Published on 16 February 2023
Cathaoirleach and members of the Committee, thank you for the invitation to come here today to present the Ombudsman Annual Report 2021 entitled “improving public services”. I am accompanied by my colleague Ms Jennifer Hanrahan. We look forward to engaging with the Committee. One of my first tasks on taking up the role as Ombudsman in February 2022 was to publish the Annual Report for 2021. I would like to acknowledge that the achievements as set out in the Annual Report were delivered during the term of my predecessor Mr Peter Tyndall. We all interact with public services on a daily basis, for example if we apply for a grant, need to use a public hospital, or receive a payment such as child benefit or income support. I want to acknowledge the hard work, good intention, and motivation of staff working to deliver public services. Thankfully, many public services are delivered efficiently, effectively and to a high standard. I also acknowledge that sometimes interaction with our public services has not met the standard required resulting in people being negatively impacted. My job as Ombudsman is examine such situations in order to learn and to drive improvements in the delivery of public services. We chose the title “improving public services” for the 2021 Annual Report to reflect the ethos of my Office and my commitment as Ombudsman to driving fairness, transparency and accountability in the delivery of public services.
As Ombudsman, I consider complaints from users of our public services who believe they have been treated unfairly or suffered an injustice as a consequence of maladministration by a public service provider. In 2021 my Office received 4,004 complaints - a 17% increase on 2020, and the highest ever in the 38-year history of the Ombudsman. Nearly 80% of these complaints fell into three main categories – complaints against local authorities, complaints against Government Departments and their Offices and health and social care related complaints.
Local authorities accounted for the largest proportion of the increase in complaints received, with 1,290 complaints - an increase of 45% on 2020. Complaints mainly concerned issues related to housing applications, along with complaints about planning and road or traffic complaints. Given the current challenges in the housing sector in Ireland, it is not surprising that 61% of the increase in local authority complaints were in relation to Housing. Two such case studies were highlighted in the Annual Report. In one case, Galway City Council unfairly changed the record of a traveller family’s waiting time on the housing list, the second case relates to Cork City Council’s use of discretion to review the rent contribution of an individual in immediate threat of homelessness. I am happy to say that in both cases the Council reviewed their decisions following engagement with my Office. When I took up my role as Ombudsman the upward trend in Housing related cases was apparent. My aim is to listen and learn from those working on the ground, as well as from the complaints my Office receives, to identify key issues and look for practical improvements in the delivery of public services. In order to improve the administration of those schemes the Government has established to assist people in need of housing supports throughout the country, and as part of my commitment to reaching out and engaging on important issues, I held a workshop with NGOs working in the field of housing and homelessness in 2022. This resulted in a number of proactive measures being pursued by my Office.
The Sector that received the second highest number of complaints in 2021 was Government Departments and Offices. This statistic, however, hides a good news story, complaints in this area were down 12% on the 2020 figure to 1,066. The highest number of complaints was about the Department of Social Protection (579) followed by the department of Foreign Affairs (103), the Office of the Revenue Commissioners (83) and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (77). The significant increase in complaints about the Department of Foreign Affairs to my Office was mainly explained by an increase in complaints about the Passport Service. The bulk of these complaints can be attributed to delays in processing an unprecedented level of first-time passport applications due to pent up demand during the pandemic, and the increase in applications caused by Brexit. While we received further complaints of this nature in 2023, I am happy to note that significant improvements have since been achieved by the Passport Service.
The third highest number of complaints in 2021 related to health and social services, which saw an increase of 26% in the number of complaints on the previous year. This includes complaints against the HSE, public hospitals and Tusla. Over 300 of the complaints received were about HSE services, including 56 related to the schemes administered by the HSE to help people get access to treatment abroad, or seek reimbursement under the Cross Border Directive scheme for treatment they have had abroad.
My objective as Ombudsman is to resolve individual complaints in a fair and objective manner. In addition, I sometimes come across areas where I feel the learning from one complaint, or several similar complaints, can be harnessed to have a broader impact and drive improvement in a sector or in the delivery of a scheme. In such circumstances, I have the power to initiate a special investigation into areas of systemic concern. In May 2021 a systemic investigation into the appropriateness of the placement of people under 65 in Nursing Homes entitled “Wasted Lives” was published by my predecessor. It focused on the experiences of those under 65 who were given no alternative but to live in a nursing home, in order to meet their care needs. This investigation found that Ireland still has progress to make in advancing from a medical model of disability to a social model, and that various changes need to be made to the system to facilitate a person-centred approach to care and one which is in keeping with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and Ireland’s own strategic approach to disability. The report made a series of findings and nineteen recommendations, which cover a range of issues including funding, informed consent, quality of life, access to services, navigating the system, policy, and human rights. These recommendations were accepted by the HSE and my Office has been engaging with it in relation to implementation of the recommendations. I plan to publish a progress report looking at implementation by the HSE as we reach the two year anniversary of the publication of this report, later this year.
In November 2021, Grounded a report into access to transport for those living with a disability was published by my predecessor. This report set out the investigations undertaken by the Office since 2011 into the administration of the following transport support schemes– the Motorised Transport Grant, the Mobility Allowance and the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers scheme. It highlighted the unfairness and inequity of the decision to discontinue the first two schemes without replacement, or in the case of the Disabled Drivers and Disabled Passengers scheme, to reinforce the inequitable eligibility criteria in primary legislation. This report was very timely as it coincided with the resignation of the members of the Disabled Divers Medical Board of Appeal (DDMBA) over similar concerns. Twelve years later I am deeply disappointed, with the lack of progress to date to deal with this clear inequity and the manner in which people with disabilities continue to be let down by the State.
When I started as Ombudsman in February 2022, I was deeply concerned by some of the complaints my Office received about how the HSE is administering schemes designed to assist patients to access treatment abroad. We all know of the long waiting lists to access care nationally – stories of delays and distress are a regular feature of national news. When a person cannot access care in Ireland in a timely manner, they have the right to go abroad within the EU to have that treatment. Under the Cross Border Directive (CBD) Scheme, they can pay upfront to have the treatment privately in another member state and then apply to the HSE to be reimbursed. We have received numerous complaints relating to individuals being refused repayment by the HSE for treatment that can cost thousands. The toll on these complainants, not just in terms of their physical health, but all also their mental health, financial circumstances and day-to-day quality of life is immense. With this in mind, I commenced a special investigation into the administration by the HSE of schemes to fund necessary medical treatment in the EU and, following their exit from the EU, the UK. The report of this special investigation is near finalisation and I hope to be in a position to publish it in the coming weeks.
The second special investigation I commenced in 2022 relates to housing. Specifically, looking at ways to optimise the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) Scheme as administered by the Department of Housing, the HAP Shared Services Office and Local Authorities. I intend to also complete this investigation in 2023.
In 2022, we published our Strategy 2025. This plan sets out the strategic objectives of my Office, which includes our commitment to ensuring better administration and delivery of public services nationally. I recognise that in public service, as in all walk of life, things can and will go wrong, but I firmly believe that accepting, acknowledging and learning from mistakes, from oversights, from unfairness and inequity is intrinsic to driving improvements in our public services. I thank you again for the opportunity to present the work of our Office. We are happy to answer any questions you may have and I look forward to our discussion.