Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 23 October 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions
Ombudsman and Information Commissioner: Discussion with Nominee
I remind all those present, including members, media and people in the Gallery, that mobile telephones and BlackBerrys must be turned off completely because they interfere with the sound system, even if they are on silent mode. On behalf of the committee I welcome Mr. Peter Tyndall, nominee for appointment to the position of Ombudsman and Information Commissioner. The format of the meeting is that he will be invited to make a brief opening statement which will be followed by a question and answer session with members. I thank him for forwarding his presentation, which has been circulated to members.
Before we commence I must inform Mr. Tyndall that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If Mr. Tyndall is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and he continues to so do, he is entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of his evidence. He is directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. He is asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, he should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. It sounds quite ominous when read but it is a necessary protocol. I am sure we will be safe enough with Mr. Tyndall. I invite him to make his presentation.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
Thank you, Chairman. I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak to the committee today. I am greatly honoured to be nominated to the position of Ombudsman and Information Commissioner. I wish to pay tribute to the outgoing, former Ombudsman, now European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, who led the office with distinction for a number of years. She has made it easy for the next incumbent to take on the role.
The role itself is a vitally important one.
It is one of the independent offices of the State which gives citizens and other users of public services the sense there is someone there who can deal with their complaints objectively and independently or who can deal with their requests for information in a way that is fair, transparent and open. The role has been significant in the context of the State and will continue to have that importance. The work of the Office of the Ombudsman is well known in Ireland but the office also has a strong international reputation, providing the next Ombudsman with a great platform from which to develop an even better service in the future.
I should provide some information about myself. Unusually, I am not a journalist. I come to the post as a public service ombudsman and believe I will bring a particular perspective to the role of Ombudsman. I am used to managing and leading a public service ombudsman's service which is well regarded and which has dealt with a much increased demand for its services, a demonstration of the confidence of the people who use the service. In dealing with the greater demand for services, my office also managed to improve its performance. For example, there are no complaints more than a year old to be dealt with in the office. Some 90% of complainants are told within 28 days, and often within two or three days, whether their complaint will be investigated.
This focus on the balance between giving people proper, well thought through objective responses to their questions while at the same time doing so in a way that reflects the scarcity of resources ensures that what resources are deployed are deployed efficiently and effectively. This is part of what I would bring with me to the role of Ombudsman. What I bring to the role also is the fact that although I have a knowledge of public services in Ireland, I have not had any personal engagement in those services. From that point of view, I would bring an objectivity and clarity to the role which I believe would be of considerable assistance.
A large part of my career has been about developing services for people with intellectual disabilities, but also for people from a variety of backgrounds where support is required. This work informs my view of issues. We all use public services to some extent. We pay tax, though we may not think of that as a public service, but we use public services constantly. However, people with support requirements, disabilities and so on rely on public services. Consequently, ensuring there is good, independent, objective scrutiny of any failures of public service is important. This is an important part of my motivation for wanting to take on the role of Ombudsman.
This is an exciting time to take on the role of Ombudsman. The Office of the Ombudsman is well established, but the recent extension of jurisdiction is important because it means the Ombudsman can provide greater coverage. The impending freedom of information legislation will also give greater scope to the role through the widening of the number of bodies included within the jurisdiction and by improving access to information more generally. I relish the opportunity to see those changes through. It is important that the new bodies covered by the legislation understand the role of the office but I believe there will be some trepidation in that regard. People will be concerned in terms of both the Ombudsman Act and freedom of information legislation. It is important people have a good understanding of what the changes will mean and the implications for them. I intend to work with them to help develop that understanding.
One of the fundamental issues for me is that by and large most complaints that come to an ombudsman or information commissioner should not be there. If public bodies handled complaints better, people would not feel the need of the office. Some people, even when they have received a reasonable response, are not satisfied with the outcome. That is fine, but there should be somewhere for them to take their complaints further. The demand for an ombudsman's office will grow significantly in times such as those we are living through currently. Therefore, finding ways of helping public bodies to manage complaints better is important.
One of the areas I would like to explore is the introduction of a standardised, streamlined approach to complaint handling by public bodies, which would give citizens and service users much greater clarity and certainty about what to expect when they make complaints. This would bring complaints to the Ombudsman's office more quickly and the issues would be fresher and more capable of being resolved. This would also reduce the number of complaints. Any ombudsman would say that sometimes when one finds that the subject of the complaint has not been upheld, the complaint handling has been so dreadful that one has to uphold the complaint on that basis alone. This is a particular area I would like to address.
