Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 25 January 2017
Committee on Public Petitions
Decisions on Public Petitions Received
The first petition for consideration is Petition No. P00020/16 from Mr. Desmond Lafferty which is entitled, "Negotiating Norms". The petitioner has engaged on a number of occasions with the Ombudsman and former Ministers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He is not satisfied with the outcome of this engagement to date and in his new petition is requesting the following: that the Ombudsman recognise the contradictions, mistakes and negligence of her staff in handling his case; that an external office monitor an ombudsman; a declaration that the previous committee was negligent and ill-informed in its handling of his petition; and the establishment of an explicit set of rules that would recognise the inalienable right of a private citizen to negotiation, reason and jurisprudence - the theory or philosophy of law - and that apologies not be casually retracted. It is proposed to inform the petitioner of the changes to the remit of the committee in respect of its engagement with an ombudsman, that the committee will not revisit a decision taken by the previous committee as petitioners can resubmit a petition and write to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade requesting that it outline the procedures followed in dealing with complaints of this nature. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The next petition is Petition No. P00026/16 from Ms Laura English which is entitled, "Driving test requirements". This is the second time the petition has come before the committee. The petitioner is of the opinion that driving lessons are too expensive and that the cost precludes some persons from being in a position to learn how to drive and apply for a driving test. The petitioner outlines that a phased method of completing essential driver training, EDT, would be more beneficial. At its meeting on 15 November 2016 the committee agreed to write once again to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport requesting clarification on who had responsibility for regulating the price of EDT lessons and whether it would look favourably at following in the United Kingdom's footsteps in having no limit on the number of lessons required. The response from the Department confirmed that the lessons delivered in Ireland were more structured than in the United Kingdom and that statistics showed it took an average of 47 lessons in the United Kingdom to pass a driving test. The cost of lessons, while not regulated by the Department, is set by market forces in a competitive market. It is proposed that we forward a copy of the response to the petitioner and close the petition as the committee has taken it as far as it can.
Senator Kelleher signalled.
The proposal is agreed by the members. In discussing the petition, it is clear there are pure market forces driving the cost of driving lessons. One has some sympathy for the plight of the individual driver in this instance because of the cost of the lessons. The committee has articulated a view but is limited in its scope. If the members wish to comment, they are welcome to do so.
I have some sympathy with the petitioner. We have taken the petition as far as we can go within the remit of the committee. However, as I said, this is something one is required by law to do, yet there is no ceiling to the cost it might incur for the individual. This is a difficulty for many citizens, particularly young people starting out. On top of rental costs and other things, it can be quite a significant cost to people. As I said, it is beyond our remit but we have some empathy and sympathy for the petitioner's situation.
We have agreed a course of action in respect of the petition.
The next petition for consideration is petition No. P00029/16 in the name of Mr Oisín Tuohey, entitled "Reduce Maximum Working Week to 40 hours". The petitioner seeks to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 to reduce the maximum average working week for many employees to 40 hours per week. It is currently at 48 hours per week. The petitioner is of the view that this amendment would boost productivity and relationships in the workplace and result in fewer days of holiday and sick leave being taken and could reduce stress. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has responded, outlining the reasons for the legislation. It is proposed to forward a copy of the response received from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to the petitioner and close the petition. