Tuesday, 19 January 2016
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Irish Water Administration
My question relates to the extension of the remit of the Ombudsman to include all companies in public ownership. The company I have in mind is Irish Water. As the Minister is aware, the Ombudsman, Mr. Peter Tyndall, has raised important concerns and expressed criticism in asking why the Government has declined to allow his office to investigate complaints made against Irish Water. He has said this move has left the utility's customers without any independent grievance mechanism.
The Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012 brought about a very substantial increase in the number of public bodies subject to the Ombudsman's oversight. It was the most significant extension of the Ombudsman's remit in 30 years and a priority objective for me, given that various Ombudsmen had been pressing for the extension for over 20 years. It brought some 180 additional public bodies, the administrative activities and decision-making of which impact on large numbers of citizens, within the remit of the Ombudsman for the first time.
Previously, the approach taken was to schedule bodies by way of order on a case by case basis. In the 2012 Act, I adopted the approach of including a general definitional provision of "reviewable agency" in the legislation to ensure that any public body that conformed to that definition automatically came within the ambit of the Ombudsman, unless specifically exempted in a Schedule to the legislation. This new model of an automatic right of review by the Ombudsman was strongly welcomed by the Ombudsman and has led to a substantial strengthening in the rights of the citizen to secure redress.
As I said at the time, further extension of the remit of the Ombudsman is an ongoing process. The recent extension of the office's remit to include private nursing homes whose residents are in receipt of public funding or subvention is another example of that.
A number of proposals and recommendations on the remit, role, status and powers of the Ombudsman have been put forward in recent times. These include the extension of the Ombudsman's remit to include clinical judgments and the recommendation from the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions and the independent working group on improvements to the protection process to extend the Ombudsman's remit to the direct provision system.
These proposals and recommendations, as well as those put forward by the Deputy, are being examined and considered. As the process of extension continues, specific issues arise that need to be worked through. The Deputy will be mindful of the need to ensure the system of Ombudsman review continues to work effectively and of its role within the broader administrative system as a whole. The latter must continue to work in a way that delivers what is expected, so we do not want to give it too much functionality without ensuring that it has the capacity to do the job effectively.
I thank the Minister for his response. In his supplementary reply, he might address the issue of Irish Water. He knows, of course, that my party's proposal is to abolish water charges and bring an end to the monster quango that is Irish Water. Even by the Minister's own reckoning, the current situation leaves people in an impossible position. Essentially, people with complaints in respect of Irish Water - and there are very many of them - have nowhere to go. The Commission for Energy Regulation has described the level of complaints as "low" - at 2,014 - since it assumed the role of regulator of water services in October 2015. However, that low level of complaints is because people are not aware of the role of the regulator.
For instance, where damage has been done to people's property by Irish Water in installing meters, complainants have nowhere to go bar taking a long and circuitous route to lodge complaints and yet with no satisfactory responses.
I take note of the Deputy's proposal to abolish the commercial semi-State company, Irish Water. I am not sure what Sinn Féin wants to replace it with or what it wants to do to the staff. It would be useful if Deputy McDonald told the staff what she intends to do with them. Is she going to return them to local authorities, make them all redundant or just continue to pay them? If so, at what cost?
As regards redress for Irish Water customers, the Deputy knows full well that under the Water Services Act 2014, the Commission for Energy Regulation has statutory responsibility to provide a complaints resolution service to all Irish Water customers with an unresolved dispute with Irish Water being addressed by it. This followed from a voluntary working practice between the Commission for Energy Regulation and Irish Water concerning dispute resolution. Irish Water customers who have registered and who have an unresolved dispute with the utility can log a complaint with the Commission for Energy Regulation which has its own customer care team. Following the investigation, CER has the power to direct Irish Water either to pay compensation or resolve the complaint in whatever way is deemed practicable and proper.
As the Minister knows, the commission will only examine complaints after customers have fully exhausted Irish Water's own complaint resolution processes. I do not know if people have spoken to the Minister on this subject but they have certainly approached me. It is a most unsatisfactory route for having a complaint dealt with. I am sure the Minister has also noted the Ombudsman's comments that he believes Irish Water was needlessly removed from his remit. He does not buy what seems to be the Minister's position that because Irish Water is now a stand-alone company, he should have no remit. That argument does not wash with him.
This is further evidence of the chaotic manner in which the issue of water services, with water charges and the quango which is Irish Water imposed on the people, has been managed from the get go. It is more evidence of failure on the Government's part.
The Deputy is spouting rhetoric but she has not answered the question as to what she would put in its place. Will she restore water functionality to the myriad local authorities which will not deal with the big structural issue of providing water for Dublin, for example, or deal with the fact that one third of our sewerage systems need significant investment of €4 billion, or deal with the staff?
None of those is dealt with. I have answered in terms of the dispute resolution system that is in place. The Deputy thinks that is not efficient and so her solution is not to make it more efficient but to abolish the entire entity. That would strike me as a rather large sledgehammer rather than addressing the issue of the complaints process, if it is inefficient in how it operates and needs to be strengthened, by looking at how it can be strengthened and how these matters can be resolved.
I deal with the Ombudsman very regularly. He knows the additional resources I have provided and the significant broadening of his remit. Like those in charge of most agencies, regulators and others, he would like to broaden his remit and that is part of the ongoing dialogue between Government and every regulator.