I would also work to improve the performance of the office, the way it deals with people who approach it, provide a prompt, effective and courteous service, ensure people feel they are getting there complaints considered objectively and ensure their requests for information are dealt with properly, efficiently and speedily. There are issues in regard to these issues and I will, therefore,need to look at the issue of performance. This is something I have looked hard at in my current position, making maximum use of information technology to make it easier for people to access the service and to make it easier to manage complaints so that the burden of the office in terms of processing is undertaken, as much as possible, by the IT to enable the investigators spend their time investigating and dealing with members of the public. There are ways of improving processing and performance but I do not see a likely reduction in the volume of complaints or requests for information.
Turning over work quickly is not in itself a measure of performance of an ombudsman's service if the quality of that work is not of a suitable standard. From that perspective, I am anxious to ensure there are arrangements in place to ensure quality. I think there is scope for improving performance and I would like to focus on that. Ultimately, the quality of the examinations, the investigations and the reports produced is what will determine whether people have faith in the service. People may be happy for it to take a little while for them to receive an answer, provided that answer is thorough, deals with all the points raised, is objective and gives them an answer they can understand in terms of the question they asked.
I want to say a little about the core work - about health and social care complaints. I have made it clear that the Ombudsman has two distinct roles as an agenda. The first is the consideration of complaints and the provision of redress for individuals who approach the office or the provision of the information they require. The second role is equally important and it is to ensure that the same mistakes are not constantly repeated and to consider how to get that learning into the system. In my current role, I have made a significant investment in improving public service delivery. Regular case books set out the learning from the office and I know these are used by public bodies as learning materials. These provide regular guidance on handling complaints.
In the case of the larger public bodies, those which generate the greatest volume of complaints, generally health bodies in my case, we have annual meetings and letters which set out the cases that arose during the year, what can be learned from them and try to get assurance this learning is being carried through. When we propose changes and agree an action plan with a body that it will implement in order to avoid a repeat of mistakes, it is essential we follow up on that and get evidence action has been taken and that the action taken has achieved the desired outcome. My fundamental principle is that it is not sufficient to say the consideration of complaints improved services. The improvement of services must be a focus of the work of the office.
That is something I want to bring to the position, as I have done in my current role. I will speak about the relationship with the health service, the HSE and the Department of Health. It seems this has been an area of particular concern and I am sure the committee has had occasion to consider it. I would very much want to make a personal investment in efforts to improve what has become, in my view, a very entrenched relationship. These things are difficult and there is a lot of history attached. I am not that naive to think that all that history can be set aside. On the other hand, a new incumbent in the post marks a fresh start and it should be possible to start to rebuild that relationship so that it is more constructive and so that the findings of the office and its reports are more likely to be accepted and implemented in a spirit of organisational learning which they should be, in my view. Complaints are a source of learning for organisations and provide a way for improvement. That is the way I would like to see it done.
The new FOI provisions will also pose challenges for the new bodies under jurisdiction. Some way of setting out the implications and how the provisions will work will be needed. There is currently a means of communication but much of the engagement between the office and the bodies in jurisdiction focuses on individual requests for information and individual complaints. There needs to be much more generic engagement with the bodies so that there is an opportunity for them, if possible, to prevent the complaints and the requests for review coming to the office in the first instance.
One of the issues of greatest concern both to me and to the committee is that issues will arise when individuals are entitled to a service or to fair treatment and an investigation reveals that they have not received same. It is essential that any ombudsman should be authoritative and that decisions should be on the basis of a very detailed consideration of the evidence and that the recommendation should be seen to put right any wrong that has occurred. I imagine and hope that the relationship with this committee will be fundamental in ensuring that any unresolved issues are taken forward. I would hope to avoid the situation where recommendations are not being upheld. In my current position all my recommendations have been implemented. I realise this is making me a hostage to fortune because that day will come but it is important to emphasise that I come to this position with prior experience and knowledge.
The Office of the Ombudsman in Ireland has a very high profile. People understand that they can bring their complaints but that, in itself, is not sufficient. In my view when people make a first complaint to public bodies or request information it is essential that they are informed of their right to come to the Office of the Ombudsman. For preference, the body in jurisdiction needs an opportunity to be able to respond to the request but the best way of ensuring that people know about access to the services of the Office of the Ombudsman is that they are informed about it when they most need to know, at the point at which they are dissatisfied with either the service or the information provided by a body. I place great importance on ensuring this will happen.
