which are not subject to investigation by the Ombudsman. The most important change being made to this schedule is the removal of the local authorities and the health boards from it.

An Ceann Comhairle: Is the Minister taking items Nos. 3 and 4 together?

Mr. Boland: Yes.

An Ceann Comhairle: Is that agreed?

Deputies: Yes.

Mr. Boland: Members of the House will be aware that, following the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas, the Government made an order to extend the Ombudsman's remit from 1 April 1985 to local authorities, health boards, An Post and Bord Telecom Éireann. This order, in effect, placed these bodies in Part 1 of the First Schedule to the Act, among the bodies subject to investigation by the Ombudsman. It is necessary, therefore, to remove the local authorities and the health boards from the Second Schedule in order to avoid a situation where these bodies would be listed in both schedules on 1 April 1985.

The draft order now being discussed provides for this and clears the way for the extension of the Ombudsman's remit. A number of bodies have come into existence since the Ombudsman Act, 1980 was enacted in July 1980. I am availing of the opportunity to add these bodies to the schedules. I will now list the bodies being added to the Second Schedule. As I have already indicated, these bodies will not be subject to investigation by the Ombudsman.

The Central Fisheries Board was established in October 1980 and replaced the Inland Fisheries Trust which is already listed in the Second Schedule. The Irish [854] Water Safety Association, the Fire Services Council and the Housing Finance Agency are State-sponsored bodies established by the Minister for the Environment. Four other State-sponsored bodies, the Irish Film Board, the National Concert Hall, the Postgraduate Medical and Dental Board and the Youth Employment Agency Complete the list of bodies being added to the schedule.

I should at this point explain one point about the drafting of this order. The Irish Water Safety Association, which is being added to the schedule, was established on 1 August 1980 under the Local Government Service (Corporate Bodies) Act, 1971. Four other bodies, which are already listed in the Second Schedule, were also established under this Act, namely the Fire Prevention Council, the Local Government Computer Services Board, the Local Government Staff Negotiations Board and the National Road Safety Association. Specific references to the last four bodies are being deleted from the schedule. All of these bodies, including the Irish Water Safety Association, are now being included in the Second Schedule under the general term “Bodies established under the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act, 1971”.

The Second Schedule already contains a similar provision in the health area in regard to bodies set up under the Health (Corporate Bodies) Act, 1961. This is a drafting matter and it does not affect the existing relationship of these bodies with the Ombudsman.

I now turn to the draft order proposing changes to the First Schedule. Five bodies, all of whom have been established since July 1980, are being added to Part II of the First Schedule. Before going on to comment on these bodies I would first like, by way of background, to explain the structure of the First Schedule to the Act.

The schedule consists of two parts. Part I of the schedule lists the bodies which are subject to investigation by the Ombudsman. It includes all Government Departments, together with associated offices, which have civil servants [855] employed in them. Part II of the schedule excludes from the Ombudsman's remit two categories of bodies. In the first category are bodies which might otherwise be considered, for the purposes of the Act, to be part of one or other of the Departments of State listed in Part I of the schedule. For example, it is specified that the Garda Síochána and the courts are not included under the heading “Department of Justice”. The second category includes bodies which, while closely associated, with Departments, do not form part of the Department itself. In many cases they have been set up by Ministers to carry out investigations into certain matters ranging from prices to industrial relations. Examples of these bodies are the Employment Appeals Tribunal and the National Prices Commission.

As I have already stated, there are five bodies being added to Part II of the First Schedule. The Postal Services Users' Council and the Telecommunications Service Users' Council were established on 5 July 1984 and they replaced the non-statutory Post Office Users' Council which is already listed in the schedule. The Commission on Social Welfare was set up in 1983. The secretariat to the commission is being added to the schedule as the secretariats to other such commissions have been added in the past. The decisions of the Rent Tribunal are primarily judicial in nature and I do not consider that the tribunal's decisions should be subject to investigation by the Ombudsman. The functions of the Mining Board are similar in many respects to other appellate bodies already listed in the schedule. It will be readily agreed on all sides of the House and these bodies, by virtue of their functions, are not appropriate cases for investigation by the Ombudsman.

The remarks which I have just made set out the changes which I am proposing. In summary, the net effect of the changes will be twofold. In the first place, they clear the way for a major extension of the Ombudsman's remit with effect from 1 April 1985. Secondly, the schedules will [856] be updated to take account of bodies which have been established since July 1980 when the original legislation was passed. I commend the two draft motions to the House.

Mr. B. Ahern: I support both these motions. As the Minister said, we have had two debates recently on this Act. The effect of these motions is to have the schedules ready for 1 April.

Is everything in order in the Office of the Ombudsman to enable him to undertake the various tasks from 1 April, particularly the workload from Bord Telecom and other areas? Will we have an opportunity to discuss the report? I know that is more a matter for the Whips but in the last two debates many of the points made were pure speculation.

