Published on 11 July 2024

Cathaoirleach and members of the Committee, I am pleased to have the
opportunity today to present the Ombudsman Annual Reports for 2022 and
2023 together with my colleagues David Tang and Barry Quirke.
I took up my role as Ombudsman early in 2022 so these two reports reflect the
work and the achievements, of my team during my first two years in this Office.
I am very proud of how the team has performed, with energy, with enthusiasm,
and with the central objective of helping the public firmly at our core.
While investigating complaints about unsatisfactory public services and
improving the quality of public services is at the core of what we do I am also
anxious to recognise good public service and help to ensure that good practices
and processes are acknowledged and maintained. So, I want take this
opportunity to acknowledge the excellent work that is being done on a daily
basis, across our public services, in what are undoubtedly challenging times for
our country on many fronts.
It is a fact that when the world around us is under increased uncertainty and
pressure, we rely on our public services to support those who are vulnerable or
suffering most.
In particular, issues related to housing, healthcare and immigration have been to
the fore during the years under review.
Despite these challenges, we continue to drive fairness, transparency and
accountability in the delivery of public services. To ensure that public bodies
respect the dignity and worth of ever individual interacting with them we
developed a guide for Ombudsman staff, in 2023, to assist us in ensuring that
public bodies and our Office examine complaints through a human rights lens.

Complaints in 2022 and 2023

We have embarked on an engaging and visible outreach programme with the
aim of ensuring people know we are here and know how to reach us when they
need our service. This includes engagement through national and local media,
through the Public Participation Networks, Citizens Information Centres, and
community, voluntary and social inclusion groups throughout the country.
We find there is no substitute for meeting people and hearing their stories first
hand. It is the best way for us to understand the impact that poor public services
can have on a person’s life. It serves as a consistent reminder to me of how
important the work of this Office is. I believe an enhanced awareness of the
Office, and the service we provide, has contributed to what continues to be a
rise in complaints and enquiries each year.
In 2022, my Office received a record number of complaints, 4,791, representing
an increase of 19.6% on the previous year. We also responded to over 6,700
enquires meaning the Office had around 11,500 engagements with the public
that year – that, in my view, is 11,500 attempts to help and assist people.
2023 was another busy year for the Office. We received 4,465 complaints and
8,171 enquires. That represents over 12,500 engagements with the public in a
single year – an increase of over 1000 on the year before. We continue to
receive and process an increased number of complaints and enquiries so far this
year.
In terms of the categories of complaints we receive, that was largely consistent
over 2022 and 2023.

Local Authorities

Local authorities accounted for the second highest proportion of complaints
received in 2022 and the highest in 2023. These complaints concerned various
topics including housing, planning and traffic complaints.
Due to the different challenges faced by each Local Authority, they require a
level of independence and discretion in the delivery of their services. However,
discretion can lead to inconsistency. We have witnessed some of that
inconsistency in how different Local Authorities deliver their services and deal
with complaints. In response to this, we have developed a Model Complaint
Handling Procedure for use by Local Authorities. This procedure is soon to be
shared with Local Authorities, and the public. I expect Local Authorities to
implement the procedure in order to deal better with complaints. I look forward
to seeing it make real improvements, encouraging a more consistent, and best
practice based approach, resulting in improved service delivery and better
handling of complaints.
Housing made up around 60% of all Local Authority complaints in both 2022
and 2023. It is clear that housing was, and continues to be, the challenge that
our country faces. In response, in 2022 I held a workshop with NGOs working
in the field of housing and homelessness. We have since put in place a housing
sector team focused on responding to our housing cases. I also initiated a
systemic investigation into the administrative processes around the Housing
Assistance Payment Scheme (HAP). With the investigation now complete, we
are in the process of finalising the report for publication later this year. It is my
hope that the implementation of the resulting recommendations will help make
real improvements in what has become a central mechanism for the
Government in meeting the housing needs of thousands of people.

Government Departments and Offices

The Sector that received the second highest number of complaints (1,175) in
2023 was Government Departments and Offices.

Health Sector

The sector that had the third highest number of complaints in both 2022 and
2023 related to health and social services, with 839 complaints received in
2023. These figures include complaints about the HSE, public hospitals and
Tusla.
People can feel vulnerable when engaging with health services. It is important
that such engagement should be as good as could possibly be expected.
However, such are the demands on our health service that experiences can vary.
This has been the experience of our Office in recent years.
In April, 2023, we completed an investigation that culminated in the publication
of “In Sickness and in Debt”. This was an investigation into the administration,
by the HSE, of schemes that fund necessary medical treatment in the EU/EEA
or the UK. The investigation was prompted by a number of complaints we had
received from patients who faced difficulty navigating the three different
treatment abroad schemes. I was very clear in my report that I welcome the fact
that such schemes are in place, and that, in the main, they work well, but I was
struck by the impact on the physical, mental and financial well-being that the
process had on those complainants for whom the schemes didn’t operate as I
believe they should have.
The published report contained 21 specific recommendations which focused on
improving the administration of the schemes, both moving forward and in the
investigation of existing complaints. The co-operation of the HSE with this
report is to be commended and is a clear demonstration of how my Office and
public bodies can work together to improve services. The HSE accepted all of
the recommendations relating to it. As implementation progressed, over 200
cases were identified for review, and we have seen patients who were
previously denied access to the Schemes receive reimbursements. The
implementation of the recommendations has also delivered positive change to
the administration of all three schemes - ensuring that patients are now at the
centre of all decisions.