There is a plethora of ways to complain about services. There has been some movement in the piece of work which led to the health complaints website. People should be able to complain in whatever form they wish. For many people that will still be a letter, the completion of a form or by speaking to an official. Equally important, people who want to complain by phone or by website should be able to get access to someone who can tell them how to present a complaint. That should be an accessible and reliable service which will provide information about any body or agency in the State about which a complaint may arise. In my view, the information should be available on bodies both inside and outside jurisdiction. The Office of the Ombudsman should be the source of information for making a complaint and this should be available to everyone using any method of contact. I refer to the Complaints Wales service which is a telephone and web-based service and in my view it is one of the most innovative methods of access anywhere. As more public services are provided by bodies which are not themselves public bodies, it becomes more difficult for people to seek access to justice. The Office of the Ombudsman has a critical role in making it easier for people to do that.
This is a vital role and I would very much relish the opportunity to exercise it.
I welcome Mr. Tyndall agus gabhaim comhghairdeachas leis as a ainmniúcháin don phost seo. I congratulate him on his nomination to this position. This is a relatively new committee but we have had a very good engagement with the current Ombudsman. Mr. Tyndall is probably very well aware that he has some big boots to fill because she did a fantastic job. I am sure Mr. Tyndall will be an able successor, even though his approach, perspective and experiences are different. I agree that the interaction with this committee will be key. My own sense is that the previous Ombudsman encountered a sense of belligerence from certain Departments and agencies in their reactions to some of her reports. Hers was not an easy task. However, following meetings with this committee, some of the issues were moved forward and resolved and that is a very positive development. Mr. Tyndall will work closely with other ombudsmen in the State who are doing very good work. I have two areas of particular interest. I am interested that Mr. Tyndall was based in Wales and the Welsh language is a very important and integral part of the fabric of the community there. I am an Irish speaker and we have a Language Commissioner. There are proposals for the amalgamation of the Office of the Language Commissioner and the Office of the Ombudsman. I ask Mr. Tyndall to give his opinion on this proposal and also to talk about any issues he may have encountered in dealing with bilingual issues in Wales which might be useful in the context of his new role.
He referred to the extension of the remit of the office. His predecessor, Ms Emily O'Reilly, was very strong in her opinion. She asked that particular sectors should be included in the amended legislation, such as groups of people who do not have recourse to a complaints system. I refer specifically to those living in direct provision. I acknowledge Mr. Tyndall is new and he faces a task of work which includes an extended remit. I ask Mr. Tyndall not to let that ball drop. The extension of the remit is badly needed. I wish him well. This committee is here to support him. Go n-éirí an t-ádh leis sa ról nua atá aige. Beidh muid anseo le gach tacaíocht a thabhairt dó.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I am used to working in a bilingual office and I am a Welsh learner. My Irish is rusty. I worked closely with the Welsh language commissioner. In Wales, the children's commissioner and older people's commissioner and myself worked closely together. As chair of the Ombudsman Association of Britain and Ireland, I facilitated meetings of the Irish ombudsmen and I know my colleague ombudsmen in Ireland. Obviously, I would welcome the opportunity to work with them.
Wales is a fully bilingual country, particularly in terms of public administration. I am very familiar with it. When a complaint arrives in Welsh, it is investigated in Welsh, the report is in Welsh, etc. My Welsh is good enough for me to stay on top of it. I would need some help with some of the more technical language, but there we are. I have to say my Irish is incredibly rusty, but it was reasonably good. My difficulty is that when I attempt a sentence in Irish, a sentence in Welsh comes to mind, but that will change.
It is important that people should be able to use the language of their choice. I have noticed that there are particular issues when it comes to matters such as speech therapy or services for persons with mental health problems, where having access to services in one's first language becomes very significant. I understand these issues well.
I do not know where progress is on the issue of the combination of the offices but I understand that when the arrangements were proposed it would not mean that the commissioner's role would disappear but that it would be in a sense within a wider office dealing with other issues and complaints. Obviously, if that continues, I would want to look very closely at it. However, having worked in a bilingual country, I am fully committed to and supportive of the principle of enabling people to continue to use both of their languages and will look forward to working with An Comisinéir Teanga.
The issue of remits is a more complex one because I am conscious there has been a lengthy and detailed debate about it. Sitting in a context where one looks internationally, Ireland falls towards the middle of the spectrum of where the remit falls. Some of the more traditional ombudsmen from countries like those, for instance, in Scandinavia, have a broader remit that includes matters such as the courts, etc. I do not think there ever will be any suggestion of moving to that end of the spectrum. However, issues about remit are always important.
I have been looking at where many people in Wales fund their own social care and, therefore, have an entirely private contractual arrangement. I have got agreement from government to extend the jurisdiction to include people in those entirely private settings because those in the room next door who are being publicly funded are within remit, and it is just nonsense. Keeping remit under review is one of the tasks of an Ombudsman and there will be issues always.