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The last petition for consideration is petition No. P00035/16 in the name of Mr. David Geary, entitled "Financial Ombudsman Review". The issues raised in this petition arose after the petitioner submitted a complaint to the Financial Services Ombudsman, FSO, regarding his standard variable rate mortgage provider. He was not satisfied with a decision taken by the FSO regarding his case and requests the committee to undertake the following actions. He wishes to have the decision of the Office of the Ombudsman independently reviewed to see if the handling of the original complaint was correctly adjudicated in accordance with the statute and to rectify any other similar cases in which the ombudsman has come to an incorrect decision, request that the ombudsman confirm if it was in compliance with the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland Act 2004 regarding the petitioner's case, and quality assure and review the appeals procedures of the ombudsman. The FSO has commissioned a comprehensive review of its operational services and, following this review, has implemented significant changes by the introduction of a dedicated dispute resolution service and the issuing of preliminary findings regarding complaints received. It is proposed therefore to inform the petitioner of Standing Order 111C(1)(h), which precludes the committee from examining parts of this petition, and to forward a copy of the response from the Financial Services Ombudsman to the petitioner and close the petition. It is important to note that we intend to invite the Financial Services Ombudsman to appear before the committee regarding this petition to discuss the outcome of the independent strategic and operational review and its progress to date and into the future. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I now turn to No. 10, which relates to the role and remit of the committee. I wish to inform members that the committee received correspondence dated 20 December 2016 from the clerk to the Standing Sub-committee on Dáil Reform regarding a request of the committee to broaden its role and remit to include matters of general public concern or public policy. The sub-committee, at its meeting of 14 December, agreed not to allow this request. Along with the request from the committee to broaden its remit, the Sub-committee on Dáil Reform also received correspondence from the Ombudsman Forum expressing its concern that the remit of the former Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions has not been retained and requesting that this decision be reviewed. On this issue, the sub-committee agreed the following: "Where a Select Committee does not under Standing Order 84A(8)(b) consider an Ombudsman report, or a portion or portions thereof, within two months (excluding Christmas, Easter or summer recess periods) of the report being laid before either or both Houses of the Oireachtas, the Committee shall proceed to consider the Ombudsman report, or any portions thereof not considered by the Select Committee." At this stage I open the correspondence to the members for further discussion. As we have previously discussed, there was a genuine expectation that the role and remit of this committee would be expanded. This was articulated through interactions I had as Chairman when attending the Working Group of Committee Chairmen. It is a statement of fact that the role and remit of this committee has been reduced relative to the equivalent committee that sat under the previous Dáil. It is arguable that if we are the first line of contact for the petitioner, the citizen, it is perhaps not adequate that the committee's role would be reduced to such an extent that we are left only to consider sectoral committee ombudsman reports that have not been considered within a two-month period in the various sectoral committees. In other words, we are left only to consider those sectoral reports that have not been considered by other committees and petitions that come before us. I open the floor to the members to give their opinions on the role and remit of the committee.
I am disappointed by the correspondence received, as I believe is the committee. I generally thought our remit would have been expanded, if anything, considering what we are. This committee is about the public interest, and if we are limited in this regard, we will just be here to take petitions. There will not be much teeth to the committee or work to be done. If we are about the public and its interest, we must be able to work on public policy. Otherwise, we will just be sitting here doing petitions. I do not see that as being of any benefit at all to the public in general.
I absolutely concur with Deputy Denise Mitchell. This is absolutely the wrong signal to give for the reasons I outlined in private session. There are real threats to democracy and democratic institutions, the likes of which we have not seen since the 1930s, and that is not an exaggeration. We need only look at the landscape of Europe and some of the elections coming up there and what has happened in the US recently. We have an opportunity to build on steps we have taken in the Irish Parliament to connect with citizens in a real and meaningful way. As I said in private session, the Citizens' Assembly initiative was recently commended by a leading thinker, David van Reybrouck. In an open letter published across Europe in November, he pointed to Ireland as a model of good practice. Ours is the most innovative democracy in Europe. A few weeks ago, a random sample of 100 Irish citizens drafted by lot was brought together into a Citizens' Assembly. That which brought us the Citizens Assembly also brought us this committee, which we are now beginning to water down before it has even begun to take root in the public mind or begun its real work.
