Complaints make public services better says Ombudsman Tyndall

June 2nd

Ombudsman Peter Tyndall wants to see more people complain about services provided by public bodies such as government departments, local authorities and the HSE.  Launching his annual report for 2015 today (2 June 2016) the Ombudsman said that complaints can be used to improve the delivery of public services.

“In most cases the delivery of public services goes well.  However, if people don’t complain when things go wrong then people will experience the same problems over and over again. When people complain it gives service providers an opportunity to put things right and to stop the same mistakes happening again.” - Ombudsman Peter Tyndall

Complaints to the Ombudsman rise

Complaints to the Ombudsman rose by 3% in 2015 to 3,641. This follows an 11% increase in complaints in 2014.  The most complained about sector was the civil service with 1,397 complaints while local authorities accounted for 1,006 complaints.  The HSE was the subject of 585 complaints.

Investigation into hospital complaints systems

In 2015 the Ombudsman conducted the Office’s first ‘own-initiative’ investigation into hospital complaints systems.  In his report – Learning to Get Better - the Ombudsman noted the low level of complaints about hospitals that his office received.  The Ombudsman said that people told him they were afraid to complain because of possible consequences for their treatment, or that they believed complaining would not make a difference.  The Ombudsman’s wide-ranging report contains 36 recommendations aimed at improving hospital complaints system for patients. All the recommendations were accepted by the HSE.  However, the Ombudsman has expressed concern over the delay by the HSE in acting on his recommendations.

Private nursing homes

Private nursing homes came within the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction in August 2015.  The Ombudsman received 12 complaints about private nursing homes in 2015 and 13 in the first five months of 2016.  As part of an engagement programme the Ombudsman’s Office designed a Model Complaints System for use by Nursing Home providers which can be adapted for use by all public service providers.  The Model Complaints System is available on the Ombudsman’s website

The Ombudsman also described some of the more significant cases dealt with by his Office during 2015:

Student asked to read from wrong paper when assessed for reading ability

Candidates with a disability or condition which may impair their performance in an exam can seek a ‘reasonable accommodation’ from the State Examinations Commission (SEC) to facilitate them taking the exam.  In one complaint to the Ombudsman a student with Asperger’s syndrome was refused a ‘reader’ – a person to assist with reading an exam paper - for a Leaving Certificate examination by the SEC. The student was sitting three higher level subjects.  The Ombudsman discovered from the SEC’s files that during his assessment the student had been asked to read from ‘ordinary level’ papers which did not reflect his reading difficulties.  The Ombudsman highlighted the error to the SEC who provided a ‘reader’ in time for the Leaving Certificate examination.   See page 36 - Section 4.8

Woman receives €28,000 after Department incorrectly said child was ‘not abandoned’

A woman was refused a ‘guardian’ payment for her granddaughter who she was rearing in the absence of the child’s parents.  The Department of Social Protection was not satisfied that the child met the criterion of having been ‘abandoned’ by her parents.  However after a complaint was made to the Ombudsman, the Social Welfare Appeals Office reviewed assessments on file from Department officials, and statements from the child’s mother and grandmother, which suggested the child had been abandoned.  The Appeals Office decided that the guardian payment, together with arrears of €28,000, should be paid to the woman.  See page 37. Section 4.11

Mother and two children receive housing after 10 years on housing list

A woman complained to the Ombudsman after waiting ten years for social housing from Kildare County Council for herself and her two children.  Her family had moved from previous rented accommodation due to high costs.  However, she had difficulties securing private rented accommodation as many landlords refused to accept tenants who were on rent allowance.  She had been given notice to quit from her current landlord who wanted the accommodation for a family member.  She had made Kildare County Council aware of her circumstances and the Council accepted she had been waiting a long time for housing.  However the Council said it had 6,500 applicants for housing and priority was given to more vulnerable groups such as homeless people and those living in unfit accommodation.   When the Ombudsman raised the issue of her family being evicted by the landlord and her efforts to find housing by moving to different areas, the Council reassessed her application.  The woman and her two children were allocated a home which became available through a voluntary housing association.  See page 42. Section 4.16

Dog owner fined based solely on allegation

A man was fined by Cork County Council after it received a complaint about his dog attacking a third party.  The man contested the case in the District Court.  He also complained to the Ombudsman that the fine was based solely on an allegation, that the council had not established the facts of the case, and that there was no formal appeals procedure to allow him contest the fine.  The Ombudsman established that the Council had a policy of fining dog owners following receipt of a signed written statement without investigating the complaint.  He considered this unfair and asked the Council to review the policy.  The Council amended its procedures to provide that both the complainant and the owner of the dog are contacted as part of its investigation.  The man did not have to pay the fine and he also received his court costs. 

See page 40. Section 4.14