There are other redress mechanisms. Whatever happens in areas that are very important to people's lives, there should be independent and objective consideration and access to redress. I do not think there is ever a time when the question of remit is settled. Public services change, people's problems change and one needs to be aware of what the opportunities are and where the gaps are.
I join Senator Ó Clochartaigh in extending a welcome to Mr. Tyndall to the committee. We were advised in private session before Mr. Tyndall came in that we are not an interview panel and that we were not to regard the meeting as such. We always take the advice of the Cathaoirleach in these and other matters. That notwithstanding, I note that Mr. Tyndall is on the public record on the matter of recruitment and the selection process and the role of committees such as this. It is an exciting time in the public service here in Ireland because of the recently extended remit of the office, the recent changes to the freedom of information legislation which will have a direct impact upon his office and the existence of this committee which, as a previous speaker stated, is relatively new. I wonder whether Mr. Tyndall has any thoughts at this stage as to how best an Ombudsman might relate to this committee to the mutual benefit of improving public service and has he given any thought to the role that this committee might play.
Similarly, Mr. Tyndall's office, the Office of the Ombudsman, is now dealing with a large number of public bodies and agencies for the first time and that presents a significant challenge. I wonder whether he has any thoughts on a nationwide information and education campaign. Having regard to the fact that, when ratified, he will be the fourth Ombudsman, nevertheless, as a public representative, I formed the view that there are bodies of opinion in Ireland that are not specifically aware of the role and function of the Ombudsman. In the context of the increased powers and increased remit, that presents a significant challenge. Has Mr. Tyndall any thoughts on that?
With specific reference to public bodies that do not have adequately resourced FOI units, Mr. Tyndall mentioned timeframe and the importance of deadlines in his addressed. There may well be an element of frustration having regard to the fact that he will be dealing with agencies that do not have the units set up. How best might that be met?
Would it be out of order for me to ask Mr. Tyndall for his thoughts on the recruitment and selection process having regard to the situation in Wales where this committee's counterpart in the Welsh Assembly is the recruiting body where as here he is presented to us as something of a fait accompli? We have had a debate in recent weeks on reform of our institutions. The proposed abolition of the Seanad engaged the people for the first time in terms of political reform. Has Mr. Tyndall any views, have his views changed or is he prepared to speak to this committee on the matter of the recruitment selection process of public officers such as the position of Ombudsman?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I see the role of the committee and its relationship with the Ombudsman as being twofold. One role is that the committee will want to hold the Ombudsman to account to ensure that the office is doing what the Oireachtas thinks it should be doing. It is that formal role where the committee considers the annual report, etc. The second role, which is of equal importance, comes as the committee members' role as public representatives in holding public services to account. From that point of view, the Ombudsman provides the committee with valuable knowledge and information to enable the committee to undertake that role more effectively. Achieving the balance between those two roles will be important.
The linkage between the committee and the Office of the Ombudsman should be close. I have seen that there have been a good number of occasions when evidence has been given. There have been lively discussions with the previous Ombudsman. The model is there and in place and is developing well.
The reality is that although the Ombudsman has a relationship with the Oireachtas as a whole, in practice, to make that relationship work one needs something that is rather more like this where there is a smaller number of people and it is possible to have proper debate, engagement and discussion.
I hope that will continue to prove as effective as it has been in the recent past since the committee took on its new role.
There is a strong role for an information campaign with new bodies coming into jurisdiction. There is a misunderstanding of the role of the Office of the Ombudsman. It is really important to get bodies to understand that using compliance mechanisms to improve services is an important adjunct to their role as leaders and managers of services. They should not regard it necessarily as threatening and disadvantageous. Greater transparency, as brought about through freedom of information, improved complaint handling and improved service delivery, as brought about through engagement with the Ombudsman, are phenomena that bodies should be able to embrace. However, they will not do so unless there is information. There needs to be some targeted briefing material for bodies in order that the engagement can be set out in more practical terms. I have developed fact sheets principally for users of the Ombudsman's service. They set out succinctly and briefly how things work, what happens and what is possible. An equivalent simple, straightforward, punchy message will help to get across the point. I want bodies to embrace the opportunity, although I can understand it may take a little time to get them to feel enthusiastic about the engagement. However, there are opportunities. There are organisations the leadership of which engages properly with the process of improvement and uses compliance mechanisms for that purpose. I hope we can work very carefully with them.
In the midst of austerity, the point on freedom of information is very well made. There is often a hierarchy of issues that are lost as budgets are cut. Training is cut early in the day and resourcing freedom of information is not much further along the road. A delay in dealing with requests exacerbates the problem. Often, when a person asking for information to which he or she is entitled does not receive a prompt response, he or she assumes the reason is not necessarily the Department is struggling to find someone to do the work but that the Department does not want to release the information. The latter is often not true. The same applies to the responses to complaints. People believe they are being denied justice, simply because of the delay in obtaining sensible answers. In some ways, that is a very difficult conundrum. Setting targets for bodies to respond is the issue.
