1997 Annual Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and Appropriation Accounts (Resumed) - Vote 17 - Office of the Ombudsman.

Thursday, 6 May 1999

Committee of Public Accounts Debate

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Mr. P. Whelan (Director, Office of the Ombudsman) called and examined.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell Item No. 5 on our agenda is the 1997 Annual Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and Appropriation Accounts. Our first business today is Vote 17 - Office of the Ombudsman. We will subsequently deal with Vote 31 - Department of Agriculture and Food (resumed) and the Irish Intervention Agency, Annual Financial Statements 1994 (resumed).

Witnesses should be made aware that they do not enjoy absolute privilege and should be apprised as follows: attention is drawn to the fact that, as and from 2 August 1998, section 10 of the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act, 1997, grants certain rights to the persons who are identified in the course of the committee’s proceedings. These rights include the right to give evidence; the right to produce or send documents to the committee; the right to appear before the committee, either in person or through a representative; the right to make a written and oral submission; the right to request the Committee to direct the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents and the right to cross examine witnesses.

For the most part these rights may be exercised only with the consent of the committee. Persons being invited before the committee are made aware of these rights and any persons identified in the course of proceedings who are not present may have to be made aware of these rights and provided with a transcript with the relevant part of the committee’s proceedings if the committee considers it appropriate in the interests of justice.

We will now deal with Vote 17 - Office of the Ombudsman. I welcome Mr. Pat Whelan, Director of the Office of the Ombudsman. Perhaps he will introduce to the committee his accompanying officials.

Mr. Whelan: With me is Ms Maureen Behan, senior investigator and finance officer.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell Ms Behan is welcome. Mr. Joe Meade is present to deputise for the Comptroller and Auditor General and I ask him to introduce this Vote.

Mr. Meade: This is a relatively small Vote which, apart from direct expenditure for the expenses of the Ombudsman’s office, also includes administration expenditure for the Office of the Information Commissioner and the Public Offices Commission. Total expenditure for the office in 1997 was £1.416 million. The cost of salaries, wages and allowances amounted to £1.06 million which represents 75 per cent of the expenditure. The bulk of the remaining expenditure was accounted for by travel costs, post and telephone costs, office machinery and incidental expenses.

Deputies will be aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Ombudsman are but two members of the Public Offices Commission among the tasks of which are the provision of guidelines, advice and assistance generally with regard to the Ethics in Public Office Act, 1995. The commission also has a supervisory role under the Electoral Act, 1997. The Information Commissioner’s role includes reviewing freedom of information decisions made by Departments and Offices, local authorities and health boards.

There were no matters arising in the course of audit of the office which needed to be brought to the attention of the Committee of Public Accounts.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell Would Mr. Whelan like to make a brief opening statement?

Mr. Whelan: Yes. As Mr. Meade indicated, the duties and roles of the office expanded considerably in recent years and now encompass the functions of the Public Offices Commission and the Information Commissioner. The roles of Information Commissioner and the Ombudsman are complementary in many ways in that both are ultimately seeking to raise the overall standards of administration throughout the public bodies covered by their remit.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell I call on Deputies Rabbitte and Cooper-Flynn to put their questions.

Deputy Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte I have no questions.

Deputy Cooper-Flynn: Information on Beverley Cooper-Flynn Zoom on Beverley Cooper-Flynn On what was the money allocated to consultancy and legal fees spent? How were the consultancies awarded?

Mr. Whelan: Practically all the expenditure relating to the consultancies involved the taking of legal advice for the three functions within the office. In accordance with standard procedure, we tender for such legal advice every two to three years when different firms of solicitors are invited to make presentations to the office. Because the offices are independent, we do not use the services of the Attorney General’s Office. Instead, we use a firm of private solicitors.

Deputy Cooper-Flynn: Information on Beverley Cooper-Flynn Zoom on Beverley Cooper-Flynn Has the same firm of solicitors been used for the past number of years?

Mr. Whelan: The same firm has been used in respect of the Ombudsman. The contract was put out to tender last year and that firm was again successful in obtaining it. A separate firm acts for us in relation to the Public Offices Commission. That firm was appointed when the commission was established in 1995.