Follow up on previous reports

My predecessors undertook a number of important investigations which
culminated in various reports and recommendations. Part of my role as
custodian of this Office is to ensure that such good work is not forgotten and to
follow up on progress on the implementation of those reports.
“Wasted Lives” was a report published by this Office in May 2021 on foot of a
systemic investigation into the appropriateness of the placement of people under
65 in private and public nursing homes. The report made a series of findings
and recommendations, covering a wide range of issues. These recommendations
were accepted by the HSE. However, progress on the implementation of the
recommendations is disappointing. My understanding is that broader issues,
such as the availability of suitable housing, suitable supports and access to
healthcare professionals in the community have presented challenges. Recent
industrial action in the HSE has disrupted the reporting of progress updates to
my Office, but with those matters now resolved, it is my firm intention to push
for further progress. I will publish a progress report later this year.
“Grounded”, published in 2021, sets out the investigations undertaken by the
Office since 2011 into the lack of access to transport for people with disabilities.
In my 2022 Annual Report I set out my firm view that leadership was required
on this area and that the time for further reports from various government
departments had passed. I described the way in which people with disabilities
continue to be denied access to personal transport supports as nothing short of
shameful.
Since then I met a number of times with the Department of An Taoiseach which
sought to progress the matter. It has stated that its objective is to take a holistic
view of all relevant transport schemes. It convened a Senior Officials Group to
look into the issues raised and it states that the National Disability Strategy,
which is being developed, will also assist progress on these matters. Prior to
publication of my 2023 Annual Report I sought an update from the Department
and this update is published on our website www.ombudsman.ie. While I
welcome the Department of An Taoiseach’s involvement, and see merit in this
more centralised approach, I remain of the view that the continued absence of a
lead department and lack of action is unacceptable.

Conclusion

I note that in recent research by the ESRI 56 per cent of people say housing is
one of the two most important issues facing Ireland. While our work on housing
complaints and issues, and our upcoming HAP report will hopefully contribute
to improvements in this challenging sector, I feel that more still needs to be
done. We are constantly listening, observing and consulting to establish where
our focus should be, and where we can make the greatest impact in the coming
years.

I also note, in that same ESRI research, that there was a rise in the importance
of migration to respondents in Ireland, measured by the proportion of people
who say immigration is one of the top two most important issues facing Ireland:
from 3 per cent in July 2022 to 14 per cent in November 2023. However, there
is another important point to note from the ESRI research. In November 2023,
Ireland ranked fourth most supportive of immigration in the 27 EU countries
and the UK.

At a time when our economy and public services, such as health, are heavily
dependent on migrants, and while people are fleeing war, persecution, genocide
and starvation, it is important that our public services treat all people living here
fairly, and with respect and dignity. Our services should aim to meet the basic
human requirements of people, and should not contribute to the division that
some people seek to sow.

I have sought to engage on this topic in a collaborative manner. I have engaged
with senior officials of Departments, with the relevant bodies under the aegis of
those Departments, with NGOs, with migrants and with people seeking
protection, together with those helping to meet their needs. I have visited the
sites at Mount Street, City West, Crooksling, Gormanston, Mosney and at the
Grand Canal. I have heard the stories first hand. I acknowledge the great
challenges being faced by our public services in this area and I commend some
of the tireless work being done in the face of real challenges. I have personally
witnessed the commitment and humanity of the people working to deliver
services, both staff and volunteers. However, I also have questions about some
decisions and actions. I propose to bring more scrutiny to the actions being
taken in this area.

It is the 40-year anniversary of my Office this year and we have a number of
initiatives and events to mark this important milestone. I will take great pleasure
in updating the Committee on those events at a future date.

I believe we can rightly be proud of the achievements of the Office over the last
40 years. The Ombudsman team have developed a strong and insightful
knowledge and empathetic approach to dealing with complainants and
complaints, in what can be delicate and emotive circumstances. I want to thank
them for their dedication and commitment. While we celebrate the
achievements of the past our focus remains firmly on the future. We will
continue to work to uphold our commitment to ensuring better administration
and delivery of public services.

I would like to thank you, Cathaoirleach and members for this opportunity and
we are happy to take any questions you may have for me.
____________
Ger Deering
Ombudsman