This is at a time when democracy and democratic institutions are being questioned and under threat. There is a need to make the most of the committee and for us not to sulk in a corner but to get on with what we have to do. At the same time we must promote the work of the committee through the Citizens Information boards and others and connect with these bodies. We should go out and about to ensure we will not be seen a group of people in a privileged position in an ivory tower and that we are trying to connect with people who ordinarily would not be able to work the system. I am thinking of people with intellectual disabilities who may not be able to read and those in nursing homes who may have very important issues of public interest to raise but who are not able to access the process. They may have grievances, issues and complaints to make. They are very dependent on public systems. We should, therefore, make an effort to reach those who are hard to reach. We also need to continue to support the Chairman in making the case for extending the remit of the committee and to point to the context in which we are working in order that when he meets the Taoiseach he will be able to put petitions in that context.
Stephen Collins wrote in The Irish Timesthat mainstream politics had not failed, it just needed to connect. The committee is absolutely pivotal in making that connection. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump raise deeply uncomfortable questions about the future of western liberal democracy. European Union countries have been given a fair warning of the dangers. If Marine Le Pen is elected in France ,it will put a question mark over the entire European Union project. That will put everything we have been working on nationally and internationally in a very different place. We should not take these issues lightly. Dealing with petitions is an honest attempt to connect with the citizenry; therefore, this is not a committee that should be watered down but one that should be promoted and expanded. Stephen Collins said the big failure of western governments had been their growing inability to connect with the wider public and communicate the nature of the choices and trade-offs that were an essential part of democracy. He went on to note that at a wider EU level a much greater effort had to be made to communicate with citizens on what the institutions were doing if people were to be persuaded to stick with a project that had delivered so much for the continent. People do need to see the bigger picture in terms of the work we are doing. We should make the case, not just for ourselves as members but also for the sake of democratic institutions in Ireland.
As a member of four Oireachtas committees, I believe we should not have a duplication of work. It is important to ensure two committees are not doing the same work at the same time. However, I share some of the sentiments expressed. Of all the committees, this is probably the most connected to the general public. The ability of Joe or Josephine Bloggs to raise an issue and have it discussed in detail in Parliament is very important. We must be careful if we are seeking to narrow the scope and ability of the committee to deal with issues in the public and the national interest. What is in the public interest is subjective, depending on which member of the public is involved, but everyone is entitled to have his or her say.
There are a number of procedural aspects of how this Dáil operates that frustrate me. It is crazy that there are only five hours a week to deal with legislation in the Dáil Chamber. There are Private Members' Bills all the time when we talk about what we should be doing, but the time available to actually do anything is limited. Similarly, the committee schedule is a source of frustration. Such decisions need to be revisited and discussed further. As a committee member, I mandate the Chairman to go back and express our views in that regard.
Members are unanimous in their view that there is a role for the committee. There was a legitimate expectation in our interaction with the working group of committee Chairmen that its role would be expanded, that it would not seek to duplicate the work of other committees but would work to complement it. If an issue of public policy arose at this committee, for instance, it was to liaise with the sectoral committee and seek to have a workflow that would not necessarily be facilitated in the sectoral committee because of the sheer volume of work being done by it. We are all members of other committees. I do not understand why the sub-committee on Dáil reform came to the conclusion that it did, but we have agreed that we will write to it and seek to engage further with it. As has been said, there is a legitimate role for the committee. This is the first line of contact for people if they wish to raise an issue and see it elevated within the the Houses of the Oireachtas.
During private session it was mentioned that we should look at international best practice and examples of the role played by other parliaments in giving members of the public an opportunity to have their say and address pertinent issues. That is also an important body of work.
I am a member of the Seanad Public Consultation Committee and have asked the Library and Research Service to produce a paper on best practice in parliaments connecting with citizens, not just in terms of the remit of a committee such as this but also in terms of how it engages in public consultation. I will be happy to share that paper with this as well as the other committee for which it was commissioned. It is something we need to be better at. In some respects we are seen to be the leader in this area. The future of democratic institutions depends on how well parliaments can innovate, adapt and connect with citizens in all forms and formats. We fully endorse the Chairman's efforts to follow through on this issue and fight the good fight for citizens in strengthening the role of the committee.