Deputy Cooper-Flynn: Information on Beverley Cooper-Flynn Zoom on Beverley Cooper-Flynn Did that firm submit a tender for its contract?

Mr. Whelan: Yes.

Deputy Cooper-Flynn: Information on Beverley Cooper-Flynn Zoom on Beverley Cooper-Flynn How many staff are employed by the office?

Mr. Whelan: There are 58 staff spread between the three offices.

Deputy Foley: Information on Denis Foley Zoom on Denis Foley How is that number broken down?

Mr. Whelan: Approximately 38 are based in the Ombudsman’s office, 14 are based in the Public Offices Commission and eight work for the Information Commissioner.

Deputy Foley: Information on Denis Foley Zoom on Denis Foley How many consultants were employed by the office?

Mr. Whelan: As previously stated, our expenditure on consultancies is almost exclusively related to legal advice sought for the offices. In addition to obtaining legal advice in respect of issues arising from legislation affecting our offices, we must also obtain legal advice on issues which arise from the Social Welfare Acts and other Acts relating to the bodies within our jurisdiction. From time to time, the office may be taken to court by someone seeking a judicial review of our proceedings. On a number of occasions we have been taken to both the High Court and the Supreme Court as co-defendants with one of the bodies within our jurisdiction. When such situations arise we are obliged to bear our own costs. It is not possible to predict when such situations will arise.

Deputy Foley: Information on Denis Foley Zoom on Denis Foley For the year ending 31 December 1997, with how many queries did the Office of the Ombudsman deal?

Mr. Whelan: In 1997, approximately 3,000 complaints were dealt with.

Deputy Foley: Information on Denis Foley Zoom on Denis Foley How many related to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs?

Mr. Whelan: We received the greatest number of complaints in respect of that Department, approximately 1,000.

Deputy Foley: Information on Denis Foley Zoom on Denis Foley How many were resolved?

Mr. Whelan: We tend to view complaints in terms of either partial or complete resolutions. In rough terms, in approximately 50 per cent of cases we obtain some form of assistance for the complainant either by way of a complete or partial resolution of their complaint. The other 50 per cent are not upheld.

Deputy Foley: Information on Denis Foley Zoom on Denis Foley Of the complaints received, how many were genuine?

Mr. Whelan: It depends on what the Deputy means by a genuine complaint.

Deputy Foley: Information on Denis Foley Zoom on Denis Foley One which could be followed through.

Mr. Whelan: In any given year I set a figure of about 3,000. About 700 or 800 complaints per year would be invalid as they relate to bodies which are not in our jurisdiction or they may be more appropriate to banks, insurance companies or whatever. The vast majority of complaints, about 95 per cent, are bona fide.

Deputy Foley: Information on Denis Foley Zoom on Denis Foley I congratulate Mr. Whelan and his staff on the manner in which he deals with complaints. A number of people I have spoken to in the past few months have complimented them.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan I am curious about the statistic of 50 per cent. By how much has the volume of inquiries increased in the past five years? Is there a backlog or a delay in resolving inquiries which fall within Mr. Whelan’s remit?

Mr. Whelan: The number of complaints in 1998 were slightly down on the previous year. In 1997 they were up by 40 per cent on the previous year. However, leaving out 1997, when there was a slight blip in the system, in 1998 we received the highest level of complaints in ten years. The number of complaints in 1997 was greater than ten years previously.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan What was the cause of that blip in the system?

Mr. Whelan: To be honest, I do not really know. The office received a fair amount of publicity in 1997. The annual report got a high degree of coverage. We also published a special report on the payment of late pensions to social welfare recipients. This also received a fair degree of publicity and generated an increase in the number of social welfare complaints. Those two factors account for it to some degree but not entirely. In general, the underlying trend is roughly 3,000 complaints a year, which seems to be the figure we are settling down at.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan Which Departments generate most appeals to the Ombudsman?

Mr. Whelan: The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs generates the highest number. That is not a bad reflection on the Department but is rather an indication of its enormous client base and the huge number of transactions. It affects almost every member of the community when one includes child benefit etc., as well as the traditional areas of unemployment or disability benefits. There are also insurance issues which can affect many people. Local authorities are also quite high on our list. This seems to be one of the areas which is growing more rapidly than any other - this area has increased substantially in the past three or four years and continues to do so.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan What is the nature of inquiries in relation to local authorities?

