Published on 9 June 2021

Complaints about public services remain high despite pandemic

- Ombudsman to retire after almost eight years in Office

Complaints to Ombudsman Peter Tyndall about public services, such as those provided by government departments, local authorities and the HSE, remained high in 2020 despite the pandemic. 

The Ombudsman received 3,418 complaints from the public last year, a drop of 6% from the 2019 figures, but the highest number since 2015.  Speaking today [9 June] at the publication of his annual report for 2020, Peter Tyndall also announced that this will be his final annual report as he will be retiring from his position after almost eight years as Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman also expressed his concern about the continued reliance on congregated settings in Ireland - an issue highlighted in his recent investigation into the placement of younger people in nursing homes (‘Wasted Lives: Time for a better future for younger people in nursing homes’).

The Ombudsman said:

“COVID has shown us how flexible and capable our public services can be in a crisis.   We need to bring that urgency and ‘can do’ philosophy to tackling issues with congregated settings including those for people with disabilities and applicants for international protection.  That would be a heart-warming legacy from a grim year.”

Government Departments and Offices, which include the Department of Social Protection, were the largest source of complaints to the Ombudsman in 2020 (32%), followed by local authorities (26%), and the Health and Social Care sector (18%).

There were 735 complaints about the Department of Social Protection including 126 complaints about the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP).  Most of the complaints about the PUP were about arrears of payments to applicants after the Department received over one million applications, some of which were repeat applications as a result of people moving in and out of employment. The Ombudsman said that while it had taken time for the Department to pay the arrears, he was satisfied that appropriate systems were put in place to deal with the issue.     

The Ombudsman’s annual report for 2020 is available at www.ombudsman.ie.

Case Studies

The Ombudsman’s annual report also summarises some of the complaints he upheld in 2020 including:

Pandemic Unemployment Payment stopped for entertainer working overseas (Page 32)

An entertainer complained to the Ombudsman when her Pandemic Unemployment Payment was stopped. The woman was working overseas in early 2020 when the pandemic hit.  All her engagements were cancelled and she was left with no income.  She successfully applied for the PUP but her payment was then stopped. The Department of Social Protection said the woman was not entitled to the PUP as she had not been working in Ireland.

The Ombudsman reviewed the legislation and could not see any basis for the Department’s decision to stop the payment to the woman who was resident and paying taxes in Ireland. The Department agreed to review its decision, reinstating the woman’s PUP and paying arrears of around €5,600.

Woman who had not consumed alcohol given medication for alcoholism (Page 28)

When a woman was admitted to the Mater hospital’s emergency department for treatment she was given two drugs normally prescribed for those with alcoholism or alcohol withdrawal. This was despite the fact that the woman had not consumed alcohol in 10 years.

The woman had a history of cancer and was admitted to the ED with severe stomach pains and jaundice. She made it clear to hospital staff that she had not consumed alcohol but was given the two drugs for alcoholism.  A doctor later reviewed her treatment and stopped the medication after the woman became drowsy and confused.

The hospital carried out an investigation but could not identify the doctor who prescribed the medication.  It apologised to the woman, who later died, and her family. 

The Ombudsman said that the hospital should have completed the standard ‘incident form’ at the time of the incident (not some time later), and issued an apology to the woman and her family immediately after the event, and not only after a complaint was made.

As a result of the complaint the hospital has taken steps to ensure those prescribing medication are always identified. It is also developing an electronic incident reporting system and is delivering an education programme for its staff.

Student receives lower grade after marks wrongly transcribed (Page 31)

The Ombudsman’s annual report describes the case of a Leaving Certificate student who was left one mark short of a H2 grade in his Spanish exam.  Following the Ombudsman’s intervention it was discovered that his marks were incorrectly transcribed during a review of his paper and he should have received the higher grade. 

The student had complained to the Ombudsman as the lower grade would have affected his place in third-level education.  When the State Examinations Commission reviewed the case it discovered that the reviewer had awarded an extra mark to the student but had not correctly transcribed it on to the relevant form.  The SEC apologised to the young man and upgraded his result to a H2. It informed the CAO of the revised mark and also refunded the student the cost of appealing his result.

Woman complains under Disability Act after being refused sign-language interpreter (Page 30)

Under the Disability Act, the Ombudsman can examine complaints about equal access to public services, access to public buildings and access to information.

In one case, a woman with a hearing impediment complained to the Ombudsman under the Disability Act as Clare County Council refused her request for a sign-language interpreter to be present on the day of an election count.

The woman had been invited by a candidate to attend the 2019 local election count.  The woman said the signage and screens at the count centre were inadequate. The Council refused her request for a sign-language interpreter saying that the existing signage was sufficient and that the provision of the election count announcement was not a ‘statutory entitlement or service’.       

However, the Disability Act does not refer to the requirement for the service to be a ‘statutory’ service. Following the intervention of the Ombudsman, the Council accepted that it should have arrangements in place for the provision of an Irish Sign Language interpreter in the future, if one is requested. The Council said the design and layout of any future count venue would need to take this into consideration at the planning and design stage.

Website error results in man paying extra €1,000 in vehicle registration tax (Page 40)

A man complained to the Ombudsman about the Office of the Revenue Commissioners after it charged him €1,000 more in Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) than the amount quoted on the online Revenue VRT calculator at the time of purchase.

Before the man paid his VRT he had entered the details of his car onto the online calculator and a lower figure was given than that charged by Revenue.  Revenue said that the vehicle was described incorrectly on its calculator. The calculator had referenced an earlier model than the one the man wanted to purchase. The earlier model has a lower amount of VRT. Revenue apologised to the man and reimbursed him the additional €1,000 VRT he had paid.  It also updated its VRT calculator.

END

More case studies including those relating to the agriculture and health sectors are contained in Chapter 4 of the Ombudsman’s annual report 2020.