Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 6 December 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions
Decisions on Public Petitions Received
The joint committee has received a total of 49 petitions to date since the launch of the petitions system. This shows the level of interest within general society in the issue of oversight of what is happening in society in general and, more specifically, the delivery of public services. We are trying our best to get through them with fewer resources than we would like. We are going through each petition to determine, first, whether it is admissible. Where admissibility is achieved, we are doing our best to resolve the issue. The secretariat is doing great work in that regard.
The first petition I would like to bring to the attention of the committee is petition No. P00033/12 from Mr. Cearbhaill Ó Dálaigh regarding the transparency of the Central Bank. Mr. Ó Dálaigh is seeking legislation to extend the powers of the Ombudsman and under the Freedom of Information Acts to include the Central Bank. He also wants the committee to examine a co-operation agreement between the National Consumer Agency and the Central Bank to see if it is in the public interest.
At the meeting of 17 October 2012 the committee agreed to refer the issue of the extension of the Freedom of Information Act to the Central Bank and the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform. This committee sought pre-legislative consultation of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill and a report to the committee. The committee further agreed to examine the issue of extending the Ombudsman's jurisdiction to the Central Bank in the context of the review of the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act. I will call on the petitioners to examine the petition briefly and then we will discuss the petition in depth.
Sílim go bhfuil an achainí seo iontach tábhachtach. Táimid thar a bheith buíoch don té a chur isteach é. It is an important petition, something to which we can all relate. We are all keen to see more openness and transparency in all State organisations. There are several good recommendations from the secretariat about how the Financial Services Ombudsman might be an appropriate route for this to be channelled. We should accept that recommendation and ask the Financial Services Ombudsman to report back to us on progress on that issue as well.
It is important that the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions has a role of oversight. If we recommend that another avenue is available to a petitioners to which they can forward a petition, then they should follow that but should also report back to us in order that we see there is progress. We have made a suggestion to the effect that the petitioner make a submission to the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform. We should also ask that committee to report to us on that process and its deliberation on whether the Central Bank should be covered under the Freedom of Information Bill. That is important in this case.
I feel like I am in a time warp. I agree with Senator Ó Clochartaigh. It is right and proper that the committee should inform people of the different avenues available to them. In this case they are the Financial Services Ombudsman and the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, given its deliberations on the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill and how these may affect the concerns that Mr. Ó Dálaigh has raised. Equally, it is important that the petition is not closed because we are the last chance saloon for people who cannot get satisfaction from other agencies. Mr. Ó Dálaigh should have the opportunity to come back here if he does not get a satisfactory response or outcome from the avenues we have suggested.
I am keen to see more deliberations at the finish and I do not believe we should close the petition today. It should come before us again after further consultation with the people involved. I had some concerns with regard to the statement he made whereby he said he did not want the committee to contact the Ombudsman about the complaint he submitted to it. I appreciate that he has said that it might be a different complaint but I am unsure and I thought it somewhat unusual and funny. That is his personal decision and that is fine. Regardless, I do not believe we should close the petition today.
It is an important petition. I am not referring to the individual petition in this regard but in general. A large section of Irish society is having remarkable difficulty financially and they are having difficulty seeing a way out of these problems. Many of them believe that they are not achieving justice with regard to their circumstances and how they relate to the financial system here. Transparency is important for a properly functioning democracy. We need to ensure that, where possible, individuals have a right to as much transparency into and oversight of their financial experience as possible. I agree thoroughly with the recommendations made thus far.
Part of the dilemma with this petitioner is that he has come mid-stream. He is still in negotiation and contact with the Ombudsman. Moreover, there is an issue with the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act and the potential for the Ombudsman to have some oversight of the Central Bank. There are three streams of unfinished business. In a way it is almost as if the petition in its essence is one we should address because it relates to greater transparency in the Central Bank, but this particular petition would pose us some difficulty because it is surrounded by things that are ongoing, in particular, as Deputy Healy-Rae noted, the fact that the business he has with the Ombudsman is private and he does not want us to have anything to do with that. I maintain we should keep his petition open. I suspect we may receive other similar petitions and we need to keep it open because of the Freedom of Information aspect and because we will be discussing the Ombudsman's potential relationship with the Central Bank. Therefore, we should keep an eye on this and if others come along behind it, they could form part of a greater debate about transparency in the Central Bank.
I agree. Deputy Harrington made another point with regard to the Irish Financial Services Appeals Tribunal in private session. He suggested that we should get a briefing on the power and influence that can be brought to bear.
That is the new recommendation to the effect that we are seeking to keep the petition open. Agreed.
An chéad ceann eile is petition P00043/12 from Mr. Thomas Kevin Walshe concerning the back-to-education allowance. Members have been circulated with a summary note. The petitioner is entitled to €188 per week under the jobseeker's allowance but not entitled to the back-to-education allowance under the eligibility criteria for the scheme. We have sent a letter to the Minister and the Minister has indicated that the policy is being carried out to the letter of the law at present, that the back-to-education allowance confers an entitlement to income support for an indefinite period and that it was not designed to do that. Are there any comments?