Mr. Whelan: Housing issues are near the top of the list. People complain that they have been unfairly denied a local authority house or that they cannot find out exactly where they are on the waiting list. There are also complaints as regards housing repairs and planning. We are not involved in planning appeals which is the preserve of An Bord Pleanála. However, we are involved in planning enforcement and deal with complaints where local authorities have failed to enforce planning conditions attached to particular developments. That is a time consuming area for us to be involved in and it generates a great deal of work.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan Is planning enforcement not a matter for a local authority?

Mr. Whelan: Yes, absolutely. However, when a local authority fails to act or fails to act reasonably in relation to a planning enforcement matter, members of the public are entitled to complain to the Ombudsman.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan The Ombudsman would then have to pursue the same procedure as the local authority was supposed to.

Mr. Whelan: We would question the local authority about why it had failed to enforce conditions. I am talking about a particular development, a housing estate, factory or whatever, which was built with certain planning conditions attaching to it, which in the view of the complainant have been ignored by the developer and the council. Complaints have been made to the council by the complainant and it has failed to take action in relation to enforcement, either because it does not consider it expedient to do so or because it has not explained it to the complainant. We would then investigate the issue.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan Do any particular local authorities feature in inquiries of that nature?

Mr. Whelan: No. Unfortunately, it is an area which causes us a great deal of difficulty. We do not find local authorities very receptive or well disposed to dealing with planning enforcement issues as well as we think they should.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan As regards staff etc., does Mr. Whelan think he has sufficient resources available to do the job he has been given within a reasonable time? What is the backlog at present?

Mr. Whelan: We do not have a problem with a backlog. We have roughly 1,000 complaints on hand at any one time. That sounds like a large number but in terms of the time it takes to turn these around——

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan How long does that take on average?

Mr. Whelan: We would dispose of about 80 per cent of our complaints in about a four month period. The remaining 20 per cent can take an extremely long time. Some cases would run for a year, two years or maybe even three years for exceptional ones. The reason for that is that some of the issues are complex. There may be legal issues which the council or whatever body is involved wishes to clarify. We may also need to get legal advice. A body may not be receptive to our approach to the issue in any event which means we have to spend a considerable amount of time marshalling arguments and evidence to convince the body it should review its decision.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan Are there any areas in respect of which the office has been asked to extend its remit in terms of its authority?

Mr. Whelan: The Government has approved the drafting of an Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill which has a number of provisions, the most important of which is to extend the remit of the Ombudsman to a further range of bodies.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan Such as?

Mr. Whelan: The non-commercial State bodies such as FÁS, the Health and Safety Authority and Teagasc, which are all outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction at the moment, for no good reason. For example, as regards FÁS, when the Ombudsman’s office was set up in 1984, the National Manpower Service, as it was at that time, was included within its jurisdiction. However, it fell outside its jurisdiction on the creation of FÁS. The vocational education committees are also outside our jurisdiction and it is proposed to include them. Other bodies not under our jurisdiction are the third level institutes and public voluntary hospitals. This is an anomaly as health board hospitals are within our jurisdiction but public voluntary hospitals are not. However, this will be put right. I understand the Department of Finance is working on the drafting of this legislation which will be brought forward later this year.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan The insurance industry is not within the ambit of the Ombudsman.

Mr. Whelan: No, the insurance industry has a separate Ombudsman.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan An independent one.

Mr. Whelan: Yes.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh On planning enforcement and local authorities, have you any further powers with which you can encourage local authorities to be more responsive in enforcing the planning conditions pertaining to certain developments? The Comptroller and Auditor General performs value for money audits. Is there some way the Ombudsman could prepare reports on specific issues which seem to be of national importance and which are spread widely? Are you in a position to prepare such reports for tabling before the House so that they can be examined in greater detail?

Mr. Whelan: Yes, we do. We have already done this in some areas. I mentioned our report on the late payment of social welfare pensions. As a result, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs amended the regulations to make the system fairer to people who did not know they were entitled to a pension. The issue was they were only entitled to six months’ retrospection but that has now been more favourably extended. We also compiled a report two years ago on the school transport system as far as disabled children were concerned and we found the system operated in a discriminatory fashion against them.