Publishing the statistics without delay, as I do now, is a very helpful way of highlighting where the problems are. The annual letters I publish, about which I talked, include information not just on what complaints have been dealt with and the outcomes but also on the performance of the bodies in jurisdiction in responding to requests for information from my office. These are the areas in which one can actually help to highlight where the problems are in the hope of persuading people to improve performance.
Engaging with the new bodies to discuss the requirements with them and getting some kind of information campaign going must be considered. I understand that is principally a departmental responsibility, but I want the Office of the Ombudsman to work alongside the Department in that regard. The Department needs to get the information across on the overall FOI regime, but it is for the office to ensure an understanding of the role of the Information Commissioner, what is required and how engagement will operate.
On the question about the recruitment process, members might understand that it might well be folly for somebody to comment on it before it is entirely completed. Perhaps I might say this is the first time the committee has had the opportunity to speak to a candidate for the office, which is a welcome step forward. The new Ombudsman and Information Commissioner will have to be elected by both Houses of the Oireachtas and appointed by the President. That and the ongoing relationship with the committee mark an evolution, which I can welcome.
I welcome Mr. Tyndall and wish him every success in his new post of responsibility. His submission and speech were very interesting. We look forward to engaging with him.
I wish to pursue the question by Deputy Terence Flanagan on the recruitment process, but I take Mr. Tyndall’s deflected answer concerning the process in Dublin. It is a matter I raised in the Seanad some months ago, which is why I am interested in it. While I accept that Mr. Tyndall may not be free to talk about the process, perhaps he would be willing to let us know the recruitment process for his position in Wales. Was it advertised? Was there an interview process? Was the procedure different from ours?
My second question relates to a statement Mr. Tyndall made. He has pointed out, correctly, that an equally core duty of the office is ensuring bodies in jurisdiction implement the recommendations arising from investigations. We agree 100%, particularly where the body in jurisdiction is the Government as a whole. Having read the work of his predecessor, Ms Emily O'Reilly, Mr. Tyndall is possibly aware of a special report of the Ombudsman. A special report is laid before the Oireachtas where a matter is deemed to be exceptionally serious. There is such a report before the office and the Government, the lost at sea report. That the Government and its predecessors failed absolutely to respond to the recommendations made is absolutely disgraceful. The matter may have come before the Office of the European Ombudsman. The current coalition which includes my party and some people in this room, gave the most solemn commitment to implement the recommendations of Ms Emily O'Reilly. That has now been dismissed on so-called legal grounds. The previous Government did likewise.
The committee must make a statement that when the Ombudsman lays not just any report but a special report before the Houses of the Oireachtas, its recommendations should surely be implemented. I hope Mr. Tyndall will confirm that he will pursue the matter with vigour. There is a widow in Donegal affected. I never met her, but I know one or two of the family who have suffered. The special report was laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas not just for consideration but for a response. It is not good enough that we suddenly do political and legal somersaults and say we cannot now do what we absolutely and solemnly promised to do. That excuse is simply not good enough. I am not expecting miracles from Mr. Tyndall today, but I am asking for his strong commitment to continue the work of his predecessor to secure justice for a family who lost not only financially but also family members in a fishing accident. When the Ombudsman says it is a core duty to ensure bodies in jurisdiction implement recommendations, this must be borne in mind. I am not a member of the committee, but I came along to ask the Ombudsman to ensure our word is our bond, that we will respond and implement the recommendation of Mr. Tyndall's predecessor. The special report was probably the most serious produced by the Ombudsman in the past decade. It is not good enough that it is simply gathering dust on some Government shelf.
Before I allow Deputy Seamus Kirk to contribute, let me clarify some matters on the lost at sea scheme.
The recommendations of the then Ombudsman, Ms Emily O’Reilly, were rejected by the committee. She did raise the issue in her outgoing speech to the committee and has indicated she will be bringing it to the Taoiseach to be dealt with. The committee is seeking legal advice from the parliamentary legal adviser to reinvestigate the matter.
I join other members of the committee in welcoming Mr. Tyndall, the Ombudsman-designate.
Are there significant differences between the legislative remit of the Irish and Welsh offices? Is there any agreement or benchmarking arrangement between the Ombudsman’s office and Departments and State agencies on dealing with repeat complaints? How adequate are the office’s powers for dealing with the failurea of Departments and State agencies? Not being tongue-in-cheek, in cases in which political representations are being made on specific areas that are vexatious, costly and time-wasting, is there provision in the Ombudsman legislation for a State agency or Department to make a reverse complaint? With the debate on the reform of the Houses of the Oireachtas, there are trenchant critics of political clientelism and the costs it imposes on Departments and State agencies. As a matter of interest, could a Secretary General lodge a complaint with the Ombudsman’s office if his or her Department received vexatious complaints from a Member of the Oireachtas?