I believe in being critical when there is need for it but I commend the Minister for his speed in this matter. He updated the legislation promptly. I have no doubt that some of the recommendations which the Ombudsman may make will require that changes be made, if not now then in the future. I hope we will have an opportunity to debate those.

The Housing Finance Agency is one of the authorities which was set up since this Act. I do not criticise the administrators of that agency but there are many borderline cases in connection with it. It is far better to assist people who are borderline cases because that saves the State money in the long run. However, the officials are bound to follow what is in the Act. It is an area where it would be more appropriate to have some flexibility. Perhaps this is an area where the Ombudsman could intervene. He and his staff have intervened very successfully in a number of areas which are slightly outside their remit at present. In many cases it was to the benefit of the public. I know of cases where a phone call from the Ombudsman has been sufficient to overcome difficulties.

As regards the Housing Finance Agency and other areas where borderline cases cannot be entertained because of regulations, sometimes all that is needed [857] is commonsense on the part of the officials. It appears as if politicians cannot instil commonsense into these people but very often a phone call from the Ombudsman can do so. Perhaps some flexibility could be allowed to the Office of the Ombudsman to permit them to involve themselves in the Housing Finance Agency and other agencies of that kind. They are engaging in that area anyway, regardless of whether it comes within their remit, and a number of the areas concerned will come within the remit of the Ombudsman from 1 April.

I support the motions. Most of the changes are purely technical and involve the addition of other bodies to the Schedules. The Ombudsman and his office enjoy a very high profile both within this House and outside and we must ensure that that high profile is maintained by ensuring that they have adequate staff and the necessary technology to enable them to take on the extra workload. The amendments to the remit of the Ombudsman are substantial and must not be regarded as being some small extension of the workload. The additional areas of the health boards, local authorities, Telecom Éireann and An Post are the ones in respect of which there is the greatest number of complaints, whether justified or otherwise. It is essential for the proper operation of the Act and the spirit in which it was legislated in 1980 that the Ombudsman be given every assistance and support.

Mr. Allen: I welcome the motions before the House but I should like the Minister to clarify what he means by the relationship between the Ombudsman, the Post Office Users' Council and the Telecommunications Service Users' Council. I raised this matter also at Question Time last week. My question is whether a member of the public has the right to appeal at any stage against a decision of the users' council.

I take this opportunity of paying tribute to the Ombudsman. The office was created for the purpose of helping the public cut through the threads of bureaucracy but I am concerned that because of the [858] centralisation of the office — and this is not intended in any way as a criticism — the Ombudsman might become a prisoner of bureaucracy. We presume here on occasion that people have the resources, the ability, the time and the means of communicating their problems to Dublin, but the reality is that a big percentage of our population do not have these facilities and some do not have the ability to put their views in writing to one such as the Ombudsman. Therefore, I suggest that at an early stage the Minister set up regional offices to which members of the public could go and discuss their problems with representatives of the Ombudsman. Many problems that come properly within the scope of the Ombudsman are taken to local representatives. We are here primarily to legislate but we must spend a good deal of our time playing the role of social worker and having matters dealt with in Dublin.

It may be said that I have an obsession regarding the problems experienced by the public with the legal profession. I am hoping there will be legislation from the Department of Justice in the course of the next six to nine months in relation to this area and I am asking the Minister to liaise with the Minister for Justice in this respect, to consider the setting up within the office of the Ombudsman of an observer of the complaints tribunal of the legal profession. The public regard the office of Ombudsman as representing and defending them and their interests. Because of the large number of complaints about the legal profession, every effort should be made to introduce machinery to deal with the problems in that regard.

Mr. Kelly: I wish to echo something which Deputy Ahern said and to add a question of my own. I am concerned that this very substantial extension of the functions of the Ombudsman will result in overloading his office. I say that against the background of the Minister's known commitment, a commitment that I applaud strongly, to try to bring down the numbers of public servants or, in other words, to effect the same quantum of [859] work or value from fewer public servants. The Minister has pursued this objective with considerable success in the past two years but perhaps he will tell the House what additional resources he will find himself obliged to make available to the Ombudsman in order to ensure that his office will not be swamped by the accretion of work which this order proposes to place on him.

I should like the Minister to tell us also, though this may be an unfair question, what the opinion of the Ombudsman is on this matter. Does he think that, with the likely extension the Minister or the Minister for Finance may be able to provide, he will be able to handle this extra burden? The Ombudsman is not in the position of a civil servant. This House ensured that he was given a status comparable to that of a judge. Therefore, it would hardly be appropriate for the Minister to say simply that it is not the job of the Ombudsman to be giving advice about matters that are within the powers of the Oireachtas. The Ombudsman is an independent official and, should be consider that he is being asked to do too much with resources that are stretched too tightly, the House might be told that.