We would be able to compile a report on planning and it is something we are considering. We are like any other organisation in that we have a number of priorities with which we want to deal and we believe these two reports are important. We will compile a supplementary report on the pensions issue because there have been developments since our last report. We expect to publish something on that in the next four to six weeks. We also intend later this year to publish a report on nursing homes where we found many problems. We have been successful in getting health boards and the Department of Health and Children to change their approach to many of the issues with which complainants were having problems. Planning is an issue we can address in that way.

We also have the power relating to complaints about planning to compile an investigative report. That could be done by way of a special report which could also be laid before the Houses to bring it to the attention of the Oireachtas.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh How has the level of customer service within Departments and bodies under your aegis which you can investigate improved over the past ten years?

Mr. Whelan: The one thing we always notice and which keeps us awake at night is the failure of Departments and other bodies to give reasons for their decisions when they refuse someone a benefit or entitlement. Many of the complaints we receive are centred on the lack of information available to the complainant about why he or she was refused in the first place. Not enough information has been given to complainants to allow them articulate and appeal in their own case. That is the one area which is beginning to improve dramatically. An important catalyst has been the Freedom of Information Act because it imposes a statutory duty on public bodies to give reasons for decisions which may adversely affect people. We hope the provision in the Freedom of Information Act will bring about a significant improvement in that area.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh How many cases arose in 1997 regarding the Department of Agriculture and Food? Has there been an improvement over the past ten years in the service complainants receive from the Department?

Mr. Whelan: In 1998 we received 198 complaints about the Department of Agriculture and Food.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh Would that be a relatively low number?

Mr. Whelan: It is number two on the list of Departments.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell After the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs?

Mr. Whelan: Yes. That Department has about 800 to 1,000 complaints. There is a big gap between it and the Department of Agriculture and Food; the Department of Education and Science as a close third.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh Regarding the Department of Agriculture and Food, what are the main items in which the people who approach you are interested? Where do they feel aggrieved?

Mr. Whelan: Issues such as headage payments and beef premium schemes.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh How many headage payments are made in a year?

Mr. Whelan: I do not know; my colleagues in the Department might know.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh What percentage of the total number of customers would 198 be?

Mr. Whelan: The number of complaints we receive about the Department is low in terms of its potential client base. That does not indicate everything is fine within it. Many farmers are not inclined to use the service of the Ombudsman for various reasons.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh Deputy Cooper-Flynn would probably receive more than 198 requests about headage payments.

Deputy Cooper-Flynn: Information on Beverley Cooper-Flynn Zoom on Beverley Cooper-Flynn They are all satisfied.

Mr. Whelan: The Department has made a number of important moves in recent years to introduce an appeals systems and this is another reason the number of complaints we receive is lower than one might expect.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh I am trying to find out if the level of service to the customer is improving. Do you perceive an improvement in the level of service to the customer in the Department of Agriculture and Food?

Mr. Whelan: The Department is very large and we have noticed it is better in some areas than in others. Some sections seem more responsive to the needs of their customers and to our office than other sections.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh What sections are most responsive?

Mr. Whelan: I do not have those details with me but I can supply them.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh I am sure the Secretary General would like to have a list.

Mr. Whelan: He probably already knows. We have been in touch on that.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell The Department of Agriculture and Food is the Department to which you most often had to apply under section 7. Will you explain what is section 7 and why the Department is out of line in that respect?

Mr. Whelan: Last year in the annual report we introduced a league table for the first time showing a list of section 7 notices. Such a notice refers to section 7 of the Ombudsman Act which empowers the Ombudsman to compel any Department or body to supply him with any information, document or thing.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell This would be when they fail to produce on request.

Mr. Whelan: Exactly, and they can be compelled by the Ombudsman to produce the information or to attend before him with that information and to address the issue. We have issued these notices as a matter of course to Departments and other bodies which have not supplied what we require by the due date. We gave notice in our annual report and I wrote to all the heads of bodies two years ago to say that we would publish these details in the annual report and we did so in our most recent one. The Department of Agriculture and Food heads that list in terms of Departments, but a number of local authorities and one health board are also included. In terms of the number of section 7 notices issued, the Department of Agriculture and Food came top of the list, the Department of Education and Science second and the Revenue Commissioners third. In terms of local authorities, Mayo County Council was top of the list.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh What were the numbers?