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
The process in Wales is similar in some respects. There is an advertisement of the position, an interview panel is formed of chairs of committees and independent Members of the Welsh Assembly, including a former ombudsman. The candidate would go before a committee in the same way as I am doing.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
Compliance is a very difficult issue. I am familiar with the lost at sea report and heard Emily O’Reilly speak eloquently about it. She spoke at the same time as Ann Abraham, the former UK parliamentary ombudsman, who compiled the Equitable Life report which looked at lost pensions and another that was not implemented in full. Fundamentally, there is a question about the powers of the office. Within a democracy, the ombudsman normally has the power of recommendation on public service complaints. In dealing with private sector complaints, for example, a financial services ombudsman will have binding powers because there is no political process to back up his or her recommendations. Fundamentally, it falls to the Legislature to see these recommendations through. When the issue arises, parliamentary committees consider it. This is the process for most ombudsman offices across the world.
I do not want to comment in detail on the lost at sea report because I do not know where the process is at. I am familiar with the issues involved and have read the report. I will look at it should I successfully complete the recruitment process and take up office.
There are substantial differences in the remits of the Irish and the Welsh offices. The Irish role includes the role of Information Commissioner which I do not hold in Wales as that role is not devolved to the Welsh Assembly. Much of the work of my office deals with failings in the health system. I can consider clinical and social worker judgments. That makes for a sustainably different and extended remit.
One of the great joys of my life is that I get to investigate allegations against members of local authorities, including parish and community councils, who may have broken their codes of conduct. It will not greatly surprise the committee to know that many of these complaints come from other members.
There is nothing predictable about the level of complaints to an ombudsman’s service. It is random, except at Christmas when the complaints fall off a little. For local authority member complaints, each election year seems to have an entirely coincidental peak.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
There are differences between the two offices, but there are many similarities, too. The offices in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland work closely together because they are of a similar scale. The scale of some of the other offices means that solutions that work for them would not work for us.
If there were to be a conference for ombudsman offices, there would be a workshop on repeat complaints. It is one of the perennial difficulties, on which one needs to have a clear policy. Repeat complainants actually may have had a grain of reason at the start of the process. People can start out reasonably, but they turn into Victor Meldrew after repeated failures to obtain sensible and proper responses to their complaints. Sometimes, one has to draw the line and tell people carefully that too many of the office’s resources are being used and all the answers available have been given. Then at some future point, one can promise to read correspondence but not to respond to it. Some people, unfortunately, often for good reasons, are just unable to move on and the complaint consumes their lives. Members will recognise this.
On the basis that Mr. TyndalI will be elevated to this important position, I extend a sincere welcome to him and wish him well in his challenging role ahead. It will certainly be challenge in the context of the significant extension of the office’s remit.
Mr. Tyndall has indicated that the role of information commissioner was not delegated to him as Welsh Public Services Ombudsman. Our recent legislation extension in this jurisdiction makes it challenging. Mr. Tyndall is unflinchingly committed to the maximum openness and transparency and one would anticipate and expect that. He makes proposals about vulnerable individuals, which are understandable. Recently I read that he proposed that there would be some restrictive interpretation of what could be published and that might relate to what he has said here about not disclosing information about vulnerable individuals. This may have to be addressed by his successor. I saw some possibly adverse comment on that. Like us, something Mr. Tyndall says may be interpreted in different ways. Could he clarify his position on that?
I am particularly interested that in his current post Mr. Tyndall has developed an Ombudsman's casebook. This is extremely important and I hope to see it here. It is a significant reference source which, if set out in comprehensive detail, could be a significant help to individuals, organisations, statutory bodies or public representatives in achieving a resolution of the bigger issue at stake without having recourse to the full ambit of the Ombudsman. If a precedent has been set it can be interpreted and this could lessen the Ombudsman's load. This is just a suggestion. The casebook of the Ombudsman should be documented in a very accessible form. The last thing we want is a does of legalese, which would probably create more problems for the Ombudsman and everybody else. One of the major problems we have with our legislation is the antiquity of legal-speak which often deters people from achieving their rights rather than helping them. We may have reports, but I look forward to that quarterly casebook model being implemented. It could be very instrumental, innovative and helpful.
