Dáil Éireann - Volume 658 - 02 July, 2008

Priority Questions. - Defence Forces Ombudsman.

[412] Deputy Jimmy Deenihan asked the Minister for Defence if he will make a statement on the recently published second report of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. [25784/08]

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: I welcome the second annual report of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces, which covers the period January to December 2007. This is a further milestone in the development of the office, which became operational on 1 December 2005 and which represents a significant development in the modernisation of the military redress of wrongs process. The Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Act 2004 provides that the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces is independent in the performance of her duties and it is not considered appropriate for the Minister to report on her behalf or to give details in respect of her reports on individual cases.

The ombudsman reported an increase in the number of referrals to her office from 26 in 2006 to 76 in 2007. She also reported that 15 of the 2007 referrals were carried over from 2006 and that eight were from former members of the Defence Forces. I acknowledge that the increase in the number of referrals arises from an greater awareness of the Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces, as well as rising confidence among members of the Defence Forces. I welcome this development.

The input of the ombudsman has assisted the Defence Forces in the revision of a number of HR procedures, including the selection processes for career courses and overseas service. The recommendations in the ombudsman’s reports to me have also informed the revision of selection processes for promotion, a new version of which is currently being progressed with the representative associations through the conciliation and arbitration scheme. In this regard, I note the ombudsman’s recognition of the continued co-operation that she has received from the Defence Forces and my Department. I remain committed to the successful implementation of the Ombudsman (Defence Forces) Act 2004.

In her report, the ombudsman highlighted the challenge of identifying appropriate and proportionate remedies while retaining due regard to the practicalities of the military environment. I fully support her proposal to engage in a constructive dialogue with a view to identifying appropriate solutions. With this in mind, my officials wrote to the ombudsman earlier this month indicating my Department’s desire to engage with her in this task.

The ombudsman reported 30 referrals in respect of non-selection for promotion, 13 in respect of non-selection for career courses or overseas service, 29 in respect of other issues and four in respect of complaints of bullying and harassment. With regard to the latter category, I understand from the ombudsman that one of these was withdrawn, the second did not fall within her jurisdiction, the complaint was not upheld by her in respect of the third and the fourth is being processed.

The report of the ombudsman refers to resources and office accommodation. I am advised that the Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces recently achieved a steady staff level of four, consisting of the ombudsman, an investigating officer, an office manager and clerical support. The Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces is currently located in Hatch Street, Dublin 2. I have supported the request from the ombudsman to the Office for Public Works in respect of the provision of alternative accommodation. My commitment to the success [413] of the office of the ombudsman extends to ensuring that, in keeping with overall public service standards and requirements, appropriate staff levels and other resources will be available to it. My Department is in discussions with the ombudsman on these issues.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: At the launch of her report, the ombudsman was quite scathing with regard to staffing, the level of which is simply not adequate to allow her to carry out her functions properly. The ombudsman was in situ for nine months before a second member of staff arrived. It appears there is no interest in supporting the Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces, which was established by the House.

The ombudsman is operating in what is described as an “environmentally sick building”, which has extremely poor ventilation and an inadequate heating system. The position of Ombudsman for the Defence Forces is an innovative one. Ireland is ahead of other countries in establishing such a position. I understand the UK authorities are considering the steps that have been taken here in this regard.

The ombudsman’s caseload has increased by 192%. At the launch of her report, she apologised for the delay in issuing decisions in respect of cases. Despite what the Minister said earlier, there is surely an argument in favour of staffing her office properly and moving it to adequate accommodation. If additional staff and accommodation at a new location are provided, the ombudsman will be in a position to carry out the brief that was given to her by the House — not the Minister or his Department — and deal efficiently with the complaints received by her office. I am sure the Minister agrees that, in the interests of natural justice, complaints made to the ombudsman should be heard sooner rather than later and dealt with in an adequate manner.

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: I agree with Deputy Deenihan’s final point. It is extremely important that people can make complaints to the ombudsman. That is why we introduced legislation to establish her office in the first instance.

I am informed by my officials that there has been a high turnover of staff in the Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. I do not know the reason for this. The difficulty is that there is no similar office with which we could compare and contrast the workings of the Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. The Ombudsman for Children has 15 staff at her disposal. However, she received 750 complaints last year as opposed to the 76 received by the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. The Ombudsman for Children also has a research and advocacy function on behalf of children. We are involved in ongoing discussions with the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces in respect of staffing.

I take Deputy Deenihan’s point regarding the building in which the Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces is housed. The ombudsman made a request to the OPW to be provided with more suitable accommodation and we have given her our support in this regard. We contacted the OPW on a number of occasions in respect of this matter. In view of the Deputy’s question, I will renew my representations to the OPW.

  Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: Will the Minister give a firm commitment to the effect that the issue of staffing resources will be addressed? I understand that the ombudsman made a submission in respect of this matter in June 2007 but that no action was taken. Will the Minister ensure that the Office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces will be housed in proper accommodation as soon as possible?

  Deputy Willie O’Dea: I will give two commitments. First, we are engaged in discussions with the ombudsman in respect of staffing and these will continue in a constructive manner. Second, [414] and as regards accommodation, I am not responsible for the activities of the OPW. We already made a number of representations to it but we will renew these.