Mr. Whelan: In the case of the Department of Agriculture and Food, we had to issue 13 section 7 notices in the year; those notices went to different sections of the Department. Some sections were very good all the time while others were not so good and required them on a more regular basis.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell Do you ever have difficulty getting Departments or agencies to respond to a section 7? What would happen if they did not respond?

Mr. Whelan: Thankfully we have not had to face that.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell Would you have to go to court?

Mr. Whelan: It is an interesting question. There is provision in the Act for obstructing the Ombudsman and one can be deemed to be in contempt of court. However, the Act does not follow through to explain what should be done. To their credit, Departments respond to us.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell You should not have to resort to section 7 with public agencies.

Mr. Whelan: No, we should not. We give fair warning about this and Departments and other bodies are aware of the time limits within which they must respond. Those limits are agreed with those bodies so it is not as if they are unreasonable.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack Some planning authorities are not very receptive to inquiries and perhaps Mr. Whelan is not alone in that. We who are members of local authorities often find that they are not very receptive and I have been outspoken on the customer service they give. However, we must recognise that in my area, for example, the number of planning applications have doubled in the last two years, yet the planning staff has increased in number by approximately 5 per cent. There are great difficulties in planning offices due to the boom in housebuilding and planning applications and the authorities are finding it very hard to keep up.

The only section relevant to Mr. Whelan would be that relating to non-compliance with planning conditions but planning authorities are finding it hard to comply as they do not have the staff. There is crisis management in most planning offices and perhaps we should make some recommendations in that regard. To appoint permanent staff in planning offices one must get the permission of the Minister and the Department as well as the local authorities appointments commission, all of which takes approximately a year. Planning offices are now bringing in temporary staff for a few months. It is a mess and Mr. Whelan will face more and more work. It is a good thing he deals only with compliance or there would be many more complaints. How many times were section 7 notices used to get information from planning authorities?

Mr. Whelan: In their defence, local authorities have not told us they cannot deal with planning applications due to staff shortages.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack They are saying it is worse.

Mr. Whelan: It is not an issue with which we can deal. We deal with planning complaints on their merits and we have difficulties getting local authorities to review their approach or to take action based on our assessment of the merits of the case. I do not have details with me but I can get the number of section 7 orders issued in planning cases.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack You specifically deal only with compliance with planning conditions?

Mr. Whelan: The other area we deal with is planning administration. There have been some classic cases in this area. Members will be aware that individuals have the right to object to conditions of planning decisions and are notified when the decision is made by the planning authority so that they can exercise their right to appeal within the specified time limits. We have come across a couple of cases, though not many, where planning authorities have failed to notify objectors of their right to appeal with the result that those objectors lost the right to appeal in those cases. In one instance we recommended compensation of £5,000 to an individual who lost that right due to what was accepted as an administrative failing by the planning authority. In another case we also proposed compensation but the complainant was not interested.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack To clarify further, as well as non-compliance you can take complaints about the level of customer service. Can those complaints be taken from members of local authorities also, because some members, myself included, have reason to complain about the inadequate service some planning authorities are giving?

Mr. Whelan: If it is a complaint from a member of a local authority against that local authority, the answer is no. We cannot deal with that. If it is a complaint on behalf of a constituent we can.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack Every complaint is related to what a constituent brings to the attention of the public representative, therefore it can be a complaint from a constituent. Is a public representative entitled to present that complaint on behalf of the constituent.

Mr. Whelan: Absolutely, yes.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack Incidental expenses of £1,000 are included in the Supplementary Estimate. What was that for?

Mr. Whelan: It was a new telephone system that was introduced that year. We had been on the Government telecommunications network but a new system was introduced that year.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan You mentioned that social welfare matters form the biggest volume of complaints and, like the Department of Agriculture and Food, this is no reflection on the excellent service both Departments provide. I am interested in the profile of the complainant. Is there any average or is the type of complaint broken down? Is a profile of complainants provided?