Would the model complaint policy which Mr. Tyndall spoke about apply right across the bodies or would it be a common complaints outline? Would that be the framework Mr. Tyndall would take up with each of the bodies to which it would pertain and which fall within his remit? The standardisation of complaint procedures and policy could be very helpful to all the stakeholders involved, including public representatives who might be faced with the dilemma of trying to formulate a complaint on behalf of some allegedly aggrieved constituent. I wish Mr. Tyndall well.
Mr. Tyndall is very welcome and I wish him the best of luck. It must be humbling to come before a committee such as this. Mr. Tyndall has a broad range of experience, particularly service-based, which is an ideal background for this role in the citizens' corner. In his statement Mr. Tyndall said he uses complaints to improve services. That is very interesting. Does he follow up to ensure the service has improved and could he give us an example of that? We are all about reforming practices and improving things for the citizen.
I read that in Wales Mr. Tyndall sought to give himself power to extend confidentiality clauses to complainants and third parties so someone who disobeys the instruction can be found to be in contempt of court. Can he tell us about that? What was the background to that and why did he seek it? Would he seek the same powers in Ireland if his nomination is ratified?
Mr. Tyndall is familiar, as we all are, with the serious crisis this country suffered at the hands of the banking system. There is still much anger about that and we want to ensure that never happens again. Given the considerable investment in the banking system, particularly by the taxpayer, does Mr. Tyndall think fully State-owned banking institutions such as AIB, Permanent TSB and NAMA should be subject to freedom of information legislation? The Central Bank plays a key role in Irish society. Should it be subject to freedom of information legislation? The citizens trusted those institutions, which let them down. The Central Bank is particularly critical because we rely on it to be the watchdog over the other banks. Mr. Tyndall's views on those would be very welcome and, again, I wish him luck.
I welcome Mr. Tyndall to his first attendance at this committee and wish him well. His job is very onerous and instrumental in creating confidence among the general public in the public institutions of our democracy and in providing that accountability and transparency and allowing the ordinary man or woman access to due process and having that sense of justice and the possibility of being listened to without the expense of going to court. It is a very important part of a modern democracy to have an ombudsman. It is no harm, when an Ombudsman begins his or her tenure, to consider the value of the office. I wish Mr. Tyndall well and no doubt we will have interesting interactions on issues as they arise. How would the types of cases Mr. Tyndall might encounter here in Ireland compare with cases in Wales? What differences might there be and why?
I welcome Mr. Tyndall to the committee. Although this is not an interview, he has been sufficiently quizzed by all. He has expressed some very well thought out ideas and plans for the future, should he be successful, based on experience. Most importantly he said many complaints brought before the Ombudsman should not be there and I agree. Many of them could be resolved before they reach the office. A standardised approach when dealing with the complaints is a great idea. Could Mr. Tyndall extend that to the Departments? They usually go from the public service to the Departments and then to the Ombudsman.
I wish Mr. Tyndall the best of luck. I listened to his presentation. His predecessor, Ms Emily O'Reilly, stated in her writings that the concept of the Whip system in Ireland "dilutes the ability of Parliament to hold the Executive to account." Our Constitution talks about the Dáil holding the Executive to account, but in effect it does not. Having come from another jurisdiction where it is probably a little more lax, does Mr. Tyndall have a view on that? Maybe he does not want to pass comment on it.
There is a conflict between the roles of the Ombudsman and the Data Protection Commissioner. Much Irish politics is very localised, as it is in most countries. If a constituent comes to me who has been on a housing list but does not receive a house to which he or she feels entitled when somebody else does, I, as a public representative cannot ascertain the information. Before our Data Protection Act was passed I could have got some information but now I cannot find out anything. If I made a representation for an individual I am told whether he or she received it but I cannot find out anything more. In Mr. Tyndall's role as Ombudsman could he examine the Data Protection Act and its implementation? While I do not question the good intentions of the Data Protection Commissioner, the spirit of the Act is not being upheld in many cases.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I will try to do justice to them all but if I miss something, I am sure members will remind me. The issue of confidentiality sometimes arises in the work of an ombudsman because one is dealing with people in particularly difficult situations and the cases I had in mind were issues of child and adult protection where, for instance, foster parents might want to make a complaint but it is important that information damaging to the vulnerable people at the heart of the complaint should not come into the public domain, as it would not under any other circumstances, and it should not when an ombudsman is dealing with it. It arose in a context such as this in a discussion with a committee considering the issues around social care legislation that was going before the Welsh Assembly. I was concerned that protections should not be eroded and that was the purpose of my remarks. The particular matter that had been at the forefront of my mind was one of a failure in child protection and although the names of the individuals cannot be mentioned when trying to write a sensible report, people who know the family's circumstances can identify them even if it is child X and parent Y. It still becomes possible from the circumstance to identify the individuals and that is what had happened. This had to be to the detriment of vulnerable individuals and that was what informed a discussion with the committee. There was a formal request. It was a discussion with the committee about my concerns about protecting vulnerable individuals.