The Minister's objective of trying to economise on the numbers in the public service is more important than the objective which he is likely to achieve, and which in general terms I support, of bringing the new range of bodies within the scope of the Ombudsman. In other words, if I had to choose between extending the functions of the Ombudsman and not having to provide more staff, I would opt for the latter. Everybody here has been dealing for many years with problems arising from health boards and local authorities as well as from the telephone and postal services and we have been receiving reasonable response in our attempts to deal with constituents' problems. Therefore, I would not consider it a national tragedy that the proposed additional areas be withheld from the sphere of the Ombudsman if the cost of including them were to be a substantial number of extra public servants.

[860] I should have been glad to hear the Minister say a word or two about some of the bodies he proposes to exclude from the Office of the Ombudsman, bodies that have emerged since October 1980. Though I have not any instance in mind, nor have I heard of one, I can visualise an instance in which the operation of the Irish Film Board would become a matter of grievance for someone, a film maker or some other person, who was claiming entitlement to the same kind of treatment from the board as somebody else had received. The same goes with even greater force for the National Concert Hall.

I do not think that the burden of business implied by either of these bodies could be very great. I am not entirely clear, because the burden would be so small, why the Minister sees fit to exclude the National Concert Hall. I have heard suggestions or complaints which I know nothing about and so do not want to appear to want to endorse — I do not want to imply an imputation against anybody — that the administration of the concert hall in particular in regard to the allocation of dates has caused certain discontent. I will say no more than that. If that is so and if there is any ground for that discontent, it is a pity that the National Concert Hall, which could not be a big burden of work, should have the shield placed around it which the Minister's order in its present form proposes.

Minister for the Public Service (Mr. Boland): I thank the Members of the House for the response they have given to the motion. Several questions were asked about the arrangements which are in train for the extension of the Ombudsman's remit from the beginning of April next.

Provision has been made for the recruitment of additional staff. An additional 12 investigators and three senior investigators are to be appointed on the basis that one senior investigator and four investigators each would be assigned to [861] the areas respectively of the local authorities, the health boards and the telecommunications and postal bodies. Before those staff were recruited consultations took place with the Ombudsman and his office as to what would be deemed the appropriate level of investigator staff who might be required.

With the greatest of respect to my colleague. Deputy Kelly, he displays one of those endearing characteristics of the Irish which he himself has commented upon from time to time, that is, our tendency to be a little ambivalent. He suggested that rather than have a additional staff assigned to the Ombudsman's office he would be prepared not to see the Ombudsman's remit extended. He went on to suggest that some of the bodies to which the remit is not being extended ought to be included in the Ombudsman's remit.

Mr. Kelly: There is a difference between the concert hall and five regional health boards.

Mr. Boland: The difficulty is that in Ireland we are very good in general about having aspirations, but when it comes to individual cases we all have our own personal areas of preference or priority. However, I must say that when the establishment of the Ombudsman's office was being debated in the House, Members on all sides made it clear that the first extension of the remit that they would like to see would be into the area of the local authorities and the health boards, and there was a sense of disappointment that the Ombudsman's office as originally established did not include the local authorities and the health boards ab initio. I felt that it would be better to leave the Ombudsman a reasonable period of time to get his office established and to set up its machinery before a major extension such as this might take place. When we came to make the extension we felt, because of the volume of complaints that Members of the House were experiencing, that there was a need to extend the Ombudsman's remit in particular to Bord Telecom Éireann.

[862] Deputy Allen asked whether the users council and the Ombudsman will be in conflict or competition, so to speak, when the Ombudsman's remit is extended to the areas of An Post and Bord Telecom Éireann. I might put it in context for the Deputy if I explain that between 1 January and the middle of October last year the number of complaints made to the Post Office Users Council amounted to 434. When one compares that with an accepted figure of 150,000 complaints and queries made in relation to the operation of the telephone service over a similar period, it will be seen that the general public have had very little recourse to the users councils. It was felt that the extension of the Ombudsman's remit to these two areas would provide a vehicle which had already become more widely known about in the minds of the public and that they would be more likely to avail of the services of the Ombudsman. The Deputy seemed to suggest that somebody going to the users council and being unsuccessful with his query might be in a position to lodge a complaint with the Ombudsman not so much about his query as about his unhappiness at the handling of that query by the users council.

Mr. Allen: Will the Minister tell me about duplication? Is there a need for the two?