Mr. Whelan: This is social welfare?

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan Do you have a socio-economic profile of the kind of person who would make a complaint?

Mr. Whelan: No, we do not. It is something we have thought about and when we receive complaints we have thought of getting details from complainants to get a better idea where people are coming from. We thought it might be useful for publicity for the office if we could target complainants like that but, as of now, we have no such indications.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan But you do have plans for an anonymous survey? Anonymity should be guaranteed as this very important. Whatever about agriculture, social welfare matters affect people who are very vulnerable and who depend on the State to make provision for them. This can be denied to them without reasons being given; such people may be victims of illiteracy and unable to access their rights. Priority should be given to funding such a survey on your part.

Mr. Whelan: Deputy Lenihan is right but I assure the committee that we take confidentiality very seriously. There is no question of us making people’s details available.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan When you say social welfare provides the highest volume of complaints, how many are there?

Mr. Whelan: Last year there were 800 complaints.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan Is there a regional spread? I know there are important confidentiality issues and an ongoing anonymous survey would be very valuable to us and policy makers. Is this broken down into regions, such as Dublin against the rest?

Mr. Whelan: In our report we publish the number of complaints per county by using the complainants’ addresses.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan Dublin obviously has the bulk of the complaints.

Mr. Whelan: Yes.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan How many of the 800 come from Dublin?

Mr. Whelan: Last year Dublin had 727 complaints in total - I am not just talking about social welfare. This is all complaints.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan Out of?

Mr. Whelan: Out of 2,800.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan Of the social welfare complaints is there a breakdown for Dublin?

Mr. Whelan: I do not have a breakdown by region.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan If we have the addresses——

Mr. Whelan: It would be possible to do this.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan It would be possible to break it down within the city.

Mr. Whelan: We would be able to do that.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan Could the committee be provided with that information? Dublin Deputies would be interested to know from where in the city the complaints are coming.

Mr. Whelan: Is the Deputy interested in social welfare complaints?

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan Social welfare complaints by postal district. Obviously there will be a big difference between Dublin 4 and Dublin 24.

Mr. Whelan: That is no problem and we will do that. The other interesting fact revealed by the figures is that counties such as Kerry or Mayo seem to be particularly good at using the Ombudsman’s service. For instance, we visited Tralee two weeks ago——

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan They are good at offshore banking in Tralee.

Mr. Whelan: We got 100 complaints in one day, all of which were valid.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan How does that happen? I do not want to stray into Deputy Cooper-Flynn’s area of Mayo so we will stick with Kerry. How it is that the people of Kerry or Tralee have such expertise?

Deputy Foley: Information on Denis Foley Zoom on Denis Foley I refer them to the Ombudsman.

Deputy Cooper-Flynn: Information on Beverley Cooper-Flynn Zoom on Beverley Cooper-Flynn So do I.

Mr. Whelan: That may partly be the answer. In some of these counties we find that constituents are used to using their local TDs and councillors. Because of that they equally feel at home with coming to the Ombudsman or they may be referred to the Ombudsman by TDs and councillors.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan Is that something which Mr. Whelan wishes to encourage?

Mr. Whelan: We are primarily into awareness of the office. We do not care from where the complaints come. If they are there they should be dealt with. If they come via Deputies we are happy to take them and we try to encourage that.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Information on Conor Lenihan Zoom on Conor Lenihan It is the quality of the TDs which drives these complaints rather than the cuteness of the native Kerryman or woman.

Mr. Whelan: That is why there can be a problem in Dublin. In our experience people in Dublin are not quite as aware of, or do not use, their local representatives quite as much as people in rural areas.

Deputy Foley: Information on Denis Foley Zoom on Denis Foley Mr. Whelan mentioned 198 complaints against the Department of Agriculture and Food. That is a small number when one considers the total number of transactions dealt with by the Department. What is the total number of transactions dealt with by the Department?

Mr. Malone: We have approximately 1,000,000 transactions per annum - roughly 1,000,000 individual payments.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell Thank you, Mr. Whelan. We note the accounts and discharge you as a witness.

The witness withdraw.


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