This is an important issue. As I mentioned in private session, either I know this man or know others like him. It is a rather ridiculous anomaly whereby someone who has completed one year in third level education seeks to continue the course but because he is not unemployed for long enough, he is forced back into unemployment and cannot then continue his education in UCD. He is being forced into unemployment when he wants to get out of it and it is costing the State exactly the same amount of money. It is a matter of the criteria. This does not even represent a further burden on the State. This anomaly is rather widespread.
The justification provided by the Minister, that if one were to reduce the amount of time someone has to be unemployed to get the back-to-education allowance it would lead to great numbers of people signing on simply to get the allowance, does not stand up. Frankly, it is ridiculous when there is a general view, expressed by the Government among others, that we should encourage people who are unemployed to upskill, re-educate themselves and get back into the workforce. Here is someone who has been informed that he has not been unemployed long enough and he should stay unemployed and dependent on State benefits when he has no wish to be and he need not be. We should address this issue seriously because it has wider ramifications beyond the petitioner in question.
It is clear that we have all had experience of this particular type of case.
We have an oversight role. When we recommended that the Minister be contacted, we were hoping for a response with regard to the anomaly. What we have received is a letter that replies to the petitioner's particular circumstance and explains that the rules have been applied correctly in his case. We knew that before we started. What we need to discuss is the anomaly. Why has the Department set up its systems to allow a man like this - or anyone else - to slip through and to be back in a situation of unemployment? I do not accept in that case that the Minister's letter is a full response. Remarkably, the Minister's letter says there is no anomaly. I, for one, see an anomaly here. I therefore recommend that the committee invite the Minister and her officials to attend the committee, along with the petitioner, to debate this matter. This is an oversight of public service issue and it affects many people. As public representatives we are all very familiar with receiving letters from the Minister in response to representations. Very often we are of the view that we want to push it further but it is difficult to do so. This is a man who wishes to push it further and I would wish to push it with him.
I thank the petitioner in his absence for submitting an excellent petition. This problem extends beyond this petitioner's case. As I stated in private session I have dealt with numerous cases such as this. It is a crazy anomaly. If people wish to further themselves by getting better education they should be put on the proper payment that would allow them to do so. This man's payment is debarring him from continuing with his education. That situation cannot be permitted.
It would be the ultimate in democracy to see the Minister and representatives of the permanent government coming here to have a discussion with the committee and, hopefully, the petitioner, so that he can put his case directly in an open and frank way in the presence of the Minister and the permanent government members. The Minister will then see first-hand how crazy this is and that a change should be made. This should be the committee's next step. There should be no more paper-pushing about this issue but a frank discussion on the subject instead. This issue is bigger than one case. A large number of people are affected besides this petitioner. However, I am glad this person has used this committee in the way he has in order to further his own personal case. I hope that by helping this petitioner we will be able to help many other people. Every Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas will have had representations about situations like this one.
This case indicates what this committee is about. This concerns an individual and it is not our business to hear the case which will be the business of the Office of the Ombudsman. However, this committee investigates systemic problems. Its remit is to highlight any gaps in legislation and to make recommendations in that regard. I concur with my colleagues that there is a gap in the rules and in the legislation which is creating an anomaly. It is important that the petitioner be invited to speak and that the committee hears the response of the Minister and her officials. It might be useful to invite representatives from the INOU and USI who have dealt with similar cases and are the representative bodies in this area. They could provide the committee with a broader picture of the extent of this anomaly.
I think "anomaly" is a misnomer. In my view it is far more fundamental than merely being anomalous. I agree with the suggestion of inviting the Minister and her officials to attend the committee. This may well be a policy decision. The Minister or her officials may have decided to deliberately exclude persons from the scheme. Therefore, it may not be an anomaly. We could be in danger of straying into the area of policy. I would like to have a briefing in that regard. I have great sympathy for the petitioner and it makes perfect sense but we could be dealing with policy issues rather than with anomalies.
Like all members I have had representations from constituents. I know of one person who had to emigrate because the option was not available to him. We need a knowledge economy so we should be creating pathways for individuals to return to education or back to work. Many people fall between the two stools. The system is not designed for people; they are expected to fit into the system. There needs to be a change in this regard.
I will recap what the committee has decided. We are seeking to have the Minister, her departmental private secretary and the petitioner come to a meeting. We will contact the INOU and USI to inquire which organisation has more experience of representing individuals in similar circumstances. We will also invite the organisations to give evidence. I suggest we ask the petitioner how he wishes to approach any engagement with the Minister. The committee is empowered to influence policy and not just to examine individual cases and problems. Are the recommendations agreed? Agreed.