I was asked whether I would ask for this here. The answer is "No" because to a large extent the jurisdiction is different and those issues do not arise in the same way. Being able to look at------
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I was looking at the professional practice of social workers and that is not the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman's office. In that particular context, the answer is "No".
I believe it is right to protect the interests of vulnerable children and other individuals and sometimes that causes a need to get a proper balance between protecting individuals and freedom of information. That is one of the dilemmas that these jobs pose and one has to be able to deal with them.
We are particularly proud of the case book. We believe we were the first to introduce such a comprehensive, regular description of cases. It helps to get the message across. People can learn from other people's mistakes and that saves complaints to the office. One can also get generalised messages across about complaint handling, for example, where one sees the same complaint occurring in several places. One can say people need to be careful and watch out for this. By doing this in such a way that cases are divided into clear categories, people can look at the ones of concern to them and that makes the case book accessible. Although it is quite a chunky read, people can focus on the bits that matter to them. Every member of the Welsh Assembly gets a link to the latest quarter's copy and many of them find it quite useful in both their general work and constituency work. I hope something similar here would have a similar benefit.
I say to the investigators that they must tell the story. To make a complaint accessible, they should not be repetitive and they should use plain language, tell the story from beginning to end, say what are their conclusions and make the recommendations clear. The impact of reports that are much too lengthy and complex is greatly reduced. The other thing I have done consistently is to put summaries in every report and, increasingly, in settlements where cases are settled without an investigation report. Nonetheless, I produce a summary of it because there is learning to be found there too and that makes life easier.
The model complaints policy was promoted rather than imposed. It has been adopted by the Welsh Government and its departments. It is, therefore, used by government and local government. There is a separate health complaints process but it is identical in every important provision. There is a statutory health complaints process and a voluntary model complaints process but all leading public agencies in Wales have adopted the latter. That was done by engaging with them in its development and getting them to accept ownership for implementation. That has made life much easier.
Mr. Peter Tyndall:
I was asked for an example of improvement. One of the issues we had many complaints about was neighbour nuisance in housing provided by housing associations or local authorities where the landlords would not take action. We had a series of high profile cases but we were concerned that we were continuing to see the same cases reappearing and, therefore, we worked carefully with the local authorities in areas in which we were having the biggest problems. Some of them restructured their departments to change the way they dealt with the issue. We felt they needed to take early, prompt action because once matters had been allowed to deteriorate, it was always difficult to recover and they needed to use all the legal powers available to them and to engage with other bodies such as the police. That led to a major reduction in complaints in this area to my office. That reflects a genuine improvement in the way bodies deal with neighbour nuisance. That is a practical example and I could give others.
I refer to the issue of extending freedom of information legislation to financial bodies. That is within the political domain at the moment and I need to reflect on that in answering the question but the extension of the legislation into the financial sector has to be a welcome development. It will be important to see how that works over time and whether further extension is desirable. I can well understand the importance of the issue for individuals who feel let down.
Public confidence in services is always higher if it is seen that there are ways of holding them to account and that is a vital role of the office.
I was asked about the difference in cases between Ireland and Wales. There are fewer differences than one might think. There are differences in jurisdiction but fundamentally complaints to ombudsmen tend to be at their core about somebody not receiving something to which they were entitled or complaints that what happened was not fair and complainants were not dealt with properly and, though the subject matter can change, the fundamentals of investigating the complaint is often at its heart similar. The reality is there are differences in jurisdiction as some of the subject matters are different but although I was not information commissioner, I am familiar with the FOI regime. Clearly, that is different but I will have a capable and knowledgeable staff and I will work closely with them to make sure I am fully across the issues in Ireland as well as in Wales.
The issues of the parliamentary Whip and Parliament holding Executive to account arise in many legislatures throughout the world. Ultimately it is not one an Ombudsman can solve; it is parliamentarians who must solve it. Committees such as this and the House in plenary must deal with these issues for themselves. An Ombudsman cannot regulate the operation of the Oireachtas.
I am used to seeing freedom of information and data protection legislation alongside each other operating as a single system. It is very different in Ireland. I was not aware of concerns of the type expressed about the data protection regime and I must confess I concentrated most of my efforts on understanding the freedom of information regime. I will certainly take it away and think about it.
I sincerely thank Mr. Tyndall for assisting us in our deliberations today and I wish him all the very best for the future. We are grateful to him for taking time to meet us today. This concludes our consideration of the topic.