Complaints to the Ombudsman about public services rose by 11% to over 3,500 in 2014. Launching his annual report today (Wednesday 10 June) Ombudsman Peter Tyndall said the increase was mainly due to the additional 200 public bodies which came within his jurisdiction for a full year for the first time in 2014. These included bodies in the education sector such as the State Examinations Commission and Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI).
The Ombudsman said that his office resolves many complaints informally. He is working closely with SUSI and the State Examinations Commission to resolve difficulties faced by parents of school leavers seeking urgent assistance under the RACE scheme prior to state examinations, and third level students applying for education grants.
In today’s report the Ombudsman also welcomed the recommendation of the Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions (PSOP) for his Office to have unambiguous, independent oversight of direct provision centres:
"Direct provision accommodation is an area where very vulnerable people are living in poor conditions under the care of the State and which has no independent oversight. The Oireachtas PSOP Committee has called for the abolition of the direct provision system but in the meantime those affected should have the right to complain to my Office or to the Ombudsman for Children as appropriate”.
Beaumont Hospital telephoned a woman to attend the hospital for a lumbar puncture. The woman was surprised as she had no prior involvement with Beaumont Hospital but had recently attended another hospital. Immediately prior to the procedure, and as a result of persistent questioning from the woman, the hospital agreed to check its files and discovered that the wrong patient had been contacted. The correct patient shared the same name and year of birth as the woman. Following the woman’s complaint the hospital took steps to ensure the same mistake would not reoccur. The hospital delivered additional training to all staff and changed its procedures to ensure that a three point identification reference is carried out prior to future medical procedures. (see page 37, section 4.2)
In order to quality for certain social welfare payments, such as disability allowance, the person must be ‘habitually resident’ in Ireland. Factors taken into account when deciding if someone is ‘habitually resident’ include having a ‘right to reside’ in the State, the length of time in Ireland and the general nature of the residence.
In one case a man, with a congenital arm condition, had his application for Disability Allowance refused by the Department of Social Protection as he was not considered habitually resident. The Ombudsman established that the man’s family, including his mother, brothers and sisters were living with him in Ireland; that he was in employment in Ireland for nearly a year and that his wife had recently moved to Ireland to be with him. In light of this the Social Welfare Appeals Office reviewed its decision and awarded weekly disability allowance to the man and an arrears payment of €79,468. (see page 41, section 4.7)
The Ombudsman received a complaint on behalf of a third level student in relation to her application for funding from SUSI. The woman had been fostered as a child and up until the time of her 18th birthday, she was in receipt of a Fostering Allowance, which was a qualifying payment under the Student Grant Scheme 2013 enabling her to receive funding from SUSI. When the woman reached 18, she was no longer eligible for the Foster Allowance but she received an After Care Allowance. However, the After Care Allowance was not a qualifying payment under the Student Grant Scheme and therefore the student did not receive a grant from SUSI.
Following the complaint to the Ombudsman, the Student Grant Appeals Board recommended to the Department of Education and Skills that the After Care Allowance be included as a qualifying payment in the Student Grant Scheme 2014. The recommendation was accepted and the After Care Allowance is a qualifying payment from 2014 onwards. (see page 45, section 4.13)
The Ombudsman received a complaint from a woman who had been asked by the Department of Social Protection to repay an overpayment of €105,000 which came to light when the woman wrote to the Department informing it of her mother’s death in 2012. The woman’s mother suffered from mental health problems before she died. The Department had not carried out a review of the mother’s case since 2000. That review was prompted by the woman’s mother which clearly indicated that she was not trying to shield her circumstances. There was also medical evidence to indicate that the mother did not have the mental capacity to be fully aware of this complex situation. Prior to 2000 the Department had carried out regular reviews of her case.
The Ombudsman asked the Chief Appeals Officer (CAO), who is independent of the Department, to review the case. The CAO overturned the Department’s decision and found that the medical evidence on file was sufficient to inform the Department that the woman had been unwell for a number of years. The CAO also found that if the Department had carried out a review on a regular basis, it would have alerted it to the overpayment at an earlier time. The basis of the CAO’s decision was that the overpayment arose as a result of the Department not acting on information available to it and therefore it was not appropriate for it to seek repayment from the woman’s daughter. (page 39, section 4.5)