Mr. Boland: That will have to be examined in the light of experience. In theory it is possible that a person who had a complaint dealt with by the users council could, if not satisfied, take the complaint to the Ombudsman. In practice a pragmatic approach would be adopted by the users council and by the Ombudsman's office to ensure the least possible duplication. In the fullness of time when we have some experience of the operation of the system we can decide which is the best vehicle by which to continue. It has been suggested in the House previously that the whole question of having to extend the remit of the Ombudsman to BTE arose only because of the volume of complaints, mainly about the lack of civility [863] on the part of BTE in dealing with customers. Those complaints were echoed here by Members of this House and the other House, who made it very clear that they wanted to see some form of redress made available to the general public. The remedy lies in BTE's own hands. If they treat their customers in the way in which customers of any commercial concern might expect to be treated then there may be no need for the operation of the Ombudsman into that area to continue indefinitely.

I am very interested in the idea of regional offices of the Ombudsman, but the office itself has been in operation for only a year. I have said that I feel that the way to commence this is for the Ombudsman or members of his staff to travel on pre-arranged dates and times to regional centres and set up office there for a day or several days initially to test the market, as it were. When that has operated for some time we can consider the idea of more permanent offices. Again I express a personal aspiration — and I am not sure whether this will ever be achievable — but I would like to think that at some stage in the future we might have regional ombudsmen based permanently in the regions. However, if that were to come about it would be only because sufficient of what is now central government centrally administered had also been devolved to the regions. We hear a great deal of talk from time to time about decentralisation, which in the minds of many people means only moving entire blocks of central work from Dublin city to some city or town in the provinces usually, coincidentally, a city or town based in the centre of the constituency of the Deputy who asks the question. Very often I suspect that the real motive is to suggest the transferring in of the equivalent of a large employer and that has nothing at all to do with decentralisation. Decentralisation is about removing from a centralised area all of the decision making of the State and allowing those decisions to be taken in the regions where they might better be taken.

[864] I am a firm believer in real decentralisation. I do not mind mentioning to the House that some work is being carried out in this area by the Minister of State in the Department of the Environment in relation to the modernisation of the local authority structure. If we are big enough to get to the stage of decentralising and developing many of the powers that are exercised at present in centralised offices in Dublin, there may be a case for the establishment of decentralised and regional offices of the Ombudsman in permanent regional offices.

Mr. Allen: The problem with regard to decentralisation is that one has to take account of established structures and established workforces. However, in this case we are still building the ombudsman service and now is the time at the formative stage to regionalise. It will be difficult later when staff are appointed and living in a central area. The opportunity is now available to commence at the formative stage the process of regionalisation and I ask the Minister to accept that point. The problem we had with regard to the Department of Education and An Foras Forbartha was that structures were formed and people were established in certain areas and they were reluctant to move. In this instance we are taking on 12 people and now is the time to put them into the regions.

An Ceann Comhairle: I should not like the Deputy to wander from his original contribution.

Mr. B. Ahern: May I ask the Minister not to do what his colleague has asked him to do. The important thing is to get the office right. It is a new office and it started very well. The Minister is making good advances but to regionalise it at this stage and to have deputy ombudsmen would take from what we are doing and would be a bad decision.

An Ceann Comhairle: At this stage I cannot allow a new matter to be introduced. Has the Minister anything further to say?

[865] Mr. Boland: This shows the dilemma of Government, where one is pulled on the one hand to do one thing and on the other hand to do something else. Of course, the classic answer in such a case is to do nothing.

Mr. Allen: That would be bad and I know the Minister would not do that.

Mr. Boland: There is quite a lot in what Deputy Ahern has said. We have to establish the office of the Ombudsman which is a very small office. The amount of extra work they will take on in April will be considerable. We will have to allow the Ombudsman and his staff a reasonable length of time, part of which will be experimental, before we can gauge how effectively the work is being done. I have had discussions with the Ombudsman and his office and I know they are interested in and supportive of the concept of visiting the regions on a regular pre-arranged basis to test the market. Having done that, we can then better decide where there might be a need for permanent regional offices.

I wish to emphasise again the provision that exists whereby a person who has a legitimate grievance can have his travelling expenses paid to enable him to travel from any part of Ireland to visit the Ombudsman in his office in Dublin. I do not think that provision is widely known or is availed of to any extent.

So far as the legal profession, the Department of Justice, the Minister for Justice and their legislation is concerned, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to make any comment as to the timing and the suitability or otherwise of legislation in that area. I suggest to Deputy Allen that he might take up that matter specifically with the Minister.

The first annual report of the Ombudsman is due some time during next month. I indicated previously to the House that I hoped as soon as it is published to seek time by way of a motion in the House to allow Members to have a full debate on the matter. That will be a very important contribution in the interesting series of discussions we have had in recent months [866] in regard to the operation of the Office of the Ombudsman.

I thank the Deputies for their helpful and welcome contributions on this occasion, as they have always been in the past in relation to the operation of the Ombudsman's office. All sides of the House have been at all times very supportive of the office and very constructive in their comments. Those comments and their helpfulness have been appreciated by the Ombudsman and his staff as much as they have been by me.

Question put and agreed to.